Most computer users either love or love to hate America Online, and version 4.0 of the online service's software does little to narrow that divide. But if you prefer the hand-holding approach to the online world -- and can stomach AOL's heavy dose of advertising -- the upgrade offers new reasons to log on.
Eventually you'll have little choice about using this software, but for the moment the next version of AOL is just an option -- a "preview" release of it (the final stage in an extremely protracted testing process that began last summer) is free for Windows-using subscribers to download.
The big change in 4.0 is the Internet's move to center stage. Before, you had to click on an icon in AOL's menu bar to launch a Web browser, where you then had to type in a Web address; now the main interface itself is a browser for both Web and AOL stuff. Whether you type in, say, the address for a Speed Racer Web page or the "keyword" for AOL's X-Files site, off you go directly to the AOL or Internet location.
E-mail also advances in the 4.0 software. The formerly bland mail module, in addition to gaining a spell-checker, has been spiced up with the ability to use different fonts and colors and embed photos in text or use them as a background.
For example, you can go to the Spin site on AOL, pluck a Madonna album cover to use as a background image for your e-mail, then write on it in red cursive letters. But your inspiration may be wasted if you send the messages to someone outside of AOL: The jazzy messages show up as plain text for folks not on the service. And there's still no way to filter or screen your messages automatically.
You can also use the colors and fonts in chat-room messages. And both e-mail and the "instant-message" feature -- used to send private notes to other users -- allow you to plunk in "hot text" Web links from your "favorite places" list.
Two other conveniences in 4.0 benefit more-sophisticated AOL citizens. The new software stores the full set of local access numbers on your machine; if you're the traveling type, you'll save precious minutes each time you log in from a new place by not having to dial a toll-free line to look up new local numbers. And the new ability to change screen names without logging off allows you to quickly slip into a new identity when you, say, enter a pagan chat room or post to an argumentative political newsgroup. It also makes it easier to keep separate personal and business e-mail accounts.
None of the new features puts AOL's general-purpose software ahead of popular, more-specialized Internet tools such as Netscape's Web browser or Qualcomm's Eudora e-mail program. But with more than 12 million subscribers to cater to, AOL is not some hip salon for people who like to live on the bleeding edge. Instead, consider it a comfy online living room with well-marked paths to -- and from -- the Internet wilderness.
AOL 4.0, Win 95Win 3.1, free at keyword: preview. Mac version due later this summer.