Wow. Really. This is not your father’s Microsoft Hotmail. At the end of July, Microsoft announced its new Metro-styled Outlook.com Preview, which you can upgrade to from your Live or Hotmail accounts. The look is fantastic. Even the animations are top-notch. Clean and easy to read and navigate, this new, free, web-based email client can really look Google and its venerable Gmail right in the eye.
The UI is impressive, while the layout is familiar – three columns containing your left navigation / folders and such, the main center panel with your message lists and open messages and a far right column with the new Command Bar that dynamically changes depending on the email you are looking at. When you connect your social accounts, that bar will show key information from those social sites pertaining to the message sender / recipients in the right column. That column also holds messaging activity, as well as Microsoft-served ads.
The top bar contains the key functions – hover over “Outlook” in the far left corner and click the drop down arrow to see nav buttons to People, Calendar and SkyDrive.
“New” opens the email editor, which contains simple but effective formating tools, again in that clean interface. Because I created a new name for my Outlook account, I can select in this dialog whether I want to send the email from my new Outlook account or my old Windows Live account. You can send, save as draft, spell check, change from rich format to plain text to HTML, select high, normal or low priority, attach files or cancel the process entirely. Much is hidden in this interface but these tools are very intuitive and easy to figure out. Click on the dialog bubble to the right along the top bar and open a message box for instant messaging via Skype (coming soon), Facebook Chat or Windows Live Messenger. Click the gear to access the various options available to modify your mail settings and other details. Click on your name and picture at the far right to edit your account settings and availability for chat.
The default is for threaded conversations, again much like Gmail, which is new to Microsoft mail products. But much of the underlying Hotmail remains – simply right click on elements and you will get context menus that reveal those features. Another cool feature – web versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint are built in, and can be edited on the site. Currently no offline support, but hopefully this is something Microsoft will add down the road.
When you connect your social sites, Outlook will attempt to merge contact information for individuals from the various sites into one contact card. With the new look over at SkyDrive, switching between Mail, Contacts and SkyDrive will offer a seamless experience. Unfortunately, the Calendar app is still pure Hotmail, which looks a bit bizarre next to its shinier cousins. Mobile looks great – the simple interface works beautifully on phones and tablets. SkyDrive has just moved out of preview – along with the similar UI, you get a new desktop and tablet browser with instant search, contextual toolbar, thumbnail multi-select, drag-and-drop organization, and HTML5 sorting, desktop & OS X apps for faster uploads, SkyDrive for Android which allows access, uploading and sharing from Android phones. Together, Outlook.com and SkyDrive are building a credible competitor to Gmail, Docs and Google Drive. I will offer more detail on the new SkyDrive UI in a separate post, but take a look below at how great it looks:
The image above to the left in the docs pane looks blurry because I snapped the screenshot while the slideshow was rolling through the images – a really great feature.
I am very impressed with Microsoft’s direction here. Along with rumors about a $199 Surface Tablet, the press on Windows 8 and the great Metro interface and the new look and feel of Microsoft’s web applications, I believe they get the importance of modernizing the Office experience. I am excited to delve into Outlook.com and Skydrive and give these apps a run for their money. And, maybe, my next tablet may be a Windows-based slate. One never knows.