Over the past few years, nobody has hounded America Online more aggressively than Microsoft's MSN online service. The company has released substantial upgrades to the MSN software that made it an alternative to AOL for anybody seeking a simplified, all-in-one Internet tool kit, while aggressive bundling deals with Internet service providers such as Verizon have put MSN on the desktops of millions of users.
MSN's latest assault on AOL has begun with the launch of the upgraded MSN Premium. The software (it's been available for testing since early December) preserves the slick, refined interface of MSN 8, with its photorealistic toolbar icons and "dashboard" array of shortcuts to Web services, while fixing the biggest failings of the older software.
That makes it good enough, especially considering the cost savings involved, to beat the AOL service in many ways.
MSN Premium's biggest improvement is its pop-up ad blocker. And Microsoft has added this essential feature with unusual subtlety: MSN discreetly presents a black-and-white thumbnail image of each blocked pop-up in the upper right corner of the screen, just big enough to let you know if you've hit a site dumb enough to hide useful content in unsolicited pop-ups.
This feature is immensely welcome _ and overdue penance for all the MSN 8 pop-up ads Microsoft ran in late 2002. (The company plans to add pop-up blocking to its Internet Explorer Web browser this year.)
Unfortunately, MSN Premium's Web bookmarks interface is only a little less stilted than MSN 8's (you still can't sort your Web favorites in any order but alphabetical) and its Web search still isn't Google. And the lack of a tabbed-browsing option drastically limits the utility of MSN Premium for busier Web surfers; the program's toolbar-laden windows are so big that it's impractical to keep more than two open at a time.
MSN's e-mail now blocks images from unknown senders, stopping spammers from telling whether you've read their junk, and a spam filter can be set to varying degrees of stringency. But the most effective counter to spam, "challenge-response authentication," isn't available.
The best part of MSN's mail, compared with AOL's, is simply that your messages don't expire. They stay available, from any copy of the MSN software and through Microsoft's Hotmail Web site, until you decide to move them or delete them.
MSN Premium simplifies the process of attaching photos to e-mail (although the results may be messy or unreadable in non-Microsoft software) and accessing your other mail accounts, provided they run on the Internet-standard POP, or Post Office Protocol.
You also can use Microsoft's Outlook program to read your MSN mail, but it's poorly integrated. MSN's Mail button won't launch Outlook for you, and some important settings aren't transferred to Outlook either.
MSN Premium's parental controls allow relatively fine-grained control of a child's use of the software (up to 10 secondary accounts can be added to each subscription's primary identity), but they don't extend to other software. You'll also need Windows XP's user-account controls to lock down a kid's browsing.
An MSN Premium subscription includes a copy of McAfee antivirus and firewall software, plus updates to each, but neither program is installed by default. (E-mail still is scanned for viruses automatically.)
Then there's the subscription price: $35 a month if you get Verizon DSL (which will bundle the new software starting this month), $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year to use MSN Premium on top of your regular Internet connection, or $21.95 a month over dial-up (although that omits the firewall and antivirus software). All those prices significantly undercut AOL's rates.
Some parents, along with music and photography enthusiasts, still will do better with AOL than MSN, if they must choose between the two. But for many other people looking to keep things simple as they start out online, MSN may be a better fit.