Over the past few years, nobody has hounded America Online more aggressively than Microsoft's MSN online service. The company has released substantial upgrades to the MSN software that made it a viable alternative to AOL for anybody seeking a simplified, all-in-one Internet toolkit, while aggressive bundling deals with Internet service providers such as Verizon have put MSN on the desktops of millions of users.
MSN's latest assault on AOL begins Thursday, when it launches the upgraded MSN Premium. The software (it's been available for testing since early December) preserves the slick, refined interface of MSN 8, with its photo-realistic toolbar icons and "dashboard" array of shortcuts to Web services, while fixing the biggest failings of the older software.
That makes it good enough — especially considering the cost savings involved — to beat Dulles-based AOL service in many ways.
(MSNBC content is distributed by MSN. MSNBC itself is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
Pop-up ad blocker
MSN Premium's biggest improvement is its pop-up ad blocker. And Microsoft has added this essential feature with unusual subtlety: MSN discreetly presents a black-and-white thumbnail image of each blocked pop-up in the upper right corner of the screen, just big enough to let you know if you've hit a site dumb enough to hide useful content in unsolicited pop-ups.
This feature is immensely welcome — and overdue penance for all the MSN 8 pop-up ads Microsoft ran in late 2002. (The company plans to add pop-up blocking to its Internet Explorer Web browser this year).
Unfortunately, MSN Premium's Web-bookmarks interface is only a little less stilted than MSN 8's (you still can't sort your Web favorites in any order but alphabetical) and its Web search still isn't Google. And the lack of a tabbed-browsing option drastically limits the utility of MSN Premium for busier Web surfers; the program's toolbar-laden windows are so big that it's impractical to keep more than two open at a time.
MSN's e-mail now blocks images from unknown senders, stopping spammers from telling whether you've read their junk, and a spam filter can be set to varying degrees of stringency. But the most effective counter to spam, "challenge-response authentication," isn't available.
The best part of MSN's mail, compared with AOL's, is simply that your messages don't expire. They stay available — from any copy of the MSN software and through Microsoft's Hotmail Web site — until you decide to move them or delete them.
MSN Premium simplifies the process of attaching photos to e-mail (although the results may be messy or unreadable in non-Microsoft software) and accessing your other mail accounts, provided they run on the Internet-standard Post Office Protocol.
You can also use Microsoft's Outlook program to read your MSN mail, but it's poorly integrated. MSN's Mail button won't launch Outlook for you, and some important settings aren't transferred to Outlook either.
The MSN address book and calendar are as portable as your inbox; both appear whenever you log into Hotmail. You can also share your calendar with designated people or publish it on the Web (your published calendar can show only when you're already booked, hiding each appointment's details). All that's missing is the ability to subscribe to "webcal" files published by third-party sites.
Instant messaging includes a useful Photo Swap tool that lets you flip through a slide show with a friend, plus support for audio- and video-conferencing and a variety of simple two-person games. But MSN 8's clever shared-browsing option is gone.
Issues still exist
To manage your photos, MSN Premium includes a Picture-It library program that sorts images in a variety of helpful ways, allows for simple editing, burns pictures to CDs and creates slide shows. Alas, the only Web-hosting option is the awkward, ad-strewn MSN Groups site, a poor substitute for such sites as Ofoto or Shutterfly.
Just as odd is the failure to provide access to any digital music stores in MSN's Entertainment area, which looks awfully thin compared with its deep educational and financial-planning resources, which include an online version of the Encarta encyclopedia, interactive textbooks, budgeting tools and online bill payment.
MSN Premium's parental controls allow relatively fine-grained control of a child's use of the software (up to 10 secondary accounts can be added to each subscription's primary identity), but they don't extend to other software. You'll also need Windows XP's user-account controls to lock down a kid's browsing.
Those controls also continue to require that a parent log into the MSN Premium software to allow a child to visit a blocked site — an unwise choice, given how many businesses don't let employees install personal software on their computers.
Best for beginners
An MSN Premium subscription includes a copy of McAfee anti-virus and firewall software, plus updates to each — but neither program is installed by default. (E-mail is still scanned for viruses automatically.)
Then there's the price of that subscription: $35 a month if you get Verizon DSL (which will bundle the new software starting this month), $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year to use MSN Premium on top of your regular Internet connection, or $21.95 a month over dial-up (although that omits the firewall and anti-virus software). All those prices significantly undercut AOL's rates.
Some parents, along with music and photography enthusiasts, will still do better with AOL than MSN, if they must choose between the two. But for many other people looking to keep things simple as they start out online, MSN is now a better fit.