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.
Inbox cleaning and organising
Outlook.com includes the same ground-breaking mailbox tidying and organising tools that were added to Hotmail over the last two years. The Sweep menu is where you head for mailbox cleanup, and one great tool available here is the built-in Unsubscribe, which saves you from having to go to the site of origin of the newsletter or mail blast list. Another Sweep option lets you move all messages – including future messages – from an address to a designated folder. If you don't want everything from the offending sender to go away, you can have Outlook.com just keep the most recent message in your inbox, or delete (or move) any messages older than 10 days. If that's not enough, you can create custom rules for moving and deleting this "graymail." And for simply deleting messages quickly, you can hit the Del key, which instantly zaps the email you have highlighted – there’s no need to click the Delete button, as you do in Gmail.
A neat new tool is "My Friend's been hacked!" This lets you tell the service that someone or some entity has taken over a friend's Outlook.com account, and gets assistance to put the account back to normal. Outlook also offers aliases, so you can share a different "disposable" email address that will send mail to your account. Not only does Outlook.com have strong protection from inbound spam – even superior to that in Gmail, according to recent tests – but it also blocks spam being sent from your account. I can't tell you how many times I still see these inane emails from friends whose accounts have been compromised.
The speech bubble icon opens a chat sidebar, in which I could not only chat with my Messenger friends, but even switch to Facebook chat in mid-conversation, since contacts are associated with their accounts. The chat interface looks pretty much identical to that of Windows 8's Metro Messaging app.
Outlook.com's chat offers “smilies” that are large and clear. I sometimes have to squint in other IM clients to scan through a bunch of redundant smilies, but the selection is well chosen in Outlook.com's client. You can set your availability individually for Microsoft and Facebook messaging. It’s also possible to save messages to a folder in Outlook.com for later viewing, but I found it hard to remove a conversation I'd finished.
Though it's not been implemented yet, Outlook.com chat will include integrated Skype video calling. You’d hope that this would work well inside the webmail service, but we’ll only really know when it’s available to test out.
Microsoft has big plans for the mobile version of Outlook.com, but I only quickly tested it on my iPad, where it wasn't fully functional yet. In any case, it makes more sense to work with email in the device's native mail app. I expect smooth operation on Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets.
What email users want is a clean, clear, easy-to-use inbox, and Outlook.com gives them that, thanks to its top notch mailbox cleanup features. Users also want email to be fast, and Outlook.com is definitely that, too. Beyond these opening antes, Outlook.com gives users unmatched communication tools like integration with social networks, online storage, document viewing, and instant messaging.
As a nascent service, Outlook.com will undoubtedly experience hiccups during the transition from Hotmail, but it’s already very impressive in terms of its speed, superior inbox viewing and cleaning tools, and simple yet powerful interface.