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Instant Messaging Services compared: which one is right for you?

It seems like there are hundreds of different Instant Messenger (IM) services out there these days, which can make finding the right one for you seem a bit daunting. The key is breaking down what the various ones have to offer, and matching them with your own needs.

The right IM program for you will depend largely on how you communicate day to day with others, although the biggest and most important question just may be which one are your friends using? I’ve put together a short lineup of what I feel are the most prominent and the ones that have the most to offer: Yahoo! Messenger, GoogleTalk, and Skype.

Below is a summary of each IM service, following by a summary table. You can jump straight to the summary table by clicking this link.

Yahoo Messenger LogoFirst up, Yahoo! Messenger. As one of the oldest ones around, it’s also one of the most well known. It offers a lot of different customization options, like various skins and color schemes, Avatars that are custom built, and user defined sounds for alerts. It also offers integration with the Yahoo! home site, and the Yahoo! email service, so you can chat from the stand-alone IM program or you can chat from within the email interface. As always, anything that allows you to access it from the web without installing anything has high mobility value. Additionally, Yahoo! IM is available as embedded software in many non-smartphone cell phones, as well as apps for Androids and other mobile devices. Yahoo! has been around a long time and has had the time and money to develop and polish the heck out of it’s IM program, and it shows. It even allows cross-talk with other messenger services like MSN messenger and even Facebook. Some of the downsides of Yahoo! Messenger can include ads popping up in the IM program, occasional server interruptions, and less than stellar video call quality. Even so, Yahoo! IM still covers a lot of bases and does it fairly well in most cases. The end result is a decent IM Messenger that’s got the support of a major company behind it and is well known across the globe. This means international capabilities are also available, like support for non-US fonts and transliteration programs from third parties. Another nice feature of the Yahoo! IM program is the ability to send SMS messages directly from the contact list. This is a feature that until recently was nearly exclusive to Yahoo! IM and is a nice example of how the developers try to answer the needs of their users. Overall, Yahoo! Messenger is a good choice for nearly anyone wanting a decent free Messenger program. I’d place it in the top echelon of available choices in the IM world.

imageNext on my list is GoogleTalk. While GoogleTalk offers most of the same features as Yahoo! Instant Messenger, there are some significant differences. GoogleTalk offers SMS messaging, for example, but not as easily as Yahoo! IM does. It also doesn’t have as robust of a customization system as Yahoo! IM does. It offers the ability to have an “avatar” picture or icon for your account, but doesn’t have the in-depth customized Avatars that Yahoo! IM offers. On the other hand, GoogleTalk offers higher quality video and voice calling than Yahoo! IM. Both programs offer PC-to-PC file transfers so sharing photos and other things are easy and free. Additionally, GoogleTalk is of course integrated with your Google account so it will sync and connect with all your other Google services, just as Yahoo! IM is connected with all their other services. Of course, there’s also the mobile consideration, as GoogleTalk is built in to any Android OS phone these days, and is therefore probably the best choice for anyone who owns or plans to own an Android OS based phone or tablet. GoogleTalk and Yahoo! IM are the two major players in this specific field of what I consider basic overall IM programs. They offer wide varieties of features and integration, without going overboard to the point of losing quality and sight of the basic service they are supposed to offer; instant messaging. These two messenger programs are, to my way of thinking, two different flavors of the same basic thing. That means that it’s largely a choice of personal preference between the two of them, rather than a calculation of overall features or options.

imageNext at bat, Skype. I put Skype into it’s own category here because, while it does offer many of the same kinds of options and features as the big two already mentioned, it concentrates more on the audio/video experience for it’s billing, rather than the text instant messages of the other two. It does, however, offer a text based instant messaging portion of it’s program, so I decided to count it into our little round-up of IMs. Skype also has integration with various mobile devices that the other two don’t, like the Playstation Portable (PSP) and iPhone, for example. Skype comes pre-loaded on the PSP 3000 model and there have also been rumors that it will come pre-loaded on the Playstation Via (next gen PSP) system. For this reason alone, Skype is often preferred by the gamers out there that are looking for an instant messenger. In my own experience, I did find that Skype offers a whole lot more in the way of options for the audio and video calling, but was rather short on preferences and other settings for the text portion of it’s program. If you don’t own a webcam and/or microphone and headset combo, Skype may not be the best option for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer to talk with your friends primarily through video calls or PC to PC calls, Skype could be the best bet. Skype also offers the ability to send SMS messages and make PC to phone calls, but not for free.  All three of these options offer some services that cost money, but their basic IM services are totally free. Most of what any of them charge for are things like international PC to phone calls or video calls, or multi-national video conferencing, things like that. The use of the simple IM services don’t cost a dime and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.


There are tons of other IM options out there, so the question becomes, “which one is right for me?”. In order to figure that out, you’ve got to take a few things into consideration, like whether you want to be able to customize your IM skins, or if you want to be able to video chat without lag or feed issues. All of these things are important in choosing an IM program but none of them are as important as the biggest concern.

The following table summarizes some of these issues into a nice structure:

Yahoo Google Skype
Web Integration Integration with the Yahoo email and homepage Integrated with all Google services and web apps Plugins integrate Skype with all major browsers
Customization/skins Yes. Lots. Advanced avatar functionality. Some, but considerably less than Yahoo. Some user created ‘themes’ are available.
Smartphone support Yes. Yes, tons. Built for Android Integrated into mobile devices in a way that the other aren’t.
IM’ing with multiple people simultaneously Yes. Yes. Yes.
SMS support Yes. Directly from the contact list, free. Supports limited amount of cell carriers. Yes. Not free after first 50 messages. Yes. Not free.
Video Chat Variable quality Generally good quality. Generally excellent quality.
Video chatting with multiple people
simultaneously
Available, but impractical without a high-end PC. Yes, quality slightly degrades with each added video chat. Yes.
Phone calls to real world phone numbers Yes. Audio quality is highly variable, especially on low-end PCs. Yes. Call real world numbers for FREE. Yes. But you will have to pay for it.
File sharing Yes. Unlimited size but large files tend to cause errors. Yes. Unlimited size. Yes. Unlimited size.

Looking forward: the changing face of IM

Facebook: various social networking sites also are starting to offer messenger services, like Facebook. Facebook now offers chat within it’s web site, and even extends those chats into other IM platforms like Yahoo! IM and the Android OS. However, Facebook doesn’t yet offer a standalone messenger program so if you don’t want to have a browser window open, you will have to use one of the other options that it’s integrated with. The new Timeline layout from Facebook may change some of these options in the future but that remains to be seen at the time of this post.

Visual chat: thinking even more outside the box are various “visual chat” options, like IMVU or VIE. These programs combine the visual aspects of 3D gaming with the texting of instant messenger programs. They are gaining popularity as graphics cards become cheaper and more powerful, but still sit in a third place seat, at best, to the other types of IM programs already mentioned in this post. Most of them offer a basic, free service of visual “Avatars’”, or 3-D computer generated images, and also extend offers of further customization and visual or other content for a premium cost. Many of them also offer a user-based economy of created items for use in the 3D worlds themselves. In this way, they are unique from the others because they offer a level of community and immersive experience that can’t be matched otherwise. However, most of them have limited access to mobile devices, if any, and they all require a higher end graphics based computer to run. This makes them impractical for a primary IM choice, but can be a nice diversion or expansion to your regular social network. Some say that these programs are the wave of the future, but that remains to be seen. If they don’t integrate the kind of cross-platform plans that other IM programs have, like Android and iPhone access, it’s not likely that they will move to the forefront of messaging communications.

All programs tested on: Windows 7 32 Bit Home Premium and Chrome (5+)

Links:

Have a question or thought? Please share it in the comments section.


 
 
 
B.C. Tietjens

B.C. Tietjens

Born and raised overseas in a military family, B.C. Tietjens visited and lived in many places all over the world. He has worked on a number of publications and enjoys writing for different audiences, on such diverse subjects as relationships, technology, prestidigitation, self-improvement, entertaining children, and biographical stories. He currently writes primarily for Freewaregenius and enjoys the heck out of it.
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  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    Just how old is this story? Facebook now offers chat? Facebook has offered chat for years. And where is WLM? WLM is possibly one of the most used messenger services in the West and offers everything the others do.

    Then we get this comment, “On the other hand, GoogleTalk offers higher quality video and voice calling than Yahoo! IM”. I’ve not used Yahoo messenger in years but even back then it offered very high quality video calling by making a direct connection between th etwo people talking.

  • B.C. Tietjens

    @Carbonize
    This post is brand new, but it was intended for those who haven’t been using instant messengers for very long or for those who just generally don’t have much knowledge about them. It sounds as if you already know which messenger is right for you, and that is a great thing!
    WLM was not mentioned because, while it does fall into the same category and it does offer most of the same options, it doesn’t offer anything significantly different from the ones that were mentioned. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive listing of all messenger services available, merely a mini-guide for those who need it.
    Regarding the Yahoo! IM video and audio quality; this posting is, as always, based on the author’s personal experience and should not be taken in any other way. Thanks for reading, Carbonize!

  • Zero F

    Hi, here in Brazil WLM is absolute. I think it’s really odd doesn’t include it on that comparison…

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    I use a multimessenger such as Digsby or Trillian as I have friends on most services as well as offering support for various things. I’d certainly say more people use WLM than use Gtalk even with it being built in to most Android devices as well as now in Google+.

    As to Skype that’s getting taken over by MS so will become part of WLM is my guess.

  • Morely Dotes

    WLM is garbage. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t mentioned.

  • http://raoulteeuwen.blogspot.com Raoul Teeuwen

    A major option for me is whether an IM solution allows me to chat with people with other IM solutions… For instance Pidgin and Trillian enable you to communicatie with both friends on MSN, Yahoo, GTalk and more. With MSN, Yahoo and GTalk you can only communicate with people on that same product…

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    @Morley Dotes – Really? You’ve obviously never used Yahoo then. Yahoo messenger and the protocol they used are both badly written and full of bugs/exploits.

    @Raoul Teeuwen – I think the purpose of this article was more to discuss the pros and cons of the three messenger services mentioned as opposed to programs. If we were going to discuss programs then Trillian has had high quality video calling for years.

  • http://N/A Brat

    Hey if memory serves my correctly, ICQ was the pioneer for IM. It’s still a pretty good contender too!

  • Someone

    Are people seriously suggesting that any of us rely on only one service any more … that anyone *has* relied on only one service in the last five years or so?

    Nearly everyone I know uses two and most people I know use three – a couple use four or five!

    They all just install and use whichever service(s) the people they want to chat to use, because most people can’t figure out how to do it any differently: “One friend is on Hotmail so I talk to them on MSN and my other friend is on Yahoo so I talk to them on Yahoo Messenger and my sister is on Skype so I chat to her on that)

    More people would find it all simpler, I think, if they just learned enough to use a single IM client that lets them use all their services simultaneously and seamlessly – I use Pidgin, (portable version) myself)

    But I don’t think there’s really any question any more of which service is the best because we all use (pretty much) all of them at some time, because so many of us use so many different combinations – So, it doesn’t really matter

  • B.C. Tietjens

    @Someone,
    That’s an interesting point, thank you for commenting!

  • Someone

    That’s only my opinion, of course :)

  • November

    Yahoo, WLM, ICQ, MSN, AOL, Google, I’ve use all of them and then some. Each has something different to offer. I think I prefer Google at this point. It might not have all the bells and whistles such as background graphics and sophisticated emotes but all in all, it gets the job done without the connection problems I’ve experienced with the other programs.

  • http://www.zoniweb.com ZoNi

    I am from Serbia and I can say that here is THE most popular MSN, followed by Skype. Unfortunately, my favorite, GTalk, is not very popular here and I am very sorry to see that it is abandoned by Google :(

    Anyway, at this moment, I use Pidgin Portable for almost all IM chat needs (GTalk, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, IRC and Facebook).

  • http://www.miranda-im.org/ F the international banking cartel

    With all the changes going on, I choose to use Miranda IM as my im client. I literally have like 5-8 connections going on at one time, whether it’s Windows Live/Skype, Facebook Chat, AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, IRC, and Jabber. It’s 100% customizable and free. The best thing that ever happened to the IM world IMO.