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.
First 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.
Next 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.
Next 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:
|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
|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+)
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