IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a venerable protocol which allows people to
type messages at each other across the net. Your editor remembers a
fascinating day in 1991, when observers in Moscow used an IRC channel to
report on the Soviet coup attempt; it was an early example of the power the
net would come to have. In subsequent years, however, your editor has had
little time for IRC. Getting LWN together every week requires a strong
focus on getting things done, and IRC can be a real productivity killer.
Pretending that IRC does not exist has been most helpful in getting the
Real Work done.
Recently, however, your editor has had reason to wander into IRC again.
done much in this area for a while, your editor lacked a favorite IRC
client - or any IRC client at all. Thus began the search for the best tool
for this particular job - and, eventually, this article.
Anybody who has investigated the topic knows that there is no shortage of
IRC clients to choose from. It would appear that free software developers
are often afflicted with this particular itch. There is no real hope of
reviewing them all, so your editor will not even try. Instead, this review
is restricted to graphical clients which appear to have a real user base
and which are under active development. Your editor also lacks access to
AOL instant messaging, MSN messaging, etc., so this review will be focused
on IRC functionality. Some clients can work with many networks; that
capability will be mentioned when appropriate, but it will not be reviewed
further. Finally, your editor has little to say about channel operator
commands, file downloads, or other such features of IRC; this article will
focus on the basics.
Gaim is a longstanding GNOME
messaging client. It does IRC, along with AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger,
Yahoo, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, and so on. If it's a messaging protocol, Gaim
can probably handle it. Those using it for IRC only will find that Gaim
brings a certain amount of baggage ("buddy lists" and such) which is not
useful in that context, and that some of the terminology used ("rooms")
does not quite match the IRC conventions. None of this is particularly
problematic in real use, however.
The main Gaim window is tab-oriented, with each IRC channel in its own
tab. This organization is space-efficient, but it can make it hard to
monitor more than one channel - though the color-coded tab tags help. Tabs
can be detached, however, allowing the user to fill the screen with
single-channel windows. Gaim windows use smooth scrolling, a feature your
editor got tired of back in the VT100 days; unfortunately, there appears to
be no easy way to turn it off. On the other hand, users can turn
off the insertion of cloyingly cute smiley graphics into the message
Private messages result in the quiet creation of a new tab - something
which can be easy for the user to miss. In general, the handling of
private messages in IRC clients seems a little awkward.
Gaim has support for IRC servers which can authenticate nicknames with
passwords. It also has a plugin feature which can be used to extend the
plugins add support for additional protocols, expose more preference
options, perform encryption, and more.
Finally, on your editor's system, the Gaim client was a huge process. It
should not be that hard to create an IRC client which requires less
that a 50MB resident set, but the Gaim developers have not done that.
Running Gaim made the whole system visibly slower. Gaim also doesn't take
the hint when all of its windows are closed; one must explicitly tell it to
go away by selecting "Quit" from the "Buddies" menu in the "Buddy list"
window - something your editor found less than entirely intuitive.
Konversation is a KDE-based
client centered around IRC. Like many KDE clients, it is feature-heavy and
Like Gaim, Konversation is based on a single window with tabs. In this
case, however, there does not appear to be any way to detach the tabs into
their own windows.
One nice feature in Konversation is "remember lines," lines drawn in each
conversation window when it goes out of view. When returning to a channel,
the user knows just where to start reading to catch up on the new stuff.
This feature gets a little aggressive at times, drawing several lines
together in low-activity channels; one presumes this little glitch can be
ironed out. Konversation also has an option to suppress all of the channel
event lines (comings and goings) which tend to clutter up the
Konversation can handle passwords, but it required a bit more setup work
than some other clients.
Also available is a "URL catcher" tab which simply accumulates URLs posted
on subscribed channels.
Overall, Konversation comes across as a featureful and useful IRC client.
The documentation which comes with it is well-done and comprehensive; it
helped your editor get past his initial questions ("how do I make it stop
joining #kde?") quickly. Detachable tabs would make it nearly perfect.
Perhaps your editor is pushing it a bit by including ERC in this list. ERC
is an emacs-based IRC client; it can be added onto emacs 21, and it
has been bundled into the upcoming emacs 22 release. Emacs is a
strongly graphical environment these days, and ERC offers all of the
point-and-click configuration and operation options that the other clients
reviewed here have.
ERC maintains a separate buffer for each open IRC channel. It tends to
hide those buffers, and there is no simple tab bar for switching between
them. It is a simple matter for an emacs user to configure the display as
desired, with different channels displayed in different windows or frames.
Somebody who is not familiar with the emacs way of doing things would have
a harder time of it, however.
There is a separate buffer for managing the connection with the IRC server,
and that is where private messages show up. It is probably safe to say
that very few users will keep that buffer visible, with the result that
private messages tend to go unnoticed. ERC also arguably features the
ugliest, most unreadable channel list window of any of the clients
Display is highly configurable. By default, ERC is less color-happy than
most other graphical clients, a feature which your editor appreciates.
There is a full list of options for filtering users and message types,
performing text transformations, etc. And, of course, the experienced
emacs user can simply attach elisp functions to any events requiring more
There is no provision for marking the last-read text in ERC. This
functionality is easily obtained by moving point off the end of the buffer,
essentially saving the current location - but the user must remember to do
Overall, your editor likes the feel of working with ERC - but, then, he is
known to be sympathetic to emacs-based solutions. There is no need to
figure out how to search for specific text, for example - all of the normal
text searching functions work as expected. Saving text or a partial log is
straightforward. There is no one-line text window to type into; one simply
types into the buffer and long lines are broken naturally. And so on.
Emacs users will probably be happy with ERC; the rest of the world is
unlikely to pick up emacs to be able to use it.
XChat is a popular client with a
relatively long history. Your editor tried out the GNOME version of XChat
on several networks. Finding servers was relatively easy, since XChat
comes equipped with a long list built into it. One thing which becomes
immediately apparent, however, is that XChat grabs the channel list in a
blocking operation. The client can go completely unresponsive for several
minutes until the listing is complete - not the friendliest introduction
The main XChat window features a tree listing of servers and open panels on
the left, and a display of one of those channels in the main pane. There
does not appear to be any way to view more than one channel's traffic at
any given time. The left pane marks channels with unread activity - with a
separate mark if the only activity is enter and leave events.
The XChat feature list is long. It has a "last read" line in each window,
though how it decides when something was read remains a bit of a mystery.
It is not directly related to expose, focus, or mouse button events. Those
who are relatively uninterested in actually reading IRC traffic can
set up window transparency and background images. There is a plugin
mechanism which can used to set up a URL grabber window or to script the
client in Perl or Python. Moving the pointer over a correspondent's name
yields a popup with that person's name and origin information. There is no
password support, however. Unlike some other clients, XChat appears to
have relatively little support for channel operator functions.
Graphically, XChat is reasonably pleasing, with a use of color which is
not entirely excessive. Private messages are handled in a relatively
straightforward and visible way - but the dialog for selecting a user to
talk to is painful. Overall, it is a capable and easy client adequate for
the needs of a large subset of IRC users.
Once upon a time, the Mozilla client looked as if it were about to grow to
encompass the functionality of most other programs found on a typical
desktop system. The Mozilla project eventually decided to redirect its
efforts toward the more focused Firefox and Thunderbird tools, leaving the
old, comprehensive application behind. There were users who did not like
that state of affairs, and who dedicated some time to continuing its
development. The result was the SeaMonkey project.
Tucked into one corner of this tool is an IRC client.
Your editor's introduction to this tool was somewhat rocky. It offered up
Undernet as one of its connection possibilities. Your editor decided to
check it out and see what channels were available. After a long period
where the client was completely unresponsive (attempting to list information
for over 20,000 channels), it simply crashed. Note to the SeaMonkey
developers: if you must crash, please have the courtesy to do so
before making the user wait for a long network transfer.
When SeaMonkey is operating, it provides a single, tabbed window with
nicknames on the left. There is no way to have more than one channel
on-screen at a time. There is no password support. All told, the
SeaMonkey IRC client ("ChatZilla") comes across as unfinished and rough
compared to a number of the alternatives. Your editor has seen nothing
here to convince him that web browsers need to support IRC too.
Ksirc is a simple IRC client shipped with KDE; it does not appear to have a
web page dedicated to it. It offers less help than many other clients;
your editor's install of ksirc did not know about any IRC servers, for
example. Once configured, however, it operates well enough.
The bulk of the interface is done through a single window, with each
channel represented by a tab. It is possible to detach the tabs into
separate windows, making it possible to see multiple windows at once.
There is also a "ticker mode" where messages scroll by in a single-line
window, but this mode did not render properly on your editor's system. A
separate window shows the list of servers and open channels, but it does
not appear to actually be useful for much.
Your editor appreciates restraint in the use of color, but ksirc, perhaps,
takes the idea too far by default. The window is essentially
monochromatic, dense, and difficult to read. The use of color can be
configured, however, and there is a set of filters which can be used to
highlight messages with text of interest. When the automatic colorizing
mode is enabled, however, it has an unhealthy tendency to pick gray for
some of the more active users - a bit of a pain considering that the window
background is, by default, gray.
Overall, ksirc is a sufficiently capable tool for most needs. It gives the
impression of having been left behind by some of the other KDE-based IRC
clients, however, and of not getting much development attention in recent
A more contemporary KDE client is Kopete. This tool, perhaps, is the KDE
answer to Gaim; it appears to have support for just about any messaging
protocol one can imagine. Once again, your editor only looked at the IRC
If ksirc is dense and hard to read, Kopete is the opposite. The default
display is full of white space, divider bars, icons, smilies, and more.
it can be hard to follow a conversation for the simple reason that very
little of it actually fits into the window. Kopete supports themes,
however, and it does not take long to find a theme which makes a little
better use of screen real estate.
At the outset, Kopete's interface is a bit intimidating. The small window
that comes up seems to offer little in the way of interesting operations -
joining a channel, say. For that, one must know to right-click on the
little icon which shows up in the taskbar tray and wander through the
menus. It all works fine once one gets the hang of it, but a new user
trying to get started without having read the manual is likely to be
frustrated for a while.
It is hard to miss private messages in Kopete - the application creates a
new window and throws it at you. For the serious messaging user, there is
a whole set of options for configuring just how hard the client tries to
let you know about various sorts of events.
About the only thing that is lacking is a "last read" line. With that in
place, and with an appropriate theme, Kopete is a powerful and attractive
Finally, your editor tried out KVirc,
which is a bit of a different approach to IRC clients. Unlike Kopete,
which leaves the first-time user trying to figure out
what to do, KVirc starts with a set of configuration windows - one of which
even displays the GPL text for approval. The user ends up with a big
window containing another for server selection. It would appear that just
about every IRC server on the planet has been put into this dialog; it's a
After selecting a server (and, perhaps. entering password information), the
user encounters one of the more peculiar aspects of KVirc. Every channel
has its own window, but all of those windows are contained within the big
KVirc window. There is a background image in the big window, and the
channel windows are all translucent. It is all visually striking, but your
editor could not help wondering why the developers felt the need to
implement their own window manager. It even has options for tiling all of
the subwindows - with a choice of several different algorithms.
KVirc also has KVS, its own,
special-purpose scripting language "inspired by C++, sh, perl, php and
mIrc". There is a separate window for monitoring socket operations,
no end of options for playing sounds, a set of anti-spam and anti-flood
filters, and more. It's all powerful and striking, but it's hard to help
wondering if all that brilliant development energy couldn't have gone into
something more generally useful than another IRC client.
For people who spend much of their lives in IRC, KVirc might well be the
tool of choice. It's visually striking, feature-rich, and users can script
their own bots directly within the client. For your editor's purposes,
however, KVirc is an overly heavy tool, wanting the full screen and ongoing
Some readers will certainly note the biggest omission from this review: bitchx. It is, beyond doubt, a powerful
client; bitchx was left out primarily because it is not a graphical
client. Those who are determined to remain in the curses world are
unlikely to be much interested in the other clients listed here, so there
doesn't seem to be much point in trying to compare them.
So which client will your editor use when he wishes to be grumpy with
others in real time, one line at a time? ERC probably remains at the top
of the list, but XChat is also a useful and capable client. If your
editor were a user of other messaging protocols as well, it would pretty
much come down to Gaim or Kopete, depending on one's desktop orientation.
Your editor's high-school son tends to quickly minimize windows when others
walk into the room, but he would appear to have settled on Gaim.
In the end, however, just about any of these clients is adequate for the
One cannot help but wonder why the free software community has produced such a large
set of IRC clients. Yes, IRC is an important communication channel, and a
well-designed client can make IRC more pleasant to work with, but it still
does not seem like there would be room for that many applications doing
essentially the same thing. One cannot fault developers for scratching an
itch and giving the result to the world. Perhaps, once they have achieved
the creation of the world-dominating IRC client, some of these developers
will move on to the creation of something truly revolutionary.
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