It’s the age of Gmail, and Hotmail hasn’t been cool for years now. Microsoft seems to have taken note, and has created a new official email service, Outlook.com. Like most new things from Microsoft these days, the Web mail provider takes its design cues from Metro, the style behind both Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8, which will launch in October.
If you already have a Hotmail, Windows or Xbox Live account, you can use the same username and password to log into Outlook.com, or you can sign up for a new one.
Outlook also syncs with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail—and soon, Skype—so existing accounts will not be affected if you make a switch. You can import contacts from these services and get updates on those accounts from within Outlook.
Integrating the service with Office Web apps means that Word, Excel and PowerPoint files get opened in Web versions of those programs, which are free to use, and you can also save your files on SkyDrive, which allots 7 GB cloud storage free to new users (and a free 25 GB upgrade for existing users), and work on them anywhere.
All this means little if your mail takes a long time to load, or is hard to navigate. That has been one of our biggest issues with Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, and one of the reasons why Gmail is today the most used service. Not only does Outlook.com load fast, it handles media a lot more cleverly than Gmail. If you get a bunch of photos in your Gmail account, you can either look at the thumbnails, or load individual pictures in separate new tabs. With Outlook, the photos pop up in a slide show the way they do in Facebook, and the videos are also shown in an overlay on the same screen, so getting from the mail to the attachment and back doesn’t waste time.
Our favourite feature is that SkyDrive is integrated with the attachments. You don’t need to mail a link from SkyDrive, it automatically sends a preview link to the file saved on the cloud instead. Another great feature is smarter folders—we all get hundreds of emails from social networks and newsletters, and we do need some of these at least. But if they’re not sorted in folders, they threaten to overwhelm the mails we actually need to read. Outlook filters them the way it filters spam, out of the inbox, storing them in marked folders for easy access.
Of course, both these things are possible with Gmail too. You can set up Dropbox and Gmail to handle attachments, and setting up filters for newsletters and social networks takes less than a minute. But the point is that you have to make the effort to do that. With Outlook, it just works, and when Windows 8 and Microsoft tablets launch in October, lots of people are going to have to create Windows accounts, which is going to help drive up Outlook.com usage—particularly since the new interface looks remarkably tablet-friendly.
Whether Outlook eventually unseats Gmail from its top spot is hard to tell, but it’s good to finally see real competition.
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