Cheat Sheet | Dressed To The Eights

This month America Online (AOL) and Microsoft Network (MSN) unveil what they call breakthrough software updates, both numbered Version 8. It seems AOL (35 million members, $24 a month) has finally wised up about MSN (9 million, $22 a month).

AOL 8.0

LOOK AND FEEL: Shedding its Pravda attitude toward personalization, it now offers six Welcome screens. Still too many ads and offers.

PARENTAL CONTROLS: Industry leader makes its kid-limiting system easier to find. Will include usage "report cards" to parents in December.

E-MAIL: Good news: AOL mail isn't quite as lame as before, finally instituting features others had in 1995. Bad news: still lame.

MESSAGING: More ways to dress it up but not as snazzy as Apple's iChat version. Still, AIM is mandatory since everyone uses it.

MSN 8

LOOK AND FEEL: Well-organized, with lots of chances to customize. But some people will want to lose space-gobbling "dashboard."

PARENTAL CONTROLS: More sweeping means of blocking inappropriate material, and provides detailed logs for Big Daddy and Mommy.

E-MAIL: Powerful Outlook-style mail is more like it. Also, there's a more effective (but not flawless) way to stop annoying spam.

MESSAGING: Allows advanced uses like tandem Web surfing. But what's the point if all your buddies are on AOL Instant Messenger?