Don’t waste your time on AOL Desktop.

Review of AOL Desktop

What’s wrong with AOL Desktop? Just about everything.

I tested AOL Desktop (also known as AOL Explorer – they’re more or less identical – update 5-21-08: the programs are offered as a combined download, but the similar name is for AOL Desktop Search, which was one of the downloads I chose; I regret the error) on dialup for a week, because I wanted to see what the broadband-unenabled go through these days, and the results weren’t pleasing.

Only in it’s “always-on” state did AOL Desktop open as fast as I wanted it to. With Fast Start disabled the browser took a much slower 10-12 seconds to open. The browser crashed twice within the first hour of use, leading me to use AOL’s new Feedback feature to send them a signed complaint that AOL Desktop is not much more than a Beta.

Sign in? Why?

Every time the browser opened a sign-in box “floated” down from the top of the screen, but why should I sign in when I’m using AOL for free? I can’t remember the last time I had to “sign in” to Firefox or IE.

Sure I can connect to GMail...whatever.

The browser wouldn’t let me sign in, either; instead I got a dialog box asking me to “set up my connection”, which defaulted to broadband settings. I had to click a link to configure AOL for dialup.

Configuring it for dialup didn’t work no matter how many times or how many ways I tried. Owing to that I was unable to see if AOL Desktop could connect me not only to my AOL email, but also to GMail, Verizon, and MapQuest, as AOL claims it can.

AOL Desktop fails to connect to my non-AOL dialup

I also got punted offline several times even when my non-AOL dialup connection was active (even though I thought AOL’s software connectivity issues were limited to Vista and/or broadband users), causing me to have to redial several times to get back online.

One of the more annoying aspects of AOL’s software – and I’m not sure if I should blame this on AOL Desktop or on the AOL Toolbar I installed for IE at the same time- is how it resets your home page to When you try to change it back to your usual home page you can’t, because IE announces you have to contact your System Administrator to make any changes, but wait – I am the System Administrator – WTF?

The browser does not offer a pleasant so much as a shocking appearance. Like most AOL desktop clients it’s not skinnable; to make up for that AOL came up with one killer skin to beat them all. Tell me if you agree…

How stylin'...not.

Is that skin better than IE’s or the skins available for Firefox? Think anyone’s going to port it to one of those browsers soon? I don’t.

AOL went as far away from Web 2.0 with the design as they could…

  • The browser buttons are huge and square, with just the tiniest hint of rounding, but only at the corners
  • The colors are harsh
  • The web content is set to display at roughly 75% of the full width of the browser and…
  • There is no full-screen view – that’s right; pressing F11 does nothing, because AOL won’t let you forget for one moment that you’re using AOL.

Not to mention AOL uses that exact shade of blue to inspire “loyalty”. In color theory blue is seen as sedate and trustworthy; it can also make you so depressed that you don’t have the energy to switch away from AOL. On top of that, the way it’s used in this browser, it’s hideous.

AOL Desktop doesn’t go easy on your computer’s resources, either. AOL Desktop used 82MBs of RAM in about ten minutes with just three tabs open.

Average RAM usage for an hour of surfing and between 6-20 tabs open varies between the low 70s to over 135MB. That’s high for those of us on older computers with limited (certainly not state of the art) hardware.

AOL Desktop had some odd bugs; for instance, when I tried to add a new Favorite, I soon got my first “Duplicate Favorite” warning – even though the page was not a duplicate. The dialog box for the message displayed off-screen so only 10% of the “OK” button was visible. When I clicked “OK”, I got the warning again.

In just a few minutes I had five warnings stacked up in my Taskbar, so I closed AOL but the warnings stayed alive. I had to “end” them through Task Manager by killing every process for AOL. Once my first “Duplicate” warning showed up I was unable to add new Favorites to AOL anymore – trying to just got me another warning.

Another bug was the way the thumbnails for open tabs were often blank both when you hovered over them in the navigation toolbar and when you checked the Open Tabs page. You can see that quirk in the following screen shot.

Thumbnails? What thumbnails?

Feed display in the optional sidebar was poor; the feed names jammed together in such a way that they were hard to read. When I hovered over a feed a huge thumbnail displayed a bit of the feed’s content, but that wasn’t enough to make up for how badly the feed list is designed.

On dialup pages loaded slower in AOL Desktop than they do in either IE7 or Firefox but I didn’t set my stopwatch to test that, so feel free to argue with me.

If you connect to AOL through dialup, I’m sorry to note you have no choice but to use an AOL client. I can’t recommend any of them for speed, low resource usage, looks, or connectivity – and that goes for AOL Desktop, too.

This is the last review of AOL products I’m ever doing. Seriously folks, just stop using their junk.