With Gmail at Hotmail’s heels, Microsoft has struck back with a new look for its mail service, some great new features, and a new name: Outlook.com. Even with the rise of Gmail since 2004, Hotmail has remained the world’s largest webmail service, and Outlook/Exchange the largest business email system.
However, Microsoft’s venerable email provider has lost ground, and the race has gotten tight. According to the latest numbers from comScore, Hotmail had 324 million worldwide users, Yahoo Mail 290 million, and Gmail 278 million. So it makes sense that alongside Microsoft’s major re-thinking of its premier product, Windows 8, the company’s mail service would get a reboot, too. The result, Outlook.com – even in its current preview status – is a more than impressive piece of work.
You can get your own account at Outlook.com right now, with a new @outlook.com email address. Alternatively, if you have a Hotmail, Live, or MSN account, you’ll be able to upgrade to the new interface, and users will still be able to sign up for new @hotmail, @live, or @msn accounts for a while. Eventually Hotmail users will all be upgraded to the new service, though there’s no scheduled date for that yet, and they’ll still be able to keep their @hotmail addresses if they choose.
The new mail service uses all the work Microsoft has done in recent years on Hotmail as its foundation. That includes vastly improved spam filtering, mailbox cleanup tools, a much speedier interface, and the ability to attach large files via web storage using SkyDrive. This allows a single attachment size of up to 300MB, compared with Gmail’s 25MB.
On top of all that work, Outlook.com renovates the interface with a far more modern, minimalist look. And it’s not just the webmail service that changes: A dropdown next to the main icon in the new interface offers access to other suite members, in similar style to Apple’s iCloud Web apps, with brightly coloured Metro-style tiles. These include People, Mail, SkyDrive, and eventually Calendar, though the Calendar sub-site was not updated yet at the time of my testing. The integration between these services is much tighter, especially with the new Microsoft account, which will tie together not just these, but will also work with your Xbox Live account if you have one, and your Windows 8 PC’s default apps.
The inbox has been completely redesigned for simplicity, clarity, and easier access to your mail. Customisation becomes much more basic – you no longer get whimsical background theme choices, but you can select a basic interface colour. Microsoft has redesigned the smaller top frame so that there is more room for the messages. You do lose some customisation potential with Microsoft’s new webmail design, but as we’ve seen with Facebook, which offers zero customisation, users just want a tool that performs the activity they’re engaged in, without interface distractions.
For many, though, the most welcome change will be the disappearance of display ads. And you won’t see any ads at all when reading messages from your contacts. Nor does Microsoft scan the contents of your mail to target ads at you, as Google does with Gmail. Outlook.com is served via secured HTTPS, just as Gmail is.
When reading mail from one of your contacts, instead of the text ads in the right-hand side panel, you’ll see one of your contact’s images from a connected social network, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – plus you’ll be able to view the contact’s latest tweet, and Facebook profile. This personalises your email interaction, and gives you a view of what’s going on with whoever it is you’re writing to, as well. You can also import all your contacts from any of these social networks, or from Gmail. There’s even a setting that lets you use Gmail shortcuts, if you’re comfortable with those.
I like how there’s still a preview panel (something not offered in Gmail), but the divider that separates the inbox from the preview below isn’t heavy enough. If, however, you use the side-by-side view, which is more in keeping with Windows 8’s mail app, the preview panel looks a lot clearer. Or you can have no preview at all, if you prefer the Gmail way of doing things.
Another interface advantage Outlook.com offers over Gmail is right-click menu choices for replying, forwarding, and so on. Right click in Gmail and all you’ll get is your browser’s default menu. Other helpers in Outlook.com called “Instant Actions” show up as icons next to a message’s subject when you hover the mouse over it, letting you mark the message as read/unread, delete it, or flag it. The last action instantly moves the message to the top of your inbox (as with Hotmail).
Outlook.com offers a conversation view that’s clearer than Gmail’s, and unlike Google’s mail service, Outlook.com will never present you with the predicament where the Send option isn’t showing in the browser window while you’re composing a reply. Outlook.com’s inbox updates automatically and quickly, just like Gmail’s. This used to be an advantage in Google’s email, but, in several tests, a message sent to both services reached both at the same time; it even reached the Outlook.com inbox sooner in some cases.
Despite its vastly simplified interface, Outlook.com maintains all of Hotmail’s slick integrations – photos, videos, and documents can all be viewed right in the inbox. That includes viewing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents without launching the Office app in question. The image viewer is a well-designed, black-framed affair, letting you play slideshows on-page whether the images were attached to your incoming email, or simply linked to from a photo sharing site such as Flickr.
You also get view options to just show mail from contacts, groups, newsletters, or social updates. And the Quick view choices along the left rail let you see only emails that include documents, photos, or shipping updates. And you can add your own custom categories to these.
Search is also well handled. As you type letters in the search box, any of your contacts’ names that match appear, along with options below to search by From, Subject, and To fields. An advanced search option adds the ability to specify a date range, keywords, folder, and whether or not the message has attachments.
Outlook.com lets you add multiple inboxes from other services, including Gmail, and you can hook into your Exchange server if your business has one. As well as just reading mail from all the connected accounts, you can send from any of them within Outlook.com, simply by choosing your From address using a dropdown in the new mail view.
- Clean, simple and intuitive interface
- Not blighted by adverts
- Good integration with social networks
- Excellent mailbox organisation tools
- Lesser level of interface customisation
- Mobile version not yet up to snuff