Say what you will about America Online (and a lot of people do; what other online service could inspire multiple newsgroups?), the company deserves points for stick-to-itiveness. Derided by savvy Netizens as clumsy and superfluous in the age of the Web, left for dead more often than Rasputin, AOL keeps growing through its combination of expanding content and hyperaggressive marketing.

That in-your-face attitude continues with AOL 4.0, the substantially revamped new version of the service: The software is showing up on CD-ROMs in everything from direct mail to cereal boxes to ATM kiosks. But damned if AOL doesn’t have a right to be proud. An easy installation and quick run through the software (for Windows now, for Macintosh by year’s end) reveal that the service has come a long way toward addressing the main criticisms lodged against it over the years, namely:

Cruddy user interface. It took enough tries, but AOL has finally left behind its early faux-Dada design aesthetic and adopted a reasonably intuitive visual layout. Especially nifty is the color-coded toolbar running across the screen top and the pull-down personal-history list that makes it easier to backtrack to that Star Wars rumor page you forgot to bookmark.

Poor e-mail service. Many a follow-up e-mail has begun: ”Sorry, AOL screwed me again.” The service has long been cursed for its balky mail service, lack of features, and maddening tendency to translate attached files into alphanumeric gibberish — particularly bad news if you depend on your e-mail in a professional capacity. No more. My 4.0 e-mail finally incorporates such essential features as an address book and spell-checker, and it sent multiple attached text and picture files without a hitch.

Narrow Internet access. It’s no secret that Steve Case would be happiest if you spent your entire online existence in his little universe and never ventured out onto the big bad Internet. But at least he’s stopped putting up roadblocks; now one click takes you directly to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, with such popular plug-ins as Real Player and Shockwave already bundled onto the installation disc. Netscape fans might be cheesed that AOL has tied its Net access so closely to the latest iteration of Explorer, which — true to Microsoft form — is an unbelievable memory hog. But space issues and lack of choice are more than offset by the increased ease of use and sharp imagery, enabling you to see right down the pores of your favorite cyberceleb. On second thought…

Despite all the improvements, the AOL bashers still have a point. Many of the premium features you’re paying for (chat rooms, message boards, financial info, et al.) are becoming available on the Web to anyone with a plain old Internet service provider. But 4.0 at least brings essential Net access and e-mail functions up to an acceptable level, making AOL essentially an ISP with a lot of cool content. Who knows, if the company keeps up the good work, the day may soon arrive when an e-mail address no longer draws abuse and taunts of ”new kid” on the digital playground. At least, not while there’s WebTV to kick around. B+