MSN Messenger 7 is a solid instant messenger that's chock-full of features, including new, full-screen video chat that works well via a broadband Internet connection. Longtime users should upgrade, but newcomers to messaging should opt for Yahoo Messenger 6 or ICQ 4.1; both commandeer less desktop space and offer fewer pitches for extra paid services.
Messenger took just five minutes to download and install in CNET's tests. With its default setup settings, MSN changed the Internet Explorer home page to MSN Home, made MSN Search the default search engine, and added the MSN Toolbar to IE. Unless you're paying attention and you uncheck the appropriate boxes to prevent these changes, Messenger will ride roughshod over your browser settings--a potential headache for inexperienced users.
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.