Microsoft's MSN 8, which debuted last week, is one of the company's most ambitious and frustrating releases yet. Beneath this online service's glistening new interface -- adorned with photo-realistic toolbar icons and translucent menus -- there are both flashes of brilliance and staggering defects.
Most of the latter surface in the core areas of e-mail and Web browsing.
MSN 8's mail basically repackages Microsoft's Hotmail Web-mail service. Helpfully, it stores messages and your address book online, providing a similar experience whether you log in at home, on another PC running MSN 8 (Win 98 or newer) or the Hotmail Web page.
MSN 8 also includes McAfee's anti-virus software to guard incoming and outgoing e-mail, plus a junk-mail filter that's supposed to learn from your habits (although it trashed two messages I cc'ed to myself).
But forget about setting up any custom filters to manage your mail; MSN 8's rudimentary options don't even extend to sorting messages according to whether they came from people in your address book. And its option to check other Internet-standard "POP3" mail accounts is both hidden and deprived of the junk-mail filtering.
You can, however, decorate your e-mail with a gallery of formatting and design options that were mostly garbled, illegible or invisible on other mail systems.
MSN 8 will offer to import messages and address books from AOL 5, 6 and 7, plus Microsoft's Outlook Express, but doesn't support any other address-book formats. You can also share your address book and calendar with a Palm or Pocket PC device.
There's still the option of using Outlook Express or Outlook 2002 for your MSN 8 mail, but then you must fuss with a second, far more confusing program.
MSN 8's Internet Explorer 6-based Web browser, stripped of both complexities and capabilities, has the same problem. Microsoft seems to have confused simplicity with simple-mindedness: MSN 8 won't let you rearrange your Web favorites, change a favorite's address, or set your home page to anything but the MSN.com portal or the customizable My MSN page.
The built-in search engine suffers from not being Google (thereby lacking that site's handy image and news finders) and blatant commercial bias (search for "CNN" and it pushes the Microsoft-affiliated MSNBC as a "featured site").
MSN 8 does offer much better download management than IE, with a simple list of what you've grabbed, where it came from and where it landed on your hard drive; however, these files aren't scanned for viruses.
What makes these inadequacies so maddening is the way MSN 8's instant messaging soars past the competition. In addition to the usual niceties (for example, a set of emoticons that include a birthday cake and a mug of beer), it offers the revolutionary option of "shared browsing."
With this, two MSN 8 users can browse the Web at the same time, provided neither is behind a home or office network's firewall. Each will see the other's cursor; one can type in a Web address or click on a link, and the other's browser will follow along. It's a near-perfect tool for two people to go shopping together, or for somebody to coach a family member through a new Web site.
In case that somebody wants to walk your kid through some of the Web's seamier sites, MSN 8 includes considerably tighter parental controls than America Online.
When you add a user to your MSN account (up to nine total), you can designate one of several access-restricted age ranges, then fine-tune the availability of particular sites and services -- even in other Web browsers. Your kid can ask you to unblock a Web page; the request will land in your inbox, where you can click on a link to approve or decline the request. But none of those links within Hotmail; I had to switch to MSN 8 itself.
MSN 8 can also generate reports of kids' activities online, including all the blocked sites they tried to see. (Those whose Web pursuits fall under the MSN microscope may not appreciate this.)
Finally, MSN 8 packages a range of sites and services. Some are free to the public, such as MSN Communities, MSN Photos and the largely useless CitySearch entertainment guide and eShop online mall, but others are not: You get the Encarta encyclopedia site, basic online bill payment and account tracking (if you're willing to store your passwords on MSN's servers), and simple photo-enhancing tools.
MSN 8's Dashboard, a vertical panel tracking the weather, stocks, calendar, your IM buddy list and other aspects of the service, provides streamlined access to all these offerings, although it does cover a sizable stretch of your desktop.
If all of that sounds like America Online, it should. Nearly everything in MSN 8 is aimed at persuading AOL subscribers to defect, down to the shortcut that offers to cancel your AOL account and forward your AOL mail to your new MSN address.
MSN has price on its side -- it costs $21.95 a month, against $23.90 for AOL. You can use MSN 8 with another Internet connection for $9.95 a month, compared with $14.95 for AOL's bring-your-own-access plan. But MSN won't sell broadband access in the Washington area until next year; AOL has offered DSL here for years.
MSN also lacks AOL's vast universe of message boards, chat rooms and proprietary content. If you don't appreciate that -- but would still like a particular kind of simplified Internet experience -- MSN 8 is worth a look. Beginners might find something to like in MSN's just-the-basics approach too. But there isn't much to tempt users of any other Internet provider.
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