Pidgin is our favourite instant messaging application for Windows, not only for all its great built-in feature, but for all the features you can add to it via plugins. It comes with a few built-in, but there are a ton of others out there if you know where to find them. Here are our favourites.
Some of these plugins come baked in with Pidgin, and you don't need to download or install anything extra -- you just need to turn them on under Tools > Plugins in Pidgin.. Others will require installation, which can vary from plugin to plugin. Sometimes they come with a Windows installer, but other times they'll just come as a set of folders or DLL files inside a ZIP file. In this case, copy them to your Pidgin folder so that the DLL files end up in
C:\Program Files\Pidgin\plugins (or
C:\Program Files (x86)\Pidgin\plugins for 64-bit machines), and that any other files get dropped into their associated folders inside
Program Files\Pidgin. Check each plugin's documentation for exact instructions on how to install it. Once it's installed, you'll be able to find it in Tools > Plugins -- no need to restart Pidgin or anything.
Note: This guide is mainly geared toward Windows users, but Pidgin is our favorite Linux IM client too, so a few of these will work great on Linux as well. Linux also has some other great plugins that we didn't mention here, though, and installing plugins on Linux could be a little different, so be sure to check each plugin's documentation for more info.
GTK Theme Control
Pidgin's default colours are a little bright for my tastes, and the fonts are a little big. So, I like to use the Pidgin GTK Theme Control plugin to tweak the interface more to my liking. It comes with Pidgin, and lets you change the colours you see in conversations, the fonts and font sizes, and even the horizontal separation of the tree view in your buddy list. You can also disable the typing notification text, if that bugs you.
Note that this doesn't theme Pidgin, per se, it just lets you tweak a few things here and there. To give it a different theme completely, you'll want to check out the GTK Theme Switcher program, which you can read more about on this page of Pidgin's documentation.
No one seems to follow IM etiquette anymore. It's like we're a bunch of cavemen. If you find that your friends keep messaging you even when you're away, you can set your idle time manually with the the pre-bundled I'dle Mak'er plugin (I have no idea why it's spelled like that). That way, you can appear idle when you're really not, and people will hopefully leave you alone. After enabling in the Plugins section, just head to Tools > I'dle Mak'er to set your idle time for a specific account, or for all your accounts at once. And give your friends a subtle hint by sending them our primer on instant messaging status etiquette, while you're at it.
History and SessionSave
If you need to remember your last conversation with someone, the built-in History plugin will show it every time you open a new IM window -- so you'll never just have a blank box with no text. Coupled with the non-standard SessionSave plugin, which reopens all your old conversations and tabs on each launch, you can pick up right where you left off every time you restart Pidgin.
Windows 7 Taskbar
The Windows 7 Taskbar plugin adds a number of Windows-specific features to Pidgin, including jumplist support, a status icon on the taskbar, support for showing file transfer progress, and tab thumbnail previews on Aero Peek. I'm a little shocked none of this is baked into Pidgin, as for other Windows programs, this is basic functionality. If you use Pidgin on Windows 7, you should absolutely have this extension.
Extended Buddy List Sort
If Pidgin's default buddy sorting options aren't enough for you, the Extended Buddy List Sort plugin gives you a bit more control. You can give your buddy list three different rules for sorting, in order of importance. You can sort them by status then by name, by online time then by protocol, and more. It's pretty useful.
Message Notification, Pidgin GNTP, and Audible Alerts
Pidgin isn't great at notifying you when new IMs come in or buddy statuses change, but a number of plugins can help with that. Message Notification, built into Pidgin, gives you a few more options like flashing the window and showing the number of unread messages in the titlebar. If you use Growl for Windows, you can also download the Pidgin GNTP plugin to get Growl notifications for all sorts of events. And, lastly, the Audible Alerts plugin replaces the beeps and dings with a text-to-speech reading of who's IMing you, so if you're away from your keyboard you can tell whether it's important or not.
Off the Record and Windows Credentials
If you need to add a layer of security to your IMs, Off the Record is the plugin to do it for you. Not only can you disable logging and send encrypted messages, you can even make sure your buddy is who you think they are through a question-and-answer system, a shared secret or digital fingerprint verification. There's a lot to this plugin, so you can read more about it at its homepage and in its readme. Note that this extension is not the same as Gtalk's built-in "off the record" feature that just disables logging; you can't get that in Pidgin.
While you're tweaking security settings, though, you might want to deal with one of Pidgin's biggest sources of complaints and install the Windows Credentials plugin. By default, Pidgin stores its passwords in plain text, which many see as insecure -- though the Pidgin team has an explanation for why they do it. If it still makes you uncomfortable, though, the Windows Credentials extension saves your passwords using the Windows Credentials API instead.
Lock 'n' Roll
Ever leave your computer but forget to change your status to Away? Lock 'n' Roll fixes that, automatically setting you as Away when you lock your computer, with whatever status you want. We wish it could set you to Offline or Invisible, too, but for right now it can only change your status to away.
Advanced Shorturl and Expand
If you frequently share long URLs that clutter up your IM window, the Advanced Shorturl plugin will automatically shorten URLs after a specific length with is.gd. You can choose the maximum length for a URL before it becomes shortened, which is nice, though this plugin takes a bit more work to install (you'll need ActivePerl 5.10 installed, which you can grab along with the plugin on its download page).
Alternatively, if you don't like short URLs because of the security issues surrounding them, you can instead install the Expand plugin, which automatically expands URLs from a ton of different shorteners, so you always know where you're headed -- which is great, since IM and Facebook Chat is so often used to spread spam and viruses.
There are a ton of great Pidgin plugins out there, but these are definitely our favourites for customising the look and usability of our favourite IM client. Do you have one that you love, but we forgot to mention? Share it with us in the comments below.