Best Free Instant Messaging Client

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Introduction

If you're like me, then you probably have friends and family using a variety of IM networks. One way to talk with people on each one of these networks, is to open an account for each and then download and install each IM client on your computer.

However, running four different IM applications on your computer uses a lot of system resources, is difficult to manage, and broadens your attack surface. Therefore, I would recommend using a multi-protocol IM client. These applications not only allow you to connect to multiple IM networks, but they are also advertisement free, more secure, and have features that allow you to easily manage your various IM accounts.

All IM clients reviewed in this article have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and I'm certain there are users who will remain faithful to each.

Discussion
 

Software Clients

PidginOver the years there have been many different multi-protocol IM clients that have been developed and many have grown. However, for the average user, I would still recommend Pidgin (formerly Gaim). It is still the simplest to use and has a very clean design that does not seem like it’s from the XP era. Currently it supports AIM, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, Google Talk, Groupwise, ICQ, IRC, MSN, MXit, MySpaceIM, SILC, SIMPLE, Sametime, XMPP, Yahoo!, and Zephyr. It also supports Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

Although development has not been as bullish as it used to be, it still provides a simple yet elegant design with lot of functionality. There also has been a constant update to fix bugs and security issues. The program is completely ad free and provides various plugins that one can add to the program such as Guifications and SkypeIM support.

But like any program there are still some limitations. One of the major drawbacks is that there is no support for voice or video. However if you are looking for a simple open- source multi-protocol IM program, Pidgin is for you.

 

Miranda IMIf you are someone who loves to customize and tweak, Miranda IM may be the client for you. It has the most intensive set of plugins and customizations that I have ever seen. It also can be customized to support almost every protocol out there. The interface that comes with the native program is very minimalistic, however with some skins (like the one on the left) the interface can look great. Currently it supports AIM, Facebook chat, Gadu-Gadu, IAX, ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN, Netsend, Tlen, Yahoo, and much more. With the added flexibility of this program, the preference menu isn’t the friendliest. The amount of options they provide you makes the program a little too complicated for the average user. There are many options that the average user most likely won't touch, but with the large amounts of options the program is somewhat overwhelming.

 

Trillian 5.1If you want something that has more design, Trillian might be the option for you. Trillian has indeed evolved over the years into something quite beautiful. It perhaps has the most eye candy out of all the IM clients that have been mentions (excluding if you can figure out how to theme Miranda IM). Although it does not seem to support as many platforms as pidgin and Miranda IM do, it still supports some pretty unique ones such as LinkedIn and Foursquare. With support for LinkedIn, Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter, the program allows you to update your status of these site through Trillian. It also supports a wide range of operating systems (Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Web). The installer does come bundled with other software such as winzip and a Trillian toolbar, in which you can opt out of (Trillian 5.1 Build 18 Free). Just remember to press “no thanks” for software you do not want. Trillian also has Ads that pop up within your conversation list telling you to upgrade to their pro version, which is kind of an annoyance also.

Digsby is another option out there for you. However, due to its WOT rating and history it is hard to recommend this client. At some point in time Digsby offered various adware/spyware in their installer in order to keep the client free of charge to its customers. With this scandal, it has seriously damaged its reputation as a company. Even though the Digsby client today seems to have not included any spyware or adware in its installer, they do still have ads within their IM windows (which you can disable in the preferences by unchecking support Digsby). Many people have also become quite skeptical of their practices and have since boycotted their program completely. With that being said, it is still a decent client. I myself have used it for a period of time. If you do decide that this program is for you, a word of advice, proceed with caution. For now there will be no review on this client due to its WOT rating.

 

Web Client

In light of recent events, Google has acquired Meebo so it is effectively shutting down on July 11th, 2012. For those who are looking for Web Clients, there are plenty of alternatives out there that provide you with the same type of support. Ebuddy is another web client that support the basic MSN, Yahoo, AIM, G-talk, Facebook, ICQ, and MySpace Protocols. Not only is Ebuddy a web client, it is also avaliable on various mobile devices such as the iPhone, Android, and other mobile devices.

Another alternative to Ebuddy is imo. imo is similar to Ebuddy in that it is both a mobile instant messanging client and a web client. However, imo supports far more protocols than Ebuddy. Along with the protocols supported by Ebuddy it also supports steam, skype, Jabber, VKontakte, and Hyves.

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Quick Selection Guide

Pidgin
5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Easy to use, cleanly designed and very functional. Non-commercial, open-source software and available for multi-platform.
Nobody's going to be blown away by its styling.
http://www.pidgin.im/
2.10.3
8.96 MB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows, Linux, Mac OS X

Supports AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, and Zephyr IM networks.

Miranda IM
4.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
The application is very extensible through plug-ins.
Native User interface is minimalist, Complicated Preferences
http://www.miranda-im.org/
0.9.50
3.11 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows 2000 to 7

Supports Gadu-Gadu and Jabber in addition to the networks supported by Trillian. Also connects to the Google Talk network with a little plug-in tweaking.

imo
4.5
 
Is a web service or web application
Log in to various different protocols with the capabilities of using those protocols on mobile devices.
https://imo.im/
Unrestricted freeware
Web Application, no installation required.

Supports MSN, Yahoo, AIM, G-talk, Facebook, ICQ, MySpace, Steam, skype, Jabber, VKontakte, and Hyves.

Trillian
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Flashy interface and designed to be very user-friendly, light on resources.
Installer includes toolbar and third party software, advertisements pop up in conversation windows
http://www.trillian.im/
5.1.0.18
20.3 MB
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 2000 to 7, Mac, iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Web

Supports AIM, ICQ, IRC, MSN and Yahoo networks.

Ebuddy
4
 
Is a web service or web application
Log in to various different protocols with the capabilities of using those protocols on mobile devices.
Only supports a few protocols.
http://www.ebuddy.com/
Unrestricted freeware
Web Application, no installation required.

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Tags

Instant Messenger, IM, Online IM, freeware.

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Comments

by Linuxis on 17. October 2014 - 20:50  (119241)

I'm surprised that Jitsi hasn't been mentioned in this section.
It supports quite a few protocols as well...
Plus VOIP and video chat.
It's pegged as a Skype alternative...though I haven't tested the video capabilities.

It requires Java to run. Which is something to keep in mind.

http://www.jitsi.org

by Linuxis on 13. October 2014 - 16:13  (119162)

I've been using Instantbird lately as my IM client.
Instantbird is based on Mozilla Firefox, while using libpurple as a backend. (Pidgin, Adium)
Instantbird is incredibly user friendly, it walks you through adding accounts. And since it's based on Firefox, it supports addons.

I hope you all give it a try. :)

http://www.instantbird.com

by DavidHarris on 29. March 2014 - 22:48  (115395)

Imo has removed support for 3rd-party services so this is no longer a valid option for connecting to multiple services. Is there a replacement, particularly accessible from portable devices?

by Jojo Yee on 30. March 2014 - 1:27  (115398)
by Havokdan on 29. September 2013 - 15:49  (111093)

Miranda has the NG (http://miranda-ng.org/) alternative version of Miranda IM with support for skins, themes Miranda IM, I'm using it now and it is very good.

by Paxmilitaris on 31. July 2013 - 5:30  (109799)

Is IMO really safe?
I mean using a web page for instant messaging, doesn't that give them access to all your information and discussions?

by passengerpigeon on 12. April 2013 - 14:37  (106997)

Gizmo / hiddensanctum,

I'm wondering if the best free internet messaging networks should be reviewed and rated, not only IM clients. Having used some IM networks for years myself--decades--I've come to dislike a certain network (even your picks of best IM clients I don't like to use on a particular network). Namely, I've come to discontinue using the Yahoo IM network due to spam IMs. The other main IM network I've used is AIM (America Online IM) and I prefer it for not getting SPIMed.

by Stilez on 2. April 2013 - 12:10  (106745)

Also worth considering:

It won't matter to all users, but it's worth considering how much an IM client mitigates or exposes private data. An IM provider stores IM's and contact details they 'see', but a multi-client whose provider logs extra data exposes the user on all their IM systems, not just one.

In this area, Trillian keeps a copy of the user's contact list in plaintext. The contact list is used for sync purposes, so it's legit, but it's not encrypted on their servers as (say) logins are. So contact renames, groups, etc are vulnerable. They may change this in future, but at the moment it's worth an observation as strong security is a good thing.

( source: https://www.trillian.im/policies/security/#5.3 )

by innn on 9. February 2014 - 5:52  (114347)

also Pidgin is renowned for storing passwords in plain text. This is not much of a problem on a Linux system but on a Windows one they admit is "somewhat controversial"
On the matter see: [url]https://developer.pidgin.im/wiki/PlainTextPasswords[/url]

by Stilez on 29. March 2013 - 9:26  (106630)

Gizmno - you might want to consider Jisti (https://jitsi.org) as a very strong contender. Things I like:

Free/open source
Very actively developed (as at 2013) and dates back to 2006 ish so a decent history
Cross platform (including x32, x64 and msi on Windows, which suggests devs have care and forethought)
Very wide range of protocols
IM, file transfer, voice, video
Appears mature

And as extra bonus features, it's just streets ahead on core infrastructure:

IPv4/IPv6 automated
NAT traversal
DNSSEC
About the only IM client to support open encryption standards built into the base code - OTR is often a plugin but here it's built-in, and Phil Zimmermann's STRP/ZRTP - about the only really secure standard for VoIP - is also built in.
Video/voice conferencing
SIP
A load more.

You might want to review and include it.

by hiddensanctum on 2. April 2013 - 8:00  (106737)

Thanks for the info, I'll look into it.

by EduardTsoy on 11. March 2013 - 14:48  (106136)

Pidgin is actually a 30 MB download for offline installation — this figure really makes sense, and 9 MB doesn't make any sense.

by Super2cool on 10. February 2013 - 18:32  (105282)

Digsby should be allowed back as... they are removing all those bundled software in their installer.

"We are removing all bundled offers shown during installation of Digsby. We hope this will make Digsby a better experience for you and your friends." - Digsby Blog

by Anupam on 10. February 2013 - 19:03  (105284)

That blog post is from 2011. It also says Digsby has been acquired by Tagged.. the website of which has got yellow WOT rating, and has got that rating because of spamming. Since nearly 2 years, there has not been any new post on their blog, after this announcement, which makes the situation regarding development of Digsby quite doubtful. Unless we get something concrete on present situation, or future development of the program, I don't think it will be considered here. Atleast the Digsby site has now got green WOT rating. Still, the above facts do matter.

Let's see what the editor of this category thinks.

by hiddensanctum on 13. February 2013 - 3:48  (105357)

I fully agree with Anupam on this matter. Since there have been no updates from Digsby themselves regarding to what exactly is going on with development, it is hard to recommend the product. Without any news of its future, it is hard to tell what exactly Tagged plans to do with the program. It is good news that the WOT rating is now green instead of yellow. But for now I am taking a "wait and see" approach.

by Anupam on 13. February 2013 - 9:34  (105364)

Glad you agree :).

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