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In the new version of its software, AOL cleaned up the menu bar across the top of the screen.

Version 6.0 of America Online's software offers users improved features, but it isn't an overhaul.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000


Tinkering with a successful product can be hazardous, but America Online has made some changes that should make most users a little happier.

The recently released AOL Version 6.0 for Windows users gives the startup screen a new look, improves its e-mail service and expands the functions that can be accessed from the Web. It even dresses up AOL's Instant Messenger, which should delight teenagers, though it still doesn't open IM to users of other services.

But the world's largest online service, with 25-million subscribers and counting, won't please everyone with this update. It is an improvement, not an overhaul.

I had no problems downloading and setting it up in about 20 minutes using a fast cable modem connection to the Internet. But it wasn't trouble-free for everyone.

It took 45 minutes for a friend using a high-speed digital subscriber line, including a crash in the process. It took several hours for my daughter to download it with a 56K modem, including getting cut off during the download.

A word of caution: During installation, users once again are asked whether they would like to make AOL their default browser. It sounds harmless. But doing that for AOL 5.0 became known as "the upgrade of death" because it crippled connections to other Internet service providers. While no problems have been reported with 6.0, we took no chances. We said no.

Let's take a look at some of what's new in AOL once you get it onto your PC:

Startup screen: After the familiar "Welcome" greeting, it's clear that AOL is going for more of a Web look and feel.

AOL cleaned up the menubar across the top, with separate color-coded sections for Mail, People (chat and IM), AOL Services (shopping and Internet), Settings (AOL Anywhere) and Favorites (favorites, calendar and stock quotes).

On the left is a channel guide, with subjects such as autos, careers, computers and entertainment, that can be closed if you don't make use of it. The Welcome screen is a little bigger and includes the familiar You've Got Mail, You've Got Pictures, My Calendar and Chat icons on the left. The middle has featured items, and the right has a customized My Places for favorite links. The Buddy List still pops up on the far right of the screen.

It is an improvement, but it still has a cluttered feel. If AOL did more to integrate those elements as a total package, it would help. One plus: The startup screen has a link for parental controls, making them easy to find and use.

E-mail: AOL finally allows users to set up a filing system for messages, as well as sort by date, sender or subject. The address book has an auto-complete function that can finish an address once you start typing it in, and the address book can be printed out. The e-mail also can handle some HTML (HyperText Markup Language) messages.

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AOL's Instant Messenger lets a user select a smiley face or emoticon for an instant message.
Instant Messenger: My son quickly gave a thumbs-up to a feature that allows users to click a list and place an "emoticon" in a message, as well as icon-size bright yellow smiley faces. Oh boy :) Adults are more likely to enjoy the Away Message function, which blocks incoming instant messages if they don't want to be disturbed. Default messages are: I'm away from my computer right now; I am on the phone right now; I have stepped out to lunch; and I will be right back. Or users can write their own message. Messages will stack up until the user turns off the block.

The new Instant Messenger still doesn't allow users from other services to message AOL members. AOL claims it wants open access, but its actions speak louder than words.

AOL Anywhere: AOL users have been able to access their e-mail from the Web for a few years. Version 6.0 allows Web access to the calendar and address book, as well as the ability to make changes from remote locations.

The telephone also will play a role in AOL Anywhere, as the company rolls out a service that will read e-mail to users and provide other information, such as stock quotes, movie listings and weather. But it will cost $4.95 a month after Jan. 25.

Other new features include AOL's media player for video and audio files, built-in Flash 4 technology to view Web cartoons and graphics and a shopping assistant that will offer price comparisons among the 300 AOL merchant partners.

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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