Outlook.com Hands-on: Microsoft’s Gmail and Clutter Killer
We keep hearing over and over that email is dead, but Microsoft just gave it a serious shock to the system–if not a second lease on life. A major upgrade to Hotmail, Outlook.com was designed from the ground up to not only look cleaner than your typical cluttered web-based inbox (see Gmail, Yahoo) but also surface things that used to be buried. Why shouldn’t you be able to see thumbnails of those photo and document attachments right up top? Or be able to unsubscribe from pesky newsletters with one click?
Outlook.com is also connected to social networks and the cloud, letting you see your friend’s latest tweet or Facebook update next to their latest message, as well as edit Office attachments online. Although Outlook has a business heritage, Outlook.com is very much a mainstream consumer product focused on that audience’s specific needs. Read on to see how this service is shaping up.
Setup: What Accounts Can You Use?
Those who already have Hotmail accounts will be able to easily upgrade to Outlook.com. You can grab an @outlook.com address by clicking Upgrade to Outlook.com in the Options menu. You can also sign up for a new @outlook.com address at www.outlook.com.
We had no problem forwarding our Gmail mail to Outlook.com, but Yahoo requires that you pay for POP forwarding ($20 per year), so we left that account alone. Note to Marissa Mayer: If you can offer free food to employees, you can offer free POP forwarding.
On the contact side, Outlook.com integrates with the above email services, but also Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. All of your contacts are found in the People app, which you access at the top of the screen. If you have duplicate contacts, Outlook.com will let you link them with a click.
Design and Interface: Less is (Mostly) More
You can tell right away that Microsoft wants Outlook.com to have a similar look and feel to its Windows 8 Mail app. That means taking a visual approach that displays only what’s necessary, resulting in a more streamlined aesthetic. This design is also optimized for tablets, since there’s plenty of separation between most elements on the screen for touch input. However, the UI is almost too streamlined at times.
Instead of wasting a lot less space by slapping a big search box in the middle of the screen as Gmail does, it’s tucked into the upper left corner, similar to Outlook on the desktop. And while Gmail eats up pixels by promoting all of its services (Google+, Search, Images, Maps etc.) across the top, you access Microsoft’s related services (People, Calendar, SkyDrive) by clicking an arrow in the upper left corner. It took a bit of digging to find this button, but we appreciate Outlook.com’s tighter focus.
We also prefer the way Outlook.com makes it easier to differentiate between read and unread messages than Gmail by using a larger font. By default the top command bar displays only a + icon next to the word New for composing an email, plus a messaging icon to the right for instant messaging with Facebook and Messenger buddies (Skype is coming later). To the right of that is the Settings button.
When you click on a message the Command Bar changes to display a host of options, from Reply and Delete to Junk and Sweep (more on that below). There’s also Move To (Folders) and Categories. Another time-saving feature is Instant Actions. Right inside the inbox you’ll see three icons for each message: Mark Message as Read, Delete and Keep this message at the top of your inbox, which makes it easy to prioritize.
Microsoft’s designers go a bit too far here as well in keeping things neat and tidy. The often-used Forward button is tucked under the Reply menu, both on the main inbox screen and when viewing a message at full screen. And the cc and bcc fields aren’t exposed by default. You have to click to make them appear.
Clean Sweep: A New Way to Handle “Graymail”
Microsoft says that newsletters, social updates, daily deals/shopping offers, and other types of so-called “graymail” makes up more than 80 percent of the messages that the average person receives per year. Outlook.com tackles this issue head on with some clever features.
When we clicked on a Google Offer email, for instance, we could delete all of the messages from this sender or move them into its own folder using the Sweep option. Sweep also lets you set up rules easily, such as only keeping the latest message or delete messages older than 10 days. Using Sweep also comes in handy for managing social networking updates.
Attachments: Smart Active Views, Sharing via Skydrive
One of our favorite features of Outlook.com is the way it presents attachments like photos and videos. Instead of being relegated to the bottom of messages, pictures will appear right at the top in a filmstrip view. You can even launch a slideshow right from within Outlook.com.
Microsoft’s service even does a better job of presenting YouTube videos than Gmail. Both let us play an Ice Age 4 clip in the email window, but Outlook.com presented a larger thumbnail and full description. Another helpful active view appears when you receive emails regarding shipments; it’s a cinch to track when a package is scheduled to arrive.
Where Outlook.com really pulls ahead is attaching large files. If you have a Skydrive account, you can send video clips or anything else that would otherwise exceed the 25 MB limit. The recipient will see what looks like an attachment, but it will be a link to download the content.
Take, That Google Docs: Office Web Apps Built In
Microsoft is going right after Google Docs by enabling Outlook.com users to view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files online. When we clicked View Online underneath a Word Doc it opened Word Web App Preview in our browser, with all of the formatting intact. Just click Edit in Browser to make changes, then save the doc to your SkyDrive account or download it. The layout of tools will look very familiar to Office users on the desktop, which is a good thing.
A More Social Inbox: Facebook, Twitter and (Soon) Skype
While Gmail integrates tightly with Google Plus, Outlook.com leverages Facebook and Twitter–and not just for populating your address book. When messages come in you’ll see the person’s profile photo along with the his or her latest Tweet or Facebook post on the right side. If it’s a Facebook post, you can Like it or add a comment on the spot.
The Messaging app within Outlook.com supports Facebook chat, and you can also write on a contact’s wall or send them a message from within the People app. You can even tweet at the person within People. Although the People app pulls in LinkedIn contact information, Outlook.com doesn’t display updates from that service.
The lack of Google Plus support might be a turn-off for some, but overall Outlook.com feels socially connected. Our only nitpick is that the service doesn’t show you who is available at all times for chatting as Gmail does.
In the near future, Outlook.com will be adding support for Skype. This functionality will enable text chats with those contacts and even make video calls right from your inbox.
Privacy: These Ads Don’t Read Your Email
While the majority of people don’t even know that Gmail served up ads based on the content of your messages, Microsoft wanted to steer clear of any potential backlash. As a result, Outlook.com doesn’t use your conversations to deliver ads. In our testing we mostly saw Bing shopping results for things like men’s running shoes and big-screen TVs, so at least it seems that the service knows my gender and that I like to run. I do mention that in my Twitter profile description, but perhaps that’s just a coincidence. The ads disappear when you load a message.
Performance: Some Early Issues
Although Outlook.com is very slick, we found it slow to display messages forwarded from our Gmail account. One one occasion it took an email four minutes longer to show up in Outlook.com vs Gmail. A couple of times we got a message that said “We can’t connect right now. Please try again later,” and on one occasion it took four seconds after hitting Reply to seeing the message window. We also noticed that sometimes the right sidebar would continue displaying social info from a previous email when we returned to the main inbox. This is probably just a bug.
Overall, Outlook.com looks so modern that it makes Gmail look almost ancient. (There’s a reason why Google just acquired email startup Sparrow to beef up its service.) Just as important, Microsoft has done an excellent job of helping users better manage newsletters and other emails that just get in the way. Outlook.com also puts the things you want front and center, such as attachment previews and social updates from friends and family. This service is so refreshing that we wish we could use it for our Exchange account, though the new Outlook Web App is getting a similar makeover.
Outlook.com certainly isn’t perfect. Some items that shouldn’t be hidden, such as the Forward button and cc field, are a click away. And we’re also concerned with speed. The service can be sluggish at times, but then again it’s just getting off the ground. Bottom line: We can easily see people ditching Gmail for Outlook.com.
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