March 29, 2004

Can Kopete replace GAIM and XChat?

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

An "all-in-one" instant messaging client is an attractive idea. GAIM has come close to achieving that goal, but recently has had problems keeping up with changes in Yahoo's messenger service and some of the others, so I decided to take a look at Kopete.It's part of KDE, which means I already had it installed. Here's what I found:
  • Nothing is easier to set up for AIM users than GAIM, but Kopete's Wizard-driven account setup tool is a close second, and Kopete is a breeze to get going with Yahoo and MSN chat, too, and not hard to configure for IRC use.
  • Kopete isn't as good an IRC client as XChat for hard-core IRCers -- the kind of people who (like me) may be on between three and five networks at a time, often logged into several password-protected channels, but it's more than good enough for entry-level or lightweight IRC users.
  • If you're using KDE anyway, Kopete's integration with the rest of the desktop is a huge plus, not only for setup but for day-to-day operation.
  • Kopete has a few quirks that take a little getting used to, but no fatal flaws. Hopefully it's developers are aware of these small problems and are working on them.

We all get set in our ways. I've used GAIM and XChat for years and have generally been satisfied with them. In fact, XChat is one of my most-used applications, since our far-flung OSDN editorial staff uses IRC as its primary communications tool. But now that I'm writing a book for new Linux users, I'm trying to see things through a different set of eyes, and looking at programs I might not otherwise consider. Kopete is one of those programs, and the 0.8 release I'm using that came with KDE 3.2 is much better than Kopete was when I last tried it, and well-integrated with the rest of KDE, too.

When I talk about "well integrated," I mean a single click in Kopete on a link a friend posts in an IRC channel brings up that URL instantly in Konqueror, and an email address is one click away from a "compose" window in KMail. Users who lack confidence in their spelling ability will also appreciate misspelled words underlined in red, and the fact that they can bring up a list of suggested alternatives with a right click on the suspect word. These little bits of convenience make a computer pleasant to use in ways those of us who are used to using different programs -- that often behave in different ways -- are not accustomed to thinking about, but I assure you that people who just want to sit down in front of their monitors and get their work done with the least possible hassle do notice this sort of thing.

Made with new users in mind

Accounts and user identities are added through a simple "Wizard" utility that's about as easy to understand as any IM or IRC setup can possibly be. If you don't have an account on a particular network, the wizard even has links to the signup page of each one Kopete supports. I tested this by setting up an MSN messenger account, and immediately had the same access to this popular chat service as any Windows user. It took me less than five minutes to set up access for three IM services and three IRC networks. Another 10 minutes of experimenting with display settings, and I was 100% in business, with everything set to my taste -- and had strangers offering to chat with me through Yahoo Messenger, a service I hadn't used in at least two years.

Come to think of it, the reason I stopped using the Yahoo service was that so many people use it as a way to meet people, and I'm a little busy to answer "Hi, how are you" messages from random strangers. It took a while to find someone who could help me test the MSN service, but I finally found a Windows user and it worked fine, as did AIM, which some of my contacts prefer over IRC for one-on-one discussions.

On the "ease of setup"' front, I'll give GAIM a slight edge over Kopete when it comes to getting on AIM; GAIM takes no setup at all. Type in your username and password, click to log on, and there you go. With Yahoo, Kopete is infinitely easier than GAIM, because GAIM does not work at all with Yahoo Messenger's latest protocol revision. Kopete didn't either, for a while, and we don't know when AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo will do their next "upgrade" designed to break independent applications that connect to them, so saying "Kopete works with xxx and GAIM doesn't" may not be true next month. We simply don't know who's got what up their proprietary sleeves.

Right now, on the whole, I'd say Kopete has made it about as easy as possible to set up accounts on a variety of services, and once they're set up it's a decent-looking application, easy to configure to your taste in most important ways.

XChat is better for industrial-strength IRC use

XChat, while fairly obscure and geeky for a GUI app, has several features I didn't find in Kopete. The biggest one on the convenience front is its ability to automatically log onto multiple password-protected channels on multiple networks. Perhaps there's a way to keep from having to enter the password for each protected channel you join, each time you join it, with Kopete, but I didn't find it either by poking around the setup screens or reading the scanty documentation. It's apparently no problem for Kopete to save a password for a protected IRC server using KWallet (which is where it stores passwords, as do most up-to-date KDE apps), but storing passwords for individual channels seem to be beyond its ability. At least, when you log on you get a cute little password dialog box for each private channel -- although it took me a little time to realize this, since on my KDE 3.2 install the password requests tend to appear behind the main Kopete window, hidden from view until you move the main window aside.

I also found it impossible to change Kopete's font size in IRC text entry boxes. Changing the font in the main chat windows was no problem, but for some reason this didn't change the size of the text I was typing. Many, even most users may not find this a problem, but this makes Kopete a little harder to use then it should be for those of us who have poor vision.

XChat comes with a long list of popular IRC networks "built in" by default (plus you can add others). You can click on any one of the networks listed, grab a list of channels, and pick one. With Kopete, you need to know what networks and channels you want, as near as I can tell.

Then there's the fuddy-duddy factor, which rears its head here in the form of reviewer bias. When using an IRC client other than XChat, I am a little like a Windows user who is disappointed with Linux because it's's not just like Windows. I suspect that a new user would find Kopete at least as nice as XChat -- assuming he or she had a list of channels and networks in hand, and not too many channels on that list required passwords to enter.

I'll also say that on the cuteness front GAIM has a slight edge over Kopete, and if you only use AIM, not other messaging services, you're probably better off with GAIM. And GAIM isn't bad for IRC, either, although I find the way it adds IRC channels to your "buddy list" a little strange. But that's just me. Others may not see this as a problem.

Conclusion

If you spend all day jumping in and out of IRC channels, use XChat. If AIM is your only messaging service, use GAIM. If you want a client that's reasonably good with AIM and IRC -- and works with other popular IM services as well, Kopete is a fine choice -- especially if you're running KDE anyway, since Kopete's little mini-icon in the system tray at the bottom of a KDE screen pops up cute little cartoon balloons when someone wants to IM you or someone on your "buddy list" logs on, which is a very convenient feature to have if you spend a lot of time online.

There are many other Linux IRC and IM clients out there. Try them all. They're all free. But if you're running KDE and you're not a complete IRC junkie, in the end you'll probably find that Kopete is the most convenient one for everyday use.

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