AOL Communicator is a welcome improvement to America Online's tired "You've got mail" interface. This standalone e-mail client, free to AOL subscribers, lets you grab mail from all of your AOL screen names, as well as POP and IMAP accounts, and view them from a single interface. It will even scan all of your accounts for spam (though to limited effect in our tests). And because it offers easy access to popular features such as instant messaging and AOL Radio, you can run Communicator solo and avoid all the AOL clutter. If you're an AOL user who's craving sophisticated e-mail and a tamer interface, Communicator is a must-have. But if you're not on AOL, Communicator isn't a reason to sign up. To get AOL Communicator, you need to &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eaol%2Ecom%2Fdownloads%2F">download a whopping 21MB file, then click your way through a wizard that asks for your login information, which apps you want to load at start-up, and whether you want AOL to filter your accounts for spam. After you complete the wizard, Communicator logs on to AOL and retrieves your new messages and address book. From there, you can add additional screen names and POP and IMAP accounts with a few clicks. It's not quite as simple as setting up AOL proper, but it's still fairly painless.
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|You've got you-know-what. AOL Communicator adds a friendly face to e-mail, with accounts displayed on the left, messages on the right, and a Web portal/preview pane below.|
Unlike the standard AOL Mail app, Communicator is e-mail for grown-ups. The program displays all your accounts and subfolders in a pane on the left, with the contents of your in-box on the right and a preview pane below. (When a message isn't selected, the preview pane displays My AOL, a Web portal.) Unlike Outlook or Outlook Express, you can view all of your AOL and third-party accounts from a single screen (à la Netscape Mail 7.x, Communicator's close cousin), so checking multiple accounts is much easier. Communicator offers all the e-mail essentials, and in some ways, it's easier to use than Eudora, Outlook, or Outlook Express. You can sort and search mail (by date, subject, priority, and so on), stash it in folders, or back up your folders with a few clicks. A separate utility lets you import up to 500 contacts from Outlook or Outlook Express. One nice touch: you can pick from more than a dozen audio mail announcements, from Henry the butler ("It would appear that you have electronic mail") to Roy the surfer ("Duuuuuuude, Maiiiil").
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|AOL Communicator is more than just e-mail. Click the AOL Today icon, and the service fills your screen with a scrolling news feed complete with video links.|
AOL Communicator can filter spam from POP3 accounts as well as from your AOL in-boxes, but not very thoroughly. The filter caught less than half of the junk in our tests. Stranger still, it kept two copies of every spam message--one inside a separate spam folder, the other inside each in-box--but flagged in a different color. AOL had no explanation for this phenomenon. You can create custom spam filters, but unlike MSN or EarthLink, Communicator provides no way to adjust how strict the filters are about blocking mail. To access AOL's own limited spam controls, you'll have to log on to the service the usual way.
Communicator is more than just an e-mail program, however. It's a nerve center for AOL's most popular services, offering one-click access to AOL Instant Messenger, AOL Radio (you'll need a broadband connection; dial-up isn't supported), the My AOL Web portal, and AOLToday, a full-screen news feed with text and video. You could run Communicator instead of AOL's usual cluttered interface and not miss much. AOL Communicator support is available via toll-free phone from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. ET, or via e-mail. That's better than most services these days, but not quite up to the 24/7 phone and live-chat options offered by AOL proper (as well as MSN and EarthLink).
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|Got stuck? AOL Communicator offers an easy-to-navigate onscreen help menu, plus e-mail support and toll-free phone support 17 hours a day--and we still couldn't get answers to all our questions.|
The quality of support, on the other hand, is dismaying. Our first call got us to a tech person within 2 minutes, but he couldn't answer any of our questions. We tried again, waiting 6 minutes before being misdirected and asked to call back. On our third try, we got the right answer, but it took 20 minutes, most of it on hold. Each hold time served up an earful of AOL ads, plus we got a sales pitch at the end of the call. Considering that you have to pay for an AOL account to use Communicator, the support should be at least as good. It's not.