Microsoft's recently rolled out Outlook.com is a more sophisticated, upper crust cousin to the old Hotmail.com. Yet, how well does it really perform, especially when compared to some of the other popular webmail options that are currently available such as Google's Gmail? Is a switch worth the hassle? In this review, we'll take an in-depth look at whether you should be using the new Outlook.com.
While some may say that Google's Gmail service is "all that and a bag of chips," others disagree with that belief. So it's a good thing that there are several other free webmail solutions available, including Yahoo. As of just a short while ago, another contender entered the ring: Microsoft's Outlook.com.
In giving Microsoft's Outlook.com a whirl, I must admit that I had something of a hard time adjusting at first. I've been a hardcore Gmail user for several years now, and I rely on it so heavily that I found myself trying to use the Gmail keyboard shortcuts to advance through my Outlook.com messages and create new replies, etc.
I suspect that the process will be much easier for someone who isn't quite as much of a Gmail junkie as I am. Outlook.com's interface is simple and clean, and it's hard to get lost once you know where you're going. This doesn't mean that everything is smooth sailing, however. Some of the most useful options are buried pretty deeply in the options menu, and it seems obvious that a lot of folks are going to miss some of the best features if they don't go looking for them.
Features that might get overlooked in Outlook.com include auxiliary services such as SkyDrive (which lets you add attachments up to 300MB in size to your messages) and a calendar. While these services may not be as polished as Google's offerings (the calendar still has the old Hotmail interface, for example), they're also still useful and will certainly be improved over time.
You'll also find email aliases, vacation auto-responders, the option to send and receive mail from other POP3 accounts, and the like. One of the more intriguing options is the ability to add content from third-party networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This gives you a great way to combine some of the aspects of social networking with your webmail, so that you're not constantly flipping from one site to another. If your profiles are public, Outlook.com might be able to access them automatically. Otherwise, you might have to set these up manually.
You have two options when getting started with the new Outlook.com. If you already have an existing Hotmail or Windows Live account, you can upgrade to Outlook.com with just a few taps after you sign in. Otherwise you'll need to start with a new Microsoft account.
Once you log in, you're presented with an extremely clean and rather minimal design. There are just a few icons along the top of the page, plus a list of folders on the right. You won't see any jarring colors or busy graphics that would detract from the experience. In fact, it's easy to miss some of the advanced features if you don't know where to look.
In the top left corner, you'll find the new Outlook logo. There's a hidden dropdown that you won't see unless you hover just to the right of the logo, which will then take you to People (contacts), Calendar, and SkyDrive. If you want to compose a new message, just tap on the new button and type away. In the far right corner, you have access to messaging (including Facebook friends), settings, and an avatar photo (if you're using one) with a quick link to change profiles or sign out.
The left side of the screen offers a search box at the top and then the folder list, with all of the basics already set up for you when you start using the service. The Quick Views at the bottom should be very familiar to you if you've been using Hotmail for a while. If not, they provide quick access to attached documents, flagged messages, photo attachments, and shipping updates. (This is a fantastic feature, and one I wish that Gmail offered. Finding attachments and tracking numbers in Gmail can be a major pain).
The majority of the page is reserved for the message list, although it's easy to miss another of the nifty features of Outlook.com if you don't check out the options bar above the message list. The Arrange By option on the left allows you to sort by date, sender, subject, size, or conversation.
The View button on the left side lets you filter either just unread messages or only those messages from people already in your contact list. There are some handy extras here too, like groups, newsletter subscriptions, and social updates. These are all designed to make organizing your mail easier and faster than with other webmail options. Gmail is extremely powerful, of course. However, setting up filters and folders can be a time-consuming process in Gmail.
In Outlook.com, clicking on a message takes you to the reading view, and the top bar changes accordingly. You can reply or forward, delete the message, mark it as junk (with sub-options including "phishing scam" and "my friend's been hacked!"), perform a general cleanup "sweep" of messages matching the current type, move a message to another folder, assign it to a new category, and finally print it, flag it, or mark it as unread. An actions icon to the right of the page offers quick access to some of the settings and options located at the top of the page, but with less overwhelming choices.
Is the new Outlook.com worth your time? It depends on where you're coming from. If you're a current Hotmail user, go ahead and upgrade to the new Outlook.com. It's much cleaner than the old service and much easier to use. At the same time, it'll be familiar enough for you to get comfortable with quite quickly.
If you're setting up an older family member like a parent with a new webmail account, you should also strongly consider Outlook.com. It's a little less overwhelming than Gmail since it keeps many of the advanced features under wraps unless you seek them out. Assuming that your granddad or mom is even the slightest bit computer-savvy, he or she should find the Quick Views/category feature particularly helpful, especially if you set things up ahead of time and go ahead and add other family members to the contacts session. They'll be catching up on all the latest family photos and keeping track of their home shopping purchases in no time.
The decision is less clearcut for Gmail power users, and those who are heavily invested in another service such as Yahoo. Switching email addresses is a major pain, and you'll end up juggling two different services for quite a while if you decide to take the plunge. While you might find the minimal interface and larger possible attachment size appealing, Outlook.com doesn't offer the raw power and customizability of Gmail. Also, there's nothing like Google's Labs options to add advanced functionality.
But even if you're a big user of Gmail or some other webmail service, Outlook.com is definitely worth a try if you have any interest at all in the new service, or if you're planning to get a new Windows 8 PC this fall. You might as well go ahead and sign up now. Otherwise, you might end up as "hottie8734," and no one wants to live with that kind of email address.
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