With easily more than 100 million users, Hotmail is the big kahuna of free e-mail services. And like many Web mailers, the service is trying to generate a little cash by offering extra storage options. Should you pay $20 a year for an additional 10MB of storage, automatic virus scanning, and a handful of other goodies? That depends on how much you like Hotmail. If you're a big fan of the free service but feel a little cramped by its puny 2MB limit, then go for it. But if you're choosing a Web mail provider from scratch, Yahoo Mail Plus offers more bang for your e-mail buck. Setting up a Web mail account should be fast and easy, but apparently somebody forgot to tell Microsoft. To create a Hotmail account, you must first create your .Net Passport by filling out a form that asks for information such as your pet's name (which must be five letters or longer, so don't name your dog Rex). Then you fill out another form with your credit card and contact information to pay for the extra storage and fight off two more screens offering to send you 40-odd newsletters and special discounts on a variety of products. The process isn't difficult, but it's more time-consuming than it needs to be.
Hotmail lets you check up to four POP e-mail accounts and funnel all your messages into a single in-box. Unfortunately, its built-in spam filter did nothing to stop the junk in our tests.
To get your mail, you must log in at Hotmail's home page, then switch to your in-box; unlike with Yahoo, there's no direct way to skip the home page and go directly to your mail login. Once you're there, Hotmail looks like your standard Web mail interface, with folders on the left and an in-box on the right. Tabs across the top make it easy to view your in-box, compose a new message, add contacts, or return to Hotmail's home page. In all, it looks cleaner than Yahoo Mail Plus and is about as easy to use. At first glance, Hotmail's feature set looks a lot like Yahoo Mail's, but overall, it falls a little short. For example, you can retrieve mail from external POP accounts, but from only 4 of them (versus Yahoo's 10), and without the option to choose which From address you want to use.
In addition to creating lists of e-mail senders you wish to block, Hotmail also lets you create a whitelist of senders its spam filters will ignore--a feature you won't find in Yahoo Mail.
Like Yahoo, Hotmail offers to weed out spam to a Junk folder. In our weeklong tests, during which we forwarded junk mail to a new Hotmail account, Hotmail flagged exactly one message as junk--and that one was sent to us by Hotmail support! Meanwhile, graphic porn messages slipped by the filter and into our in-box. (Our much longer experience with MSN, which uses the same spam filters as Hotmail, is that it stops around two-thirds of the spam we receive. Yahoo's newly improved SpamGuard, on the other hand, stopped about 90 percent of spam sent to our Yahoo address.) As with Yahoo, Hotmail is unable to filter POP3 accounts.
You can also tell Hotmail to block specific e-mail addresses or, conversely, which ones its spam filter shouldn't
block (Yahoo lacks such a whitelist feature). Like Yahoo, Hotmail lets you keep images inside the messages from displaying, so you can avoid seeing porn or sending "Web beacons" back to spammers telling them their messages have been read. Hotmail also provides a spelling checker and a thesaurus (Yahoo doesn't), along with automatic virus scanning and 30MB of storage on MSN Groups for stashing photos and other files online. However, Hotmail lacks its competitor's automated vacation replies, archiving capabilities, and fancy stationery. Overall, Yahoo's features trump Hotmail's selection. If you pay for extra storage, you should get extra support along with it. Unfortunately, Hotmail's support options--paid or unpaid--are even more limited than Yahoo's.
Got a problem with Hotmail? Good luck getting help. The e-mail contact link is buried five levels deep on the support site, and we could never get it to work correctly.
To access help, click the Help link on any page to display a list of common questions. Click one of the questions in the list, then scroll down to find the Contact Us link. Then, you must choose from a list of topics and subtopics to get a tutorial on that subject sent to your in-box. (Fittingly, Hotmail's automated reply landed in our Junk folder.) If the tutorial doesn't solve your problem, you can click a link at the bottom of the message that's supposed to take you to an online feedback form. However, when we tried it, the link merely transported us back to the Hotmail home page.
It turns out that to contact the company directly via e-mail, you must choose "Other--not listed here" as a topic, then you can send for help. Good luck figuring that one out on your own. We sent five queries and each time got an error message (and no response).
Hotmail also offers live chat support (for billing issues only) but no phone options--strange, given MSN's generally excellent support. Paying customers deserve better.