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AOL launches Desktop for Windows

The free application pools e-mail, messaging and other AOL services into a big, blue interface.

AOL Desktop (download it for Windows XP/Vista from CNET is a new, free download that collects most of that brand's services, such as Mail and AIM, into one location.

This is an interesting, old-school approach to organizing Web-based content on the desktop, unlike so much new webware that leans on the browser as the portal for anywhere-access to services. Another recently-released download that depends upon the Internet for most functionality is Microsoft's Windows Live apps bundle. However, while that package adds useful and novel tools, the AOL portal left me puzzled.

The AOL Desktop download for Windows XP and Vista took a couple of minutes, and installation another five minutes with either Express and Custom choices. I prefer the latter because by default, Express alters your default browser to include the AOL Toolbar, and it sets AOL as the search engine and home page. Thoughtfully, AOL asks your Internet connection type to tailor the experience to those with slow or fast access. (On a related note, there's also a beta version of AOL Desktop for Mac, a different product, which I haven't tested.)

I wish AOL Desktop were more streamlined, with fewer floating windows.
I wish AOL Desktop were more streamlined, with fewer floating windows. CNET

Once open, this virtual desktop eats up most of the space on your screen. Its design is easy on the eyes and pretty intuitive. The AOL Explorer browser includes tabs, one of which was set to the same homepage I use in Internet Explorer. Mousing over icons along the top of the screen opens drop-down headlines about sports, as well as stock quotes, music, movie listings, and other options from various AOL properties, including gossip blog TMZ.

You can check mail from AOL, Verizon and Gmail in one place, and add Mapquest maps easily to e-mail messages quickly. The App Map feature shows thumbnails of open windows to enable you to move between them.

Once again, however, I had a terrible time trying to sign into AOL accounts whose passwords I had misplaced. Once I created what could be my AOL user name #13, I found that the floating windows for IM, e-mail and Web surfing were just as annoying to deal with as on my Windows desktop. Why duplicate the desktop experience without adding new tools or cutting clutter?

I tend to use e-mail and messaging from Yahoo or Gmail and rely upon the Firefox browser. Therefore, I was left scratching my chin about why anyone would need this insular ecosystem. That said, hardcore AOL users who seek a guided on-ramp for getting online might like being ushered by AOL Desktop.