Microsoft’s new Messenger

September 25, 2008


Favorites, groups of contacts, and background themes are new to Windows Live Messenger beta.

If you’re an avid Windows Live Messenger user, now’s the time to convince your friends to make the switch to the new Windows Live Messenger beta. If they don’t, you’ll be wondering what the hubbub is about.

Unveiled on Wednesday, the new beta offers a bundle of fun, fresh features, the best of which can be taken advantage of only when you’re chatting with another beta user. As a beta, there are a few known bugs, and probably more to discover, but the adventurous early adopters who aren’t afraid of leaving Windows’ Messenger 8 behind will be rewarded with functionality that improves on basic tasks and new baubles to color the chatting experience. We’ve got a few complaints, too.

A field to drag-and-drop favorite contacts and the ability to create chat groups of up to 20 participants are available in the newly-designed interface, which has a much lighter look that some may see as more cramped and less defined. Changing the color and background theme (or "scene," as it’s called here) helps–if you know where to look. A paintbrush image appears when you scroll over its hidden position in the top right corner.

Windows Live Messenger beta's chat window

The chat window repositions pictures and gets some manners you may or may not like.

The chat window has also gotten a new coat of paint, but it may look off-kilter if your buddy is using an older version of Messenger. Contact images have been scooted over to the left, but when I first began chatting, they were hidden from view (if this happens to you, hover your cursor near the left edge of the window). The contact who initiates the chat defines the scene, so don’t become confused if your interface and windows appear mismatched. Microsoft has done this in a bid to let you dictate the way you appear to your pals.

In chat behavior, you’ll notice that conversations no longer snap you to the incoming message when you’ve scrolled up to review the chat, and that each new line is defined by bullet points. I see the logic in both changes, but am not won over by either and hope they’re soon made optional, or that you’ll at least be able to choose between marks. That incoming dynamic emoticons were often cut in half is an issue known to Microsoft’s Messenger team.

The new, more dramatic look is just one of the new beta’s customizing features. You can also set up a signature chime that plays for other friends on the beta client when you sign in, and even more lasting, you can create dynamic pictures or short videos with the Webcam that map your recorded moods with certain emoticons.

Windows Live Messenger beta's mood tiling

If you’ve got a Webcam, you can get moody.

The feature, called mood tiling, changes your profile picture to one of you smiling, winking, or looking sad or cool whenever you enter that emoticon. It’s a fun and engaging trinket for socialites using the beta app, but the images are only stored locally. If you open Windows Live Messenger beta on another computer–simultaneous sign-in is yet another new capability–you’ll need to reset your profile image, nevermind your dynamic one.

Less engaging, but certainly more practical, is the ability to drag-and-drop multimedia from a desktop folder into the chat window.

This beta upgrade would have been an excellent opportunity for the Windows Live Messenger team to overhaul the emoticons, which appear all the more coarse compared with the chat window’s juicy new looks. It’s also lamentable that the new beta doesn’t switch the chat window to your theme when it detects you’re talking to someone on a different version–instead you’ll see the app’s default blue.

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