Hotmail gets the Metro treatment to become Outlook.com. Microsoft’s web-based email service remains solid, without starting a revolution.
Realising that Hotmail was getting long in the tooth, and was hardly a unified experience sitting in the Windows 8 browser, Microsoft is now adopting Outlook as a brand for personal, web-based email services.
The accompanying facelift – or face-flattening when you look at the Fisher-Price Metro/Modern-UI look imported from Windows 8 – means it sits comfortably in the Metro browser.
I finally got ‘upgraded’ from Hotmail to Outlook.com, which I put off as long as I could: as we know, not all such upgrades are an improvement.
Before you scoff – “Hotmail? Who uses that these days? What? Forgot your password for AOL messenger, did you?” – may I remind you there are those of us who don’t Google anything (search, Googlemail, GooglePlus). Hotmail has been a viable, if unspectacular web mail service for years. It’s functional, has good uptime and hasn’t been massively hacked for a while.
Okay, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but if you think of it as the Toyota Corolla of web mail, then it’s hard to go wrong. Now Outlook.com is online, you might be tempted to look again.
If you are on older Microsoft email services, you will be upgraded to Outlook.com. If you’ve already tried Outlook.com in a browser, you will probably find your other accounts automatically upgraded the next time you sign in.
Importantly, you get to keep your existing addresses under Outlook.com, there’s no forced change of email address, so don’t panic about all notifying all your contacts and reprinting your business cards. If you do want to change your address, you can get a new one for free.
First, to clear any confusion, Outlook.com is not at all like the desktop-based Outlook email client and organiser beloved of corporate IT. It sits alongside consumer-based web-mail services, such as Googlemail and Yahoo Mail and is in many areas, better.
While it’s largely still Hotmail under the skin, it is more than one commentator described it, a bunch of CSS changes on the front end of Hotmail.
Second, Microsoft is, of course, trying to monetise its mail service. Outlook.com advertising is all grey-on-grey tiles to the right of your mail. Whether this will prove more attractive to users and generate more revenue for advertisers than Googlemail’s loud ad lines and boxes remains to be seen. You have some options to turn off tailored advertising but this is a free service, so you will get ads.
Among the pro’s of this version are a clean, Modern-UI interface, massive storage space, unobtrusive advertising, and the option to use folders or labels or both. Like other web-mail services, Outlook.com now adopts conversations, so it’s catching up to Googlemail.
Outlook.com adopts the flat, uncluttered white-space style of Windows 8 which you’ll either love or hate. Outlook offers more ways to customize and manage your mailbox. It’s still not as versatile or feature-rich as a desktop mail client, but there are more options than the old Hotmail and it’s massively more capable than the feature-poverty of the Windows 8 Metro mail client.
For example, you get a three-pane display of mail – conversations, header lines and a reading pane, much like desktop Outlook. The movable reading pane is helpful for scanning many messages quickly, and the main item with any visual presence – the title and command bar – has a number of selectable color schemes.
Instant Actions is one of the more advanced features that shows off what web technologies can do in online services. You hover your mouse pointer over an email subject line in your inbox, and you can single-click to flag it, delete it, or mark it as read/unread.
If you’re suffering from Googlemail’s latest redesign, you’ll be glad to hear the Outlook reply window runs the full width of your browser screen.
Outlook creates special filters for viewing certain types of messages, by subject or source and more. One pre-set filter homes in on messages with photo attachments or photo links, another gives you messages with documents. These have mixed success though, sometimes missing some of the relevant messages, while one regularly offers messages from scammers with attachments to open! Remember, it’s web-mail: trust no one.
Outlook.com also implements mail rules: for example automatically move or delete messages older than a certain number of days, or keep only the latest message from any sender. It’s a blunt instrument, however, so use with care lest you lose whole threads.
The good news is Undelete. Most services send deleted messages to a trash folder, which you empty then the messages are gone forever. Outlook has a long memory, for good or ill, which can retrieve messages from its servers if they are still there after you’ve emptied the trash.
You may need to turn to the sweeping and blocking features from Hotmail we covered previously as these features persist in Outlook. It takes three clicks to ‘sweep’ messages from Outlook. You can choose to block emails from both individual senders and entire domain names.
One thing Googlemail lacks is Outlook’s ability to sort emails by filesize for quick house-keeping. Not that you need worry about storage. Outlook.com imposes no actual limit to how many emails and file attachments you can save – integration with Microsoft’s online cloud storage SkyDrive service indicates you can have at least 25GB of email space and rising.
The links with SkyDrive handle large file attachments; you let Outlook add the file to SkyDrive and create a public link to send by email – much like Dropbox and one better than Gmail which doesn’t tie into Google Drive this easily. And you get 7 gigabytes of Skydrive storage for free just for this use case.
You can still customise your mail with HTML and CSS formatting: tables, divs, embedded styles, and boilerplate hypertext mark-up can be applied direct or saved in templates. After the disappointing Windows 8 mail app, it’s a relief to see that Microsoft hasn’t dumbed down, but kept this advanced feature.
Outlook integrates with leading social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. While Googlemail mostly integrates with Google’s own services (mostly meaning Google+), Outlook can automatically fill your address book with contact information, not just from Google but also from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you get an email from a Facebook friend with that email linked to their account, you should see their latest Facebook post to the right. You can chat with a Facebook friend directly from the Outlook browser window now that one-click Skype conferencing has also made its way into Outlook.
The integrated photo viewer works much more smoothly in Outlook, which is able to display your file-attached pictures in slide show format, each email treated as a small image gallery.
While the new Outlook is an incremental improvement over Hotmail, it’s no revolution and no game changer. You’ll see a lot of improvements over previous versions and in truth Outlook does a lot of things more elegantly than Googlemail or Yahoo. AJS
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