What: Real-time chat/buddy-list service. Details: This free download from Microsoft and its Hotmail service mimics America Online's most addicting feature -- the buddy list. Install the software, put together a list of Hotmail-using folks you'd like to communicate with, and the Messenger program will alert you when your pals are also logged on and ready to chat. As with AOL's version, you can block off pen pals you want to lose or go "invisible" when you don't want people to know you're on. Messenger lets you know when the other person is typing a message, which helps to prevent conversational pauses. Unfortunately, though this program was designed to work with AOL's buddy-list system, AOL is trying to block out Messenger users, while Microsoft keeps revising the software to get around AOL's jamming. These companies should both be sent to their rooms. Bottom line: Another potential blow to office productivity. -- Mike Musgrove

Win 95-98, free at


What: Real-time strategy gone medieval. Details: Instead of the original Total Annihilation's robotic tanks and bombers, the battleground in this sequel is filled with knights, archers, sailing ships and flying dragons. TA: Kingdoms features a deep single-player experience, spanning over 48 missions, in which you build your armies, defend your kingdom and battle to dominate the mythical world of Darien. Each of the four races here has its own way of doing business: The Aramon employ traditional knights, swordsmen and catapults, while the Taros field undead armies with demon knights and other hideous creatures. As in the original game, the hierarchies on each side make it important for players to expand their armies and build upon their units. Players are treated to glorious battle animations, beautiful environments and killer special effects; I did, however, see dropped frames when a lot of units showed up on screen at once, so you're wise to take the listed system requirements skeptically. TA: Kingdoms also includes Cavedog's new, free Boneyards online gaming service, which lets players join multiplayer games, as well as chat and download new units. Bottom line: Screen candy for lawnchair lords. -- Tom Ham

Win 95-98, $50