With its latest release, Microsoft Network splits into three separate offerings. MSN 9.0 is a slightly upgraded version of its $22-a-month dial-up service; MSN Plus and MSN Premium are content add-ons designed to complement any broadband connection. The $6-a-month Plus gives you one e-mail in-box with 25MB of storage and basic MSN features such as a shared calendar, but not much else. The $10-a-month Premium adds another 10 e-mail accounts; virus-scanning and firewall software; and online versions of Microsoft's Money, Encarta, and Picture-It photo editor. With its easy interface and smart parental controls, MSN 9.0 remains our choice for families who haven't made the jump to broadband (though we still like EarthLink better for power users). We tested the Premium broadband service and found it to be a good deal if you don't already have a firewall, antivirus, or personal finance program. Compared with rival AOL, MSN Premium presents better features in a cleaner interface--with fewer overlapping windows and simpler pull-down menus.
Setting up MSN Premium is simple enough: Just pop in the CD, and a wizard locates your existing settings and steps you through the process of installing 180MB worth of software. The whole process took about 20 minutes on our test machine, including a mandatory reboot.
MSN Premium features a customizable Dashboard that lets you add photos, links, and other content and resize it at will.
All three versions of MSN use the same basic interface, which differs only slightly from MSN 8.0's. As before, the Dashboard appears on the right-hand side of the screen and displays weather, stock prices, and the like. But now you can resize and customize it with photos or links to other MSN services or have it float permanently on your desktop. The MSN home page is less cluttered and more customizable; it features ton of broadband content from partners such as ESPN and MSNBC. (Though we had problems getting it to work correctly during testing.) Overall, MSN's current interface is clearly superior to AOL's mass of overlapping windows and is still our pick for the easiest interface.
MSN Premium is packed with so many features--photo editors, an encyclopedia, online games, and a suite of security software--it's hard to imagine Microsoft squeezing anything else into it or any other ISP competing. (AOL rivals MSN Premium on the number of features provided, but MSN's interface is far superior.) MSN Premium adds a pop-up blocker and complementary subscriptions to McAfee Virus Guard and Personal Firewall Plus, essential tools for any broadband user. AOL also offers a pop-up blocker, McAfee Firewall Express, and McAfee VirusScan, but you'll have to pay $3 a month for the latter, on top of your $15-a-month AOL charges--the same you'd pay if you bought it directly from McAfee.
Sending cute pics of the kids is a snap with MSN; just insert them into an e-mail message and pick a layout. Recipients can view higher-res versions on MSN's servers and order prints.
MSN Premium adds a number of tools to aid digital shutterbugs, including the ability to upload photos, edit them, and share them with your family. For example, to share pictures with Grandma, you can insert thumbnails of photos into an e-mail message, choose a layout for them with a couple of clicks, write captions, then hit the Send button. When Granny clicks a thumbnail, her browser launches and takes her to an MSN page where the photo has been stored. She can then order prints via MSN Photo Plus. MSN members get 30MB of permanent storage and can send up to 500MB per day of pictures. AOL also lets you edit photos and insert them in e-mail, but MSN gives you more tools for laying them out and adding captions.
MSN's excellent parental controls are easier to find in the new version, and its improved spam filter caught about 80 percent of the junk we received--that's not as good as standalone filters, such has Norton AntiSpam, but better than MSN 8.0. Finally, users of Outlook 2003 can access their MSN in-box from inside the e-mail client, view MSN and Outlook schedules side by side, and drag files between them--a handy feature for folks who like to manage their personal and professional lives from one place.
The only real glitch we encountered in MSN Premium was performance. We ran into occasional problems getting the software to launch on an older PC, as well as problems running other applications at the same time and getting the MSN home page to load correctly. Granted, our 800MHz Pentium 4-based Dell Dimension 4100 test bed (with 128MB of memory and Windows 98 SE) was dated, but we'd wager it's not unlike many home PCs today. Even though our test bed's specs were at or above the minimum requirements listed, we repeatedly received warnings telling us that we were low on system resources. We did not experience similar problems with MSN 8.0 on the same machine, which should come as no great shock since a Microsoft product always requires more power than its predecessor.
MSN's broadband video page was pretty to look at, but we couldn't get any of the clips to play on our test system.
We also were unable to play video files on MSN broadband; according to MSN support, we needed more system resources, even though our PC surpassed the minimum requirements and videos on other Web sites played just fine. Your mileage may vary, but MSN subscribers with older PCs will likely pay a price in performance.
Good help is truly hard to find these days, but MSN's support is generally first-rate. Along with EarthLink and AOL, MSN is one of the last bastions of toll-free, 24/7 phone support. MSN also has made its information more accessible; a new Status And Support page quickly summarizes each part of the service and the time you last connected and gives you links to phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and online chat options. We made three calls to support, and a technician answered the phone almost immediately each time, though the person couldn't always solve our problems. We also sent e-mail to support, getting a response in less than 24 hours as promised. Chat support was less impressive; we waited 20 minutes to connect with a technician before we gave up.
MSN's Status And Support page serves up a quick snapshot of your most recent activities; clicking a feedback link automatically e-mails a connection log to tech support.