It’s been a long time coming but Cerulean Studios has finally released – albeit in public beta form – the next major version of its multi-protocol instant messaging client, Trillian Astra. It supports the usual IM networks (Yahoo, Google, ICQ, Windows Live, AOL, Jabber/XMPP) as well as other services like MySpace, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter, and you can even use the program to stay on top of your various email accounts.

Installation was quick and easy – it comes bundled with the Ask toolbar but you can uncheck that option during the process. For those still using the long-abandoned version 3.1 of the client, all settings are imported without hiccups, while menus and options remain familiar although with a few additions and a fresh look. Admittedly, the first thing I did was change that hideous ultramodern default skin for the much cleaner and simpler Trillian Cobalt; it's a matter of taste, so your experience may vary.

On the features front, Trillian comes as packed as ever, but some are available in the Pro version only (included as a 30-day trial), such as advanced video chat and an integrated activity history viewer. Unlike previous versions of Trillian, the basic version includes plug-in support. My IM needs are pretty simple, so in terms of functionality, I’ve had no problems switching (temporarily?) from Pidgin two days ago. That said, I wonder if after three years in development it’s just too little, too late for Cerulean Studios now that free, open source and even web based rival clients have caught up.

Trillian Astra is nonetheless a solid multi-protocol IM client, so its refreshed looks, smart notifications, and plentiful configuration options might still win back some of their old fans.