Microsoft Outlook.com review: Not only new, but also much improved

On the far left of the inbox is a column for accessing default (Junk, Sent, and Draft) and user-created folders. To move messages into a folder, just drag it into a folder or check the box and use the related command at the top of the screen. Below your Folders list is a helpful Quick View section for further organizing your messages into categories. Though e-mails assigned to a category will remain in your inbox (unlike with Folders), you can view them as a group by clicking the category name.

With the filtering features in the Quick View categories, Outlook.com will automatically detect and flag messages with attachments or a shipping tracking number. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

I approve of Outlook.com's filtering system, which automatically detects and categorizes e-mails with photos or documents attached and any message containing a shipping tracking number. In my experience, the feature worked as promised. As they arrived, messages were identified accordingly and sent to the appropriate default category. A message with images, for example, went right to "Photos" category, and an e-mail with a FedEx tracking number landed immediately in "Shipping Updates." You can create your own categories, though I'm not certain what advantages this system offers over folders. Also, it's odd that you can't add a message to a category through drag and drop. On the whole, though, this is an area where Outlook.com excels. Organization freaks like me will love it.

Cleanup
With Outlook.com, Microsoft is promising new levels of spam management. First off, the company is making a distinction between obvious spam or junk mail and what it calls "graymail." These are messages like newsletters, daily deals, or special announcements from online retailers. Since management of the second group isn't always clear-cut, you're offered a couple of tools beyond the usual solution of creating rules for filters. With the Schedule Cleanup option, for example, you can tell Outlook.com to delete all messages from the sender that arrived before a certain date (it's your choice) or delete all of them at once.

Standard spam protection includes the capability to set a junk mail filter, block anything from an unknown sender, block e-mails by domain, or designate messages as a phishing scam. In these cases, Microsoft says it will block all future messages from the sender, and it will attempt to unsubscribe you from mailing lists. There's even an option to alert Microsoft if you feel a friend's e-mail has been hacked. I'm not sure what that does exactly. It's also unclear if Microsoft's efforts to unsubscribe you will only alert a sender that you have a valid e-mail address, which could result in even more spam. For its part, the company says it will discern between a legitimate business like an airline and a suspicious sender like a Nigerian lottery notice when sending the unsubscribe request.

To organize your e-mail, you can schedule a cleanup. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Another nice option is the ability to use additional aliases using the Outlook.com, Live.com, and Hotmail.com domains (provided they're not taken, of course). This is great when, for instance, you're shopping online or registering with a Web site and don't want to reveal your primary e-mail address. This post tells you how.

All of these features are quite attractive, and in my experience they appeared to be effective. Most of the controls need to learn from your commands to really be effective, so the effectiveness of the filtering should increase over time.

Nothing is free
Of course, as it's a free e-mail service, you will have to see ads when using Outlook.com. Small and text-based, ads appear to the left side of the inbox, but you can hide them with the chat window (mouse over them to see a graphic). If you've integrated your account with Facebook or Twitter (see below), ads always will disappear in favor of your friend's latest Facebook status update and his or her most recent tweet. That feature worked as promised.

More importantly, Microsoft vows that it will not read your messages to serve personalized ads. That's a big point for privacy, and it was the case for me. I saw ads for everything from a Brazilian steakhouse to a set of six jam jars. So on the whole, it was pretty random. If you don't like the ads, you can upgrade to an ad-free version for $19.95 per year. Yes, that's less than you'd pay to put gas in your car, but it's still too much to pay to get rid of unobtrusive, boxy ads that don't even appear all of the time.

People Hub
As mentioned, Outlook.com follows Windows 8 and Windows Phone in using a People Hub to manage your contacts. The Metro-influenced interface and commands will be familiar, and you can personalize each contact with a full range of text fields -- company, address, nickname, and so forth -- and a photo. Of course, you also can link your Outlook.com account with various social-media services such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Flickr, and LinkedIn. Such integration has been a big part of Microsoft's recent products, so it's no surprise that we're seeing it here.

You're not required to integrate your e-mail with your social life, which is good because doing so involves some trade-offs. On the Facebook side, your friends will appear in your contacts list, complete with photos and all relevant contact information. Naturally, if you have duplicates you can link them together or you can block them out completely. When you do add friends, you then can post directly on a friend's Wall, send a Facebook message, or chat in an instant-message-like format without leaving Outlook.com (you also can chat with non-Facebook contacts who are simply online at the time). And as I said above, your friend's current Facebook status will appear on the right side when you open a message. For Twitter, you will be able to tweet to your friends from Outlook.com and see their latest tweets in e-mails.

It's annoying, though, that suddenly the birthdays of your Facebook friends become a big part of your life. In default mode, you'll get an e-mail each time a Facebook friend has a birthday, and your calendar will be littered with their special days as well. In default mode, Twitter integration also floods your contact list with everyone you follow. And I'd wager that most people follow more people on Twitter than they have Facebook friends. Sure, you can remove your Twitter contacts from your People Hub completely, but it would be better if you could edit individual names. Also, though you can search for contacts directly or jump through the alphabet by section using the lettered squares (a very Windows Phone touch), it still can be a lot of names to wade through.

As in Windows Phone and Windows 8, your contacts are organized in the People Hub. Then you can sync your contacts by integrating Outlook.com with social-media services. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Skype and SkyDrive integration
It's disappointing that Skype integration is not available at launch. Microsoft says it is coming but won't elaborate at the time of this writing. One hopes we won't have to wait long, and that when it comes the integration will be seamless.

Fortunately, SkyDrive integration is available now. I didn't have any complaints about the user experience and it was easy to switch back and forth between the two features.

Calendar
Outlook's calendar also needs major attention. Here, the old Hotmail interface remains, which makes it look and feel miles behind the newer product. I was willing to let that pass during the preview stage, but not now that Outlook.com is out of preview. Unfortunately, Microsoft won't say when it will turn its attention to this feature.

What else?
If you prefer, you can add other e-mail accounts so you can send messages from another address without leaving Outlook.com. The setup process is easy, and when composing a message you need only to select that address from a drop-down menu. You also can receive e-mail from your other accounts in your Outlook.com inbox, but only if you set up e-mail forwarding ahead of time. To go even further, you can migrate other accounts and contacts to Outlook.com with POP. I didn't try that, but Dennis O'Reilly can walk you through the steps . Outlook.com supports Exchange ActiveSync for mobile devices like iOS and you can use POP, but currently it does not support IMAP. For now, Microsoft won't say whether that will come.

Other features include autocomplete when searching your inbox, autoforwarding, message archiving to any folder you like, and vacation alerts. You can sign in with a one-time password, sent in a text message to your phone, when using a public computer; recover deleted messages; and save the contents of a chat thread or a new message.

When you receive an e-mail from a Facebook or Twitter friend, that person's latest status updates and tweets will replace ads on the right. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Conclusion
It's amazing that even eight years after it was first unveiled by Google, Gmail is still making big waves in the e-mail world. Yes, the critics are correct that Microsoft took too long in confronting Gmail's advances, but Outlook.com is the first free e-mail service I've seen that's a direct and viable competitor to Google's product. The interface couldn't be easier to use, SkyDrive and social-media integration bring convenient levels of functionality (provided that you toy with the settings), and the instant filtering for specific messages is a boon for inbox organization. Photos and videos get welcome treatment, as well, and no will argue with the promise of unlimited storage. And just as importantly, Microsoft doesn't just imitate Gmail, it makes Outlook.com its own.

Outlook.com brings plenty to the table, but Microsoft is taking a seat at a table that's already crowded with mature and powerful players. Most people don't switch e-mail addresses on a whim, except when a new player delivers original and innovative features, as Google did when it delivered Gmail in 2004. Fortunately for Microsoft, it holds that card. Google's edge in search and utility integration should keep its users from defecting for the time being, but once Microsoft completes Skype integration, adds IMAP support, and fine-tunes the calendar, there will be a very good reason for ambivalent Gmail users to switch. Even if that doesn't happen, Outlook.com already offers enough to warrant a serious look from anyone using Yahoo, AOL, or an account from a phone or cable provider. And for anyone deeply embedded in Microsoft's ecosystem, it's a clear winner.

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