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For starters, chat apps in general suck. iChat is probably the best of breed at least when you consider IM type apps like AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. iChat, as Apple’s iLife entry into the category, does a good job of avoiding the worst of AIM’s own failings like bundled advertising. Unfortunately, it suffers other failings that are almost worse.

First, I put up with iChat as I need connectivity to the AOL messenger network. I also need decent chat room support which is something that you don’t get with the various shareware apps. Most of those gag on mac.com user IDs that are common with the Macintosh using crowd. I do like that iChat supports custom icons but doesn’t readily allow for animated icons. Animation makes the AIM UI far too busy. So just what is that’s really wrong with iChat.

First, iChat has no worthwhile way to notify the user of new messages. It chirps and bounces the dock icon but that’s only faintly indicative of a new message, not which window has a new message. It’s easy to lose a one-on-one chat window in the background when iChat starts chirping about activity in a busy chat room. This is bad and has stung me many times when I have lost conversations with friends or business contacts because of chirp from some other window caused me to switch away. Once gone to the background the window is readily lost and without pulling the entire application to the front (such as clicking on the dock icon) you won’t readily find it again.

Other major suckiness for those of us on limited laptop screens is iChat’s total disregard for real estate. There’s no way to consolidate windows easily so beefy chat windows rapidly cover each other. Chat rooms and group chats make it much worse since the window sprouts a drawer that uses even more screen (and yes, you need the drawer to tell who is in the group chat).

Finally, there are various things that would help immensely. If iChat could be set to not notify on new messages in a chat room without turning off individual message notications one could work without leaving the chat being free to scroll through the buffer later without annoying chirps and dock icon hoping while trying to do other things. iChat should scrub the clip board so that huge text from outside iChat isn’t accidentally pasted into chats. iChat should also give the user some idea of how long the message they are typing is allowed to be without just reporting that the message was too long at time of sending. This error should be totally avoidable.

iChat is an app that I shake my fist at daily. I find it handy and hate it fiercely. I have tried numerous other AIM chat clients and none get to the general level of utility of iChat. Perhaps at some point Apple will decide that whizzy features are neat but that fixing the app is more important.

For the record, I don’t use iChat’s audio or video chat functions with any regularity at all but it sure would be nice to be able to disable A/V functionality without quiting iChat entirely. It’s one thing to get a spurious message from someone, another entirely to get invited to A/V chat at inopportune times.

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