Microsoft has unveiled Outlook.com, a replacement to its existing Hotmail email service, adding a host of features including a new user interface and increased social media integration.
Preview not full product
Outlook.com is currently only available in preview mode, meaning that while new or existing customers can convert or sign up and get a new email address, not all of the new email service's features are currently active.
Microsoft has confirmed it will be forcibly converting all existing Hotmail addresses in the future but has remained tight-lipped over when this will occur. The company has remained equally vague regarding Outlook.com's full release date, though we're expecting it to coincide with the release of Microsoft Windows 8 in October.
One of the most notable changes is Outlook.com's new stripped down user interface. For Outlook.com, Microsoft has taken a page out of Google's Gmail design book, offering a clean white interface that emphasises minimalism, removing the plague of picture-based ads and bright colours seen on its Hotmail service.
The UI features a similar layout to Gmail, with inboxes and message folders sitting along its left hand side, and option and menu shortcuts lining its top. Outlook.com also features the same preview pane seen on Gmail, letting users scan message content without having to fully open them. The addition is a welcome one, improving the service's usability over its Hotmail predecessor, which required you to click and fully load a new web page every time you wanted to read an email.
Outlook.com carries over and adds to several Microsoft features seen in Hotmail. One of the most interesting is its "instant action" commands feature. The feature sees a number of command options appear whenever you hover over a message, letting you quickly do things like mark it as unread, or flag or delete it without having to go to a sub-menu.
Outlook.com contains the same folder features previously seen on Hotmail. These allow you to drag and drop email messages into the folders contained in the UI left hand bar.
The service also features a useful Quick View section which lets you organise your messages into categories.
Outlook.com lets you mark messages with either preset or custom-made categories. Once marked, though the emails will remain in your inbox, they will display with their category listed next to them. Clicking on the category will bring you to a new page displaying any message sharing the same tag.
One other particularly nice feature we noticed with categories is that Outlook.com will automatically detect and flag messages with attachments or a shipping tracking number, making it easy to keep track of any online orders or shared documents.
Microsoft has worked to downplay the presence of adverts with Outlook.com. The service does feature adverts, but they're now text based and appear in a section on the left side of the inbox.
Microsoft has pledged that it will continue to downplay adverts on Outlook.com, promising it will not read your messages to serve personalised ads.
Greymail and security
Microsoft has moved to quell the spam flooding its Hotmail service, integrating and improving the "graymail" management and filtering policies seen on Hotmail.
This means that Outlook.com will differentiate between "obvious spam or junk mail" and a subcategory it calls "graymail". Graymail are messages like automated newsletters and job alerts where it's not clear whether the user will want to see them or not.
To deal with graymail, Outlook features a Schedule Cleanup option. The feature lets you do things like tell Outlook.com to delete all messages from the sender before a certain date, making it easier to get rid of unwanted newsletters and automated messages, while keeping ones that still hold some interest.
From what we've seen so far, Outlook.com also keeps all the standard spam protection seen in Hotmail. These allow you to set up your own junk mail filter to implement management policies. Specific options include the ability to block messages from unknown senders, or flag messages as phishing scams, thus blocking any subsequent messages from the address.
A final nice touch we noticed is that there's the same "alert Microsoft" options seen in Hotmail. The option lets you send a message to Microsoft alerting it of any possible fraudulent use of your's or a contact's account.
People hub and Skype
One other big change we noticed on Outlook.com is the increased presence of social network account syncronisation features. The service follows Windows 8 and Windows Phone's example adding Microsoft's People hub. The hub is similar to the service seen on all current Windows Phone 7 devices letting you manage and check in on your contacts.
Outlook.com lets you sync your email account with a number of social media services including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flicker and LinkedIn.
Adding your Facebook account means that friends will appear in your contacts list, complete with their profile picture and contact information. Once added, Outlook.com acts as a complete media hub letting you post and send messages, and instant message all your Facebook friends.
The only problem we noticed with Outlook.com's social features came when we added our Twitter account, which flooded our contact list with everyone we followed. This made our account look incredibly cluttered and made Outlook.com significantly less pleasurable to use.
One final touch we noticed during our opening test, is that once you've added a social network to your Outlook.com account, emails from Facebook and Twitter friends include their the latest status updates and tweets on the right-hand side of the message.
We're pretty impressed with the preview version of Microsoft's new email service. Though it does look a little too much like Gmail, which was released way back in 2004, we're happy to see Microsoft seems to be learning from the mistakes it made with Hotmail.
Upon full release, for which a date is yet to be specified, we're hoping the company will make good on its anti-spam, unlimited storage and social network integration claims. For a more in-depth look at Outlook.com, check back with V3 later in the year.
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