One of the largest omissions in the iPhone’s built-in software was a proper instant messaging client. Prior to the launch of the App Store, several web-based solutions — most notably Meebo — attempted to satisfy users seeking mobile messaging, but required a persistent connection, tying up the Safari browser. This has been partially remedied by the release of six dedicated IM applications, all reviewed today, though they’re all waiting on Apple to add a push notification service to enable them to receive messages even when they’re not open on-screen. These IM apps range in price from free to $16; check out AIM, IM+, and Palringo to see the best of the bunch.

AIM from AOL

As the only official AOL Instant Messaging application available for the iPhone and iPod touch, AIM (Free) has benefitted not only from official support from its parent company but also from prominent positioning in the App Store. The application uses a bottom-tabbed interface to let users flip between buddy list, favorites, info, and active IM views. The buddy list lets users choose between online, general buddies, recent buddies, or offline buddies, each displayed with the user’s avatar, if available. Tapping on the blue arrow to the right of each buddy allows the user to choose which group the buddy should belong to, send an IM, or add the buddy to favorites.

 

Individual chat sessions appear in a single window, with a colored bar containing the buddy’s name, the time stamp of the message, and their avatar to the left; multiple consecutive messages from the same buddy appear underneath without repeating the colored bar. Users can swipe back and forth to move between active messaging sessions. Unfortunately, neither linked text nor URLs appear as links in AIM, limiting its use in web-intensive chat sessions. Likewise, users chatting using a traditional, desktop-based program cannot send images through to iPhone or iPod touch users. A menu in the Settings app lets a user set his or her screenname and password and toggle the classic icons, sign-off on exit, and sounds on and off.

 

Despite the advantages of having official AOL support, AIM falls short of several competing apps with its inability to send images or audio snippets, and its similar inability to accept links and/or images. The addition of any of those features would help improve this app, which despite its official status, is not the best AIM client available for the iPhone and iPod touch. It is still a good option, however, and worthy of our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.

BeejiveIM from Beejive, Inc.

BeejiveIM ($16) is perhaps at once the most polished, complete IM app for the iPhone and iPod touch, and the most overpriced. It offers compatibility with AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MSN/Windows Live, MySpace, and Yahoo! messaging, and like the majority of its competition, uses a bottom-tabbed interface to let a user navigate between a buddy list, favorites, active chats, accounts, and more options. The accounts page offers edit and add buttons at the top, along with a list of current accounts, each with its own status bar, letting the user set online/offline status independently for each service.

 

As with other apps, all buddies from all currently online services are listed together in the buddy list; however, BeejiveIM appropriately displays each contact’s avatar to the side, a feature we’ve only seen elsewhere in AOL’s official AIM app. Buttons at the top let users search for and add buddies, while tapping on a buddy opens a new chat, and tapping the blue button to the right of the buddy listing brings users to that buddy’s info screen, with buttons for starting a chat, adding to favorites, and blocking or deleting the buddy.

The chat screen itself is slick, mimicking the iPhone’s SMS app and Apple’s Mac OS X iChat with messages displayed in talk bubbles coming from different sides of the screen and in different colors. Ingeniously, Beejive has users tap in the chat window to bring up the keyboard and tap again to dismiss it, making the most of available screen real estate. New messages appear in a translucent bubble overtop the chat window, which slides into a normal, opaque bubble once sent. Unfortunately, links are not clickable when sent to BeejiveIM, limiting its usefulness in online-centric discussions. Likewise, there is no way to send either pictures or audio snippets from the app.

 

The more tab gives users access to their buddies listed by account or by group, a useful help system, and the app’s about screen. A menu in the Settings app gives the user access to a robust set of preferences, including toggles for using groups and hiding offline buddies in the buddy list, sorting options, message previews in the chats screen, turning notifications and alerts on and off, auto away messages, turning push email alerts on and off, setting the session timeout limit, and more.

One of the most highly-touted features of BeejiveIM is the ability to send message notifications to the user via push email (MobileMe or Exchange), filling in the gap left by Apple’s slow rollout of its third-party app push notification service and its insistence that third-party apps cannot run in the background. In our testing, this feature worked as advertised, letting the user see the latest message and providing a button to open BeejiveIM to respond. This can be used in conjunction with the session timeout setting to allow users to respond to incoming messages up to 24 hours after they last opened the app; this kind of flexibility is not to be overlooked, especially for power users.

Impressive features aside, we can’t help but have issues with the app’s $16 price. To put BeejiveIM’s price into perspective, it isn’t just the most expensive app in this review: it’s amongst the most expensive apps we’ve yet tested for the iPhone and iPod touch, and typically, IM applications for computers are free. While we believe BeejiveIM could be worth the money for users who have a real need for a constant, persistent IM connection, right now—before Apple offers that feature for free—we also believe those users are relatively few in number. It’s also worth noting that Beejive doesn’t handle links correctly, and doesn’t provide any way of sending pictures or audio messages, all three features found in the free Palringo. For those that need to be reached via IM at nearly all times, BeejiveIM is certainly a compelling option, but for anyone else, it’s not even close to a good value. The addition of picture and audio messaging and proper handling of incoming links would do some to improve this app; but without a significant price drop, it will remain short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: C-.

IM+ All-In-One Messenger from SHAPE Services

 

IM+ All-In-One Messenger (Free) is yet another multi-platform IM application, offering support for AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, Jabber, ICQ, and MySpace messaging. Like most competing apps, IM+ uses a bottom-tabbed interface for navigation, with selections for contact list (buddies), inbox (chats), status, and settings, the last of which offers access to both app and account settings. Unlike MobileChat, the user can toggle individual accounts on and off, providing the option to go online or offline on an account-by-account basis. Contacts from all currently-active accounts appear together in the contacts list. In our testing, we had no trouble connecting to multiple services at once.

 

On the contacts list, each user is listed simply by screenname, with an icon to the left indicating status. The individual chat screen is similarly sparse, with each participant’s name listed in a separate color on an otherwise text-only screen. As with other IM apps, URLs and linked text do not appear as links, and images cannot be sent to users signed on with IM+, limiting the app’s utility. Despite these shortcomings, IM+ is a solid app, with few bugs, and an efficient, if sparse, graphical interface. It’s not as pretty an option as AIM for users only interested in that chat service, and it lacks some of the features found in the also-free Palringo, but it does not require the user to sign-up with any service, and will therefore likely appeal to those who do not want their chat login information shared with third parties. For its jack-of-all-trades style functionality and efficient interface, IM+ earns our general recommendation; the ability to send and receive pictures or audio and correct handling of incoming linked text would make it even better. iLounge Rating: B.

MobileChat from twenty08

MobileChat ($3; listed as Chat on the home screen) is one of only two IM applications for the iPhone and iPod touch not offered as a free download, instead hoping that its broad support for AIM, Windows Live, ICQ, Yahoo!, Google Talk, and Jabber will be enough to entice users to pay. Like several other IM apps, MobileChat uses a bottom-tabbed interface for navigation, letting users move between buddies, chats, accounts, and status screens. In our testing, MobileChat had serious problems handling Yahoo!, Windows Live, and Google Talk accounts; we had limited success connecting to Google Talk, while our Yahoo! and Windows Live accounts were never able to completely connect, instead sticking on “Establishing Link,” as shown in a status reading below the account details in the account view. It also exhibited strange behavior upon closing and re-opening the app; although we had it set to log off upon exit (changed in a menu in the Settings application, along with options for away and toggles for vibrate and audio notifications), it would often still be connected upon relaunch, although this would not be reflected on the accounts screen, but instead on the status screen. Further complicating matters is the fact that users can’t individually log in and out of accounts — it’s an all-or-nothing proposition in MobileChat. All online buddies from all currently-connected services appear at once in the buddy list view.

 

We found yet another bug in the app’s chats view: several times when attempting to enter a chat, we were met with a blank screen, save for the chat entry area and photo button at the bottom. Although we were able to send and receive messages, we could only tell this by listening to audible cues — nothing ever appeared on the screen. When it’s working, the chat window, like AIM, uses a colored bar with a space for the user’s avatar on one side, along with the user name and time stamp. MobileChat does not automatically grab avatars; we were unable to add them manually, either. Several times a single message from a buddy would appear on the screen multiple (5-6) times when it was only sent once, and the app’s camera button (for sending photos) incorrectly crops and distorts photos, which are sent as URLs to be viewed online instead of actual inline images.

 

While it appears to have an impressive feature list on paper, MobileChat is at this point a highly buggy application, hindered by problems with both connecting to IM servers and within the chat process itself. With several more stable and more usable options available for free, MobileChat is nowhere near being worth the price, and, in its current incarnation, falls well short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: D.

Palringo from Palringo Limited

As one of five multi-service IM applications for the iPhone and iPod touch, Palringo (Free) is one of three that are offered as free downloads, and is not alone in asking the user to sign up for an account before use. Palringo offers support for most major messaging services, including Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo!, AIM, Gadu-Gadu, ICQ, Jabber, and Google Talk. Unlike many competitors, Palringo eschews the bottom-tabbed interface for one that consolidates most functionality on one main screen, letting users swipe between this view and their various individual chats.

The main window presents users with a top bar holding buttons for editing their account, Palringo buddies, or groups, along with buttons for selecting buddy, account, or group views. The main part of this screen is used to display these three lists; accounts are listed alongside a button to change the online or offline status, while tapping on a buddy will open a new chat window for that contact. The bottom of the screen has a Palringo icon button which can be used instead of the swipe method for navigating between the main view and individual chats, while a button in the corner lets the user make global changes to their status.

 

On the individual chat page, a bar at the top lists both the name and username of the person the user is chatting with, along with a button for closing the chat, while buttons at the bottom allow the user to choose whether to send a text, voice, or picture message. The application allows both iPhone users and those using the second-generation iPod touch to record short audio snippets, which are sent as links to the other party; the resulting recording can be played in the recipient’s browser—a feature that’s pretty useful for people trying to send messages on the go. Likewise, the app allows the user to send either a new or saved picture, which are also sent as links which can then be viewed online.

Refreshingly, URLs sent by themselves can be tapped to open the link in Palringo’s built-in browser, which makes it the only chat application able to correctly handle incoming links, even if they have to be sent as a separate message. Pictures are also sent correctly; the only problem we experienced was the occasional double-message when sending a voice message, where one link would lead to our recorded message and the second to a truncated recording. Interestingly, while the online player for audio recordings sent to all non-Palringo contacts is Flash-based and can’t be used on the iPhone or iPod touch, voice messages sent from one Palringo user to another can be played directly within the app, giving users an incentive to use Palringo’s service instead. A fourth button next to those for picture, audio, and text messages lets the user add the other person to the contact list if they aren’t already, and a menu in the Settings app lets users toggle an impressive number of features on and off.

 

Looking past the requirement to sign up for a Palringo account, the company’s IM app is surprisingly better than AOL’s own client on the AIM service, and is arguably the best multi-service IM app available for the iPhone and iPod touch. With the ability to send audio recordings — to paraphrase one iLounge editor, how many iPhone IM apps can one use safely while driving? — and correct link handling with a built-in browser, Palringo is currently both the most useful and most versatile IM app. A more unified, simpler-to-use interface would make it even better, but as it stands, it’s worthy of our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.

WebMessenger from CallWave

WebMessenger (Free) is yet another multi-platform IM application for the iPhone and iPod touch that requires the user to sign up for the company’s own service. In our testing, the initial account set up was quite lengthy, and included mandatory entry of the user’s phone number, something we found to be completely unacceptable. The app itself uses a bottom-tabbed interface to allow users to switch between chat, info, and setting screens. Using the settings screen, users can turn options for audible alerts and show offline contacts on and off, and set up different accounts—the app supports Jabber, Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo!. Once an account has been set up, the user needs to tap on their username and tap a button to import their buddy list in order for their contacts to appear in WebMessenger, a process that strikes us as being more complex than necessary. The info screen simply shows the user’s WebMessenger account information, along with a button to edit said info.

 

Like many of its competitors, WebMessenger lists all available contacts (and those offline, if the setting is turned on) for all available services in one big list, with a button to toggle the user’s status and an edit button at the top. Tapping on a contact opens a new chat window, with a navigation bar at the top offering a back button, a button to view the current user’s info, and a clear all messages button. While WebMessenger does notice incoming URLs, underlining them and displaying them as links, the links don’t work. An empty text field at the bottom of the page brings up the keyboard, with buttons for emoticons on the left and a chat bubble button for sending the message to the right. Messages are displayed in the main portion of this screen inside bubbles reminiscent of Apple’s SMS and iChat applications.

 

While it does allow for multi-platform chatting, we did not like WebMessenger’s overly-complex sign-up procedure, nor the mandatory submission of a telephone number — luckily, we were able to use the old standby 555-555-5555. The process of adding new chat accounts is similarly complicated, with users having to manually import their buddy lists for each service. A simplified, less demanding setup process and the addition of features found on competing apps — such as the ability to send photos and/or audio messages — would go a long way to improve WebMessenger, which currently falls short of even our limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: C.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.