Gimme some skin, man. MSN Messenger 6.0 lets you choose groovy background skins and display custom user tiles for each IMer.
Messenger 6.0's interface is much richer than version 5.0's and makes Yahoo Messenger and AIM seem thin and wimpy by comparison. A row of icons across the top of the chat window let you invite other IMers, send files, launch your Webcam, initiate an audio conversation, or invite someone to play a game. Each user is represented by a tile, which you can customize with your own photo, if you dare (if you engage in video chat--more on that below--your Webcam images appear in that spot). You can also change backgrounds, or skins, to suit your mood and share them with friends. Games, the Webcam capability, and other new features are handily integrated into one screen, with the chat window on the left. With version 6.0, MSN Messenger gets a lot more personal. You can display a mug shot or other custom tile that other Messenger users can see while you're chatting. Hook up a Logitech Webcam and a mike, and you can see video and engage in chats with your favorite buddy. The Webcam hookup worked surprisingly well in our tests, with minimal lag or latency. Yahoo Messenger also lets you view other Webcams, but it's not as smooth or well integrated as in Messenger. On the Mac, iChat AV offers even smoother video chat, but it's not available on the PC, nor is the video-enabled Messenger Mac compatible.
You can spice up your conversations with new animated emoticons (such as smiley faces that also cry or wink) or create your own from image files on your hard drive. Likewise, you can choose from a variety of colorful backgrounds, customize your own, then share them with fellow users of version 6.0. You can also use Messenger 6.0 to play a few games, such as checkers or tic-tac-toe--after you're done working, of course. All these features worked flawlessly in the Messenger 6.0 beta.
Messenger 6.0's P2P file-sharing app makes swapping files with colleagues a breeze.
MSN has even added features business users might appreciate. Want to share files with a colleague? Just click the Send Files button and browse your hard drive until you find the one you want--far easier than attaching it to e-mail, because the transfer is instantaneous and you know right away whether it's gone through. You can also transfer a batch of files at once using a feature that looks and works like a P2P file-sharing app. Uploading and downloading files with this app is fast and easy over a broadband connection, though if you break off the chat in the middle of a transfer, you'll have to start over--it can't resume the process where you left off.
Version 6.0 also automatically stores transcripts of each session on your hard drive--good news for business users who need an electronic record of their communications (beware of storing months' worth of gossip, though). You can also tell Yahoo Messenger to permanently archive conversations, but you'll have to tweak its default settings. Overall, Messenger's features have a clear edge over both Yahoo IM's and AIM's. Getting good (or even any) tech support for a free service is rare these days, but Messenger pulls it off admirably. (Of course, having the largest software company in the world footing the bill doesn't hurt.) MSN subscribers can avail themselves of 24/7 toll-free phone support; users of the free client must rely on online FAQs or send e-mail to MSN. We called the phone line and were connected almost instantly with a techie who answered our test question. We also sent two queries via MSN Messenger's Web-based e-mail form; both were answered correctly by a live technician (not an automated system) in less than two hours. You can't expect better service than that for a freebie app.