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Hotmail's face-lift spurs complaints

MSN introduces upgrades to its free e-mail service after aborting attempts to launch the service earlier in the week.

Hotmail came out with an upgraded service Thursday after it aborted attempts to launch it earlier this week.

The Microsoft Network experienced glitches Tuesday after the company implemented the new upgrades. But by Thursday, Microsoft said that the issues had been resolved and the new version was available.

The upgraded version of Hotmail has an interface similar to MSN Explorer, with new buttons, icons and tabs. The Web site also introduced a new junk mail filter and added two languages--Dutch and Swedish. In addition, the service has a quick address-list function that provides Hotmail members with fast access to their five most frequently used contacts.

Although the new upgrade is Microsoft's latest attempt to provide consumers with an easier way to manage e-mail, some Hotmail members complained about the new design.

"I have used Hotmail as my main Web-based e-mail for some time, although now it looks like I am going to have to change that," Norman Hansen of Concord, Calif., said in an e-mail to CNET

Hansen complained of minuscule font sizes and crashes to his computer when he tried to print. He also expressed irritation at the amount of unrelated content such as the ever-present MSN banner.

Another Hotmail member who has been using the service for several years agreed with Hansen, saying that while the new service is "more sophisticated, and everything is much more accessible," the automatic signature and other new features annoyed him.

"My biggest nightmare is that I'm going to get locked out of Hotmail, or I'm going to wake up and they're going to be charging me," he said.

Clamping down on spam
Despite complaints, Microsoft is still touting the upgraded service, particularly its new spam filter. The company said the filter enables people to choose three different options for stamping out unwanted junk mail. One option is similar to the previous version, while another option has more stringent methods of reducing spam such as routing suspicious e-mail to a bulk folder. The exclusive level will enable people to receive e-mail only from people listed in their address books.

Two years ago, when Hotmail implemented a new spam filter, it was met with criticism after consumers complained that the flow of "spam" to their in-boxes did not slow.

However, Sarah Lefko, MSN product manager, said the company is now using a variety of tactics to block junk mail, including keeping track of words commonly used in spam, patterns of words and numbers, as well as looking for mail that is not addressed to the specific Hotmail user.

"While the tactics of spammers get increasingly complex, we continue to enhance our filtering capabilities," Lefko said. "Fighting spam is a constant battle and one that we're committed to."

Christopher Stutheit of Laguna Niguel, Calif., applauded MSN's efforts, saying that the added features combined with "a more intelligent spam filter" make the service more enjoyable.

"It's hard to see why anyone would have a problem with this new package," Stutheit wrote in an e-mail. "Everything is smoother, sleeker and more user-friendly...It's the best free service out there by far."

However, Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, said that no filter system is flawless. While Hotmail's new junk mail filter offers people the ability to control the setting on their spam filters, with filtering there is always "an inevitable tradeoff."

"There's no perfect technology for filtering," Catlett said. "You either are not deleting some spam or you are deleting real messages. It's an intrinsic problem in automatic categorization of text messages--you get false positives and you get false negatives."