Have you ever had one of those "old moments"? Where you realize, maybe for the first time, that you're no longer part of the age bracket that advertisers are targeting like rabid wolves? My most obvious old moment came a few months ago, when my cell phone made a ringing sound I had never heard before. Turns out I was receiving a text message, a feature I didn't even realize my cell phone had. Struggling with the UI on the phone, I tapped out my first-ever (and, as it turns out, last) text message and then clicked the Send button. Here's the complete message I sent, which was in response to the question I had just received:

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Yep, I'm too old to be tapping complicated SMS text messages on a tiny cell phone keypad. In the same vein, I'm probably too old for many of the fun features in MSN Messenger 7.0. But the differences between SMS and instant messaging (IM), for me anyway, are vast: IM has joined email and the phone as one of the gotta-have-it communication tools today. And, increasingly, IM is valuable as a work-oriented tool, though of course MSN Messenger is geared largely at consumers (read: normal people). And that's just fine. But because of the many very useful features Microsoft has added to this release, it's one that both consumers and business people will want to check out. If you've been ignoring IM for some reason, or are looking for the next big thing in IM, MSN Messenger 7.0 is an impressive upgrade to an already well-designed communications tool. And if you're already an MSN subscriber of some kind, all the better: Microsoft has crafted an incredible amount of integration with other MSN services into this product. It's a model the rest of Microsoft would do well to emulate.

This review will focus solely on the new features in MSN Messenger 7.0. Looking through my archives, I'm not quite sure why I haven't reviewed previous MSN Messenger versions, as I'm a long-time user of the product and, as it turns out, subscriber to MSN Premium. The last MSN Messenger product I mentioned on this site was MSN Messenger 5, which was included with MSN 8 (see my review). That was two and a half years ago. A lot has happened in that time.

Historical perspective

The first version of MSN Messenger debuted in 1999, before the term "instant messaging" had any resonance with average PC users. Back then, the quirky Israeli program ICQ had started the IM revolution, though previous Internet and network "chat" programs, like UNIX talk and Pow-Wow were obvious influences. In the early days of MSN Messenger, Microsoft worked hard to make the application compatible with the competition, primary AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). However, after that work was repeatedly thwarted by AOL, Microsoft backed off and steadily improved its own product instead.

Today, MSN Messenger is phenomenally successful in its own right. According to Microsoft, over 155 million active users log on to MSN Messenger service every month, making it one of the most often used Internet-based applications ever created. (To put that figure in perspective, four year ago, MSN Messenger had just 5 million users.)

The previous major MSN Messenger version, MSN Messenger 6, debuted in April 2003. This version added animated emoticons, personalized backgrounds for chat windows, customizable display pictures, message logging capabilities, and other features. MSN Messenger 6.1, released in November 2003, added compatibility with SPOT watches through MSN Direct and improved digital ink capabilities for Tablet PC users. MSN Messenger 6.2 debuted in April 2004. This version included the MSN Toolbar as an optional install and a Shared Browsing feature for subscribers of the MSN Dial-up, Plus, and Premium services.

What's new in MSN Messenger 7.0

MSN Messenger 7.0 is a significant upgrade over previous 6.x versions, which should be obvious when you open the main MSN Messenger window for the first time after upgrading (Figure). Though MSN Messenger 7.0 carries on with the same optional "borderless" window style first offered in MSN Messenger 6.x, the new version also features a wide range of visual changes that hint at the many new features.

In previous versions, Messenger supported a customizable name and display picture, and would append your online status (online, busy, etc.) to the latter. Now, even these basic features are significantly updated. In addition to standard display pictures, MSN Messenger 7.0 supports Dynamic Display Pictures (DDPs), which can be animated to react to emoticons you type in chat windows (like :) for smiley or :( for frown). You can also manually set a DDP to a specific emotion, including happy, sad, angry, or love. We'll look at this functionality more in the personalization discussion, below.

Additionally, when you click on your own display picture in Messenger 7.0, your Contact Card displays (Figure). This small window provides a range of personal information and links to other MSN services. You can access other users' Contact Cards by clicking their picture in the main Messenger window (Figure). But Messenger 7.0 takes this capability a bit further with another new feature called a gleam, that visually reminds you when one of your contacts has updated their MSN Spaces blog or other personal information. Gleams appear as small orange stars next to contact pictures in the main MSN Messenger window (Figure).

Contact Cards can hold a wealth of information for contacts that are busy using MSN services. In addition to basic contact info, the Contact Card will also display links to their latest Spaces updates. If you "flip" the card around, by clicking on the small double-arrow graphic, you can access email and phone number information for that contact (Figure).

In previous MSN Messenger versions, many people used the customizable name feature to provide simple status information. For example, during a recent trip to Ireland, I changed my display name to "Paul [in Ireland March 23-29]" so that my contacts would remember that I was away, and when I would return. You can still do this in Messenger 7.0, if you want, but this version also sports a new customizable personal message field that lets you get creative and communicate messages to all our contacts. In the main Messenger window, you can edit this message simply by clicking on the text box that's right below your display name (Figure). Or, you can click the down arrow and enable a cool new feature that automatically changes your personal message when you're listening to music. Instead of your personal message, contacts will see the name and artist of the song you're listening to with either Windows Media Player or Apple iTunes (yes, seriously: It integrates with iTunes) (Figure). And that song name is a link. When you or one of your contacts clicks it, the appropriate page in MSN Music loads (Figure).

Below the personal message field in the main Messenger window is the MSN status notification area, which provides quick links to Hotmail (email), My Space (your blog on MSN Spaces), and MSN Today, a Web-based news and current events synopsis.

Along the left side of the main Messenger window, you'll see a list of tabs that provide access to other MSN services. The first tab, which displays your MSN Messenger contacts list, is of course the default. Other tabs include MSN Alerts, MSN Messenger (with links to Alerts, emoticons, and information about integrating Messenger with Hotmail and mobile phones), CNBC at MSN Money (stocks), MSN Dating & Personals at Match.com, Xbox and Xbox Live (video games), MSN Entertainment (MSN Music, Radio Plus, and other services), MSN Games (online gaming), MSNBC (news), and MSN Autos, respectively.

In the MSN Messenger contacts list, you'll see a list of your contacts, optionally organized by groups you define (some, like Family and Friends are provided to get you started). Each contact includes a gleam (if they've updated their MSN Spaces blog or other personal information), a display picture, a display name, their online status (if not online), and their personal message (assuming they're using MSN Messenger 7.0 and have enabled this option). The personal message is displayed in italics to differentiate it.

The main window also includes a search box for MSN Search and, annoyingly, an advertisement. Since I pay for MSN Premium, I feel that Microsoft should turn off this ad. I don't have a problem with ads in free products, but paying customers shouldn't have to deal with that.

Overall, the main MSN Messenger 7.0 window is colorful and busy and will likely appeal to the younger crowd that no doubt dominates the services ranks. Because I use MSN Premium, however, I rarely see the MSN Messenger main window, and instead use MSN's desktop-mounted sidebar to access contacts. This product, of course, has not been updated to support the new features in MSN Messenger 7.0. Hopefully, an update is forthcoming: I do miss the more colorful Messenger 7.0 display, which makes MSN Premium look bland by comparison.

Chat windows are only slightly different from those of Messenger 6.x. Like the main Messenger window, these windows can be displayed without traditional window borders (Figure), which is attractive, and can be customized with per-contact color schemes. However, there are a number of subtle improvements. You can now access the Contact Card for the contact you're chatting with directly from the chat window, and various personalization features, like Winks, Packs, and Nudges, are all readily available from the new toolbar (we'll look at those features below).

A new Search button lets you perform shared searches. You enter text in the message pane, click Search, and then MSN Messenger displays MSN Search results, for both chatters, directly in the Sent Messages pane (Figure). You can also perform other kinds of MSN Search-based searches by right-clicking on any text in the chat window and choosing Search, which displays a sub-menu (Figure). From here, you can choose Shared Search, which displays the results for both chatters, or any of the other choices, which open a new window on your machine only and displays the appropriate results. You can even search for files on your own machine from here, which is pretty handy, assuming you've already installed MSN Toolbar Suite (see my preview), which is required for that feature.

Finally, the MSN Messenger 7.0 chat window also supports handwriting-based messages in addition to the more typical typewritten messages, and it does so on all PCs, not just Tablet PCs. In such a case, you would simply draw within the Message pane with your mouse (and the results are predictably craptacular) (Figure). Tablet PC users will now see three input options: Handwriting, Handwriting as text (where the Tablet PC's text recognition engine comes into play and translates your scribbles into text), and normal Text.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at some of the major new functionality in MSN Messenger 7.0.

Live video conversations and peer-to-peer audio conversation

While previous MSN Messenger versions supported audio and video chatting, or what we might called video conferencing, MSN Messenger 7.0 significantly ups the quality level with better synchronization between the audio and video, and larger video sizes (including full screen). Furthermore, audio and video have been separated in this release so that you can start video-only conversations (Webcam) or full video conversations that include both audio and video (Figure). And if both people in the conversation have a Webcam, you can do full-screen video chats, which is pretty impressive (Figure).

If you conduct a conversation that involves audio, MSN Messenger will attempt to connect the two users directly, using a PC-to-PC peer-to-peer connection that bypasses MSN's servers for better performance and quality. Quality will still vary depending on your connection type of course, and users with broadband connections communicating with other broadband-based users will get the best results.

In the case of both video and audio, MSN Messenger has been engineered to automatically navigate across most of the consumer-oriented firewalls that users will typically own. That means no more complicated set ups, and no more worrying about what firewall DMZs are and how to open ports.

New personalization features

While most of the following features are squarely aimed at the kiddie crowd, MSN Messenger does include an amazing array of new personalization options. I briefly mentioned Dynamic Display Pictures (DDPs), above. You can construct your own DDP by clicking on the small down-arrow below your display picture in a chat window and then choosing Create Dynamic Display Picture. This will launch an IE-like window that navigates to the Blue Mountain Web site, where you can choose from four different types of DDPs: Muggins, Characters with moods, Creaticons, or regular pictures (Figure).

Muggins are the most elaborate. To create one, you walk through a wizard that lets you specify such attributes as eyes and mouth, hair style and color, body style, accessories, props, background scenes, and moods (Figure). The latter option defines which moods your mugging will display: By default, you get sad, wink, and happy, and you can add three more (angry, shocked, etc.). Muggins, alas, cost $3 each per computer, or what Microsoft now calls a micropayment. But the results are kind of interesting, if you're into that kind of thing. Aside from providing a cartoon representation of yourself, the muggin will also respond to what you type, assuming you are into typing emoticons. Type smiley characters-- :) --for example, and your muggin will smile broadly (Figure). And so on.

Characters with moods are simpler cartoons that come with six stock moods (Figure). They cost $1.50 each and don't involve a complex wizard because they're precanned. Creaticons are similar, but without the moods (Figure). Instead, you can add your own text to one of the pre-made graphics and position it wherever you'd like. The good news? Creaticons are free. Blue Mountain also offers regular pictures for free: These are premade graphics to which you can't add text or any other embellishment, correctly sized for use in Messenger (Figure). There are numerous genres of regular pictures, including sports, humor, art, animals, and so on. Some are available in packs of five.

In Messenger 7.0, Microsoft has added numerous other major personalization changes that affect chat windows. The first, Winks, lets you send a Flash-like animation to the screen of the person you're chatting with (Figure). You select the Wink to send from a Winks toolbar button in the chat window (Figure) and then fire away. I find Winks to be extremely annoying, but again I'm not 17 years old. Fortunately, they can be turned off with an option in Messages pane of the Messenger Options dialog.

The second major addition is called a Nudge. Like a Wink, it's designed to get the attention of the person you're chatting with. But a Nudge jiggles both of your chat windows in a way that is so annoying I almost want to make a movie of it so you can see it here. Instead, I'll just note that Nudges, like Winks, can be turned off from the Messages pane of the Messenger Options dialog.

Continuing in the micropayment trend, Theme Packs cost $1.50 and include regular display pictures, backgrounds (for customizing the chat window background), and emoticons (Figure). Again, I'm old and stuff. But I just can't get into this kind of thing.

In a similar vein, the new Conversationator (available from the Activities button in a chat window), expands the chat window to include a bizarre, sponsored ... something (Figure) ... that enlivens the conversation, I guess. You can also share photos and files, and perform other activities. And the online games include free and paid versions, some of which are decent.

Security and privacy features

Given the current security climate, it should come as no surprise that Microsoft has added many security and privacy enhancements to MSN Messenger. These are all most welcome. First, you can configure the client to display your status as "Busy" or "Away" when you logon to the service, instead of the more typical "Online."

MSN Messenger 7.0 also includes integration protection against spam and spim (instant message spam), though Microsoft isn't discussing its efforts in detail for obvious reasons. However, before someone can send you an instant message, they must add you to their contacts list, which will help avoid unwanted messages. Finally, if you're using an antivirus package--and you are, right?--you can configure MSN Messenger 7.0 to use that software to scan any files you receive through the service.

Availability

MSN Messenger 7.0 is a free download, available from the Microsoft Web site. It runs on Windows XP, 2000, Me, or 98.

Conclusions

Don't let my curmudgeonly old age fool you. I may be closer to retirement age than the average age of a typical MSN Messenger 7.0 user, but it's a cool and colorful program. And I'll be using it every day. I don't have any real complaints--the annoying stuff can be turned off for the most part--and the video and audio enhancements are huge. If you spend a lot of time using IM, the client you use will largely be determined by which network(s) your friends are on, so it's not like a new version of MSN Messenger will cause a lot of AIM or Yahoo! Messenger users to jump ship. But if you're already using MSN Messenger (or, God help you, Windows Messenger), this version is a no-brainer. Highly recommended.