With its new Outlook.com service, Microsoft has succeeded in shaking up the boring and never-changing world of e-mail. Designed to replace the company's long-running Hotmail product, the free browser-based service sports a strikingly simple and vaguely Windows 8 interface, SkyDrive and social-media integration, and a strong set of organizational features. What's more, with a promise of "virtually unlimited" storage, it should satisfy the most prolific writers and media consumers.
Even when you first log in, it's obvious where Microsoft got its inspiration for Outlook.com. The lack of clutter -- though, admittedly, sometimes the interface is too simple -- and some of the features will remind you of Gmail, but the two remain distinct offerings. Indeed, Outlook.com delivers some compelling features that Gmail lacks, and I give Microsoft credit for choosing to forgo targeted ads. What I don't love so far are the outdated calendar app and the lack of Skype and IMAP support. So, no, it isn't perfect, but Microsoft has given us something new. In technology, and more importantly in e-mail, that's a great first step.
Getting started and security
After keeping it in preview mode for six months, Microsoft moved Outlook.com out of preview mode on February 20 and made it globally available. Anyone now can sign up for an account at the Outlook.com site, and starting this week the company will begin to move existing Hotmail users over to the new interface. That process should finish by the summer, but existing users can elect to switch on their own whenever they wish. You can keep using your "@Hotmail" and "@Live" addresses to send and receive messages, and you'll have the option to claim an "@Outlook.com" alias. That process won't happen automatically, so knowing the kind of derision the Hotmail brand can attract, I suggest getting your new alias now.
I first started using Outlook.com when Microsoft initiated the preview phase last July. At the time, I had no problems switching an old Live.com account over, and I found my way around in short order. If you're signing up for a new account, take note that the Captcha is case-sensitive, and Outlook.com does not support spaces in passwords. That's a troubling move since spaces enhance password security, and Gmail supports them.
When Microsoft first released Outlook.com, the service didn't support two-factor authentication. When I asked why, a company rep said that research showed that only a small number of people actually use two-factor ID so instead it invested in solutions like single-use codes, EV certificates, and good server-side detection. I was skeptical of that claim at the time, so I was glad to see that Microsoft added two-factor authentication on April 17, 2013. On the downside, though, Outlook.com still does not support passwords with spaces. You can read more about the security settings on the Outlook.com blog.
It's clear that along with Office 2013, Outlook.com is an important part of Microsoft's move to a Windows 8 world. In both form and function, the products share a lot in common, though Outlook.com is easier to learn to use. You can use it on any computer or with any browser -- I tested it on a Windows 7-equipped Lenovo laptop and a MacBook Air and used it with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Chrome -- and had the same experience. You'll even be able to use it on touch devices. Indeed, I used it on a Samsung tablet running Windows 8 and didn't have a problem. There's even a dedicated Android app, though CNET software reviewer Jaymar Cabebe wasn't a fan.
Microsoft calls the Outlook.com design "modern," "clean," and "fresh." The language is more accurate than hyperbolic, and I'd even add "starkly beautiful" to the mix. Straight lines and right angles make for a distinctly minimal experience devoid of chunky elements. Even the color palette, while showing some pink and purple, skews toward muted. In fact, it almost gave me the impression of the glass walls and sleek furniture that would greet me in a Mies van der Rohe home. Likewise, your main chance at personalization is changing the color of the main Commands bar at the top of the screen (Microsoft now has 18 hues available). That and other Settings options are accessible through the Gmail-like cogwheel icon in the top-right corner.
Outlook.com supports its own keyboard shortcuts and those of Yahoo and Gmail (read this post for more information on how to use them). It's a convenient feature, and you can turn them on and off at will. Access to your calendar, People Hub (aka your contacts menu), and SkyDrive is through a drop-down menu at the top of the screen (next to the downward arrow next to the word "Outlook"). Clicking on the related box will take you straight to that feature. It's a simple process for SkyDrive and the calendar, but it's one click too many to see your contacts list. I'd prefer a dedicated link in the left-hand navigation bar.
If you can't stand surprises, you can add a preview pane for scanning a message's contents without opening it, which is more expansive than the "snippets" you get in Gmail. I liked using the preview pane, mostly because it lets you scroll through your inbox and Folders list independently. If you don't use the preview pane, the entire page scrolls as a whole, which can be tedious depending on your inbox size. Outlook.com also wins points for supporting right-click commands when you're selecting a message from your inbox. Gmail, on the other hand, shows your browser's default menu.
After I wrote my initial First Take about Outlook.com, I heard from a few readers who complained that Outlook.com takes "minimalist" to an extreme. I heard words like "boring," "severe," and "flat." Indeed, those comments carry some weight. Outlook.com is not a service for supercreative types or anyone who feels the need to customize everything in his or her technological life. In my view, however, this is how e-mail should be. I use to it to communicate and expect it to be functional and intuitive, rather than pretty or overdone. Outlook.com hits the right notes, but if you like more freedom, it is best to move on.
Reading and sending messages
After opening a message, the commands bar at the top of the screen will display only the relevant actions such as reply, delete, or mark as junk. Missing in the command bar, however, is a button for jumping back to your inbox. Sure, you can go back by clicking on Inbox in the left column, but that option could be off the page if you have a long list of folders. You can jump directly to adjacent messages with the arrows in the top right of the screen, and a separate Actions pull-down menu brings options like printing and viewing the sender's details.
Microsoft recently added some needed personalization options when reading a message. You can choose to have "Reply" or "Reply All" as the default action (careful with that one!), and after you delete a message you can choose to go straight to your next message or back to your inbox. The latter feature is something that I really miss in Gmail. Like Gmail, though, Outlook will group messages together for threaded conversations, but the interface here is cleaner and easier to follow. You can turn this feature off, but keep in mind that it will increase the number of messages in your inbox.
If a message comes from a familiar sender, Outlook.com will display photos directly in the body of the e-mail. You then can open a quick slideshow, download the images individually, or save them as a group. Just remember that you will need Microsoft Silverlight, which is a downer (seriously...who uses that?). Likewise, video links from YouTube will surface a video player in which you can watch the clip without leaving the e-mail and HTML messages. And thanks to integration with Office Web Apps, you can open, share, and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files.
For the most part, the photo preview worked, though I did get one 10MB message from which only one thumbnail out of five downloaded correctly. Besides 7GB of cloud storage, the SkyDrive (more on that app later) integration is supposed to support up to 300MB of attachments per message, much more than Gmail allows, so it shouldn't have been a problem. As I mentioned, Microsoft promises that you'll get virtually unlimited storage. I'm not sure why the company adds a qualifier, but there is not supposed to be a hidden cap, as there is for some "unlimited" cell phone data plans. But in any case, that's more than the 10GB of storage you get through Gmail (which was a big deal when Gmail debuted).
Sending a message is a simple process. Just click on the plus sign at the top of the screen and start writing. When adding recipients, you'll see a list of contacts you e-mail frequently, and the autocomplete feature will make suggestions as you type.
In a welcome move, Outlook.com has "instant action" commands that appear only when you mouse over a message. When you do, you'll see small gray icons for marking a message as unread, flagging it, or deleting it completely. The one-click access is certainly convenient, and you can replace the default icons with other actions such as marking the message as junk. Microsoft emphasized several times that showing only the relevant controls keeps the page as clean as possible. It's a smart decision, in my opinion, even if you have to hunt around at first to find all the hidden controls. I've described more ways to organize your inbox here.
Flagging messages will send them to the top of your inbox in a separate section, which you can hide if you'd like. That's a nice touch. What's more, mousing over the sender's name shows a pop-up menu with commands for sending an e-mail to the contact, scheduling a cleanup (more on that later), finding all e-mails from the sender, moving those messages, or deleting them completely. You can sort all messages in your inbox by several fields, including the date, sender, subject, and the message size (nice).
On the far left of the inbox is a column for accessing default (Junk, Sent, and Draft) and user-created folders. To move messages into a folder, just drag it into a folder or check the box and use the related command at the top of the screen. Below your Folders list is a helpful Quick View section for further organizing your messages into categories. Though e-mails assigned to a category will remain in your inbox (unlike with Folders), you can view them as a group by clicking the category name.