The AOL Classic desktop client: Welcome back, AOL 9.0 SE.

Updated 2-26-09 with a separate review of AOL 9.5 and again on 2-28-09.

An AOL Classic: The messy interface.

AOL has a new desktop client in Beta called AOL Classic. What’s exciting about it is…tabbed browsing! Do I hear you ask, “What else?” That’s it. What else do you need? Don’t tell me you “need” stuff like browser skins and add-ons…hey, I remember when people used Gopher and Archie to surf the Web…this is really modern compared to that. AOL even did something with the menus. After I got down rolling around in strong spasms of tremendous joy at the thought of being able to open…new tabs…in a classic AOL client, I installed the damn thing. That ended even the flimsiest notion of AOL Classic offering me much more than deja vu of why I canceled AOL three years ago.

Design and Interface

AOL Classic’s design, true to it’s “classic” theme, harkens back to AOL 9.0 SE’s bubbly light blue interface. I used it with the sound turned off last night (the wire on my amp is unplugged and I can’t reach down far enough to plug it back in) so I can’t say if it was shouting “You’ve got mail!” at me in its “classic” voice or not when I opened it, but all of the AOL clients do.

Upon opening AOL Classic for the first time, I was met with a perfect menagerie of pop-up ads and windows that covered each other, meeting in the middle in a Dynasizer-Gone-Wild mess (see the main photo in the top left corner for AOL’s “classic” disorganization). It was very crowded-looking, unappealing, and confusing to my eyes, which are trained after years of Firefox usage to see either my about:blank page or else my Speed Dial page.

I won’t describe all the menus, lists, buttons, and other crap hogging up every inch of the AOL Classic interface because it bores me, and I don’t think anyone else wants to hear about it, either. The “classic” interface is just as confusing as all of the previous ones were. The only new thing that caught my eye was a link to Bebo so you can sign in. No one in the US will use it, so AOL will remove it in the next version.

Performance

AOL Classic runs like an 18-wheel truck on flat tires, using 94-134MBs of RAM with no tabs open in my three hour long session with it last night, compared to Firefox 3.0.4, which used 84-87 MBs during the same session, with 24 tabs open and eight add-ons installed. After an hour or so of use the computer I’m using for this review (a barebones, no-name custom-made computer with Windows XP Pro SP2, 1 GB RAM, and an AMD Athlon XP 1700 clocked at 1.47 GHz) became sluggish and unresponsive with other browsers and Explorer also in use.

AOL’s developers, to their credit, have ticked the running process list down a notch, so that this version of AOL, like other more recent versions, uses “only” four processes when on standby and five while in use. The shame of it is how much RAM waol.exe eats up while the client is active. But..and this is a big but…AOL devs did the impossible in my eyes – they seem to have deployed an IE-specific config.trim.on.minimize hack which actually works, immediately reducing RAM usage to about 2.5MBs. RAM usage slowly climbs back up to less than half the RAM in use once the browser is re-opened. That was a pleasure to see – but 35MBs (where this hack topped out for me in several hours of use) is still too high in my opinion to keep AOL open but minimized.

Speed

Unreal. I had better luck traveling by turtle to each server for web pages rather than wait for them to download via AOL Classic. Lose the TopSpeed technology, AOL. I’m on wireless broadband at the moment so, hello, I don’t need it. It’s for dial-up users to help compress images and squeeze everything through the pipes faster, right? I tried browsing both with and without TopSpeed – not by choice, mind you, since it was disabled by default the first time I used Classic and enabled by default the second time – and while page loads were slower than Firefox’s either way, I didn’t have to jump on the turtle until TopSpeed flipped on.

Removal

My favorite part of the AOL Experience? Making it go away, of course. AOL Classic was no exception. Uninstall was easy, unproblematic, and quite routine – until a Windows “Cannot open this file” dialog box opened and asked me to select the program I needed to open AOL with from a list or to search the Web for the appropriate program. After I did some screen shots uninstall completed after restart as usual.

Unlike AOL 9.0 SE, no stray processes were left running after removal, and AOL’s devs did a better-than-usual job of removing files and folders along with the main program so that what you have left to delete manually are mostly folders in C:Documents and Settings and a few leftover Common files. The leftovers in the Windows Registry were another story: true to AOL Classic’s roots in AOL 9.0 SE, jv16 PowerTools found a horrific 750 leftover keys and entries [download complete list] (list is no longer available).

The only other bug I encountered besides the Windows “Cannot open this file” dialog box was what removing AOL did to Firefox: I had to reinstall seven of eight extensions when the toolbar icons for them disappeared both from the Toolbar and the Customize box after I removed AOL. Other than that, removing Classic was about the same as removing any other recent version of the AOL client – a bit time-consuming, but otherwise no big deal.

Summary

You saw this version of the AOL client over 5 years ago, and you were as nonplussed by it then as you are now. AOL Classic was created specifically for your grandfather, mother-in-law and soccer-mom next door-neighbor who have used AOL since 1995 and don’t want to give up the “classic” AOL client they’re so used to. As convoluted and weird-looking it is to the rest of us, at least it looks like the “classic” browser to them. They’ve complained loudly, ever since AOL came out with OpenRide, then AOL 9.0 VR and finally the poorly received Desktop 10 interface, that they want the old, familiar client back. AOL has delivered just that in this latest, routinely disappointing software release.

Update: AOL 9.5 Is Out

2-26-09: AOL Classic is now out and about as AOL 9.5. I tested it extensively last night on my eMachines desktop (we’re together again, at long last), which, just to refresh everyone’s memory, has 1GB of RAM, a 1.80Ghz AMD Athlon processor, and runs Windows XP Home SP3. AOL 9.5 both performed and uninstalled without incident (yes, the dev team can go celebrate now with my blessing – thanks for listening).

9.5 still uses much too much memory (topping out at around 275MB with 15 tabs open) and triples my computer’s page file usage (from around 180MB to over 530MB with the same amount of tabs open) but it managed to do this without locking my computer up or slowing it down, so I have no real complaints.

Edit: It’s worth a mention, now that I think it over, that the performance improvements I saw in 9.5 over AOL Classic may be solely attributable to the higher processor power of my current computer and have nothing to do with “improved performance”. I no longer have the computer I tested AOL Classic on so it practically goes without saying that your mileage may vary with 9.5, especially on older, slower computers than my slightly snappier eMachines.

AOL 9.5′s browser speed still leaves much to be desired. TopSpeed is on when it should be off, since I have a direct broadband connection to the Internet, and it speeds nothing up, while CSS rendering was ruined by AOL’s stubborn reliance on Internet Explorer’s Trident engine. I had IE 6 installed last night, so almost every page not designed for backward compatibility with IE 6 (including my blogs) looked simply hideous in AOL 9.5.

If AOL continues to make desktop clients/web browsers, I would like to respectfully ask that they at least move on to Chromium or Mozilla for the rendering engine. I know it will take a lot of work but the effort might be worth it to get improved web standards into the AOL client for users on all systems (including the many millions of home and work computers that have never been upgraded from XP SP1/IE 6).

Uninstall of AOL 9.5 has likewise improved, with the removal process taking out all leftover AOL Program and Common files and folders, so that all you have left to delete manually are some folders in C:Documents and Settings and a cookie and prefetch file here and there.

Overall, I see a lot of improvements – but I also see a lot more improvements that need to be made.

7 thoughts on “The AOL Classic desktop client: Welcome back, AOL 9.0 SE.

  1. AOL 9.5 BACK to AOL 9.0 SE
    HELP — I downloaded 9.5 about a year ago thinking it would be better than 9.0 SE and I HATE it. The “tabbed browsing” is awful and the email function is awful in that hitting “reply” automatically copies the entire email that you are answering into your reply email. Can I safely install a 9.0 disc and override the 9.5 without losing address book and emails and settings, etc. ?

  2. Re: AOL 9.5 BACK to AOL 9.0 SE
    OK, first of all, if you never removed AOL 9.0, then it’s still on your computer. Installing AOL 9.5 did not “overwrite” your 9.0 installation. Each new copy of AOL you install is kept in its own folder, so to find it, just click Start–>My Computer–>Program Files–>AOL 9.0, open it (usually by clicking or double-clicking on it), then scroll down the list of files inside that folder until you find a file called “aol.exe”.
    Just click on that file and AOL 9.0 should open for you. If it does, here’s how to reset your AOL 9.0 shortcut, if you lost it – once that’s done, if you use Quick Launch, on Vista and XP, you can just drag that shortcut to the Quick Launch portion of your toolbar to keep it handy, but I don’t know why you would want to.
    If you’ve already removed AOL 9.0 and don’t like 9.5, I’m not going to help you put 9.0 back on your computer again, so let me just ask you, why do you even use AOL? If it’s your only connection to the Internet, you could check to see if another service is available in your area, sign up for it, and cancel AOL, then uninstall it, which might help speed your computer up a lot (a nice side effect of removing AOL) – trust me.
    From there, you can use – since you don’t like tabbed browsing so much, which surprises me – another browser like IE. If you’re using Windows, IE is already on your computer – here’s how to find and update it, if needed. Just a warning: if you do get rid of the AOL software (and you should), all modern browsers these days, including IE (the “browser” is like what you surf the Web on AOL with) will also have tabbed browsing, so you’ll have to take special steps to make pages stop opening in tabs when you click a link.
    Think of it like this: with old versions of AOL, like 9.0, a link you click on would either open in the same page or in a new window. Instead of “new windows”, all of today’s modern browsers default to opening some links you click in “new tabs” – most of the time. In some cases, links you click on in most modern browsers will still open in a new window , but that’s the fault of the website owner who set the link up, not the browser itself, which will not prefer that behavior.
    Anyway, if you want to keep AOL 9.5 and make it act like 9.0 (assuming you no longer own a copy of 9.0), that can’t really be done, but I would suggest you keep using 9.5 if you “must” keep an AOL browser on your computer, since some “versions” of 9.0 are really hard to remove – and one day, you might want to (finally) remove it. Here’s how to modify the tab behavior in 9.5 – these steps revert 9.5 back to 9.0′s link handling, but you can’t get rid of the full email you’re replying to in AOL 9.5 – because if you read this, you’ll see that “feature” is only included in AOL 9.0/ 9.0 SE.
    Good luck, but I hope you’ll think seriously about getting rid of AOL. If you cancel AOL and remove the software, you can still sign into http://aol.com – for free – to read and write your email.

  3. Re: AOL 9.5 BACK to AOL 9.0 SE
    As a non experienced tech person I am more confused then ever. I was told by an AOL Tech person there was no such thing as 9 SE and I HAD to download 9.0 VR. I still have my 9 SE CD and wish I could just go back to it. I have XP Pro. I get lots of blank pages and freeze ups with VR. I pay $11.99 for AOL but paid $32 for a long time. I have lost all my Favs in the past as well as could not even get into my Master screen name. In addition my hundreds of Favs suddenly were removed from my files and were just in a random list. I was told thats because I HAD to download VR. This btw did not fix this problem. I saw the info about using epreserve to import my Favs. but I cannot find info on HOW MANY FAVs I can import from all my screen names and where the heck they go and how do I find them. I have tons of favs. My Favs contain lots of sites I could never find again if I lost them. The older version of AOL used to do this scan to check for a virus but now its gone. Avast was on this used laptop but it seemed I was blocked to often that I removed it & reviews of FREE anti-virus contradict each other as well of warn that AVG and AVAST is malware. Whew! What to do. I want to switch to RR Lite but again I want my Favs. I wish epreserver could just develop some way to put Favs on a USB Drive. I always suspected I was limited in my Aol searches but now I know. I sometimes I think AOL wants to get rid of the Dial-up Business otherwise would they make such horrible complex software? Why would they teach their Tech support people to drive you insane. It would make sense to simplify and let folks download pieces they want. They might consider going back to something like 8.0. It had glitches but I actually did ok with that. I don’t get it. Perhaps AOL is trying to compensate for not being DSL.
    Thanks so much for all this info. I keep trying to figure it out. I will put this in My Favs in case someone wants to comment or tell me how dumb I am. Peace

  4. Re: AOL 9.5 BACK to AOL 9.0 SE
    To put your AOL Favorites online, then download them into whichever browser you want (such as IE, Firefox, whatever):
    http://www.linkagogo.com/
    To import your AOL Favorites into the AOL Explorer browser:
    http://downloads.channel.aol.com/browser
    (Almost fell over when I saw *this* is still available – it’s about 10 years old)
    I can’t give you a technical rundown from here since I don’t know if you have all (or any of) your PFC files, exactly which Favorites you lost from where, or anything else…I would have to sit at your computer for a few minutes to try to figure out where to begin and what the best plan is.
    You could try a computer repair shop; explain the issue without bringing your computer in, and see if anyone is familiar with how to fix AOL lost bookmark issues and the like (if so, yeah, you’ll need to bring your computer in, most likely). There are some people who know the pitfalls of transferring things from AOL to other browsers and email programs inside out, but they’re few, far between, and hard to find.
    If you want to search for help online, I am, ironically enough, going to recommend you try the AOL message boards: post to A Helping Hand and/or Swap AOL Tips and ask specifically for PGroot’s help in your subject line. He’s pretty awesome. Good luck.

  5. Pingback: How to keep your AOL email, Address Book and AOL Favorites when you quit AOL. « Anti-AOL -An InTooLate Production

  6. I also hate tabbed browsing (sorry). However, when I get to the “Browser Tab Settings” page where you can change your preferences, there are no boxes on the bottom where you can click “Save” or “Cancel”. Can you please help me?

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