Microsoft has killed off Hotmail, one of the world's most recognisable brands, in favour of a new email service called Outlook.com. With millions of users registered within hours of its launch, Outlook.com is clearly making waves. There’s a clear emphasis on visual style, with every familiar icon and label replaced with elements of Microsoft's increasingly ubiquitous Metro interface. If you’ve tried any of the Office 2013 or Windows 8 preview releases, you'll recognise several consistent touches. Outlook.com is in fact designed to work well on tablets and touchscreens. Another interesting aspect of this move is that Microsoft is combining many of its past offerings, such as Hotmail, Windows Live Mail, into a single, simple online service. If you already have an Hotmail or Live account, you can log in to Outlook.com with the same email address, which will keep your inbox, folders and contacts intact. If you want to register a new @outloook.com ID, you should probably head over to the service right now while unique names are still up for grabs.
The process of registration is really simple and doesn’t run into multiple pages of questions. Once you’ve registered and logged in, you can’t help but notice the minimalistic design and layout. The experience is designed to be consistent across Windows on the desktop, Windows Phone, Office 2013 and the Web. In fact, if you turn on full screen mode using the Metro version of Internet Explorer, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it's a website rather than a native app. Now, let’s look at what we really like about Outlook.com.
A swanky new user interface
The interface looks exactly like a full-screen app, with no margins or borders on the sides. You don’t see a single ad on the page either. The left pane is like most other email services or clients, with folders and tags listed there. The top bar shows text labels for tools, which will change depending on what you're doing; for instance you won't see Reply and Forward commands unless a message is selected. Other tools pop up when hovering over a message in a folder. There are almost no icons anywhere, but the text labels are prominent and self-explanatory.
A clean, simple UI – made for tablets and desktops alike
You'll also notice that everything’s very slick and quick—there’s close to no delay when switching between folders.
Messages are typically sorted by date or tag, but Outlook tries to add a little something new to the mix. Mail can be sorted by attributes such as the attachment type; so you don’t have to use filters or run a search just to see all messages with images or documents as attachments. It would have been nice to see images in a gallery view, but you only see a listing of messages.
Filtering mails, based on types of attachments
The presentation of attached images is also improved, as compared to other mail services. There are large thumbnails with overlaid filenames, which is extremely convenient. Quick views can also be filtered by other attributes such as messages from contacts, newsletters and more.
A more user-friendly search
It's usually difficult to search through a mountain of email to find exactly the right message. Even Gmail requires you use some keywords, which newcomers don't often discover easily. Outlook.com on the other hand, starts auto-suggesting additional parameters as you type words. For example, searching for messages from a particular person is as simple as typing his or her name. Outlook.com automatically fills in keywords for you and offers suggestions.
A detailed search feature, if you need it
If that doesn’t get your search result, there’s a more thorough Advanced Search which allows you to use more traditional text fields to specify a time period or a folder to search within.
Integrated Facebook messaging
Social networking is everywhere. Google has integrated bits and pieces of Google+ into Gmail, Microsoft has integrated Facebook into Outlook and you can also import contacts from other services such as if you’d like. Once you’ve added the Facebook account, you can message your directly from the interface.
One of the customisations – selecting keyboard presets
The interface might be minimalist, but several customisation options are still left to the user. You can change the colour theme and tweak the way incoming messages are displayed. You can choose a between vertical and horizontal preview panes, and tasks are very neatly arranged with help provided through the way.
Good use of folders and tags
Gmail has tags, but there’s never been a usable folder system, considering all archived messages go into one giant All Mail folder. Things are cleaner on Outlook.com. There are tags that you can use anytime you’d like, aided by the large taskbar at the top of the screen. You can also create and manage traditional folders to help you sort things as you like them.
Categories and tagging, easy accessible to the user
While there are a ton of nifty little things to like about Outlook.com, there are also a few annoying things that crop up as you really start using it.
Metro tiles in a desktop email service
While most email services have direct links to complementary components such as contacts and calendars, Outlook.com requires you to click on an unmarked dropdown menu which brings up a large horizontal bar with Windows 8-style tiles for People, Calendar, Skydrive and, of course, Mail.
A drop down menu, to access two services – seems unnecessary
While it could make sense on a tablet, it feels totally out of place and unnecessary in a browser on a desktop PC. It also hides nearly a quarter of the screen and scales poorly when you resize a browser window.
Switching between messages is a pain
Gmail might have become cluttered, but there’s a workaround for nearly everything. On the other hand, if you’re typing a mail on Outlook.com, you can’t simply click on one of the folders to look up an earlier message or a contact. You have to leave the Compose screen, find the message, copy what you need to the clipboard or a text editor, and then resume from the Drafts folder.
Composing a mail – no way to access other mails
It gets worse if you want to switch between different messages. This could be solved by simply allowing any message or Compose screen to be popped out into its own window or tab.
Minor design inconsistencies
Inconsistency on styling, and even product names
While Outlook.com feels fresh and new, it’s a bit odd to see that Calendar and Skydrive haven’t changed one bit. When you need to move between these services, you wind up dealing with completely different designs. Some of those services also still refer to Outlook.com as Hotmail for some reason, but it seems fairly certain that they'll receive Metro-inspired makeovers soon.
Spotty browser support
The new Outlook.com seemed to work fine in Internet Explorer on Windows 7 as well as both the Desktop and Metro versions of IE for Windows 8 Consumer Preview. However, we noticed sluggishness and broken layouts in Chrome and Opera. We hope this is sorted out as well.
Outlook.com is less than a day old and Microsoft probably has several more tricks up its sleeve. It's clear how much it is investing in the Metro interface and philosophy. While there are still a few months before Windows 8 and Office 2013 launch, millions of Hotmail users will make the Metro transition before then. Do let us know your impressions and reactions in the comments below.