To sign up for Hotmail, you need to get a Microsoft .Net passport by providing your name, gender, state, zip code, and a few other bits of information, then locating the link to the free Hotmail option, which you'll find below a huge ad for the paid version. Finally, you'll have to fight off two pages of promotional offers. The process isn't awful, but it's the most complicated sign-up process among the major Web-mail services.
Hotmail offers a relatively clean interface flanked by banner ads. You can view and manage all of your folders in a pane on the left, mark messages as junk, block mail from some senders, and sort your in-box a variety of ways. Like Yahoo's commands, Hotmail's are also easily accessible across the top of the in-box, but Hotmail lacks the simple touches, such as a check-mail button, that make Yahoo's interface just a smidge easier to use.
Hotmail serves up a smorgasbord of antispam controls. You can choose how strict you want Hotmail's filters to be, create lists of senders to automatically block or always allow, or choose not to display images inside messages. Hotmail was the only service we tested that trapped any of the sample junk mail we forwarded to the account, though a dozen spam messages simply disappeared before they even reached our Junk E-mail folder--no doubt swallowed up by MSN's server-based filters.
Otherwise, Hotmail's features can't compete with Yahoo's. The service lets you create up to 10 filters for routing mail to folders, but you can't create folders on the fly as you can with Yahoo Mail. Hotmail makes you create a folder before you can move messages to it. Also, you can't search your messages, check external POP accounts, or color-code messages. And we could import only 650 names into Hotmail's address book before it reached its limit.
Hotmail does offer free e-mail support, though it took us 15 minutes of hunting around the site to find the correct Web form. We received a response within 28 hours, which is OK, but many users seeking help are likely to find themselves stuck in an endless loop.