The latest version of AOL Desktop for Mac offers an instant messenger, email client and internet browser together in one app but in an uneasy, restrictive way.
In our view, the Safari, Mailand iChat apps that came free with your Mac are more feature-rich and flexible to operate.
After using AOL Desktop for Mac for a fortnight, advertising revenue appears the main driver here.
The browser, for example, has permanent links to a walled garden of AOL- branded internet content, nearly all of it US-centric celebritology, and doesn't allow you to add you own bookmarks.
Adverts continue in other areas of the suite.
Three icons – Mail, Instant Messenger, Web – are embedded into the left side of a floating menu bar, which is the main navigation tool in AOL Desktop for Mac.
The browser was built using the same WebKit that Safari uses and correspondingly offers much the same speedy, tabbed browsing experience, although in the AOL browser you can rip out tabs by dragging them away to create new windows, which admittedly is quite cool.
What are decidedly uncool are the static bookmarks. The bookmarks already there are permanent links that only lead to repackaged AOL content. Sport, Movies, TV, People, News, Finance are among the options.
You can add and change the icons using the preferences, but only by dragging out one AOL link and dragging in another. All the links we tried lead to areas with advertising framed around the central content panel or inside the video content, which we didn't enjoy.
Compared to Safari, the browsing speed is competitive, but the restrictions are built-in and off-putting.
AOL's Instant Messenger and Mail both require you to set up an account with AOL, or a 'Screen name'. Fair enough.
The signup process through AOL Desktop for Mac is hobbled for UK users in the application stage by a mandatory Post Code field that only allows five digits, so we had to register an account at www.aol.co.uk.
Once in, AIM and the mail client very clearly offers fewer features than iChat and Apple Mail.
AIM is just a simple messenger, and does nothing that iChat can't. We also failed to find higher-end features like screen sharing and video chatting that IM clients need to be compelling these days.
This is a bizarre omission, considering that you can video chat in iChat over the AIM network. Instead, it appears that you can only video chat online through the AIM Chat forums, which we suspect is again to do with advertising.
Ads in your emails?
The AOL Desktop for Mac mail app is clean and simple and we had no problems with it. It looks and works rather like Mail, but in a throwback to 1990s ISP mentality, AOL has built an advertising system into the mail messages so that you actually send and receive adverts with your mail.
An email to Mum might also carry an advert for medicine, a car, a holiday and so on. Why anyone would want to do that when the Mac is over-served by equal or better email clients that are ad-free is beyond us.
The version of AOL Desktop for Mac that we tested was the latest beta. It proved basic but stable. AOL has spent time honing the background code and the result is a bright and shinny app, available for free, that works well.
But the barrage of ads, restrictive browsing, and lack of higher IM features – not to mention the better ability of Mac software – make the suite impossible to recommend. The only reason you might possibly be interested in downloading this app is morbid curiosity or a love of AOL.