How about all those free America Online diskettes? They seem to be everywhere and many households have received enough disks to pave a small highway. It's good marketing if you can afford it, but the software, version 2.5, is officially outdated as of last month. In June, a much improved America Online version 3.0 became available for download through AOL to current members using Windows.
The new version has an all new look that is softer and more sophisticated - if you can ascribe such characteristics to an online service. AOL has assumed a TV-like interface, referring to its various menus now as "channels". Aside from the obvious fluff, however, there are definite improvements that will be welcomed by long-term AOL denizens.
E-Mail now supports RTF, or rich text formatting, which allows you to format your electronic composition as you would a word processing document. You can implement bold, italics or underline formatting for emphasis as well as color to your fonts. You can increase font sizes as well and apply various justifications so that your online document is dynamic and more aptly conveys the intent of the sender. You can even define a background color for the page, thereby creating stationary of sorts. This text formatting is also available as well for Instant Messaging, the process of "talking" live, on-line, with other members by simply typing a message on your keyboard.
Your formatting can only be visible, however, within the AOL network, or by other on-line services that support RTF, such as the Microsoft Network. If you send e-mail outside AOL, throughout the Internet, your text will still be ASCII blah.
The "Quotes & Portfolio" section for tracking investments is dramatically improved in version 3.0. You can now track up to 20 separate portfolios for each screen name as well as edit, print, and refresh your stock portfolio with ease. Market news and company research options are readily available from this area as well. The "My AOL" area makes it much easier to customize your preferences and fine tune AOL to suit your needs.
Version 3.0 also includes a built-in Winsock (Windows socket), enabling you to use your America Online connection to access the Internet using a web browser such as Netscape. This is only a 16-bit file, however, meaning that it won't work with any 32-bit Winsock application designed to run with Windows 95.
The web browser included in version 3.0 continues to be dull and although AOL claims it's 35 percent faster, I failed to notice any improvement in speed. America Online plans, however, to include the Microsoft Explorer with its software as the browser to replace the current clunky model. You can expect this much needed improvement sometime this summer as well as a 32-bit Winsock for Windows 95 users.
Other new areas of "fluff" that are just plain fun include Road Trips and the Buddy List. Road Trips are organized excursions throughout the Internet with capabilities for simultaneous online chat with your traveling companions. Cruise and schmooze on one of the preset itineraries or plan a trip of your own and invite the planet to join you.
Create one or more Buddy Lists of your online AOL pals and you'll always know, without using the old Find command, when they pop online. Once you know your buddy is online, you can engage in a little instant messaging banter or maybe invite he/she on a Road Trip. If you prefer more privacy, you can designate your screen name to be excluded from any or all Buddy Lists.
To upgrade your version of America Online press CTRL+K and type the keyword "Upgrade". AOL 3.0 for Windows requires a minimum 486 system running Windows 3.x or Windows 95, 8 MB of memory (RAM), 15 MB of free hard disk space and a 14.4 modem. A Macintosh version 3.0 is not yet available, however, AOL officials assure that it is "in the works". For Mac users wishing to try the latest beta, version 2.7 is available to all members at the keyword "Upgrade".
Go ahead and take the upgrade plunge...it's well worth the minimal effort.
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