Yahoo's next IM app lets you make free voice calls and leave voicemail, and it adds search and antispam tools.
Upside: The most radical change to the previous Yahoo Messenger is the VoIP feature, which let us speak clearly with other users of Yahoo Messenger 7.0 beta in our tests. You can even customize ring tones and send voicemail at no cost. To ring a friend in Miami from San Francisco, all we did was hook up a headset and a mic to our computer, then hit the Call Computer button in the chat window. Overall, this beta adds features without cluttering the appearance inherited from its predecessor, Yahoo Messenger 6.0. Within the main window, you can add tabs of your friends' Yahoo 360 blogs. A handy search bar, plus icons for your Yahoo home page and e-mail, appear below the tabs. And Yahoo's SpamGuard warned us and blocked intruders when we received chat invitations in French from five strangers.
Downside: Overall, we didn't run into any functional glitches with this beta, unusual for a software rough draft. However, while the new search toolbar is handy, it opens your default browser window, unlike MSN Messenger 7.0, which displays several search results in the chat window so that your buddies can see them. We wonder why Yahoo doesn't just surface its search results within Messenger's repetitive Insider window, which would at least make that screen useful. The default installation of the Messenger 7.0 beta inserts the Yahoo toolbar plus extras, such as maps, into your Web browser; if you snooze during the download, it will set Yahoo as your browser home page and default search engine. Still, you can keep your personal settings if you just uncheck a few boxes and choose a custom installation.
Outlook: If you're a Yahoo fan and you want to play with VoIP-enabled instant messaging, give this IM beta a try. Unlike voice-only Net calling services, the cherry on top of IM-enabled PC-to-PC calling is that you can share Web links, pictures, and other content during your conversation. This beta program made long-distance calling so simple, we wish that we had more far-flung friends on IM to share it with. We dream that someday an IM maker will integrate a free VoIP service that lets you talk to people who use different IM clients, as Trillian does for text messaging, but we don't expect competing IM services to work with each other anytime soon. For now, our test-spin of Yahoo Messenger merits a smiley face from us, and it may even convince a few technophobes to give Web-based phone calling a try.