Breathe new life into OS X iChat

  • August 6th, 2006

ichat iconFollowing in the footsteps of the previous Breathe new life into OS X Safari post which spurred debates concerning OS X browsers, free vs. paid plugins (extensions), and rendering capabilities, I felt a follow-up post concerning a second regularly used application was in order. An application also of Apple’s own creation distributed with every OS X powered computer to date – iChat.

Instant messaging has become a valuable communication asset – both personal & professional. What better way to manage your text, audio, and video chat needs than Apple’s own iChat? But wait, why would any OS X user settle for iChat when Swiss Army knife applications like the awesome multi-protocol Adium exist? Why? I know why I prefer iChat over all else: at the end of the day, message themes, contact list styling, wonky sounds, dancing ducks, and messages coming in from IM-network protocols that make up 3% of my buddy does not justify me loading anything other than iChat.

Aside from multi-network support (there are workarounds) outside of AIM / .Mac, you’ll see why that aqua chat icon buried in your applications folder deserves valuable dock real estate.

When does iChat not work?

iChat just works. With so little in the bells & whistles department, there really isn’t any room for disaster to occur. In its default form, iChat does exactly what it was designed to do with very little intervention needed by a user. From the initial setup requiring your name, AIM / .Mac screen name or username, and password, there is little else that a user needs in order to exchange instant messages with other AIM / .Mac users.

ichat account setup

Once an account is added, users can immediately enjoy plain text chats / direct connections, file transferring, audio chats with support for 10 person conference calls, and video chat with support for multi-party video conferences. Last I checked, alternative instant messaging applications fall short after the plain text / direct connects & file transfers.

Chax – More productive iChat sessions

chax plugin screenshot

Kent Sutherland’s Chax is to iChat what Saft is Safari, On the Job is to project management, or ketchup is to hotdogs. Chax adds subtle enhancements to iChat without taking away from the simplistic nature of the application. Using a few of the default as well as added Chax features, you too can fine tune your chat session productivity level.

ichat groupsClean-up your Buddy List – Organize contacts in your buddy list using Groups (View > Use groups). As entertaining as buddy icons can be, their integration as a default feature forces extra padding between contacts. Remove icons from users (View > Show Buddy Pictures). To minimize the Buddy List footprint even further, disable contacts Status text using Chax (View > Show Text Status). Furthermore, iChat users can specify fonts (iChat preferences > Chax > General > Contact List).

ichat groupsManage individual messages – Managing multiple chats from users can be a daunting task. Although OS X’s Expose provides great functionality as far as locating an intended contacts window, tabbed conversation windows are even better. Chax also provides a “Automatically accept text invitations” option which does away with the annoying mini windows that pop-up in the top right corner for new conversations. If tabbed windows are enabled, new instant messages will automatically receive a new tab.

chax log viewerChat transcript viewer – If saving chat transcripts is your thing, the integrated Chax log viewer will be your new best friend. Although Tiger’s Spotlight indexes iChat transcripts located in your ~/Documents/iChats folder, you never really know if the Spotlight result will be of any use as the entire chat transcript is pulled for viewing. Rather than shelling $20 for Unsanity’s Chat Transcript Manager, make use of the Chax Log Viewer (Window > Log Viewer). The Log Viewer supports exporting transcripts as plain text (we all know what a pain it can be to email iChat transcripts) and log deletion (leave no questions asked). The viewer also support live search for drilling down through contacts without having to weed through irrelevant logs. Also check out Logorrhea.

The added functionality list offered by Chax goes on and on. Check out a free copy for yourself. Chax is distributed as donation-ware. Toss a few dollars into the donation pot or drop Mr. Sutherland a thankful email for his hard work and contribution to the iChat community. Updates are distributed regularly as Chax is continually receiving refinements to add to the iChat experience.

Keep prominent contacts within focus

afloat window transparency and focus

Window transparency may be unnecessary eye candy, but floating windows are not. Fortunately, the lightweight utility Afloat offers both features bundled together. Once installed, any relaunched Cocoa apps will reflect a new Window menu option for floating windows or transparency with no noticeable hits on system resources. A convenient method for keeping conversations in plain view without the obstruction of miscellaneous application windows. Extremely helpful for times when contacts are explaining an assignment, directions, or anything else that would have users switching back and forth between multiple applications.

Keep audio records or create Podcasts

Thanks to the seamless integration of Apple’s iLife apps, iChat & Garageband work together in perfect harmony. After initiating a voice chat, fire up Garageband and select “New Podcast Episode”. After Garageband completes loading, initiate a new recording. Garageband does the rest splitting each respective iChat audio participant into separate tracks. A great way to co-create Podcasts or record private audio chats. As much as I enjoy the convenience of such functionality, I do think that Apple should implement some sort of “this chat is being recorded” feature for the privacy minded. To date, there is no way for contacts to know whether their conversations are being recorded in real time.

iChat is not limited to AIM / .Mac

chax log viewerContrary to popular belief, iChat does not limit its users to the AIM / .Mac networks. iChat is very much as capable a client and provides multi-network support for those pinch moments when communicating via Google Talk, MSN, or Yahoo is a must. Communicating on any of these networks requires that users do so via Jabber, an open XML-based instant messaging protocol. Utilizing the Jabber network to access MSN & Yahoo gateways requires a stress-free setup. Reference the Jabber Australia tutorial for accessing either networks via iChat. In addition, check out Ben’s write-up on getting iChat and Google Talk to play nice.

What will Leopard have in store for iChat?

With OS X Leopard just around the corner, what can loyal iChat users expect from Apple? Any thoughts on what iChat may support in its next major revision? Share your thoughts concerning the application – where it falls short, how it excels, add-ons, or your own personal recommendation for an instant messaging solution on OS X.