TWT Benchtests – The 2011 multi-protocol instant messaging showdown – Digsby, Pidgin and Trillian go head to head
You can now read our 2013 multi-protocol IM comparison by clicking here.
Although Instant Messaging has waned a little in popularity since Facebook and Twitter came along, for many users it’s still a useful service and a vital part of their work, social life or both. Instant Messaging has been around for many years and over this time dozens of competing standards have emerged. This has left users with a problem. For each friend that uses a different IM service a separate program was needed. This quickly becomes inconvenient and as a solution, the multi-protocol IM program was invented. There are now almost as many multi-protocol IM programs as there are IM networks. However, for Windows users, three programs have pulled ahead of the crowd to become the most popular. In this review we will be looking at Pidgin, Digsby and Trillian 5, the three leading multi-protocol instant messaging programs for Windows.
Introducing the contenders
Digsby – A relative newcomer, Digsby focuses on giving the user fast and easy access to both IM and social networking services.
Pidgin – A much loved, lightweight open source IM client thats available for Windows and Linux and is supported by an enthusiastic base of developers and users.
Trillian – Another IM client that has evolved over the years, Trillian 5 now aims to be the most feature-complete client available on the market.
Installation was a breeze on all three clients, though Trillian 5 did try to peddle us the Ask toolbar and another tool for downloading games. Apart from this, the installation went smoothly.
Both Digsby and Trillian 5 have a modern looking interface and offer various skins. Trillian 5 can now also use your current Windows skin, making it more compatible with programs like WindowBlinds. Pidgin goes for a no-frills approach that works well and all three clients are easy to use and navigate.
All three of the programs support tabs, allowing you to easily keep track of multiple conversations. Pidgin’s chat interface is the most basic, while both Digsby and Trillian allow you to choose how to lay out converstations. Surprisingly, Pidgin is the only one of our contenders to support custom Emoticons over Windows Live Messenger.
Digsby and Trillian 5 are both ad-supported. Trillian offers a subscription service for $12 a year, which will disable all adverts in the program. Pidgin is free and features no adverts at all, a definite plus for this plucky contender. Trillian’s advert delivery has upset many users, since it delivers contextual advertising in with your conversation. In our lab tests we didn’t see any adverts, possibly because Cerulean is currently changing the way the paid and free clients work.
Both Digsby and Trillian use their own custom notifications that allow you to quickly reply to incomming IM’s and see new tweets and Facebook posts. While Pidgin doesn’t have this, it can use the excellent Growl notification system, which allows pop-up notifications from all your programs to have a consistent look and feel and can even be customised to send notifications over your home network.
All our IM clients supported the popular MSN, Yahoo, ICQ and AOL protocols. Pidgin has an enthusiastic developer community and supports a huge range of other protocols too, from the occasionally useful to the downright bizarre. Of course, the quality of the plugins varies. Trillian 5 also supports plugins allowing third party developers to extend the number of protocols supported. In last place comes Digsby, which lacks support for popular protocols like IRC and has no plugin interface for third party developers.
For secure IM conversations, we recommend the Off The Record (OTR) plugin. This is the only instant messaging encryption protocol that’s been properly tried and tested. Pidgin’s support for this plugin is the best and most mature and even new users can be up and running quickly with secure instant messaging. Trillian 5 now also supports OTR via a plugin, though it can be difficult to locate the latest version. At the present moment, there’s no OTR support for Digsby.
Twitter and Facebook
Both Digsby and Trillian 5 have very smooth support for Twitter, Facebook and a host of other social networks. Twitter and Facebook can both easily be read from within the programs. New wall posts can be made and new tweets can be sent. Trillian’s new tabbed interface for social networks beats Digsby’s, though both programs integrate social networking really well. Pidgin offers only very basic support for social networks. Facebook chat is available and a plugin allows tweets to be sent, but the functionality is very basic compared to the slick integration of Digsby and Trillian.
Webcams and voice
If you use webcams or voice with your online friends then all three clients are likely to leave you disappointed. Digsby has limited support for webcams that works by simply sending both users to a website which contains basic webcam software. More of a workaround than a proper solution. Trillian is the only program that comes close to providing proper support. Over the Yahoo protocol, we were able to establish a webcam connection between ourselves and another contact running Yahoo Messenger. However, there was no support for voice, making this feature somewhat useless.
Lots of us are using several computers and devices now and Digsby and Trillian go some way towards bridging the gap between different computers and in Trillian’s case, the mobile phone too. Digsby will syncronize settings between computers, including Linux and Mac computers. Trillian will not only synchronize settings but chat history too, allowing you to start a conversation on one PC then continue it seamlessly on your phone or on another desktop. It’s clear that Cerulean consider this to be their killer feature. We don’t have an iPhone or Android handset to test this feature with but reports from around the web suggest the feature works well. The Mac and iOS versions of Trillian are not as fully featured as the Windows one however.
All three of our contenders have their strengths and weaknesses and unfortunately no one program can claim to cover everyone’s instant messaging needs. Which one you choose will depend on your own personal needs and your budget.
Pidgin is still one of our favourite multi-protocol IM programs. Despite initially seeming the most basic of the three clients, we can’t help admiring Pidgin. It’s lightweight, ad-free, highly customisable and supports a huge range of plugins and extensions, covering more protocols than any of the other contenders.
Trillian 5 is another program it’s hard not to admire. Its interface is uncluttered, its social networking support is excellent and it supports more protocols than Digsby. The cloud chat storage and device synchronization is a wonderful idea and it is clear that Cerulean consider this to be a major selling point. As undoubtedly useful as this feature is, the idea of all our conversations being logged indefinitely on a server somewhere on the internet certainly raises concerns. On balance, it’s worth remembering that basic chat is not encrypted in any way, so most conversations have no privacy safeguards anyway. Nevertheless, a server full of chat logs is much easier to intercept than a real-time IM conversation.
Of course, you are not forced to use the cloud sync feature of Trillian 5, but without it the package becomes somewhat less value for money. For $12 a year you can have ad-free Trillian 5. Alternativley you can have the advertising-supported program for free, Alhough many users feel that the adverts in Trillian are more intrusive than those in Digsby. Lets not forget that Pidgin is totally ad-free.
For those who don’t want cloud chat storage but do need good social networking support, Digsby is a good contender. While we liked Trillian’s tabbed social networking window better, Digsby ‘s interface is still very slick and easy to use. It is a shame that the program doesn’t support more protocols, for example, the old-school favourite Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is strangely absent. The lack of support for OTR is also disappointing for privacy advocates.
Sadly, none of our contenders could boast anything near complete webcam or voice chat support, that means that for many of us at least, the days of installing two or more messaging programs are likely to be with us for some time to come. We also noticed that adding new contacts didn’t always go as smoothly in our multi-protocol IM programs as it did in the official chat clients, so double check when adding a new contact that your request actually got through successfully.
The new compact Trillian 5 interface maintains a consistent look and feel with Windows or can be skinned however the user desires
Digsby’s user interface and social networking window. Posts to your Facebook wall can be made directly from the program
Pidgin’s uncluttered, simple but elegant interface
Chatting in Digsby, notice the advert at the bottom of the window
Chatting in Pidgin with a WindowBlinds skin applied and flaunting its support for custom emoticons in MSN
IRC chatting in Trillian
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