Outlook.com Review

Why Outlook.com Is the Prince of Webmail (after Gmail)

Why Outlook.com Could Be the New King of Webmail
(continued from Gmail vs. Outlook review)

Hotmail has grown up into 'Outlook.com', and it is impressive. With a very clean interface, massive storage space, unobtrusive advertising, a dozen subtle features for convenience, and the option to use folders or labels or both, Outlook.com is definitely worth test driving. About.com reviews the new Outlook.com below.

Pros: the Upsides of the New Outlook.com Webmail Service

1) Outlook.com keeps advertising to an elegant minimum. Instead of the distracting blue-on-white text links that you will see in Gmail, Outlook.com uses grey-on-grey tiles at the far right of your screen. The visual experience is very subtle, and the Outlook.com ads do not pull your eye like Gmail does. Outlook.com ads are served by Microsoft advertising, which you also have some control over. You can tell it that you wish no tailored advertising, or you can tell it which topics and brands you are willing to see. It's quite an unobtrusive system, and arguably the cleanest webmail advertising of 2012.

2) You can undelete. Yes, unlike Gmail, it is possible to recover a message after you delete it. This doesn't seem like such a big deal, considering that there is no need to actually delete anything in Gmail or Outlook.com. But for those people who like to clean their inboxes and folders, this undelete feature is very comforting.

3) 'Sweeping' and blocking unwanted emails is really slick. While it takes 6 clicks to ban a particular kind of message from your Gmail inbox, it takes 3 clicks to 'sweep' them from your Outlook.com. Even better: you can choose to ban emails from both individual senders and entire domain names, which is helpful if you like to experimentally join different subscriptioins on the web.

4) You can sort emails by filesize for quick cleaning. This is a feature that is not readily possible in Gmail: you shuffle the biggest emails to the top of your screen, where you can bulk-move or bulk-delete them. Yes, the voluminous Outlook.com storage doesn't making deleting an urgency, but clean freaks will love this feature.

5) Social media integration adds convenience and a richer flavor of personal connection. Whether you personally like Facebook / Google+ / LinkedIn / Twitter, there is something really human about seeing your friends' faces appear on their emails. While some people don't care about this feature, many people do. Social media email address books can also be connected to your Outlook.com inbox (e.g. LinkedIn professional contacts). One-click Skype conferencing is a real plus, too, especially for people who organize teams or who have long-distance relationships. This social media connectivity can open up some practical doors while adding good personal sentiment to each message. Definitely give this part of Outlook.com a try and see for yourself why this is good.

6) Integrated photo viewer. This is really neat: your file-attached pictures can display in slideshow format in Outlook.com.

While Gmail does display them as embedded thumbnails or in-line pictures, Outlook.com goes a step further and makes each email a small image gallery. Outlook.com even tags all your emails that have photos and filters them by the 'Photos' quick view. Good move, Microsoft... email is now extra visually-pleasing!

7) Instant actions. This is a slick little feature. You hover your mouse pointer over an email subject line in your inbox, and you can single-click flag it, delete it, or mark it unread. It's one of many subtelties in Outlook.com, and testimony to how much though Microsoft put into this new web service.

8) Special security for internet cafes. Yes, there is a very useful Outlook.com feature for people who borrow public computers. By tying your cell phone to your Outlook.com account, Microsoft can send you a one-time password via text message. That password will only allow a once-only login to your Outlook.com account. So, once you are done reading your internet cafe email, you can log out in confidence that a casual hacker will not be able to access your email by surfing the browser history.

9) Bottomless hard drive space. While Gmail offers you a massive 10 gigabytes, Microsoft's Outlook.com offers no actual limit to how many emails and file attachments you can save. By integrating Outlook.com with the cloud SkyDrive service, you can have at least 25GB of email space. And Microsoft promises to expand that even more, should you actually accumulate that much content. Hard drives are cheap these days, and Microsoft is not skimping on how much it shares with you here.

10) Stealth email addresses. In addition to your regular login (e.g. paul.gil@outlook.com), you can have a second email 'alias' address that can be deleted or renamed at will (e.g. paul.consultant99@outlook.com). This is ideal for joining an online service, or giving your contact information to someone whom you don't quite trust. You can then easily filter incoming emails by your email alias, or completely delete that address if you feel you have been spam-abused. This is going to be very handy for some people, and again, Microsoft is paying attention to many small-but-useful details.

11) HTML and CSS formatting, right in your emails. This is pretty obscure, but hardcore webheads will love this. You can create tables, divs, embedded styles, and boilerplate hypertext markup right in your emails. Save this as a template, and you have a very powerful visual statement at your fingertips. Your emails, with a little bit of effort, can become standout statements and branding vehicles for your small company. Bravo to Microsoft for this advanced feature!

12) The reply window is big. Yes, Gmail fans, the reply window uses the full width of your browser screen. This is a real delight, after suffering that squeezed experience in Gmail's reply window. No annoying sponsored links to the side here, folks... just open clean space to author your reply messages.

13) Outlook.com is very clean and pleasant to look at. Yes, looks do matter when reading emails day-in and day-out. Outlook.com employs a very white-space and uncluttered appearance free of annoying blue-on-white sponsored links. A movable reading pane is helpful for scanning many messages quickly, and the one item of any real visual weight - the title and command bar - can be changed to different colors.

14) Outlook.com supports keyboard shortcuts, even Gmail shortcuts. This is splendid for people who are power email users! You can use Outlook 2013 keyboard shortcuts, Yahoo! keyboard shortcuts, or even Gmail keyboard shortcuts. If you use keystrokes, you will absolutely love this. Nice work, Microsoft!

15) You can have folders AND category labels! Yes, this is perhaps the biggest differentiator of Outlook.com vs. Gmail. Unlike the counter-intuitive 'labeling' system that Gmail confines you to, you can have both labels and separate folders in Outlook.com. Using the word 'categories' instead of labels, it is very possible to tag your email messages with multiple categories, and then save those emails in different folders. This is ideal for searching and retrieving messages later. Microsoft nailed it with this dual-feature offering, and for many users, this alone is enough for them to switch from Gmail to Outlook.com. Well done, Microsoft.

Cons: What Is Not So Good About Outlook.com Webmail

During my weeks of testing, it's been difficult to find any showstopping faults with the new Microsoft Outlook.com webmail. The more that I use this webmail, the more I discover just how much effort Microsoft put into the minute details and subtleties of messaging convenience. The designers have managed to not only offer many little features that make messaging extra-convenient, but they've done it with complete loyalty to a clean and uncluttered visual experience.

Here are the items that did make our cons list. Microsoft really did a thorough job building Outlook.com.

1) Pulling your Gmail and other stored email into Outlook can be slow. I had over 6 gigabytes of saved email in my Gmail, and it has taken Outlook.com over 6 days to bring that over. I'm sure most people won't have as much messaging as I have, so this is a moot point for most. But if you want to transition over to Outlook and keep your old emails from your old accounts, don't expect it to be fast to transfer.

2) Outlook.com calendar is still Windows Live/Hotmail appearance. I know, I know... this is somewhat whiny of me to complain about this. But the new Outlook.com visual design is so clean and consistent with Windows 8, it seems a shame that the Outlook.com calendar is still very 2008-looking. Oh, well, I will live with it.

3) Facebook privacy settings are a bit confusing at first. This is a non-issue once people learn it, and the Outlook.com prompts on the screen are certainly clearer than Facebook itself. Just make sure that you choose if you want your Facebook photos and personal content to be visible to your Outlook.com contacts.

4) Outlook.com mobile app is gimped. Namely, the 'sweep' anti-spam feature is missing in the smartphone/tablet app, which really dilutes one of the great features of Outlook.com.

5) The 'Outlook'/'Windows Live'/'Hotmail' home buttons are confusing. While all 3 buttons ultimately link you to the same final inbox, the button inconsistency does cause user hesitation during the learning curve.

6) Gmail labels do not import into Outlook.com. After years of using Gmail, I've accumulated many hundreds of labeled emails that I was hoping to transpose into folder equivalents into Outlook. Or perhaps even transpose them to Outlook.com categories. But alas: no luck. Microsoft's Outlook.com does indeed import Gmail messages, but it will import them all into a single large folder for you. You will need to manually re-tag everything in Outlook.com. This was the biggest disappointment of using Outlook.com.

7) Delivery and receiving speed is slower than Gmail. For whatever reasons of internetworking and data transfer, Outlook.com was repeatedly slower than Gmail when I did numerous side-by-side speed tests. When I would send an identical sized email to my corporate account from both Outlook and Gmail simultaneously, Outlook was always slower by at least several seconds. In some cases, Outlook did not deliver messages for over 15 minutes, while Gmail was always within 30 seconds. Similarly, when receiving simultaneously-sent emails, Outlook.com was slower than Gmail. Some people may not notice this time lag, but for those of us who use email every day, this was a point of frustration with Outlook.com.

Question: Is Outlook.com better than Gmail?

Answer: When it comes to authoring and replying to emails, yes, Outlook.com is a superior email experience to Gmail. Outlook.com's editing window and formatting features are easily available (unlike the buried formatting commands of Gmail). And the large surface area make authoring and replying to messages very clear and visually-pleasing. Outlook.com does offer folders AND label categorizing, and it does possess dozens of subtle conveniences that add up to a splendid daily email experience.

Alas, Outlook.com misses on delivery speed. It also lacks some of the helpful auto-aggregating features of Gmail, like auto-tabs and rules. Moreover, the mobile app version of Outlook.com lacks the 'sweep' feature (a real miss on Microsoft's part).

Verdict: Is it worth it for you to dump your Gmail and switch? I suggest 'perhaps'. Outlook.com is very close to Gmail for overall feature set and user-friendliness, and the final decision is likely going to boil down to personal preference.

In my opinion, Gmail is still the king of free email, but Outlook.com is definitely the new Prince-in-Waiting, and it has fresh and new things to offer that the king does not. At the very least, try Outlook.com and decide for yourself. The upsides of Outlook.com might make more of a personal difference to you than Gmail, so definitely take the time to draw your own conclusions. Both Outlook.com and Gmail are good services.

Outlook.com final grade:

Convenience: 8/10
Writing and Rich Text Formatting Features: 9.5/10
Keyboard Shortcuts/Customizing: 9/10
Organizing and Storing Email: 9/10
Reading Email: 9/10
Virus Protection: 9/10
Spam Management: 8.5/10
Appearance and Eye Candy: 9/10
Absence of Annoying Advertising: 9/10
Connecting to POP/SMTP and other Email Accounts: 9/10
Mobile App Functionality: 8/10
Overall: 8.5/10

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