With its latest release, Microsoft Network splits into three separate offerings. MSN 9.0 is a slightly upgraded version of its $22-a-month dial-up service; MSN Plus and MSN Premium are content add-ons designed to complement any broadband connection. The $6-a-month Plus gives you one e-mail in-box with 25MB of storage and basic MSN features such as a shared calendar, but not much else. The $10-a-month Premium adds another 10 e-mail accounts; virus-scanning and firewall software; and online versions of Microsoft's Money, Encarta, and Picture-It photo editor. With its easy interface and smart parental controls, MSN 9.0 remains our choice for families who haven't made the jump to broadband (though we still like EarthLink better for power users). We tested the Premium broadband service and found it to be a good deal if you don't already have a firewall, antivirus, or personal finance program. Compared with rival AOL, MSN Premium presents better features in a cleaner interface--with fewer overlapping windows and simpler pull-down menus.
Setting up MSN Premium is simple enough: Just pop in the CD, and a wizard locates your existing settings and steps you through the process of installing 180MB worth of software. The whole process took about 20 minutes on our test machine, including a mandatory reboot.
MSN Premium features a customizable Dashboard that lets you add photos, links, and other content and resize it at will.
All three versions of MSN use the same basic interface, which differs only slightly from MSN 8.0's. As before, the Dashboard appears on the right-hand side of the screen and displays weather, stock prices, and the like. But now you can resize and customize it with photos or links to other MSN services or have it float permanently on your desktop. The MSN home page is less cluttered and more customizable; it features ton of broadband content from partners such as ESPN and MSNBC. (Though we had problems getting it to work correctly during AOL's mass of overlapping windows and is still our pick for the easiest interface..) Overall, MSN's current interface is clearly superior to
MSN Premium is packed with so many features--photo editors, an encyclopedia, online games, and a suite of security software--it's hard to imagine Microsoft squeezing anything else into it or any other ISP competing. (AOL rivals MSN Premium on the number of features provided, but MSN's is far superior.) MSN Premium adds a pop-up blocker and complementary subscriptions to McAfee Virus Guard and Personal Firewall Plus, essential tools for any broadband user. AOL also offers a pop-up blocker, McAfee Firewall Express, and McAfee VirusScan, but you'll have to pay $3 a month for the latter, on top of your $15-a-month AOL charges--the same you'd pay if you bought it directly from McAfee.
Sending cute pics of the kids is a snap with MSN; just insert them into an e-mail message and pick a layout. Recipients can view higher-res versions on MSN's servers and order prints.
MSN Premium adds a number of tools to aid digital shutterbugs, including the ability to upload photos, edit them, and share them with your family. For example, to share pictures with Grandma, you can insert thumbnails of photos into an e-mail message, choose a layout for them with a couple of clicks, write captions, then hit the Send button. When Granny clicks a thumbnail, her browser launches and takes her to an MSN page where the photo has been stored. She can then order prints via MSN Photo Plus. MSN members get 30MB of permanent storage and can send up to 500MB per day of pictures. AOL also lets you edit photos and insert them in e-mail, but MSN gives you more tools for laying them out and adding captions.
MSN's excellent parental controls are easier to find in the new version, and its improved spam filter caught about 80 percent of the junk we received--that's not as good as standalone filters, such has, but better than MSN 8.0. Finally, users of Outlook 2003 can access their MSN in-box from inside the e-mail client, view MSN and Outlook schedules side by side, and drag files between them--a handy feature for folks who like to manage their personal and professional lives from one place.