Updated on 9/24/08 at 12:00 pm with more details on the Pingbox feature. Updated on 9/23/08 at 5:40 pm to correct information on photo-sharing and Pingbox, and adds details about contact-importing.
Yahoo Messenger 9.0 became available on Tuesday for Windows XP--a week after Yahoo's target launch date and interestingly, a week after Microsoft released its beta update of Windows Live Messenger. Yahoo Messenger 9.0 as dramatic an update of its instant messenger as Windows Live beta is of Windows Live Messenger 8.5, and it introduces some pleasant improvements over version 8.1 that will satisfy Yahoo loyalists. Among them are a redesigned interface with more skins, more space, and the excellent ability to see scaled public images and videos in the chat window.
If you're familiar with the beta version of Yahoo Messenger 9.0, this final build adds more conspicuous spam alerts and the ability to chat with friends directly from their Web site or online profile page. We'll discuss both later on in this review.
A bolder, more spread-out display graces Yahoo Messenger 9.0, complete with larger avatar thumbnails and room to read a contact's status message. Also new, Yahoo now updates your status with your recent activity on Yahoo's Buzz, Avatars, 360, or MyBlogLog--for example, when you change your avatar's outfit. Those who can't get used to the new spacing can revert to the familiar compact view.
Importing contacts by bulk from a wide array of services is another biggie feature that makes its debut in Yahoo Messenger 9.0. The importer, operated by TrueSwitch, scours your other IM, e-mail, and social networking accounts--including Gmail and Facebook--for friends that are also signed up on Yahoo IM. TrueSwitch will send requests on your behalf for friends to add you to their Messenger accounts, and you'll have the option of inviting your unaffiliated contacts to join up with Yahoo.
Other changes include new skins, including a dark theme, which you'll find by clicking the button to the right of the Messenger logo. Windows Live Messenger beta took skins a step further with themes that incorporate background images; while some Windows Live scenes are very nice, Yahoo's visual picker saves you an extra step when choosing a new look.
Like Windows Live Messenger beta, Yahoo Messenger's contact search bar finds buddies quickly by checking your IM list and your Yahoo address book. In another similarity, Yahoo Messenger's status field supports emoticons and links. Finally, Yahoo Messenger 9.0 highlights power users with an icon of a medal or crown placed next to their name (your choice) and rewards them with more avatar accessories and priority customer care.
The Yahoo Messenger 9.0 chat window looks a little more airbrushed than in version 8.1, but the biggest difference is also the best--a feature that embeds scaled maps, images, video players, and public photos when you or a friend drops in a link ending in .jpg, .gif, .png, or .bmp.
Being able to comment on photos and watch YouTube videos without leaving the IM window is a treat, and something no other instant messaging client currently offers. While Windows Live Messenger beta can boast about its fun feature for mapping certain profile pictures to common emoticons (like happy, sad, and winking), being able to reference your IM window when you're chatting about a photo or video is more useful overall.
If you're a fan of emoticons, Yahoo's new Messenger 9.0 adds six new expressions to version 8.1's gallery, including a smiling head giving a thumbs-up and a little guy rocking out. Yahoo has heeded the advice of beta testers and stopped using dime-size emoticons that, while easier to see, were also less defined around the edges. Although we also prefer the traditional smiley faces, as long as Yahoo has that gallery of larger images on hand, the emoticons' display size ought to be the user's choice. The behavior of Yahoo Messenger's IM window otherwise remains the same.
IMers plagued with spam messages (also called spim) will appreciate some small alterations in 9.0. The warning message on a conversation window is bolder, for one, and Yahoo has added a button to the offline message window that lets you report the impostor message without having to leave Yahoo Messenger.
Yahoo Messenger Pingbox
Pingbox is a brand-new feature in Yahoo Messenger that lets Web site owners and visitors chat in real time. If you're a blogger, eBay seller, or social networking buff, you can embed a Yahoo Pingbox chat window into your page to chat with visitors to your site in real time. The visitor sees the chat window on your site and you see conversation windows when you're logged on to Yahoo Messenger. We can see how this could be beneficial for users who want to engage a Web site owner on the fly, especially if chatting means you're not waiting around for an e-mail. Thankfully, the service is opt-in for visitors, who need to make the first move before the Pingbox owner sees their presence.
On the owner's end, Pingboxes are highly customizable, with controls for the message window's look, for broadcasting a welcome message, and for shutting off any or all communication features if visitors' pings grow too overwhelming. While chatting with site visitors isn't new, Yahoo has definitely brought weight to the service with their online Pingbox creation wizard.
Yahoo Messenger 9.0 has one or two rough edges, the same niggles we've had about previous versions--the heavy advertising of other Yahoo services and the bundled Yahoo Toolbar. However, these are small complaints compared to the high quality of the chat app. The visual improvements and the ability to share multimedia within the chat screen are no-brainer reasons to upgrade.
That said, Yahoo Messenger 9.0 beta isn't the only chat application making inroads. You might also want to compare it with Windows Live Messenger beta, the biggest IM network threat to Yahoo's desktop messenger, or to Trillian, Digsby beta, or Pidgin--all competing desktop apps that also let you chat with friends on other networks.