The Best For Broadband: AOL vs. MSN

Neither is a compelling add-on to a fast hookup, but the edge goes to America Online

Are America Online (TWX ) and Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN relevant in the broadband era? The two online services' latest packages, AOL 9.0 for Broadband and MSN 9, try to make a case but manage no more than partial success. AOL's broadband offering is the richer and better integrated of the two, but I'm left wondering if either is worth the expense.

For AOL, the online division of Time Warner (TWX ), finding a winning broadband formula is a matter of survival. The bulk of its revenues still comes from 24 million dial-up subscribers, but that total fell by more than 2 million in 2003. Since AOL does not offer a broadband service of its own, it must persuade customers who are already spending $30 a month or more for a speedy link to fork over an extra $14.95 a month for AOL service.

AOL's selling points boil down to two things: security and content. The service includes antivirus and firewall software, e-mail spam filters, and a pop-up blocker for the browser, on top of AOL's longstanding -- and excellent -- parental controls. The problem is that similar features are offered by many large Internet service providers, such as Earthlink (ELNK ), as well as cable and DSL providers.

AOL'S PITCH IS THAT THE MONTHLY FEES for premium services would cost many times the price of membership. For example, CNN charges $4.95 a month for its premium NewsPass video service -- AOL includes it in the monthly fee. But this is only a good deal if the AOL content you want adds up to more than $14.95 a month.

The most impressive piece of AOL's content is music, though it's no bargain. The subscription includes Radio@AOL's more than 175 mostly commercial-free channels, but the same content, albeit in less easy-to-use form, is available to everyone at www.netscape.com. Music.Net offers streaming and downloads starting at $3.95 a month extra. And AOL 9.0 offers 99 cents songs from a built-in version of Apple's (AAPL ) iTunes Music Store.

There are lots of other new or improved features, including greater customization of the appearance and content of pages. But the bottom line is that AOL remains what it always has been: the Internet equivalent of a quality package tour. It costs a bit more, and it's a bit bland, but it's safe, convenient, and won't hit you with nasty surprises.

The newest MSN is, at best, puzzling. MSN Premium, as the $9.95-a-month broadband offering is called, is one of a confusing assortment of services offered by Microsoft's MSN Div. It's often hard to figure out what is free, what is included in Premium, and what will cost extra.

At its core, MSN Premium is a bundle of software programs and Web services. It wraps the Internet Explorer browser and Outlook Express mail program into a neat package and adds photo editing and sharing, Microsoft Money (including bill-paying), and reference services (including the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia). MSN subscribers also get free downloads of McAfee Virus Scan and Personal Firewall software (though downloading the software required turning off MSN's pop-up blocker).

Most of the content available under the MSN banner is either free to anyone (such as video from MSNBC) or an extra charge even to subscribers. Music is a weak point. Microsoft's download service is still on the drawing board. Most of the radio channels require a $30-a-year Radio Plus subscription, and the relatively few free stations nag you to upgrade. MSN also tries to sell you extra storage for e-mail and for photos.

The biggest selling point AOL and MSN have is probably the desire of broadband customers to keep their e-mail addresses. But if you have or are considering broadband and want an all-in-one package to tame the Net, AOL is probably the best bet.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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