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