ICQ 5.04 is a good IM client for home and light business use. This straightforward instant messenger (the acronym stands for "I seek you") offers a quick download and easy installation. You have to deal with modest advertising, but ICQ is less intrusive than MSN Messenger 7.0. Although the default ICQ interface is a bland mix of pastels, such simplicity understates its capabilities, such as integrated PC-to-PC voice calling. A suite of extra features (dubbed Xtraz) offers customizations, full screen games, and free enhanced communication tools, including voice chat, video messaging, and a virtual walkie-talkie. Do you copy?
The light, 4.07MB download of ICQ 5.04 takes less than a minute via broadband. Once you run the equally fast installer, you can use ICQ immediately. Where some IM clients, such as MSN Messenger 7.0, change home pages and default search engines, ICQ 5.04 leaves your favorite system settings alone. ICQ attempts to add a toolbar to your Web browser, but you can uncheck a box to prevent that.
After installation, you must enter your ICQ number or register for a new one. Privacy pundits will appreciate how little personal information ICQ requires: enter a nickname, a password, and an e-mail address, and you're set. You can also block your vital stats from ICQ's directories. Our only glitch came when a firewall blocked ICQ registration, but a quick reboot and relaunch cleared that up.
The default interface is petite, clean, and polished, with one low-key ad near the bottom of the window. The Main Menu button provides most of the controls, and the Add Users button opens your address book. The "Go to Xtraz Center" button launches a panel to check out ICQ 5.04's free enhanced services.
ICQ 5.04 lets you text chat with ICQ-using friends or colleagues, and you can locate new friends by subject or region from the global directory. For extended conversations, this applet integrates a free voice chat feature that enables seamless, phone-like VoIP conversations. You can also use the less elegant Walkie-Talkie feature to talk, which forces users to take turns speaking but helps shut out background noise. Both ICQ 5.04 and Yahoo Messenger 7.0 (beta) integrate Net2Phone calling, so you can dial landline phones for 2 cents and up per minute. If you and your pals each have a Webcam, you can also talk to and see each other with video chat. You can use each enhanced feature by clicking the icon to the right of your friend's name. But unlike MSN Messenger 7.0 and the Yahoo Messenger 7.0 (beta), ICQ doesn't offer drag-and-drop photo and file sharing.
Other noteworthy improvements to ICQ 5.04 include the Buzz It feature that sends messages to multiple contacts simultaneously. And new spim (instant-messaging spam) control allows you to accept or reject incoming messages from unknown ICQ users, straight from the active message window. You can also compose unique "away" messages for your contacts with the new Status Manager. This ICQ update includes an integrated Google search bar, which opens a browser window to display the results.
As a free service, ICQ 5.04 is surprisingly well supported. A Web-based knowledge base is accessible through ICQ help directly from the client's main menu. The support Web site also has a message board where ICQ users can share assistance and experiences. If that fails, a Ticket Center provides direct access to ICQ support staff. ICQ responded to our inquiry in less than 24 hours.