Messenger 7 is free, as are its essential features: text, audio, or video chat; online gaming; radio; and file transfers. You'll have to pay, however, for add-ons that Yahoo Messenger offers at no charge, such as Muggins ($3 each)--virtual representations of yourself, akin to Yahoo's Avatars--and animated Emoticons ($1.50 for a six-pack). Many of these accessories are targeted at the grammar school crowd, and customization of MSN Messenger might get costly for parents.
So what's new? In addition to full-screen video chat that enables parties with Webcams to see larger-than-ever live images of each other, a Shared Search button in the conversation window allows you and a buddy to run joint Web queries. Unfortunately, the tiny chat window displays only three hits, so you'll need to click the More Results link to open the rest of the finds in a separate browser window. Office chatters will enjoy the claim that the new Messenger isn't blocked by corporate firewalls. You'll also get content updates if your buddies write MSN blogs, and you can see what songs friends are listening to on both Windows Media Player and iTunes. If you like to chat on the go, you can take version 7 on the road and use it to send text messages via your SMS-enabled mobile phone.
Messenger 7 is a breeze to use. Starting a chat session is easy, and the games and radio channel controls are accessible via the top toolbar. We could do without the left-side tabbed column of icons for eBay, Match.com, and other Microsoft business partners, and the floating MSN Today news window was equally unwelcome. For an IM applet, Messenger 7 hogs too much desktop space, although you can easily turn off these annoyances via the Tool/Options dialog box. Still, Messenger 7 is a first-rate IM app overall and an essential upgrade for its millions of existing users.
You can reach customer support, which is excellent for a free program, easily via the help menu. Microsoft responded to our e-mail queries within 24 hours.