Before They Spoiled the Software
Software developers would like you to believe that with every new version, their products improve substantially, adding slicker interfaces and more powerful features, and making better use of faster processors and more RAM. As applications mature, they imply, we are all moving toward the Golden Age of Software.
But we know that's not always the case.
We've all seen programs that started out as a simple 1MB utility become a Jabba-the-Hutt-sized monster with an interface so complex you need a Ph.D. in physics to understand it. We've seen software that dropped some of its niftiest features to lure you into buying a more-expensive Pro version. We've seen a once-unassuming application become greedy for as much of your system resources as it can grab.
Of course, sometimes bloat is in the eye of the beholder. Additions that are great new features for somebody else may be, for you, useless buttons that just get in the way.
You don't have to put up with it, though. We've rounded up a list of good software that went bad, and we'll show you how you can turn back the clock by downloading and installing the earlier, better versions.
How We Found Them
For our compilation of earlier-is-better software, we went to the pros--the people who use plenty of programs every day. We asked our own PC World editors for their lists of applications that were better before developers started mucking around. And we also went to an online treasure trove of older-but-better software--the site OldVersion.com, which has rounded up countless earlier versions of dozens and dozens of programs. We asked site founder and editor Alex Levine to give us his picks of the best oldies, and we asked site users to weigh in as well.
Note: When clicking on a link for software at OldVersion.com, you may need to scroll down the resulting page to find the version you want. Also, OldVersion.com isn't the only site that archives old software. If you're looking for a hard-to-find older application, try oldapps.com and old-versions.net.
The Safety Tradeoff
Before we start on our list of Golden Oldies, though, keep in mind one big caveat: An undeniably good thing that comes with new versions of software is the fixes you get for security holes, sometimes very serious ones. So if you choose to run old versions of programs, you are taking a calculated risk. Make sure your other defenses are as strong as you can make them, and be extra careful about what you click.
Got a favorite piece of software from the past? Vote in our poll for the software you wish they'd never "improved."
Instant Messaging Programs
Do you think your instant messaging application is bloated? Welcome to the club.
AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)
OldVersion.com's Alex Levine, like many others, complains that the newest version of AIM features more pop-ups, more advertising, and a difficult-to-use interface. "A lot of our users use AIM 5.5.x or 5.9.x simply because [those versions] do what users need the app to do and don't use as much CPU," he says.
"They made the newer versions way too foofy and filled with [stuff] I don't need," one OldVersion user says of AIM. "The older versions work much better; they do just what I want, which is allow me to communicate with people with a minimum of fuss and without a slick interface that I don't need."
"The smilies are unbearable in the newer versions," another user adds. "Not only do they do that horrible explosion thing, but for some reason you can't make them any smaller than the default, and the really tiny smilies are so much cuter :)."
America Online seems to have a knack for wrecking good instant messengers. ICQ was at one time the big boy of the instant messaging world. Then AOL bought it. Ever since, people have been complaining about the software's bloat.
"I still use ICQ 2003 Pro, primarily because it still has the original single message mode instead of the split chat window," says PC World's Elliott Kirschling. "I would prefer to use an even older and less bloated version, but they no longer connect to the newer clients and network."
"It used to be a wonderful little IM program, then they just couldn't leave well enough alone and kept adding more and more," complains one OldVersion.com user. Oldversion.com has previous versions of both ICQ and ICQ Lite, an even slimmer client. If you want to check out what people are complaining about, you can download ICQ 6, the current version.
Windows Messenger, MSN Messenger, Windows Live Messenger
This Microsoft instant messaging program has gone through so many name changes and incarnations, we defy anyone to name them all. The latest is Windows Live Messenger, which some people complain is a system hog.
"Windows Live Messenger is all flair and no guts," says one OldVersion.com user. "I want a messenger to send messages to people, not eat up my system resources with transparent skins and flashy interfaces." This IM devotee says he uses, instead, MSN Messenger 7.5.
Looking for a simple media player? You'll have to go back in time.
Windows Media Player
Once upon a time, Windows Media Player was a simple, compact application that just played media files. Nothing more, nothing less. Those days are long gone. Today's Windows Media Player 11 is a major, full-blown application for managing media, with all kinds of bells and whistles. Not everyone, though, likes those bells and whistles.
Says one OldVersion.com user: "It used to be a utility that would play media files you had on the computer. Now it's some unholy bloated 'Media Center'." OldVersion.com has versions of Media Player that go all the way back to 5.1 (a mere 0.2MB download!).
MusicMatch Jukebox (Now Yahoo Music Jukebox)
Yahoo Music Jukebox (the latest version of what used to be MusicMatch Jukebox) manages an unfortunate double-whammy: Critics say it's both bloated and lacking many of the best features of its predecessor.
" Older versions of MusicMatch Jukebox were the best solution for recording, organizing, tagging, and playing a large music collection," PC World's Kirschling says. "Version 10 was the last version, and it did get some small updates after Yahoo bought it, but now they are trying to force everyone to 'upgrade' to Yahoo Music Jukebox. The problem is that Yahoo Music Jukebox does not have most of the advanced features that MusicMatch has."
I'll add a personal note here. I used to be a MusicMatch user as well, but I lost interest in it before it was sold to Yahoo, sometime back around version 9, when Big Bloat set in.
What is it about media players that makes developers want to muck around with them? Do they get a charge out of saying, "My player is bigger than yours"? For whatever reason, these programs grow bigger, not better, with time. Winamp is another player program that has grown through the years, and not necessarily for the better. Older versions were mean and lean, great at playing media and getting out of the way. The new version, some users say, gets in the way.
"My favorite version is Winamp 2.95. That's before they started bulking up the client and adding completely unnecessary things," says one music aficionado at OldVersion.com. "I just want something that plays my MP3s. I don't need it to burn CDs for me or download new music or cook my breakfast or massage my feet."
In the case of iTunes 7, bloat isn't the problem. But discriminating users complain that Apple took away a really useful feature. " Early versions of iTunes allowed you to stream your music collection to an unlimited number of PCs on a local network," PC World Senior Editor Eric Dahl explains. "The current version restricts you to five PCs per day, meaning that if your music collection is popular with your coworkers, some of them may get cut off."
QuickTime is another example of Apple taking away features from a perfectly good program, says PC World Executive Editor Allan Stafford. "QuickTime Player got stripped of lots of features in an effort to get people to buy the Pro version."
Image and Video Software
Sure, this software category usually means big, and bigger, programs. But sometimes you get less, not more.
iMovie '08 (for the Mac)
Here's an example of a great program gone bad--really, really bad. When Apple updated iMovie, it essentially changed the software completely, stripping out all the best features and leaving behind a shell of the former program. So now it doesn't have a timeline for video editing, its audio editing tools are poor, it won't accept plug-ins--and that's just a start.
David Pogue wrote in his newsletter for the New York Times, "I can't remember any software company pulling a stunt like this before: throwing away a fully developed, mature, popular program and substituting a bare-bones, differently focused program under the same name."
Corel Paint Shop Pro
For many years, Paint Shop Pro was the top piece of graphics shareware. It was the anti-Photoshop--plenty of features, plenty of power, yet simple to use and fast-loading. Then came version 8. Good-bye, simplicity. Things haven't improved any in the current version, Corel Paint Shop Pro X2, which costs about $100.
"If I want to do something quick and simple, I just use Paint Shop Pro 7," says one OldVersion.com user. "Paint Shop Pro 8 just tried too hard to be Photoshop Lite." At least OldVersion.com has trial versions of previous incarnations of Paint Shop Pro.
"With 8, they tried to do too much with it and I had no idea how to even use half the features or buttons," says another OldVersion site user. "I use Paint Shop Pro for basic stuff like cropping, because it loads quicker than Photoshop. For what I need, version 8.0 is practically useless."
Early versions of ACDSee, an image management program, were slick and fast-loading, and were ideally suited for viewing graphics and doing image conversions. The current version is big and slow, and not nearly as easy to use, many users complain.
"Once version 3.0 hit, the application was unsuitable for my use because of all the unnecessary stuff they added," says one OldVersion.com user.
"The older versions of ACDSee loaded in a snap, like the Windows image viewer, [and] had better functions for resizing and slide shows, and also let you do JPG/GIF/BMP/PNG conversions," another user says.
And Two More Previous Favorites
These two applications are popular--but are the current versions the best?
This widely used program is designed to do one thing, and one thing alone--let you read Adobe PDF files. Once upon a time that meant a svelte program. Today it means a sumo wrestler. Don't believe us? Just take a look at the file sizes. Version 2.0 was a 1.4MB download. The current version 8.1 weighs in at a hefty 22.3MB.
The best earlier version of this classic, says one OldVersion.com visitor, is Adobe Reader 5.0.5. "The bloat showed up in version 6," he says, "and even though it started disappearing in version 8, there's still a splash screen, annoying updater, and so on."
Lots of long-time PC users have fond memories of this e-mail client; indeed, for many old-timers, it was the first e-mail software they ever used. But some of the changes the program introduced over the years, such as a feature that read your e-mail to warn you if it was potentially insulting, seemed less than necessary to lots of users.
Our Quick Checklist of Old and New Versions
Here is our complete list of the applications discussed in this article.
- AIM (current)
- AIM 5.5.x or 5.9.x (older versions)
- ICQ 6 (current)
- ICQ (earlier versions)
- ICQ Lite (old versions)
- Windows Live Messenger (current)
- MSN Messenger 7.5 (earlier version of Live Messenger)
- Windows Media Player 11 (current)
- Media Player (earlier versions)
- Yahoo Music Jukebox (current; formerly MusicMatch)
- MusicMatch Jukebox (older versions)
- Winamp (current)
- Winamp (older versions)
- iTunes 7 (current)
- iTunes (early versions)
- QuickTime 7 (current)
- QuickTime (older versions)
- iMovie (current)
- iMovie, Apple iLife 2004
- iMovie, Apple iLife 2006
- Corel Paint Shop Pro X2 (current)
- Corel Paint Shop Pro, trialware of earlier versions
- ACDSee 9 (current)
- ACDSee (earlier, trial versions)
- Adobe Reader 8.1 (current)
- Adobe Reader 5.0.5
- Eudora, current version
- Eudora, earlier versions