A First Date with Trillian Astra

No, not that Trillian. As much as I may wish to not panic! over the lovely space lass, I’m talking about the chat program Trillian. I was first introduced to the chat program years back when it was mentioned on The Screen Savers on TechTV. A few friends of mine and I took interest in it, as we were tired of using multiple chat clients and Trillian was offering just about every single thing we wanted in one program. I was a loyal Trillian user for years, until I switched over to Pidgin (formerly GAIM) for its more “out of the way” user interface, built in spell checker (it’s like having my editor yelling at me even during normal conversation!) and several plugins that enhanced the features of the simplistic chat program. It quickly became my favorite, and I haven’t gone back to Trillian since then.

That was until today, when my friend Mike messaged me asking if I wanted an invite to Beta test the new Trillian Astra. Mike has been a loyal Trillian user since we both made the switch during high school, and we’ve both discussed the upcoming Astra before. I figured, why the hell not? I love getting a chance to try out programs ahead of time and help the bug testing phase. I’ve taken the plunge, and my thoughts of the first day with it are written here.

When you first start up Trillian, it asks you to login to your Trillian account, or create a new one. It also asks if you have purchased Trillian Pro or not. Trillian is a commercial chat client that covers a huge array of chat protocols and services, which offers basic (free) and Pro ($25) versions. For most, the basic version will cover you, as it has the most often used chat services (AIM, MSN, Yahoo, IRC) available. The pro version offers many more, though often less used, services such as Jabber. After setting up your Trillian account you set up your chat accounts, simply picking only the ones you use/plan to use. At any time you can go to the preferences and add a new protocol from there, so if you only want to set up some now and the rest later the option is there. The last step allows you to choose your skin that you wish to use for Trillian. The new skin, and the one selected as default, is the Cordonata skin. After all of the setup is taken care of, you can now launch Trillian and begin using it.

This is the Cordonata skin, which seems to be taking a visual approach similar to Windows Vista’s glass-like elements. I am running on a Windows XP system, so it certainly stands out from the XP GUI. At the top, you have the usual program menu style stuff, a quick selector at the top to let you change visual elements such as the skin colors on the fly, and a help button. You can also minimize the buddy list to the system tray with the button to the far right. Below that is the list that contains all of the information from each protocol you are using (Tweets from twitter, email counts/alerts, buddies on chat programs, etc). It isn’t just a buddy list any longer, but a hub for your digital world. At the bottom lies the controls to each service (represented by a color-coded orb), add contact button, search contact list button, manage ‘My Trillian’ button, and manage ‘My Profile’ button. You can also set your status from here. Your avatar/buddy icon/sillyjpeg is located in the center, letting you know which Trillian account you are logged into, as well as the account name below (in case of multiple users). You even get notifications on certain events (which you can set up in the preferences) which will pop up in a little bubble in the corner of the screen, as seen below.

So what’s the chat window look like?

Really cluttered. There’s so much going on on screen at once, that it feels distracting to me. Note, I changed the chat style from the default, which was set to some iChat copycat chat bubble approach. Some may appreciate this, but for me it just got in the way. There was also an incredibly annoying news ticker that took up more screen real estate that took an additional 2-3 lines worth of space under the section that tells you who you are talking to. I removed that as soon as I found out how, though if you don’t mind losing some screen space in the name of real time RSS news feeds, this could be a nice power user option. There are tabbed conversations, which I have come to expect from a chat client, and in this skin it is incredibly obvious as to who you are talking to. The name of the user on their tab glows a different color when they are typing a message to you, and will remain a solid color after they have sent their message. Overall, it is very good at telling you some basic information, but I found the amount of buttons on screen, as well as the use of gradients against gradients, to be too much noise for a chat program.

There is, however, another skin that comes with Astra. And it is this skin which I prefer. Trillian Cobalt is a skin that is much less on the eye candy and more on simplicity and optimization. You won’t find many alpha-blending effects here.

Here is the ‘buddy list’ of Trillian under Cobalt, with a Red color theme chosen. While I find this to be more of a pink than red, it pops out against my background much better than the Cordonata skin. On a whole, I find it much more enjoyable even if there are less buttons to push for the different functionalities.

The chat window is just as clean, using much more subtlety in showing you which is the active tab, and isn’t directly in your face with all of the options and buttons.

While i’m not exactly a Twitter user, I do have an account with it. I was able to login to my Twitter account and get updates straight from my friends as they came in. I was also able to mouse over a particular tweet, and see a few previous tweets from that same user at the same time. It was a neat addition. There may be a way to update your twitter, and do direct responses as well. But I have not bothered with trying this out. In fact, I hardly know any Twitter users.

I do use Facebook though, and with Trillian Astra you can get live updates from your friends through chat notifications.

Trillian Astra worried me at first, seeming like a bloated behemoth of a program trying to do so much at once. But with a little bit of tweaking, I find that Trillian can offer a sleek experience without overwhelming me with too many buttons, knobs and dials turned all the way up to 11. While I still prefer the minimalism of Pidgin, I do not discredit Trillian Astra as a possible candidate as a chat client. Bear in mind that this is only a beta of the program, and that I had an issue with it crashing every time I exited it. There are still plenty of bugs to hammer out. The program was rather snappy, though sometimes I did notice minimizing a window took longer than usual. Memory bloat seems to range, I noticed a small footprint initially, which grew 4 times in size during use and then went back down. It doesn’t worry me though, and I hope it will be taken care of as the beta continues.

There will be an OS X version of the client, as well as an iPhone version in the future. Don’t forget though, that Trillian is a commercial product and some features will be limited to users who buy a Pro account. So keep this in mind if you decide to look in to Trillian Astra as the beta ends and the final product rolls out. It doesn’t do much that other chat clients don’t already do, but for those of you looking for something new or different, Astra may be what you’re looking for. As for me? Well, I will continue to use Astra as the beta continues (and my trial pro account isn’t expired) but I may go back to Pidgin after all.

So, will I go for a second date? You betcha.

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Published in: on April 16, 2009 at 7:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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