America Online has seen the future, and it is the Net. Release 3.0 of the company’s client software is a bold endeavor to meld the efficiency and refinement of an online service with the World Wide Web’s colossal bounty. The result comes mighty close, but don’t ditch your ISP just yet.

Much of the credit for this overhaul goes to fierce competition from MSN, the Microsoft Network, which has spurred AOL to beef up content and reduce prices. Both services now charge a flat fee of $19.95 per month, all you can surf. If you can live without the Internet, access to AOL alone costs $9.95 per month. Infrequent users can pay a mere $4.95 for three hours per month–ideal if you use the service only for email. These prices are within striking range of most ISPs.

link to screenshot But is AOL’s slick, easy-to-reach content still competitive with the Web? Release 3.0 gives you plenty of reasons to think so. The updated interface is both pleasing to view and far more efficient. Gone, for example, is the familiar creeping blue bar, which was AOL’s erstwhile cue to begin finger-drumming: “Please wait while we add new art.” The service now provides progressive image rendering, so you no longer have to download all the graphics before viewing a new area (are you taking note, CompuServe?).

Navigating the system has also been made easier. Generous use of 3D graphics provides better visual clues for moving into and out of areas. There’s a larger toolbar than in the previous version. One-button connections to various services abound. And there’s a new Find search engine in addition to Keyword that scours both AOL content and the Web.

link to screenshot Also new to Release 3.0 is My AOL, ostensibly for setting various account and system preferences (including parental controls). It also lets you create personalized information feeds, selected news downloads, stock quotes, and the like. Were My AOL expanded to include automatic downloads from the Web, it would give AOL an unassailable edge over MSN.

Kaiden Holloway