SAN FRANCISCO (07/05/2000) - With its ubiquitous TV commercials and the free software that arrives unbidden in your mailbox, America Online Inc. has always promised one thing: simplicity. Install the software, log on to AOL, and soon you're firing off e-mail like an old pro. Knock the service all you want, but for the 2 million-plus Mac users who subscribe to AOL, that simplicity is a big draw.
With AOL 5.0, the latest version of the ISP's software for the Mac, simplicity is still a factor. Indeed, the most impressive additions in AOL 5.0 are tweaks that make it easier to navigate the growing online community. But the upgrade focuses on the additional services-from a personal calendar to a digital photo album-that make AOL an online destination. And all too often, simplicity gets lost in the shuffle.
No Mac Makeover
The latest version offers few major changes; the high-profile additions, such as My Calendar, My Places, and You've Got Pictures, have already appeared in AOL's Windows software or on the company's Web site. And although the new Mac-only features are nice, they're hardly stuff that will change the way you use AOL.
Still, some of the changes in AOL 5.0 are quite useful. Mac users can now attach files to their e-mail messages by dragging and dropping them into the Attachments window (now AOL just needs to master the art of making attached files consistently readable); the new Download Manager simplifies locating files; and the You've Got Pictures feature lets you drop off film for development at a participating retailer and have the prints e-mailed back.
Also, you can now create up to seven screen names and switch between them easily without logging off.
The problem is, many of these convenient features don't go far enough. For instance, My Places lets you pick five links to include on your Welcome screen.
Unfortunately, you can only choose AOL channels; you can't program in a favorite URL or a frequently visited Web site.
The search button in AOL's main tool bar scours AOL features and the Internet, but produces vague results. When we typed in "Macintosh," for example, we got four AOL categories and a host of Web pages. But the top ten results included an IBM press release for ViaVoice and a home page for a Mac repair service in Oregon-not exactly useful.
Searching for local events in AOL's My Calendar feature is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
My Calendar, My Nightmare
Other new AOL 5.0 features need more than a little refinement. My Calendar stands out as one of the biggest misfires. AOL touts it as an online organizer that lets members track appointments and special events online. A search feature lets users add local concerts, shows, and sporting events to My Calendar-a nice idea, but the calendar features of PDAs and other online services are much less frustrating to use. Look for San Francisco events, for example, and you'll get only a listing of venues, not the actual events they're offering. This is a time-consuming way to search, and you get few listings for outlying cities.
Adding events is almost as maddening. For instance, My Calendar lets you mark when your favorite TV shows air, but entering just one episode of a program took us five clicks. If you want weekly reminders for the show, that's an extra click. That may seem inconsequential, but as AOL's service is already known for sluggishness, My Calendar can turn into a huge time sink.
Apart from drag-and-drop capability, the Mac-specific features failed to excite us. Mac users can now view animated GIF files and listen to embedded sounds in e-mail from other Mac-using AOL members-not exactly a cutting-edge feature. New speech-synthesis, file-storage, and sorting features are equally bland.
Downloading the AOL 5.0 upgrade takes some time-28 minutes to nearly 2 hours, depending on the speed of your modem. Installation on a hard disk via CD-ROM is much faster, but the bottom line is that upgrading to AOL 5.0 may not be worth the effort.
Macworld's Buying Advice
There's not much in AOL 5.0 to impress Mac subscribers. Most of the new features either don't go far enough or sacrifice simplicity for useless bells and whistles. AOL users who are happy with version 3.0 or 4.0 have little reason to upgrade, and Mac users new to AOL should be aware that the service's famed ease of use gets lost amid the clutter of version 5.0.
RATING: 2.5 mice
PROS: Adds convenient new features; brings feature parity with Windows version.
CONS: No major new features; My Calendar is cumbersome; Mac-specific tools are unexciting.
COMPANY: America Online (800/827-6364, http://www.aol.com).
LIST PRICE: Free (monthly service fee varies; unlimited use is $21.95 per month).