Microsoft Did The Impossible: The New Hotmail Is Fantastic

There's no need to be kind here: telling people you use Hotmail used to be the internet equivalent of admitting to necrophilia. But after a decade as a punchline, Hotmail just pulled off the biggest victory in the inbox game since Gmail, and it might just get you to switch.

This is starting to look familiar to the point of predictability. Microsoft takes something boring, partially broken and thoroughly entrenched: Windows, Office, Mobile. Toss nearly everything ugly and uninspired into the ash heap, put smart people to work on it, and pack it full of Metro. Windows 8, Office 15 and Windows Phone have all turned stale things into vibrant, modern successes. And Hotmail — now Outlook — can boast the same.

It actually looks good

But, come on, is Hotmail capable of a makeover? Hotmail? Even the people who work on Hotmail will admit without reluctance that the name itself is one of the service's biggest liabilities. Nobody wants to say Hotmail. We don't want it on our resumes and business cards. It's been stigmatised regardless of how good or awful it actually is — when was the last time you even checked?

So, say goodbye to Hotmail. Now it's Outlook and it's damn great. Microsoft has turned the deserved punchline of the whole web's mockery and spun it into top-tier webmail.

First — and this is no superficial dig — the new Hotmail/Outlook doesn't look like it crawled out of a late-1990s sex dungeon, pulling its own cluttered, woefully designed entrails in tow. The new Hotmail looks fantastic, and depending on how you managed to stomach Gmail's last facelift (or not), it might be the handsomest webmail in the land. Really. Simple, clear, clean — it looks like an expertly assembled IKEA drawer.

Outlook is as pretty as you want email to be. It perfectly matches the superflat rainbow modernism of Windows 8. Colours are stark and few, complementing the rest of the Metro palette. Inbox items are spaced perfectly, packing in a manageably dense list of messages — unlike Gmail's recent fatso formatting. Microsoft is beaming at how many extra pixels it gives you to gawk at your mail compared to Google, and it's absolutely true: with the new Hotmail, the top of the screen is slimmer than Gmail.

This gives you a big fat swath of screen to appreciate, making subject lines a cinch to scan — the entire shebang is terrifically readable, although emails themselves sometimes default to a nasty serif font. But beyond that typographical flub (which might just be a beta hiccup on my end), the new Hotmail/Outlook is laid out at least as well as Gmail.

If you're a purist, you can spread your whole inbox in a vertical stack. You know how that works. Or pop open a "reading pane,", which splits your screen real estate between an inbox overview and a live view of every in an adjacent column, sort of like how email is managed on an iPad. You can also stick the reading pane down below your inbox list. All three ways work well and are wonderfully quick to load. Yep — three well-designed ways to digest email all within one browser tab, with none of them feeling slapped on or in any way a compromise.

It actually feels good

This isn't just catchup with Gmail's finely powdered facade — Microsoft has poured serious brainpower into making Outlook the most functional web client ever seen. So many functions.

On your left, you have the standard folders. Nothing to say about that — sort however you'd like! — but at least they're executed well. When you put that aside, things get interesting. Email interesting.

The new Hotmail/Outlook offers a series of "Quick views", letting you hop instantly to emails with document attachments, embedded images, and even smart categories like shipping updates — it's sharp enough to pluck your latest Amazon order out of the pile. You can create your own categories with your own parameters, but even these few that are preloaded are a huge aid.

The main inbox view can also be sorted to display the newsletters you sign up for but never read (think Groupon) and social media notifications (Jonny High School is now following you on Twitter!). This is a great way to clear crud out of your box with as few sweeps as possible, or breeze through these second tier emails with many fewer clicks. It makes tremendous sense. Email's essence is the same as it was when Hotmail was ascendant a decade and a half ago, but there've been some shifts — the service can be just as much of a blip notification (tagged photo!) as it can an actual message. Microsoft gets that, and Outlook makes it near effortless to treat second class mail as what it is: useful noise.

Ease of clicking around to see the email you want is unrivalled with Outlook. But getting around is just part of what's cool.

Let's say you open up one of those emails flagged with images. And let's say it's flagged that way because it includes a link to a Flickr gallery. Outlook will automatically embed that gallery via slideshow, letting you sprint through pictures without having to leave your inbox. The same embedding is pulled off with other attached or linked media, from videos to Word documents — viewable and editable with a free web version of Office, of course.

This is a commanding ethos for Outlook — your email is a sort of online HQ, one of those tabs that's rarely closed no matter where you are. So if it's going to be sitting there anyway, shouldn't it do a little bit more than mail? Shouldn't it do it in a way that makes sense and doesn't feel like features for the sake of features? Yes, yes so many times. And Outlook provides just that.

Little touches abound, like an instant look at the last Facebook update or tweet of someone you're emailing with, instantly beamed adjacent to the email. Hover over a correspondant's contact photo — pulled straight from Facebook — and you can start Facebook messaging them, too, all from within Outlook. None of this distracts from communicating with the people you know, the whole point of an email address. If anything, it bolsters that concept, catching up with our modern year's broader definition of communicating.

Unlike Gchat, the wonderful ubiquity that was just jammed onto the left side of our inboxes so abruptly and so many years ago, all of Outlooks "social" tweaks, to use an obnoxious catchall, are natural and imbued with grace. Nothing feels obligatory. You're here for email, you wind up using a little more, and you wonder why you couldn't glance at what your boss was tweeting while the two of you email. Computers should help you cheat at nature by feeling smarter than you really are, and Outlook grants that little injection of intelligence.

But is anyone really gonna use this?

The Chernobyl Tourism Board has an easier task before it. Hotmail is a cursed word in tech, and Outlook is probably close behind it, a workplace nightmare most people associate with tedium. The sad fact is that most of us probably wouldn't switch from Gmail to a better webmail service. Even if it were a much better webmail service. Many of us have been using the same Gmail account since the middle of the Bush administration, and that inertia, combined with the toxic connotations of Hotmail, will make any switch a huge psychological task. Why didn't Microsoft call it Bing mail? People like Bing. Bing is a decent search engine, and Bing is fun to say. Sam at Bing Dot Com. I like that.

But no, it's Outlook, and most will baulk, as much as they ought not to. What we should all do, instead of laughing ourselves unconscious at reborn Hotmail that can go deftly toe to toe with Gmail, is try it. Set your current account to forward to a new Outlook account, and really try it. If you're already buying in to the Windows (Phone) 8 Metro all-inclusive pixel resort, you've got even more incentive to try. If you're tired of Google sticking its social media tongue down your email's throat or wary of its privacy reaches, this is your out.

And it's available to you starting today. You might actually get your real name. If you don't see the new Outlook, sign in to your Hotmail account and look for "Upgrade to Outlook" in the Options menu.

It takes a few minutes to set up an email account, and if you let yourself appreciate the work that's been both powerfully hammered and gently chiselled into this new beautiful, life-helping mail, you might have something else on your screen that lasts eight years.

Music: "I'll Be Good" by Setec, FreeMusicArchive.org


Comments

    I've just been using it this morning and it's great. I really enjoy
    the clean look of it and the speed is something that has impressed
    me. I like and will continue to use this

      I've found only ONE issue with the otherwise awesome design, speed and freshness this new update brings:

      For some reason, the main bar at the top (the single colour bar), almost completely covers the search bar (located just above the FOLDERS menu item), and the 'arrange by' selection, just above the first email in the list. I can click them, but only JUST, because the menu bar obscures about 98 percent of the clickable area.

        Using Chrome are you? I had the same issue until a refresh hen using Chrome. Rendered perfectly in IE9 though. I'm sure they'll fix that soon.

        Yeah, I saw that too. Then I switched the reading pane on, then off again - and it sorted itself out. I can see the search box fine in Chrome now.

    Unreal! The year of Microsoft? The propheciesed comeback?!

      2013 is Microsofts year!
      Windows 8, Windows Server 2013, Office 2013, XBox 720, Windows Phone 8, Surface...

      Microsoft has ALOT instore for us all :)

      At the very least it is the year of the New Look Microsoft.

      Now they just need people to start USING and adopting their new look products.

    This article encouraged me to go try the new layout, but i really
    cant say its a huge improvement unless you really love metro... The
    interface feels too slimmed down, such as to affect ease of use and
    hides some features, also the search box appeared to be bugged out
    and half hidden behind the blue quasi Facebook rip off bar. Maybe
    it has some cool aspects and features, but i don't think thats
    going to be enough.

      Click on the outlook logo - it will pop up a metro style bar - click "mail" and it will refresh the layout. This will fix your search bar.
      I had the same thing.

      Alternatively, shift + f5 fixed it for me. Refreshes page and clears cache.

    While it feels a lot nicer, it's just down to better colour choices
    and nicer font. Everything is in the exact same place it was in the
    last version of hotmail, especially on a mobile browser.

      Same on the desktop. To me it seems like a cosmetic makeover and
      not much else. So maybe Hotmail has been good for a while and Sam
      just didn't realise it? Or maybe for us it is simply mimicking our
      previous layout and there is a better way to display stuff if we
      bother to go looking for it?

    So my hotmail email (yes I have one since before gmail) will now be
    @outlook.com??? Can I keep @hotmail and use the new interface? In
    case you skoff at me for wanting hotmail I've had this since 1994
    ten years before gmail - inc all emils since then. Its like a
    history of my life between friends before social Networks. Hence I
    keep it

      Dan - it won't automatically change, but they have done a good job
      of making it really easy. When you sign into your hotmail account
      (nothing really to be that ashamed about) - look at "Options" in
      the top right corner, in the drop down menu that comes will be an
      option to "Upgrade to Outlook.com". Go for it!

      You can keep your @hotmail.com and make a @outlook.com alias.

      And yes you can use the new UI with your Hotmail.com address

      haha same boat here, I have this irrational love for my ~15 year old Hotmail account.

      I did the switch anyway, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned my Hotmail account is still active. After such a long time though, I think I'm ready to let my @hotmail go and move to @outlook.

    Don't forget the disclaimer for those of us toting Windows Phones -
    don't just go and change your core "@hotmail.com" or "@live.com"
    account over to "@outlook.com" if you use it as your sign in for
    your phone - you will need to hard reset your phone and will loose
    all Xbox Live achievements, app purchases etc. Instead, go and
    claim the email you want, or make an alias, that way, when you buy
    a Windows Phone 8 handset (like we all know you will! I know I
    will!) you can quickly close down the Outlook email, go into
    Hotmail and port the email from "@hotmail.com" to "@outlook.com"
    easily (M$ now does all the heavy lifting for you). This way you
    set up your new Windows 8 Phone with a new outlook account, keep
    all your emails, achievements, purchases etc - and remain awesome.
    You're welcome.

      I'm just wondering what they will do if the outlook address has already been claimed. Like the person that is using my name @ hotmail.com. Sucker

      I use hotmail via domains.hotmail.com so I can use my own address. I upgraded my account to outlook this morning. The address doesn't change, you just get the new look and features.

      You only get the new address if you create a new account, and I'd be presuming it is still an option, just like you had the option of hotmail or live for the last few years.

      Wow. People still say 'M$'?

        I'm glad the world spins around you, olearymo.

        In answer to why, if you want to switch from @hotmail to @outlook, for those with an irreverant fear of the old domain name. I personally dont, but if people go changing their emails and have a windows phone, they'll be in a spot of bother.

    Oh god what have i done. I couldn't get the new page up - I clicked
    the link in this story - now I can't log into my hotmail anymore
    and it says I've upgraded to @outlook and the mobile version of
    hotmail/live is not mobile and can't be use on a phone (can't zoom
    in our out) so I Don't know what's going on.

      Not sure what's going on there - I've just transferred three email
      accounts over, and the mobile version works sweet on all of them.
      Try emptying the cache for your browser and try logging in again -
      but it's not too complicated a process. If that fails, just log
      into hotmail directly and then switch across from there like I
      described above.

      I just opened m.hotmail.com and it redirected to the mobile version of outlook.com.

      If you upgraded your email to [email protected] your @hotmail login is no longer valid AFAIK

    It's still slow. The main reason I went to gmail...

    Calm down. Check your alternate email if you had one. It will tell
    you what your new email address is. There will now be a folder when
    you log into your new email that has all your old emails. All email
    that goes to your old account will be moved here. Your password has
    not changed, just log into hotmail with your new email address.
    This worked flawlessly for me!

    yup, looks fancy... now we'll see if they've worked out how to stop
    people sending spam from my friends hotmail accounts.

      Since I moved back to Hotmail about 18 months ago I don't think a
      single spam message has managed to make it into my Inbox. I was
      going to say "hardly any" but I really can't remember a single one
      in all that time.

        Wow really? I currently have 59 in my Junk folder :S As for Gmail, none.

        Any how, the interface IMO looks a lot nice and feels a fair bit faster.

          I've only kept my Hotmail alive for the past 14 years so it can be my spam bot. Any site registering goes to the Hotmail account.

          Junk folder is not my Inbox. I'd have to go and look to see if there is anything in there.

            Even so, one snuck through today. Seems I tend to get about one a week in my inbox.

      I get less spam on hotmail than I do on gmail these days. If you receive any spam from another hotmail account now you can even report that your friends account has been hacked.

    Looks very pretty, but where are there only options for those
    hideous colours? Where's a nice simple black option?

      I'm sorry but whilst some of those colours might qualify as hideous
      to any one individual, I really can't imagine there is not
      something there for everyone. I wouldn't object to an option for
      custom colours but I am more than happy with what's available (and
      I am 100% certain I am much fussier than you about these things).

    Looks good. Have to agree though, so locked into gmail that I wouldn't bother changing.

    LOL I've used hotmail for years and never had a problem. Don't know why it has such a negative stigma. It's never not done what it was supposed to.

      Yeah, I often wonder about that, too. I had a look at Gmail when it was all the rage it just seemed like more of the same to me so I never really bothered with it. I really don't understand why sheeple don't hate Google - they are a company that makes a living selling advertising to clog up webpages with the ugliest ads in the business. They can do whatever they like to try to appease their conscience but that won't make up for making the internet worse than it needs to be.

        Keep it classy, Motormouth.

      The only reason I left hotmail was it got to the point you couldn't sign up to a lot of things with an @hotmail address as they were blacklisted. Registering my own domain I found that domains.hotmail.com is a much better deal than using your own domain via gmail.

      Agreed. I've used Hotmail since before it was taken over by Microsoft, and have never had a problem with it, never had spam issues, and the only security problem encountered was not their fault (emergency logged into my account when at a dodgy internet cafe). I've used Gmail and other systems, and I don't think that Hotmail is inherently any worse.

    Don't watch this video after watching the Skyfall trailer. Serious lack of explosions.

    I can't see any reason to change at this stage. Also, I love the way on the "Get new ID" page they say "Why rename your address?" and go on to give you absolutely no reason to change.

    So will hotmail no longer delete all of my emails for no reason? NOTHING will get me to go back to hotmail after a stuff up like that... several times.

    yayyyy! I can stop using my silly old hotmail username and have something a bit more... adult

    Woot!!!

    You don't need to migrate, you can use it to access other email accounts as well :D

    Go to "options | More mail settings | Sending/receiving email from other accounts"

    I find it massively better than hotmail, OBVIOUSLY, but I think it is a massive stretch to say it is as good as Gmail. I mean copying a bunch of features from a competitor doesn't make them better, it makes them the same, I'll wait for the next version before I consider switching back.

    But I do congratulate them on coming into this decade at least.

    Oh and can someone tell me where the hell I need to go to change the font size, I'm feeling pretty blind today...

      A bunch of the complaints over Gmail in the text is all about how the text is fat or doesn't show as much information as Hotmail. You can simply hit Settings > Dense. I wish writers would do some research before they bitched about trivialities, especially when they're paid to know about tech.

    I never left hotmail. I set up a gmail account right at the beginning, didn't see the fuss and now it's just gathering dust most of the time. Bit by bit over the last 2 years it's been getting better and better.

      I'll still use my gmail, but only cuz I'm so invseted in it. I really liked how sending email woekd in Outlook. It overall just feels like a Metro app, down to the animations. Gmail look a bit old fashioned now. Oh, and hotmail sucked for me cuz of threading. I know you can turn it on, but Gmail does email threading right, and they were the first ones to do it right, so I'll stay loyal for that (for now)

    So just upgraded now I cant set up the new email to sync on my GSIII any ideas?

    ive never seen so many comments on one article. I thought i should just add to it.

    As Hotmail now runs on MS Exchange Servers, this is likely just a slightly customised Outlook Anywhere client from the new Exchange Server 15.

    So now I can't use Hotmail at work...after clicking the upgrade to Outlook link my interface has been upgraded, except my work still uses Windows XP and IE 8 which don't appear to run the new interface. All in all a big fail from my perspective.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now