AOL is testing an enhanced webmail service for its subscribers and instant-messaging users.

The test service includes an improved search tool for finding information stored in emails, the company said. The service is also now integrated with the AOL Pictures photo-management service, allowing users to place pictures in messages.

Webmail services have seen a resurgence thanks to increased competition, triggered initially by the debut of Google's Gmail in 2004. Since then, users have benefited from dramatically increased storage and continuous user-interface improvements in webmail services from Yahoo, Microsoft and others.

The improvements in the search functionality include the ability to search all text stored in an email account, instead of just searching by subject and sender, as well as the automatic highlighting of search terms.

When composing messages, users of Firefox and AOL's own Netscape browser will find new options for formatting text. The options include changing the font's type, colour and size, as well as the ability to underline, bold or italicise text. The service has also gained a feature to save email text to the AOL Journals blog publishing service with a single click.

To participate in the test, users must have an AOL or AIM account. AOL recommends Mac OS X with Firefox 1.0.4 or above, or some Windows systems.