AIM 5.5's basic interface is straightforward and now allows for multiple screen identities. Say you have one screen name at work and another screen name at home; you can now link them so that whenever you log in, both names become active; moreover, the contact list you keep for your at-work identity now becomes available at home as well. Contacts within AIM are called buddies, and lists of these contacts occupy the middle of the display, subcategorized into groups such as Family and Co-Workers. To send an IM, simply click the contact list name or the IM icon at the bottom of the display to enter the recipient's name. Unfortunately, AIM accounts won't work within other IM clients--ironic, as AOL also owns ICQ--but you can use software such as Trillian to mix messengers.
Unfortunately, AIM 5.5 doesn't let you customize much. You can download expressions, which are nothing more than custom wallpaper for AIM. Although the plain window interface is as attractive as Windows Notepad (that is, not very), our only serious interface complaint is the distracting banner advertising that runs across the top third of the display. A scrolling stock ticker across the bottom is also visually distracting.
With a Webcam, Windows XP, and a broadband Internet connection, AIM will now send streaming video messages, à la Yahoo Instant Messenger. AOL users can also access their e-mail within AIM. AIM includes several online games; simply challenge one of your online contacts, and both scores are displayed within the AIM interface. Games cost $19.99 each; however, many allow for periods of free play, and Reversi and Checkers are always free to play.
You can also set AIM to send messages to your mobile phone, so you can send and receive instant messages while away from your PC. If your chosen buddy has enabled the file-transfer feature, you can send and receive files via AIM. You can also visit any of the infamous AOL chat rooms for public and private conversations. When you receive a message, a system tray notification appears with the name of the sender, so a quick look will help you decide whether to respond immediately (by clicking the tray notification) or wait till later. Finally, if you're away from your home computer, AIM Express lets you access your buddy lists and send and receive IMs from any Netscape- or Internet Explorer-enabled PC.
At start-up, AIM 5.5 also gives you the option to install a fee-based business services tool. With the AOL tool installed, you can add business-quality voiceconferencing available from Lightbridge. Payment plans include 120 minutes for $20 and up to 660 minutes for $100. WebEx handles Web conferences of two or more people through AIM and costs 33 cents per participant per minute. AIM Identity Services further allows companies to provision screen names that follow a company's internal e-mail naming scheme, so screen names remain both professional and easy to remember.
AOL provides ample support for AIM 5.5. You'll find a comprehensive help file and a FAQ that provides detailed instructions on every feature. AOL's Web site includes links to instructions, error messages, password recovery, security FAQ, and e-mail access to technical support (our e-mail question was answered in 24 hours). Of course, your online buddies can help answer many of your basic how-to questions as well.