Hotmail, the mail service that ruled the mailing roost before the likes of Google came in and redefined e-mail as we knew it, is dead. Well, sort of. Microsoft has rejigged Hotmail, not only tweaking its look and feel, but adding a stack of new features, and rechristening it to boot. Long live Outlook (.com). The question is — will it? We spent a week with the new mail service to find out.
You can log into Outlook by heading to (you guessed it) www.outlook.com and using your Hotmail ID, if you have one (we are wagering most people over 30 have — and have not used it for a while). You can also register for a new account if you wish — a lot of people are advising us to, to “save” our identities. The registration process is surprisingly smooth — no extended form-filling.
When you log into Outlook (.com) for the first time, the first thing that strikes you is how clean the interface is. Gone is one of the biggest complaints we had about Hotmail and MSN’s mail service — the cluttered interface. If anything, Outlook looks a lot like Gmail, and even less cluttered. There are no ads to be seen anywhere and there are no borders — the opening screen seems to stretch from end to end. The list of folders is on the left, with the contents of the highlighted folder on the right, and on the top are a grand total of five icons for letting you write new mail, enter messaging mode, tweak mail settings, change account settings and access other linked services. The options on the top change when you open a mail, letting you do message-specific tasks like deleting mails and moving them to folders. It is stark, and looks cool as hell.
The look seems inspired by the tile interface we have seen in Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Windows 8 OS (which until recently was called Metro), with similar fonts and layout — although the default colour here is light blue, which you can change if you wish. The stark fact is — and this comes from a diehard Gmail fan — that reading is far easier here, with a cleaner interface and more spaces between texts, and a more rounded font (serif fans will be outraged). What’s more, it looks quite good on a browser on a handset and tablet too — who needs apps if Web pages look like this?
The looks are impressive enough, but they are backed up with some very solid features as well. Sets of pictures can be seen as slideshows and you can open and edit MS Office files even if you do not have MS Office installed on your computer, literally bringing document editing to your inbox. Facebook and Twitter integration lets you post messages on walls and tweet to your contacts on those networks and also chat with your Facebook friends.
Finally, there’s the drop-down arrow next to the Outlook name in the left corner of the Window — clicking on it lets you access Mail, Calendar, People and Skydrive (Microsoft’s online storage service).
And before you ask, yes, you can do all the basic tasks that you can on other e-mail services, including receiving mails from other accounts, if that is what you prefer, and configuring the service on your handset and tablet’s default mail client. Incidentally, as per Microsoft, inbox storage is “virtually unlimited” and the service comes with “industry leading spam protection” and “rock solid account protection.”
All of which makes Outlook appear like the e-mail version of the cat’s whiskers. Unfortunately, there are catches that could trip up your experience. For one, unlike Gmail, where you never ever feel as if you are out of the Gmail experience in terms of look and feel, in Outlook, you often end up at pages that don’t even have a fleeting resemblance to the uber sleek landing screen.
For instance, going to Skydrive or Calendar will land you on a page that is right out of MSN — Hotmail era. Then there is the little matter of speed. Yes, Gmail does take time to load but once you are in it, things work at the rate of knots, with folders opening almost the moment you click them. Not quite so in Outlook, where there is a significant pause before you get to see what you have clicked on or move from item to item.
That said, Outlook is still in Preview mode and will only improve as time passes. We are not considering making it our primary mail account yet, but it did make us start using our long-abandoned Hotmail ID again. Definitely worth a try. Just don’t get too carried away by its looks. Yet.