Outlook.com review: first-look

1 Aug 2012

It was only a few months ago that Microsoft asked us to give Hotmail another chance -- with fairly disastrous consequences. Now it’s giving up on Hotmail itself, and migrating users to the new Outlook.com.

Is Outlook.com the webmail service that will finally tear us away from Gmail? Here are our first impressions.

New look, new addresses

The first thing any existing Hotmail user should do is nab their Outlook.com address. Staggeringly, Microsoft has failed to reserve existing Hotmail account names on the new domain, so if you’ve got name@hotmail.com you’re not automatically granted name@outlook.com. The first time you log in you’re invited to create a new Outlook.com alias, which we recommend you do right away in case someone registers your name, as some cheeky swine has done to Steve Ballmer…

If someone does squat on your name, it’s not a disaster. Microsoft won’t be retiring the old Hotmail email addresses, although you will eventually be forced to adopt the new Outlook.com interface (you can, for the time being, go back to the old Hotmail design).

As you’ll see from the moment you log in, Hotmail has more than a new name. The interface has been completely overhauled to bring it into keeping with Outlook 2013, although visually, Outlook.com is more in common with the Windows 8 Mail app than Outlook.

It adheres to Microsoft’s new clean design ethos, with folders and quick views running down the left-hand pane, and your inbox dominating the right-hand side. As with Outlook and Mail, there are no dividing lines between emails, but there’s just enough space between them to avoid them merging into one almighty mess. Hover your cursor over a particular email and buttons appear, allowing you to mark an email as unread, flag the message or delete it with a single click.

It’s only when you open an email that the familiar Hotmail features begin to reappear, such as the useful Sweep command, which moves all emails from a particular sender to a specific folder or straight to the Deleted folder. Curiously, the Print command is buried in drop-down menus, although pressing Ctrl + P delivers a print without any of the browser clutter.

Composing emails

If the Outlook.com inbox is minimalist, the composing new email screen is practically bare. Recipients are entered in the left-hand pane, with Outlook.com suggesting contacts’ addresses as you begin to type their names. Then you have to jump up to the top of the screen (or press Tab) to enter the subject line, and click in the vast bank of white space to start typing your message.

Oddly, some of the features we admired most in Hotmail failed to work in some of our test accounts. When attaching photos or documents, for instance, the option to upload and share them via SkyDrive – saving recipients from having to download hefty attachments – didn't appear for one member of the PC Pro team, yet worked fine for another, both using Google Chrome.

Nevertheless, we do quite like Microsoft’s no-fuss approach to composing emails. It’s Spartan, but quick.

People

At first glance, you may be wondering where all your Hotmail contacts have gone. A click on the arrow next to the Outlook logo in the top left-hand corner reveals the People button, Microsoft’s new moniker for Contacts in Windows 8/Office 2013.

This is very smartly designed, especially if you’ve instructed Outlook.com to suck in contacts from social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. In fact, we’d go as far as to say as it’s an improvement on the People tab in Outlook 2013. Contacts are searchable, with results appearing near-instantly as you type. A richly detailed, well formatted contacts card appears in the right-hand pane, completely with a nice, large photo where available. If the contact is online – either via Windows Messenger or Facebook’s chat service – you can initiate a conversation straight from the People window, too.

Calendar and SkyDrive

Alongside People in that top drop-down menu, you’ll also find Calendar and SkyDrive. Disappointingly, these still use the old Windows Live interface, providing a jarringly inconsistent experience as you lurch from one interface to the next. Indeed, there are several advanced email/calendar features that throw you back into the old look, too.

We’ll cut Microsoft some slack in this transition from Hotmail to Outlook.com, but it needs to get these sorted before it finally cuts off access to the former Hotmail interface.

Tablet and mobile

Finally, a word about tablets and mobile. Microsoft has a completely different, touch-friendly interface if you access Outlook.com via a tablet or smartphone. Although we suspect most people will use the default mail client on their device to access their Hotmail/Outlook.com mail on the move, it’s good to see Microsoft paying attention to detail in this respect.

Verdict

We’re largely impressed with the changes Microsoft has made with Outlook.com. It’s good to see the company finally applying consistency across its desktop and webmail interfaces, and the clean look is matched with snappy performance in our brief tests.

There are, predictably, kinks to overcome – we understand people who use a Windows Live ID for their Office365 account are being caught in a sign-in loop when they attempt to access Outlook.com - and the SkyDrive integration appears to be a little wobbly.

But with features such as integrated Skype calls also set to be built in, Microsoft certainly isn’t tarnishing its premium Outlook brand with this first stab at a revamped webmail service.

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