Article updated at 8:30 a.m. PT with a correction about Trillian Astra's highlighting capabilities and more opinions.
Leaning on the simple journalistic knowledge that one's impression of a product changes after a week of constant use, I attempted to empty my head of first-impression snap judgments and give Trillian's Astra (screenshots), now in (seemingly open) private beta a fair, unprejudiced shot as my primary chat application. Ten days later I like the free, multinetwork instant messenger better than I did in the first few hours after downloading it.
This more congenial view could be the result of giving the app's features a chance to permeate and charm. It could also be that the thorns and snarls I first cursed have blunted as they became normalized as a result of continued use. It's somewhere between these poles that my real attitude and recommendation resides. From an IM standpoint, Astra beta lacks Yahoo Messenger 9's visual luster. Yes, I know, Yahoo's IM has the distinct advantage of being a full-fledged application and not a private beta, but then again, Cerulean Studios has had three years to focus on design. However, there's nothing terribly offensive about Astra, either, and it does have that invaluable ability to contact friends on a wide variety of IM networks going for it.
Here's what's good
1. Themes: Within Astra's simpler, cleaner Cobalt skin and the three-dimensional Cordonata is a range of colorful themes. When clicking the View navigation in the default Cordonata, around 40 themes show up, ranging from lime to esoteric colors like "Toxic," "Cupcake," and "Chameleon" (they should really come with preview pics or a color palate). In that first crucial half hour of discovery, the toasted-brown "Honey" theme kept me from ditching the program altogether.
2. Notifications and replies: It's up to you which action triggers a notification window in the bottom right of your screen, but during a chat conversation, seeing your buddy's entries can help you decide the urgency level of your response. Even better is the shortcut "reply" button that takes you to the chat window, and the "Quick Reply" that lets you respond right in the window. (Best yet would be if Astra followed Digsby's lead--see below--and enabled direct replies from the notification window without reopening the chat window by default. In other words, if it made the Quick Reply button the automatic behavior.)
3. Customizations: Trillian has always had plenty. In Astra, they get more crucial as new features like the "Instant Lookup" RSS feed and Wikipedia definitions lookup join the IM app.
4. E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter: In addition to supporting a range of instant messenger accounts, Trillian Astra can track your Facebook, Twitter, MySpaceIM, Skype, and e-mail activity, including POP3 and IMAP mail.
What, ahem, needs work
Private betas aren't meant to be flawless, and can't be judged with the same finality as finished products. With that qualification in mind, here are flags that deserve the developers' continued attention.
1. Buddy list visuals: The default font is rather boxy and small. If Astra facilitates customized fonts in the chat window, why not in the buddy list itself? In addition, the default colors that signal the contact's social network are static, with Yahoo contacts marked by bloodshot-eye red and Google chat pals denoted by a horrible blue and orange yin and yang. Again, the option to assign your own colors should at the very least be buried in the preference menu. The best scenario is to stick them in a right-click context menu at the bottom of the client where the legend of colors sits.
2. In-chat highlighting: It turns out I was off here, and our readers put me straight. While Trillian Astra won't maintain a highlighted section when you click and drag your cursor over part of the conversation, it will, in fact, automatically copy the selection to the clipboard. I'll strike my disgruntled harumph from the record, though I will also note that without having this pointed out, this may not be intuitive to other new adopters.
3. E-mail notification behavior: At least in Firefox, if you were to click the notification of a new message in Gmail, for instance, Astra will helpfully open your in-box...in a new browser tab. Every time.
4. Wikipedia lookup: In contrast to my colleague Seth Rosenblatt, for whom Astra's Wikipedia lookup within the chat window is one of Astra's best new features, I maintain that it's one of the most misapplied. Although the concept of displaying Wikipedia entries for underlined portions of a conversation hand-delivers extra context, the preferred definitions were often irrelevant, like band names instead of an explanation of the word "alacrity" and context for common words like "thanks." Luckily, there's a shutdown option in the preferences if you become too distracted or your intelligence becomes too insulted.
5. Avatar: Probably a minor bug, Astra broadcasted my original Trillian avatar to Yahoo users even after I replaced it with a photo. One reader noted this suggestion: "Just change your pic instantly when you sign up. (If you've already used an avatar, delete your user.) And use a pic, and you're done." It's a surefire workaround, but shouldn't any IM client worth using allow complete and unfettered image-switching without a glitch, any time you decide to swap it out?
6. Emoticons and widgets: Outdated emoticon art was a let-down, and the widget weather feature caused a crash.
Trillian Astra versus Digsby
The upstart multinetwork IM honors go to dark, flashy Digsby (for Windows). It, too, supports e-mail, social networks, and a shortcut chat response, but is wrapped in a slicker design and delivers a smoother overall experience. On the downside, information overload is easily contracted here if you're tracking all your accounts, but of course Digsby lets you turn channels off. It has fewer skins than Trillian, can be slower to load, and installs with around seven bundled offers, a number that borders on offensive. Digsby is Trillian Astra's main competition, especially if it can offer for free what Cerulean Studios may eventually sell in a premium model.
In the end, Trillian Astra may not be the thunderclap of a multinetwork chat application we once hoped would wow us, but it's a solid effort; albeit one that's still begging for polish and facing a serious contender that has gained considerable traction during Astra's long years in the development cocoon.