Best Alternative Instant Messenger

Want a decent instant messenger on your desktop? Well, this is understandable. The largest players on the IM market like Google Talk (RIP), Yahoo! Messenger (yuck!), and ICQ (yuck-yuck-yuck!) may come across as nice software, but their integration capabilities are limited to Facebook and, occasionally, Twitter. So if you want to use several instant messaging services, exploring new communication horizons and building new social connections, you will need an IM client based on an entirely different principle than everything you've used before. Congratulations, these IM clients do exist.

For lack of a better term, they can be called unit-based IM clients. A unit is essentially a semi-independent section of a client app assigned to an account belonging to a certain instant messaging system. Erm... Okay, to put it plainly: a unit is where you can log in to from within your client. For example, you can log in to your Facebook or ICQ accounts and have your contact lists in one interface, and speak with all those contacts from one interface. The more units your IM client has, the more accounts you can connect it with.

The advantages of the unit approach are obvious. Using one client instead of three or four makes the autostart IM orgy a thing of the past. A wisely designed unit-based client will also spare your CPU usage, so brutally slaughtered by, say, Skype (ever launched it together with a virtual machine?). Finally, it just feels more elegant when all your IM accounts are neatly collected in one place instead of lying around in dozens of apps and websites.

The only big problem with unit-based IM clients is that nobody has ever heard anything about them. Well, okay, 'nobody' is a bit of an exaggeration, but anyway, they're a thousand times less known than any Windows Messenger. Do names like 'Miranda IM', 'Trillian', or 'Pidgin' ring a bell for you? If they do, my congratulations, you're one of the chosen few. If they don't – and the odds are that they don't – then keep reading. Believe me, all of these three are worth your while.

Miranda IM

Should VLC Player ever reincarnate as an IM client, it would be born as Miranda. The aesthetic conceptions behind both programs can be condensed to three simple words: less is more. Miranda's interface is like a breath of fresh air after the saccharine ICQ or Yahoo! Messenger. For some reason, the basic trend in the design of IM GUIs is that people want them childish. As a result, each time I launch Yahoo! Messenger, I can't shake off the feeling of being treated as a kid. Even worse, as a kid who's not that smart.

The Login Screen in Miranda IM: Minimalistic Interface

To Miranda's credit, it pulls off the trick of taking its users seriously, trading it off for trifles like the general homeliness of the interface. It really looks somewhat unkempt as compared with Pidgin or Trillian, which seems to suggest that Miranda's developers are actually huge nerds. On the other hand, getting used to such VLC-style interface is not a big deal. It just takes some habit breaking as you learn to stop thinking the software developers should spend thousands of man hours trying to create the fanciest design ever. Hand on heart, how many supposedly fancy interfaces are really good? I can think of only a handful. Most of the time, the corporate fantasy brings to the life something very different from what it thinks it does and stuns the user community with something like Yahoo! Messenger's emoticons.

As for the IM services Miranda can connect to, those include seven units by default (Yahoo, MSN, AIM, IRC, and some more). The way they're integrated in the interface is perhaps the biggest drawback of Miranda. To be honest, it's not that huge and more a matter of habit, but anyway, I was not very happy to manually log in to each of my accounts each time I launched Miranda. The absence of any easy-to-find help files (maybe they are there, but I failed to find them) and integration with social networks made things a little bit more difficult. All in all, Miranda IM is a nice unit-based instant messenger with a few drawbacks; however, if you take your time to get used to this program, they won't be much of a trouble for you.

Miranda IM

Pidgin

To be honest, my feelings toward this program are ambivalent. On the one hand, it is not bad. It supports 17 IM services, although some of them are pretty obscure to me. I mean, I'm not much of a Gadu-Gadu fan and I've never happened to use Sametime. Pidgin's account management system seems more intuitive and convenient than that of Miranda. The messenger's design stays true to the 'not retarded' approach of Miranda, while being miles ahead in terms of the visual appeal.

For another thing, why is it that IRC chats open in a new window? Why, for God's sake, why is there no Skype integration? Why are there no localizations to foreign languages like French or Spanish?

Pidgin: A Good IM Client but Not for Everybody

Don't get me wrong, Pidgin is good. For many of you, my gripes are nonsensical. Especially for Sametime's users, I guess. And they are right in a way: all of these things are minor drawbacks, even less serious than Miranda's ones. Yet, these small things amount to a very awkward feeling arising in me: like I know this messenger is good but I can't use it, period. It's hard to pin down where this awkwardness crosses the line to become rejection, but wherever this happens it amounts to one and the same thing: Pidgin is not for me.

Anyway, it's hard to deny this messenger may be exactly the right thing for many people. Its interface gives the user enough clues to figure out how he or she can use it; so, unlike in Miranda, a help file is not one of the essentials for Pidgin. Frankly, liking or disliking this IM client seems to be a matter of taste rather than something objective, so I recommend you try it out and decide for yourself.

Pidgin

Trillian

My personal favorite. First, it supports Skype intergration! Okay, you won't be making any VoIP calls in Trillian, but whatever. Second, it supports integration with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, mimicking the stock feature of practically any major instant messenger, which is surprisingly absent in most of their unit-based counterparts. Third, it supports e-mail integration, effectively working as a mail client. Fourth – and most importantly – it's got a great interface.

Trillian: The Best I Could Find

The login fields for your IM and social networking accounts are gathered in two respective option screens. The connected accounts are neatly accommodated in one integrated window, giving you a nice overview over which contact belongs to which account. From the main window, you can easily reach a separate window for any unit like Facebook or your Gmail account. Using Trillian, you don't feel like a retard every time you want to use an emoticon. Just perfect.

Again, it is to a very large extent a matter of personal preference as to which IM client is the best. I am absolutely sure there are thousands of people who would yell out into the sky that Miranda or Pidgin are wa-a-a-ay better than Trillian. Still, I think Trillian has accomplished a great feat of staying as close to the mainstream instant messengers as possible without slipping down both into the infantile aesthetics or the overly nerdy interface concepts. A pretty solid argument, ain't it?

Anyway, it's hard to deny this messenger may be exactly the right thing for many people. Its interface gives the user enough clues to figure out how he or she can use it; so, unlike in Miranda, a help file is not one of the essentials for Pidgin. Frankly, liking or disliking this IM client seems to be a matter of taste rather than something objective, so I recommend you try it out and decide for yourself.

Trillian

Which IM client you think is the best?
 

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