By Ian Paul, PCWorld Aug 1, 2012 7:11 AM
Hotmail users and newbies are flocking in droves to Outlook.com, Microsoft’s latest Webmail overhaul that will eventually replace Hotmail. Less than 24 hours after Microsoft rolled out Outlook.com, one million people were already using the service, according to an official tweet from Microsoft. The new Outlook continues Microsoft’s overhaul of all its Web properties to the new touch-centric Metro feel — the same look that’s coming to the Windows 8 Start Screen and is already on Windows Phone.
Launched in 1996, and bought by Microsoft in 1997, Hotmail was one of the earliest free Webmail services and became the first e-mail address for millions of people, perhaps rivaled only by AOL Mail. But what was once new and exciting in the late 1990s became stagnant and less innovative by the early 2000s. Around 2004, Google’s Gmail was the hot new e-mail service, while Hotmail appeared dated. That lack of trendiness, however, did not cause Hotmail to bleed users. In fact, it was only recently that Gmail finally surpassed Hotmail, reaching 425 million active users in June, while Hotmail’s last reported user base hovered around 360 million.
Microsoft’s Outlook.com overhaul comes just in time to help Hotmail/Outlook try to regain its position as the world’s top Webmail service. It’s not clear when Hotmail will be completely absorbed into the new Outlook.com, so longtime Hotmail users resistant to change can stick with the older Webmail service for now.
But if you’re interested in getting started with Outlook.com today, here’s what you need to know whether you’re a Hotmail veteran or new to Microsoft Webmail.
If you already have a Hotmail address or Microsoft account, just sign in to Outlook.com using your current credentials and you will automatically switch over to the new look. New users can also sign up for an account at the Outlook.com start page.
The new Outlook uses the same four-column design that Hotmail does with some slight differences. On the far left you have the Folders and Quick View Pane, next to that is the message list, followed by the largest column where you can view messages. The biggest change is in the far right column, which in Hotmail was occupied by ads. When you login the first thing you will see in the far right are Bing deals and offers (ads), but you can turn that space into something more personal by clicking on the Messaging icon in the top right corner.
Just like Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, you can chat with online contacts straight from your Outlook.com inbox. Click on the messaging icon in the far right corner (the square-shaped smiley face) to open the Messaging pane. Outlook’s Messaging will be familiar to anyone who has used the Messaging app in Windows 8. You start with a blank pane and you have to click the “Start new conversation” text box to see your online contacts from Messenger and Facebook. Once you start a conversation in the Messaging app, it will stay in the right hand pane along with the most recent comment until you close the Outlook.com window.
Similar to Outlook 2010, Outlook 2013 and Gmail’s People Widget, you can see information about your contacts pulled from social networking accounts such as profile photos and status updates. This information is displayed in the far right column when you view an e-mail, but you will not see this sidebar if you have the messaging pane open. To close the Messaging pane click the “X” in the far right corner.
Add an Outlook Address (Hotmail users)
If you’re a Hotmail user looking to switch back to Microsoft’s platform and don’t want to be caught dead sending mail from a dated Hotmail.com address, you can use an Outlook.com e-mail instead. There are two ways to do this: make a permanent switch to Outlook.com or create an alias.
Let’s say Joe Smith wants to switch his Jsmith@hotmail.com to J.email@example.com. His first step would be to click on the settings cog in the far right corner of the inbox and select “More mail settings.” On the next page, he would select “Rename your email address” under the heading “Managing your account.” Then, on the following page, Joe would be able to rename his Microsoft account to an Outlook.com address. Microsoft says it takes a few days for other Microsoft services such as SkyDrive to switch over to the new address.
WARNING: Windows Phone users may not want to make a permanent switch with an account tied to a phone. If you do, you won’t be able to use Marketplace, Xbox LIVE, SkyDrive, e-mail and other Windows Phone services. To get these features working again, you’ll have to restore your phone to factory settings, erasing all your personal content from the handset.
The other alternative is to leave your Microsoft account as is and create an alias address. This works just like a regular e-mail address, allowing you to send and receive e-mail. But you can’t sign in to Outlook.com or any other Microsoft service using this ID. You also have to select the Outlook.com address each time you write a new message since the default will be to use your old Hotmail or Live.com email.
To make an alias click on the Settings cog in the far right and select “More mail settings.” On the next page, select “Create a Outlook alias”. Once you choose an alias, you can decide whether to filter the messages to a special folder or straight to your regular inbox.
People, Calendar, and SkyDrive
From Outlook you are also one click away from your contacts, Calendar, and SkyDrive. To navigate to each different service hover over the Outlook logo in the top left corner of your inbox and select the downward facing arrow. Reminiscent of the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, a dropdown bar will appear with Metro-style tiles you can select to navigate between services. In my tests, only your contacts — renamed People as in Windows Phone and Windows 8 — are updated with the new Metro look. Your calendar and SkyDrive are using the old design for now, but visual overhauls are expected soon.
Microsoft has a made a dramatic leap forward in visual appeal with Outlook.com and more plans are in the works for the overhauled service including Skype integration. If you’re a longtime Hotmail user who gave up on your old address for Gmail, GMX, or some other service, you should revisit Hotmail and give the new Outlook.com a try.