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Outlook.com – Should You Switch?

Aug 03, 12 Outlook.com – Should You Switch?

Microsoft has been working at a frantic pace to upgrade its online services in order to compete with Google and Apple.

Its latest target is email, with the release of Outlook.com. It is the successor to Hotmail with an ambitious goal: lure away users from Google’s Gmail.

If nothing else, Microsoft has succeeded in creating another product that looks great. Hotmail users will appreciate that the annoying, graphical ads on the right side of the screen have been killed. The overall interface is consistent with next-generation Microsoft products, owing to the continued use of the interface-formerly-known-as-Metro.

Image Credit: Derek Walter

Inbox

There are still advertisements, but they are more Gmail-like. They are text-based, with graphics that pop up only when your mouse hovers over them. After using Outlook for a while, you will probably not notice them much. Unlike Gmail, they disappear when composing a message. While Microsoft touts that no software is used to scan your email text for ad campaigns, Outlook does take account for your location, as many of the ads I saw were for local businesses.

Tuesday’s announcement set off a land grab for sign-ups, with the Outlook team tweeting that day they had one million join the service. Many users took to forums on sites such as The Verge to brag about obtaining usernames they had long coveted, such as only their first name or a username without any numbers or symbols. Someone even managed to snag SteveBallmer@outlook.com.

Email can be sorted through a system of folders and categories. Folders are the traditional holding places for email, such as Junk, Drafts, or Sent. Categories are the best way to manage email. Emails can be automatically filtered into specific categories, which if you desire are then listed on the side panel. Drag and drop emails into folders or establish criteria for them to be moved there automatically.

Existing Hotmail users can switch to the preview now by enabling it in their account. There is then a rather cumbersome process for adding an alias, which allows you to score a fresh @outlook.com account to your existing Microsoft account. Hotmail then wants you to link the two accounts for grouping your email in the same place. However, this pulled up an error when I tried it. So for now, the best option is to forward your existing Hotmail to the new Outlook, or vice versa, if you wish to keep all of those accounts in one place.

Image Credit: Derek Walter

Managing email

The Quick View feature is particularly helpful. By default Documents, Flagged, Important, Photos, and Shipping Updates are enabled.

When doing an import of mail from another account, it identified many photos and items that had a shipping confirmation number inside. This could be very useful; this section can also be customized for anything you wish to keep track of.

Sweep, which already exists in Hotmail, is more useful than I thought after digging into some of the capabilities. If you have 100 old emails from Citi that you want to finally get rid of, “sweep” them into the trash so they no longer clog your archive.

Outlook.com works pretty well on mobile, mostly because it syncs through Microsoft Exchange. Choose this option when linking up the accounts on an iPhone, Android (or as Microsoft would prefer, a Windows phone). It does a fair job working in a mobile browser, but the convenience of push notifications and alerts make it seem an odd choice for regular use.

Microsoft is using its Exchange ActivSync technology to make it accessible through third-party email solutions (of course including the desktop Outlook). The good news is this is far more powerful than IMAP or POP3 for syncing up your data. However, this will mean those who use Sparrow or other specific email programs won’t be able to do so. Another reminder: folders translate to iPhone Exchange email account – categories do not.

One of my favorite things about Gmail is dumping things into the Archive knowing that I can search for them later. If you want this functionality here is a tip: create a folder called “Archive” for general stuff you want to save. The search seems to rival Gmail’s when it came to trying to find older messages.

Power email users will appreciate that Outlook hotkeys work as well, such as Command R or Ctrl R to reply to a message; Gmail users will need to learn the differences with the Outlook version.

In all, the contacts screen is much cleaner with Outlook.com. Here it beats Gmail, as Google has managed to muck up its contacts view by linking in Google+. However, adding in Facebook or other accounts will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The information can become a little bloated when perusing the People hub or messaging one of your contacts. Fortunately, you can turn this off if you wish.

Image Credit: Derek Walter

Should you switch?

Will Outlook.com steal users away from Gmail? Unlikely. Anyone who is happy with Gmail and has spent time creating labels and filters is not going to be thrilled at the prospect of starting over. Additionally, power Gmail users are also the type to have invested heavily in the Google ecosystem by using Drive, Reader, and other apps that work very well in the Chrome browser and Android devices.

Microsoft is building a good web-based hub for its productivity suite. Many of those who use Office, Windows and are happy with Hotmail will find much to like here as this progresses. While it may not win over others, it is worth checking out as a preview of features that competitors may begin to find inspiration from.

Image Credit: Derek Walter

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