Editors' note: At 2:30 p.m., April 14, we added information about the Instant Lookup feature and other in-chat features. Updated information can be found at the bottom of the post.
The first of the multiprotocol chat clients, Trillian got its start nine years ago and had been updated with some regularity through 2005 and 2006. It was included in the Google Pack, a collection of freeware that Google was supporting. On the heels of Trillian 3.1, Cerulean Studios announced that Trillian 4, code-named Astra, was in development, and would finally port the service to Mac and Linux.
Except for the occasional minor announcement, that was the last big news about Trillian. Competition from more frequently updated services like Pidgin, Digsby, and Adium has drawn away fans, but now there's a private beta of Astra that seems to be accepting invitation requests from everybody who wants one. You can sign up for the Astra beta here--let us know if you don't get an invite, because it seems that Cerulean is taking all comers.
Back when it was announced, Astra sounded great. Support for even more chat protocols, better encryption protection, and a downloadable contact list were just a few of the tantalizing features. Facebook integration was added to the list, eventually, but by that time, many users had moved on. Astra, as it stands now, is good at what it does--but the competition has caught up.
It does everything that it should do at this point. It services multiple chat protocol, including mainstream services like Yahoo, AOL, Google, and ICQ. MySpaceIM is supported, and Skype is included, but it requires the program to be running before it can be accessed through Astra--just as Skype does with other multichat applications. It includes POP3 and IMAP account notifications rolled in alongside the Facebook and Web mail notices.
There are other useful tweaks and changes. By default, a pop-up window will appear when you receive a chat. Click on it once and you'll see two options, one for a standard Reply and the other for a Quick Reply. The Quick Reply will open a text field in the pop-up that you can write your response in, while hitting Reply will bring up the main chat window. Video chat and Webcam support are supported by default, and three view modes are available for changing up your chat window appearance.
Astra is extensible, and impressively only crashed once, when I was jumping from a Gmail notification to the actual mail message. When you install though, don't just cruise through the process on auto-pilot or you'll wind up with the Weather Channel toolbar and the Ask.com toolbar. Two other problems stuck out: the news ticker that appears at the top of the chat window can't be removed or even configured to run headlines that are useful to you, and the search function in the Options menu doesn't work. This makes it difficult to navigate through the overhaul, since many features have changed in the update.
It feels faster and smoother than previous versions of Trillian, but that's the least it should be, considering when its last update happened. The Astra skin feels slick and modern, but it can be a bit irritating at first as important features blend into the background because of a lack of contrasting colors. Overall, the experience feels smoother than I remember Trillian being, although I probably haven't touched it in about two years.
Trillian Astra is a good chat client, and it doesn't suffer from a "too little, too late" syndrome. This is a solid, modern multichat client. The question that won't be answered until it finally comes out, though, is whether anyone still cares.
Update: What I referred to above as the news ticker, Trillian calls the "Instant Lookup." It's accessible in Preferences under the Chat option. Users can configure which feeds or Instant Lookups appear, although that's not readily apparent. Click on an item to modify it and an X will appear on the right side. Click the X to remove the item, and remove all of them to remove the news ticker completely. You can add RSS feeds or "lookup" services using the buttons at the bottom of the window, but overall it's not an intuitive process. The X's could appear by default, for example, or there could be mouse-over instructions.
There's also a default feature that I neglected to point out that underlines in certain words green. Mouse over the word or phrase and the Wikipedia definitions will appear. Click on one of those words and a menu appears from which you can Copy the definition to the clipboard, Search for the term on the Web, or View the Wikipedia entry by loading the Wikipedia page. While the first and third options worked flawlessly, the Search feature took me to the Cerulean Studios Web page and tried to download an app without an extension.
I stand by my initial analysis of Astra's new features that while they're useful, they're hard to configure and some are still buggy or nonfunctional.