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Product: MSN 8
Company: Microsoft
Estimated Street Price:

Broadband $39.95-49.95/mo
Dial-up $21.95/mo
 Software Only $9.95/mo or $79.95/yr

Review By: Paul Britton


Table Of Contents
1: Introduction & Installation
2: User Interface
3: Communications
4: Productivity Part I
5: Productivity Part II

Some 93% of all Internet users have an email account, and roughly half are estimated to use an instant messaging service.  Arguably, the communication features in MSN 8 are the most important and promising aspect of the client & service. 

The mail experience may look somewhat familiar to Outlook Express users.  That is because the MSN 8 mail client is built on the Outlook Express engine, and embedded in the MSN 8 client framework.  MSN 8 downloads your mail as soon as you come online so that your mail is waiting for you when you actually get to it; a nice touch that probably goes unnoticed by users.  The mail client lists online and offline folders down the left side of the window, and in the main section allows the user to sort how your mail is viewed by size, subject, time, and who it is from.  You can also search your inbox for keywords, senders, and recipients to quickly find a particular email.  Moving email from your inbox to a folder is as easy as drag and drop.

MSN 8 brings the preview pane to subscribers for the first time.  For knowledgeable users, the preview pane brings up a big warning flag in their minds.  The preview pane leaves users very susceptible to potential viruses included in their email.  Unlike Outlook, or Outlook Express, however, MSN 8 includes virus scanning out of the box.  The user doesn’t have to do anything to make it work.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), I was able to test how well this worked a couple weeks ago when I was sent a very suspicious email that was 134kb in size.  MSN 8 would not let me open the email, stating there were potential viruses in the attachments included.  With luck, the next time there is a major email-borne virus outbreak, a sizeable portion of MSN subscribers will not be contributing to the propagation of the virus thanks to this feature.  This is a huge boon for users, and in my opinion, alone is nearly worth the cost of MSN 8.  The virus software in MSN 8 automatically updates itself without any prompting from the user.

That virus experience dovetails nicely with the next topic on the list; spam!  That particular email in question was actually sent to my junk mail folder, showcasing a marked improvement in MSN Mail’s junk mail filtering.  MSN Mail now offers 4 separate levels of junk mail filtering: Server-side “known spam source” filtering by Brightmail, custom user-directed filter rules, server-side filtering rules, and most interestingly a filter within MSN 8’s mail client itself that can catch any remaining junk mail that makes it through the gauntlet.  The MSN 8 Junk Mail filter is built on top of work by Microsoft Research that “learns” what you consider is junk mail the more you use it.  My personal experience has been very interesting.  Initially, I was getting about 3-5 junk mail messages a day in my inbox.  After roughly a month of using MSN 8…I haven’t seen a junk mail message reach my inbox in a few days.  It is still too soon to declare the junk mail crisis as over, but this is a magnificent start with Microsoft’s first effort.  Reportedly Microsoft’s other mail clients will see this technology in the future.  One can only hope.

The mail composition features are especially compelling.  The interface is pretty simple and easy to grasp if you’ve created mail in Outlook Express, or previous versions of MSN.  This latest version introduces what MSN calls the “Enhanced Canvas”.  Nice words for rich, and I do mean rich email composition.  You can go far beyond simply inserting pictures…you can take those pictures and touch them up, or add special effects to them.  You can add WordArt with seemingly infinite combinations of shapes, sizes, and colors.  I can hear the groaning already from people who are afraid their inboxes with balloon with these rich emails down the road.  Fortunately, MSN has thought ahead there and designed the client to compress all those special effects in the email before sending it out the chute.  I’ve tested this with some pretty large pictures, and special effects with decent results.  No more accidental 2mb emails.  All of that said, there is one glaring feature missing from the composition abilities…”Insert Link”.  Sure you can type or paste a link, but if you want to make some text a hyperlink you are out of luck.  You’d have to create the link in FrontPage or some other HTML editor then paste it into your email.  A small feature to be sure, but one that makes me itch when I need it.

Overall, the mail client is fairly quick in my experiences on a cable connection.  I have had some friends report that the mail client was slow for them.  I’ve tried to figure out what that could be…but besides all the filtering going on behind the scenes, I am not sure.

Sliding over to the Messenger application…not too much can be said about this product.  The integration between MSN Messenger & MSN 8 is smooth.  MSN 8 comes with MSN Messenger v5.0.  Online contacts are displayed in the drop-down list from the Messenger icon in the navigation bar, the Address Book, while writing an email, in the inbox, and in the Dashboard.  It is all pretty seamless, and puts Messenger to work for the user.

MSN 8 introduces a popular feature lifted from AOL; the buddy icon.  You can customize a particular picture to represent your account on the sign-in page, and choose to expose that picture to other MSN 8 subscribers.  To other subscribers, it will appear in their MSN 8 Messenger contact lists on the dashboard, and in the navigation bar drop-down menu.  Unfortunately, it isn’t fully integrated with the MSN Messenger application, and you don’t see a user’s picture in an IM chat window.  This is somewhat self-defeating as the buddy pictures you do see in the Dashboard can be too small to recognize what they are.  MSN 8 comes with 11 default pictures (the famous yellow rubber ducky remains), and allows you to download 21 others from a dolphin to a hot air balloon.  However, if you happen to be browsing around and find a neat picture you’d like to use to represent your account and show off to your contacts, MSN 8 adds a right-click option on images called “Set as Your Picture”.

MSN Messenger with MSN 8 also introduces an option to “browse the web together”.  Upon inviting another user, MSN 8 loads another window with a status banner above the webpage, and shoves the IM window into a vertical bar along the left side of the screen.  You can see the other user’s mouse move across the screen, but make no mistake this isn’t application sharing.  The page being viewed together doesn’t scroll down when one of the users does so.  Caveats aside, this is a great feature to quickly and easily get two people on the same ‘page’ so to speak.  I was able to plan a date last week complete with dinner reservations, and ideas for dancing in much less time than had I called to discuss what to do.  I also felt more confident we were thinking on the same wavelength.  ;-)  That said, I had mixed experiences with this feature.  It doesn’t seem to work with everyone that I tried it with…and I was unable at the time of this writing to pin down if it was something on my end (firewall?) or theirs that was causing headaches.  There is still a lot of work to do in making these peer2peer features ‘just work’, and with future versions of MSN Messenger expanding in the peer2peer realm…I hope they pay some attention to this experience.

 « User Interface Productivity Part I »


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