Oh brother! Even though I rarely use AOL, this is bad news for Apple.AOL for OS X
By John Rizzo
With AOL for OS X, America Online issues its first Mac upgrade since version 5.0, which is embarrassing, considering that the current version for Windows sits at 7.0, going on 8.0. Nevertheless, AOL for OS X brings approximate parity with the PC option--if you have the right OS. (Download AOL for OS X here.) With an all-new, Aqua-style interface and native OS X compatibility, AOL for OS X also boasts a fast Web browser, a cleaner (though still flawed) interface, and access to AOL's rich content. Unfortunately, AOL for OS X hogs your Mac's resources, slowing down other apps, and it's not yet compatible with Jaguar. AOL members who use older versions of OS X should switch to the long-awaited upgrade, but if you're already using another ISP, stay put.
Reminders of AOL past
AOL for OS X looks remarkably like the AOL 3.0 for Mac of six years ago. There's the familiar logon screen, the three-step connection screen (even with a DSL or local network connection), and the subsequent Welcome screen. Start clicking links, and the familiar AOL clutter appears, filling the screen with window after new window--another one for each link. This messy approach begs for a single-window approach like that of a standard Web browser or even the tabbed-browsing style of Mozilla and Netscape 7.0.
Still, this version does offer interface improvements over AOL 5.0. The general layout follows that of the neater lines of AOL 7.0 for Windows. For example, the Welcome screen crams in less information, and the Channels window on the left offers quick access to AOL's ever-growing collection of content.
Happily for Mac fans, AOL's interface largely adheres to OS X's Aqua interface guidelines. Like Apple Mail, the AOL icon for the Dock displays the number of unread e-mail messages and instant messages, a nice touch. But Aqua's styling doesn't persist throughout. For instance, the Channels window displays submenus that you can't click, which might be a bug, rather than hierarchical menus. In addition, Buddy Chat invitations don't follow the Aqua visual styles. You can't add items to or remove them from the tool bar via drag and drop as you can with other OS X-standard programs, and if you click the Calendar icon in the toolbar, AOL opens a Web-based appointment service that looks and acts like a Windows program--very jarring.
Interface aside, AOL for OS X supplies fast and efficient Web browsing and searching. The package now integrates Netscape's Gecko Web browser, which we found noticeably faster than Internet Explorer 5.2 in anecdotal tests. The AOL Search, now based on Google technology, is also fast and returns useful results. In addition, both the Web browser and the search service can provide local content based on your zip code and time zone, as they do in the Windows version.
AOL's integrated e-mail client is easy to use but offers only the most basic tools. For example, AOL Mail offers no way to import addresses into the AOL Address Book; apparently, AOL doesn't expect anyone to move to its mailer from other apps. Nor does AOL Mail let you check mail from other accounts, such as POP3 accounts.
Despite all of its missing features, AOL still sucks up system resources. Even while running in the background, AOL takes a noticeable toll on other open apps. We ran AOL in the background for about 15 minutes and found that it had captured more than 50 percent of our iMac G4 800MHz processor's resources. By comparison, Internet Explorer used less than 3 percent of CPU resources on the same machine. AOL's resource grabbing seems related to its annoying, window-spawning interface; closing a few open AOL windows seems to reduce the CPU drain.
Equally frustrating, AOL for OS X is not yet compatible with highly regarded version 10.2 (Jaguar). AOL recommends that you run the new version on OS X 10.1.5 until the company issues a Jaguar update in September. We tested the software on both 10.1.5 and 10.2 and did, in fact, encounter minor problems in Jaguar, including occasional screen redraw errors and one AOL freeze, after which we had to force-quit the app.
Should you run into such trouble, AOL offers a tech-support number dedicated to resolving Macintosh problems. After a one-minute wait, we talked to a support rep who indeed knew his way around Mac OS X. AOL also offers live online Mac support through a chat session, as well as support information on its Web site (just use the AOL keyword help). Both telephone and live online help are available 24/7.
Switchers needn't bother
AOL users on the Mac haven't had many options in the past, so AOL for OS X comes as a welcome upgrade if you've exhausted AOL 5.0 and are sick of running it in Classic mode. However, we'd like to see a version that's easier on system resources, and we're still hoping for an interface that doesn't spawn a new window every time we blink. It's an obvious upgrade if you've made the move to OS X, but if you're not an AOL user, AOL for OS X shouldn't make you switch.