For many OS X users, iChat is a program only opened once. You’ll start a video chat with your other Mac-using friend, or try a screen sharing session as you both race for mouse control supremacy and try to update each other’s Facebook status. Soon, however, the novelty wears off, the Adium .dmg lands in your downloads stack and iChat sits collecting dust in the long forgotten regions of your dock.
That was my situation anyway, until I heard about Chax.
Chax is a free, BSD licensed app that promises to improve the iChat experience. In this way, it’s like a Glims for iChat, but where Glims boosts Safari with big features like full screen browsing, Chax focuses on more modest app improvements – but ones that should no doubt be indispensable for heavy iChat users.
Installation and Set Up
Installing Chax couldn’t be easier. After mounting the disk image, it’s a matter of simply launching the installer app, clicking “install” and relaunching iChat.
At first glance, iChat looks the same as it always did – which is because Chax hasn’t enabled any features yet. They’re in the iChat preference window.
This is a well thought-out design choice, because it means that not only is the user forced to customise their own experience, there’s less risk of forgetting about new features once installed. An unlikely scenario, you might imagine, but speaking as someone who’s accepted many application updates and had to google the changelog to remember what’s new, Chax’s choice here feels like an elegant solution to that problem.
A Better Contact List
Easily the most annoying iChat UI choice is the fact that each account has it’s own contact list window. Five years ago, this may have been fine, but even if regular people don’t have as many IM accounts as I do (I have 5), they’ll at least have a Facebook account they’d want to add alongside an AIM account.
Chax solves this by combining all your accounts into a single chat window. After clicking the corresponding preference check box, the current, scattered chat windows need to be manually closed and the “All Contacts” window selected from the Window Menu. Ideally, this would happen automatically, but it’s no big deal.
It’s disappointing that there’s no way to distinguish different networks, like how Adium adds an optional Gmail or MSN logo next to the contact name. Don’t ask me to justify why I need this feature, but it would be nice.
Chax also lets the current contact window auto resize itself based on how many online contacts you have. This works well, and mercifully stops itself when it hits either the dock or the edge of your screen (I’m looking at you, windowless Adium)
And finally, Chax lets you customise the font in the contact list. Anything other than standard Lucida Grande looks terrible, but this option is truly useful for changing font size. I shrunk mine down one pt, and so far, the change has lasted longer than most of my customisations usually do.
Chax also adds two ways of logging with iChat. The first is with the updated log viewer. Chax’s log viewer is cleanly designed, taking clear UI cues from Adium’s chat log viewer.
While not too extensible, the Log Viewer does have one killer feature – being able to display links and images in the conversation history. As someone who has spent far to much time laboriously scrolling through chat logs, trying to find a link I sent someone a month ago by guessing the keywords I’d used to introduce it – this little feature is a massive boon.
One niggling issue I have with the log viewer – it’s not copy paste friendly. Usually, when I’m digging through IM logs, it’s because I’m getting a direct quote of a conversation. Exporting the log brings up a standard Name Colon Message format, but I’d rather not export a whole 3 hour chat just to copy 3 lines.
Chax also features what they’ve called the activity log. Like Skype’s Mood Message log, but creepier, the activity monitor logs whenever your friends sign in, sign out, change their status or change their iTunes track. I don’t quite see the point in the feature, unless for some bizarre reason you needed proof your friends were logged into their IM accounts.
Chax adds what any self respecting OS X app implements in it’s first alpha release – Growl notifications. It’s certainly a welcome addition, but nothing to write home about if you’re no longer in the Growl honeymoon period. They’re also as configurable as you’d expect, which is good, because you may find your screen quickly flooded with sign in and sign out notifications.
But it’s not just the top half of your screen that gets plugin love. Chax also gives you the option to make the dock icon more dynamic by putting either the name of the person you’re talking to in the dock icon and/or showing their avatar over the dock icon.
The latter is garish. Granted it’s probably difficult trying to design for a scalable area, but perfect squares aren’t a nice fit amongst your usual array of 3D rounded icons, especially pixellated perfect squares with stark red text stuck on top of them.
Thankfully, you can turn that option off. Which I did.
Finally, Chax offers the ability to auto-accept file transfers, video chats, and screen sharing requests. It even lets you specify which contacts to auto select from. It’s customisable, but not smart.
Currently, not being able to auto accept these requests is like the User Account Control situation that arose with Vista. The user agrees with their friends to accept the file, then has to let the software know by clicking the accept button.
A better solution would be only auto accepting if the chat window is in focus, but, as far as I’m aware, that’s not a standard in any chat program anywhere, so there’s no need to blame Chax.
How do you evaluate something like Chax? It doesn’t make sweeping claims to turn iChat into Adium, so while it’s feature set may be minimal, I hardly have a right to complain.
Chax hasn’t revolutionised my iChat experience, but it does everything it claims to very well, and I certainly won’t be uninstalling it any time soon!