By Tom Spring
America Online's updated interface, AOL 7, is a boon to broadband users, with new features scattered across the board. It includes upgrades for the modem crowd as well.
Gone is the Media Tower keyed to broadband users, which rose from one corner of the old interface. AOL 7's new menus are simpler, yet juiced with tightly integrated content that appears only with a high-speed connection. Broadband users now can get live and on-demand news from partners like CBS, the NFL, and Time Warner's stable of media.
In my beta version, I also found improvements to existing features such as chat and instant messaging, plus some new interactive services. Windows XP users, take note: An AOL upgrade is probably necessary, since many versions of AOL 6 and earlier AOL releases won't run with XP. And AOL 7 gets personal--but in a good way. For example, a new AOL Weekend guide is location-based; the new AOL Box Office section, in partnership with Ticketmaster, makes it easier to buy tickets; and the interface will now customize content by postal zip code.
Visible changes include the AOL "running man" icon now appearing beside the names of e-mail correspondents who are online when you check your in-box. Along similar lines, a mobile icon indicates that an instant messenger buddy is online via a mobile device. That helps you tailor messages for a small screen.
AOL 7 pops up the closest match from your address book as you start typing a name or address in an e-mail message title. It also supports slightly bigger messages than earlier versions did, but all 63KB or larger e-mail messages I received turned into attachments I had to download separately.
The new Radio@AOL with 75 music channels is by no means unique. Most of the programming is streamed at a lower sound quality for nonbroadband users. A broadband-enhanced version is in the works. The You've Got Pictures photo service has improved, however, letting you post an unlimited number of digital images on the photo-sharing section of the service.
Microsoft has announced an update to its MSN Web portal, revamping the look--adding content and Internet-based tools, and expanding broadband access options--making it clear that it's aiming for AOL's consumer audience. AOL can't afford to rest on its laurels--and with the debut of AOL 7, it isn't.
From the December 2001 issue of PC World magazine