Microsoft has reimagined and rebranded its existing Hotmail/Windows Live webmail service as Outlook.com, and the result -- a Metro-inspired, stripped-back client that's much more like the Outlook desktop client -- is impressive. We've long thought Hotmail was a solid email service, and certainly the best alternative to Gmail, but Microsoft steps its game up to a whole new level with Outlook.com.
Outlook is of course already the brand used for the desktop email client in Microsoft Office. It's surprising in a way that Microsoft has waited so long to use the same brand online. Given that Windows 8 sees many of the distinctions between "consumer" and "professional" versions of Microsoft products blurred -- the default upgrade option for most people will be Windows 8 Pro -- bringing the Outlook brand to webmail certainly makes sense. (We'll refer to the web version as Outlook.com for clarity, but on screen it often appears labelled simply as Outlook.)
The interface is clean and simple, focusing on the email in your inbox. The sidebar and title bars are slim and clutter-free, and even the ads are relatively unobtrusive. Opening an email brings up a very Gmail-like conversation view, you can quickly create labels for any type of message, search using a number of different filters and operators, and navigate the interface easily with keyboard shortcuts. If you don't like the default shortcuts, you can easily switch them to a Gmail- or Yahoo-like system, so you don't have to retrain your muscle memory either.
So what does it offer that's different from existing webmail systems? Outlook.com can sync with your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to grab contact info and photos automatically. Microsoft says integration with Skype accounts will also be added in the future. If you use Outlook on the desktop, Outlook.com will sync with it automatically via Exchange Active Sync. (The interface is quite different to the current Outlook Web Access option businesses can set up for web access to Exchange accounts.)
The inbox has a very cool "Quick Actions" feature (an idea borrowed from the Outlook desktop client) that shows actions like reply or delete when you hover over a message. You can customise which actions appear (though unlike the desktop version, you can't use keyboard shortcuts to access them).
Outlook.com also has well-developed features for handling newsletters and other regular, non-personal email. Outlook.com automatically labels all incoming newsletter-type messages, and even adds an unsubscribe button to the bottom if the newsletter doesn't include one itself. You can also set up your inbox to only keep the newest email from a given sender (very handy for managing daily deal emails). The existing Sweep system, which lets you set up rules for managing email, has been retained and enhanced. As you'd expect, Outlook.com integrates with SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage system, and with Office Web Apps.
If you have an existing Hotmail, Windows Live or Skydrive account, you can hit Outlook.com and sign in to test the new interface. Microsoft officially advises that you need to choose the Upgrade option from the Hotmail options menu, but if you have your password stored in your browser or in a password management system, you may find yourself shifted to the new interface automatically.
One caution: while your old addresses using Hotmail or Live.com domains will continue receiving email and will retain your purchase history for apps or games, some users are reporting that after upgrading they can only sign in using the outlook.com domain.
If you're a happy Gmail user, the mere existence of Outlook.com isn't likely to change your choice. However, if you have friends or relatives who have stuck with Hotmail or Windows Live, there's far less reason than before to encourage them to shift.