Goodbye, Buddy List Shuffle: All-In-One Instant Messaging
|Published:||Jun 10, 2007|
Once in awhile I'll borrow a friend's computer to check my email or something and be appalled to discover that their desktop is cluttered with two, three, or even more instant messaging buddy lists. They'll have their AIM contacts in one corner, MSN in another corner, and Yahoo! completing a trifecta that all but obscures their entire desktop. "Why?!" I cry. "There's a better way!"
That's right: Just because you want to keep in touch with friends and colleagues on several different IM networks doesn't mean you need to keep several IM programs open at once, cluttering your desktop and eating your free memory and CPU cycles. There are several free tools out there that take all (or almost all) of your various IM accounts and combines them into a single, unified interface.
Pidgin, known until recently as Gaim, is a free, open source program that will connect to AIM, Yahoo! IM, MSN (Windows Live) Messenger, Google Talk (Gmail), ICQ, Jabber, IRC, and more. It supports all of the basic IM features you're used to like away messages, buddy icons, and file transfers, and has some extra features like spell check and "buddy pounce" which lets you automatically send a message, play a sound, or run a program when a certain buddy logs on. Pidgin also supports third-party plugins that add fun and useful functionality to the program.
In order to help you cope with your massive buddy list, Pidgin includes a few special features. If you have a friend who has more than one account on various networks, Pidgin lets you consolidate them all into a single buddy. To do so, right-click on a buddy in your buddy list and click "Expand," then drag that buddy's alter egoes into the expanded buddy. You can also change the name that's displayed for a buddy by right-clicking and choosing "Alias..." Pidgin also has tabbed message windows so that you can have multiple conversations without having a dozen IM windows cluttering up your taskbar.
Pidgin has lots of configurable options and a nice, uncluttered interface, and is a great, free way to get eliminate buddy list overload.
If Pidgin is a little too plain for your taste, check out Trillian from Cerulean Studios. Trillian does most of the things Pidgin does, but heaps on some additional features. There are in fact two different versions of Trillian: Basic and Pro. Basic is free, and Pro, which includes some additional features, costs $25. The free version includes support for AIM, ICQ, MSN (Windows Live), Yahoo!, and IRC networks, and in addition to basic IM functionality has a SecureIM feature that lets you encrypt conversations with other Trillian users, notifies you when you get email, supports audio chat on AIM, Yahoo!, and MSN, and more.
If you pay up for Trillian Pro, the extra features you get include video chat, Jabber and Google Talk support, a history viewer for previous chats, animated emoticons, window transparency, plugin support, RSS feeds, and more. For me Trillian Basic suffers severely for the lack of "meta-contacts," i.e. consolidating one person's multiple accounts into one entry on your buddy list a la Pidgin. I have more than a few contacts with three or four accounts on various services, so for me this feature is absolutely essential. If it is for you, too, then you'll want to pay for Trillian Pro or use Pidgin instead. To see a complete list of the differences between Trillian Basic and Pro, take a look at this page.
One of my favorite Trillian features, which you won't find in Pidgin, is skins. Talented designers have created dozens of attractive themes that completely change the look of Trillian, so you never have to be satisfied with the default look and feel. Skins range from outrageous to minimalist, so whether you want your IM experience to be pretty or unobtrusive, you've got plenty of options.
My third recommendation isn't a program you download and install, but rather a web application. Meebo is a free site that lets you log into all of your IM accounts from any web browser. Meebo works basically like any regular desktop instant messaging program. You log in with your username and password (you can be logged into any number of accounts at once), it loads your buddy list, and you can send and receive IMs just like you'd expect. You don't need to register an account to use Meebo, but if you use it frequently you might want to since it will remember your login information for all your IM identities, meaning you'll only have to type in one username and password.
Meebo is great and for everyday IMing, and for logging in from public terminals or friends' computers it's indispensable, but by necessity it lacks some of its desktop counterparts' more advanced functionality. You won't find file transfer capability, audio chat, or even buddy icons in Meebo, for example, and you won't find very many configuration options, though you can turn sounds on and off, as well as emoticons. You can also choose from among four different color schemes in case the default blue isn't your favorite.
I'm a big fan of Meebo and know people who use it exclusively, and if you find yourself logging in from a lot of different machines, it could be just what you've been looking for. If you need bells and whistles, though, or make a lot of file transfers over IM, one of the aforementioned desktop programs is probably more up your alley.
Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.