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.