IM Showdown 2011: Four Chat Clients Face Off

David Murphy

Ding! Ding! Ding ding ding! We’ve come a long way since the early days of America Online, a time when instant messaging was but a one-ISP fad and that unnatural blast of noise from your sound card (if you were lucky enough to have one) was the run-to-the-living-room signal that a new message awaited.

Well, OK, maybe the message noises haven’t much changed, but the instant messaging itself has blown up into a digital smorgasbord of chatting platforms and all sorts of different ways to access them. We have the main instant message chatting services from Yahoo. From AOL. From Google. We have chatting services built into our favorite social websites (Facebook). Into our gaming platforms (Steam). Into our voice-chatting applications (Teamspeak). What is Twitter if not an instant message account to the world?

And we’re not just instant messaging each other on our personal time. Instant messaging permeates our entire day. According to a survey commissioned by Microsoft this year, 42 percent of 1,268 professionals consider instant messaging the most effective method for communicating with colleagues at the office. Even more eye-opening, 14 percent of those surveyed think their instant message use has grown at work over the past year (and 71 percent felt it stayed the same).

Made my case yet? Great. So now that we’re all chained to our various instant messaging networks, what’s the best way to access them? That’s where we come in. We’ll be pitting four of the top instant messaging clients in a no-holds-barred battle for supremacy: To the victor belong the spoils, or a happy home on your desktop and laptop PC forevermore.

Let’s begin.

Pidgin

Part of Pidgin’s beauty stems from its simplicity. At its core, Pidgin is just an instant messaging app: No frilly tie-ins to other social media components, no 85 pop-ups to appear each and every time one of your friends Tweets a cat picture, no absurdly complicated user interface with more buttons than you have instant messaging friends.

You don’t have to create an account on any kind of Pidgin service to use the app; instead, you simply enter in your login credentials to your accounts on one of 18 different protocols (as of this article’s writing), which includes services like Google Talk (or anything else based on XMPP, like Facebook chat), AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, and Bonjour, to name a few.

Pidgin uses simple, tabbed chat windows to hold your conversations. It’s easy to change up some characteristics of your font on-the-fly, but you have to do so over multiple clicks on a small menu—you can’t just select a new typeface and size using a typical Word-style drop-down selector. Pidgin can log your conversations as simple .HTML files, and the app can even execute a separate application, sound, or specific notification whenever a buddy performs a range of actions (including logging on). Pidgin comes with plugins that you can enable to add other features to the IM program, but there’s no central repository delivered within the app to allow you to download more.

Digsby

When you set up an account with Digsby, your account settings for the various services the program supports (12 in all, including Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, and ICQ) will follow you wherever you happen to install the application. That includes a “portable” option that can even install a self-contained version of Digsby on a USB key. One of the first things you'll notice about actually using Digsby is the ads. Yep, alongside Digsby's centralized instant messaging services you get, by default, ads at the bottom of your IM windows. While this initially seems like a sizeable detraction from the service, the ads can be turned off by going to the Conversations menu and unclicking the box next to Support Digsby development with an ad.

We especially like how Digsby manages to mash all the various ways you’d need to contact a person within a single window. It’s super-useful to be able to both IM and e-mail a person without having to switch out of the IM client, and you can even add a personal email address to any contact that’s more accurate than Digsby’s default selection (it’s doubtful that you’d want to email your friends through their AOL Mail addresses, for example). Also built into the program is support for all the major social networks—Well, mainly Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Myspace (does that even count anymore?). You can view the latest updates on any of these via Digsby, although the implementation is a bit crude for our liking.

While Digsby’s layout looks like a cacophony at first, it’s easily cleaned up. Merging multiple contacts is as easy as drag-and-dropping them over each other, and you can detail the look and feel of your Buddy List exactly as you want to via Digsby’s advanced layout settings. Although Digsby comes with no third-party plugin support per se, you can use the app to create your own Web-based widget to talk to various strangers online—and that’s pretty cool. You know what would be cooler? Digsby apps for mobile devices!

Trillian

Trillian feels like the gold standard of IM clients at first: It offers more features than Pidgin, with options and accounts centralized across a single user account in the same style as Digsby. It’s prettier than Digsby, although it does ditch the service’s ability to email directly out of chat windows and, as far as we can tell, any remote way to view a user’s information within any of the services that support it (AIM profiles, anyone?)

While Trillian supports video chat, we found it impossible to actually do so with any of our friends across a variety of IM networks. Apparently video chatting is Trillian user to Trillian user only–while Digsby eschews the client entirely and uses a third-party provider to connect users via a Flash app, at least this workaround… works!

The tabbed chat interface is fairly simplistic within Trillian. Like Pidgin, you can’t pick specific fonts or font sizes in a manner similar to Microsoft Word. Rather, you’re just presented the option to apply tweaks to said font, like increasing the size over, and over, and over until you’ve reached an acceptable mass. However, we love Trillian’s IM-specific settings: You can configure elements like timestamps, text formatting, and logs on an individual basis for each chat. And whoever built the “close the IM window immediately after you send a message” option is a lifesaver. For the workplace, this function can’t be beat!

We love that Trillian’s add-ons are built right into the app itself, which you can toggle on and off in a style similar to Pidgin. And Trillian’s chat history feature is definitely one to behold: With but the click of the mouse, you get both a full, organized listing of every conversation you’ve had with an individual, as well as an activity graph to show just how chatty you are… and when!

Raptr

Gotta have something for the gamers, right? Raptr is the instant messaging client that attempts to bridge the world of quick communications with some of the biggest gaming platforms one could possibly play on. So we’ll split this mini-review into two parts: The instant messaging and the gaming support.

As far as instant messaging goes, Raptr’s client is pretty ho-hum. You can’t change your font size or style in the slightest within the chat window, nor can you change the look of how your conversation is presented. It’s a bummer, because there are definitely some user interface elements we’d like to adjust: Like why the client feels the need to make every line of a conversation into a two-line chunk of one’s user name on top and one’s written text below it. Wasted space!

Want to video chat? Not happening. Insert an image directly into your conversation? Nope. Invite multiple users into a chat room? Nuh-huh. Check out a history log to find that really important thing you told your buddy just the other day? No way. Change the kind or location of the Raptr notifications that appear in the lower-right corner of your screen? You get the picture.

While we were a bit bummed that no amount of cajoling could get our Steam account (and friends) to appear within Raptr, the service does support the inclusion of Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Xfire friend onto the program’s master buddy list. Your interactions with these people are basically limited to “IMs,” although the style of the sent messages will vary by platform (e.g. You aren’t really in an instant message conversation per se). Raptr gives you quick access to one’s profile across any of the aforementioned services, which we suppose is nice.

Raptr also keeps track of your own gaming accomplishments via its own portal and tracking system. Giving each Raptr user his or her own little gaming portfolio on the Web is a great touch, amplified by the fact that you can actually launch your PC’s games via the Raptr client itself. Cool, but are these must-have elements, especially given the weaknesses present in Raptr’s instant messaging itself? We don’t think so.

The Winner?

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that each instant messaging program falls within its own little sphere. Raptr’s a gaming app. Digsby and Trillian are cross-computer centralization apps. Pidgin is instant messaging simplified. So which of these reigns supreme? Which of these deserves the most prominent place on your desktop?

It depends.

Raptr’s right out—we didn’t like this app no matter how nice it was to have all of our gaming friends under one digital roof. The instant messaging stunk. Pidgin is awesome for a simple set of uses: If you have no need for an app that blends a whole ton of different social networks and chat services into a single program, you can’t go wrong with this app’s simple IM treatment.

But we wager that most of you–ourselves included–are approaching the power user stage of instant messaging. You want everything to work perfectly by using only a single login to access your friends; you want to have a whole ton of news, information, and email at your fingertips; and you want an unobtrusive way to sort, access, and ultimately view everything you’ve slapped within your app of choice.

Trillian isn’t perfect, but we think it squeaks out over Digsby for a multitude of reasons. We love the layout, we like the app’s more restrained use of advertising over Digsby’s annoying default setup, and we appreciate that we can take Trillian on our various mobile devices and benefit from the same, single-user setup as we would in using the app on a bunch of different PCs at once. The comprehensive chat logging–saved to the cloud, if you buy Trilian Pro–is just the icing on the cake… and all the different ways you can interact with Trillian, and use Trillian to interact with all of your favorite Web apps, is like a new cake in itself.

Former Maximum PC Editor David Murphy logged into four different apps at once to write this article. His IM-happy friends let him have it.

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