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AOL Mail offering unlimited storage, integrated chatting

AOL is rolling out a slew of AJAX-enabled features.

Updates to AOL Mail are set to make the service nimbler and more innovative, with unlimited storage and built-in chatting set for the coming weeks. I like what I've seen so far. A chatting pane will appear within the screen to display contacts from Mail and AIM, which remains the world's most popular instant messaging service.

Embedded RSS feeds, attachment search capabilities, as well as POP and IMAP compatibility are also in the works. By the end of the year, AOL plans to add integration with mapping, videos, and its xDrive online storage service.

AOL Mail maintains some 53 million users worldwide and is the third most popular U.S. e-mail service behind Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, according to ComScore. Although AOL released free, Web-based e-mail more than two years ago, the company has failed to attract many new e-mail customers. Instead, as subscribers to AOL's dial-up Internet service cancel their contracts, many then sign up for accounts at Yahoo Mail or elsewhere, not realizing they could keep using their free AOL e-mail, said Roy Ben-Yoseph, AOL vice president of mail products, when we met last week.

However, AOL Mail appears to be either already ahead of the competition or catching up in key feature areas. For instance, you can drag and drop messages into folders and flag messages for follow-up--as Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Hotmail allow--or click checkboxes that AOL has kept to make longtime users comfortable. AJAX coding allows messages to load quickly, letting you scroll down and down some more within an in-box instead of clicking from one page to the next. And unlike Gmail, AOL doesn't target advertising based upon the content of messages.

Integration with AOL Calendar is better than what any of the other top e-mail services offer. You can view the calendar within the e-mail pane, with handy color coding and dragging and dropping. Compatibility with iCal and vCal is being built.

You can even insert photos from AOL Pictures, resizing and aligning them within a message. Subscribers to the paid AOL Voice can connect to voice mail from within the Mail in-box. However, there's no integrated audio player as with Gmail or Windows Live Hotmail. AOL Mail integrates with AOL Journals blogs, too. As for security, AOL Mail blocks links and images except when they come from a contact in your address book.

Unfortunately, I admit that I'm finding it nearly impossible to set up a new AOL Mail account. AOL isn't making it clear why it's rejecting various usernames and passwords. But once that's settled, I'll update this comparison chart of the major e-mail services with AOL Mail's latest features soon.

AOL also has a new Vista widget that displays e-mail and instant messages from your closest circle of contacts.