Not picture-perfect

AOL 5.0

Upgrade: Lastest version offers subtle tweaks and two new features, but its e-mail has a long way to go.

November 01, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

America Online has released the first upgrade to its popular online software in nearly a year. The question now is: So what?

It turns out AOL 5.0 is a subtle improvement over its predecessor (dubbed, not surprisingly, AOL 4.0). But subscribers hanging onto more elderly editions of the software will find it a seismic improvement.

The centerpiece of the new AOL is You've Got Pictures. A joint effort with Eastman Kodak, the service makes it possible to have family photos delivered to your AOL mailbox and create your own online photo albums. A nifty service indeed, as swapping digital snapshots and assembling cyber-albums has become nearly as popular as sending e-mail.

Using it is a snap (nyak, nyak). Take your roll of 35 mm color film to a Kodak photo processor and check the AOL box on the form.

When you pick up your prints, log on and -- bingo -- you've got pictures, as the saying goes. The photo finisher will tack an extra $6 or more per roll onto your bill to turn your photos digital. Photo junkies may be better off investing in a cheap scanner and doing it themselves.

(Non-AOL subscribers with Internet accounts can get a similar service at http://kodak.photonet.com.)

My Calendar is the other big change in AOL 5.0, the fruit of AOL's acquisition of start-up When.com this year. At first, it seems like a good idea. Like other online calendar services, My Calendar offers a way to log appointments and e-mail reminders to yourself and friends for appointments, meetings, events or holidays. Residents of larger cities (including Baltimore) can even find out which concerts, films or other events are coming up.

But in practice I thought My Calendar wasn't quite ripe. For starters, the organizer is clunky and unwieldy, and the event listings omit crucial information -- such as what time something is happening. Nor will you find thumbnail descriptions. If you really want the scoop about your hometown, stick with your local paper.

Besides these two marquee features, AOL 5.0 adds some long-awaited renovations. The Welcome page -- which always reminded me of the way my desk looks at the end of the work day -- is tidier and easier to navigate. You can now transfer Address Books and Favorite Places between computers and create screen names up to 16 characters long. There's a new search feature that scours both the Web and AOL simultaneously. Best of all, AOL bestows two more aliases -- for a total of seven -- on each account, a boon for growing families and the perpetually paranoid.

E-mail, AOL's most popular feature, has been given a few nips and tucks. You can now tack personal signatures (your address or favorite Shakespeare quote, for example) onto your messages. Overcoming one of its most significant shortcomings, AOL mail now allows you to recover a deleted message within 24 hours after it's chucked.

But it's too bad AOL's architects didn't take the next logical step and add a "deleted mail" tab alongside the tabs for new, old and sent mail. Instead, you're forced to tunnel through labyrinthine menus to recover trashed mail. And let's face it: AOL's e-mail handler still has a long way to go before it can compete with free clients such as Microsoft's Outlook Express, which has far better filtering capabilities and other features.

Some of the best features of AOL 5.0 won't be apparent until the company launches its high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) service in the next few months. AOL 5.0 is designed to handle the advanced multimedia content that will be available to DSL, cable, satellite and other so-called "broadband" services.

AOL 5.0, of course, is free with your $21.95-per-month subscription. It requires a Pentium-class computer with Windows 95/98, 16 megabytes of RAM, 38 megs of disk space, and a 14.4 Kbps or faster modem. A Macintosh version is in the works, but AOL hasn't announced a shipping date.

While you're not likely to have trouble finding an AOL 5.0 compact disc (just check your mailbox or shopping bag and chances are good one will appear), you can always get one by calling 800-466-5463, visiting www.aol.com, or typing "Upgrade" in AOL's Keyword box if you're already a subscriber.

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