With easily more than 100 million users, Hotmail is the big kahuna of free e-mail services. And like many Web mailers, the service is trying to generate a little cash by offering extra storage options. Should you pay $20 a year for an additional 10MB of storage, automatic virus scanning, and a handful of other goodies? That depends on how much you like Hotmail. If you're a big fan of the free service but feel a little cramped by its puny 2MB limit, then go for it. But if you're choosing a Web mail provider from scratch, Yahoo Mail Plus offers more bang for your e-mail buck. Setting up a Web mail account should be fast and easy, but apparently somebody forgot to tell Microsoft. To create a Hotmail account, you must first create your .Net Passport by filling out a form that asks for information such as your pet's name (which must be five letters or longer, so don't name your dog Rex). Then you fill out another form with your credit card and contact information to pay for the extra storage and fight off two more screens offering to send you 40-odd newsletters and special discounts on a variety of products. The process isn't difficult, but it's more time-consuming than it needs to be.
/sc/21211245-2-300-SS1.gif" width="300" height="225" alt="" />
Hotmail lets you check up to four POP e-mail accounts and funnel all your messages into a single in-box. Unfortunately, its built-in spam filter did nothing to stop the junk in our tests.
/sc/21211245-2-300-SS2.gif" width="300" height="225" alt="" />
In addition to creating lists of e-mail senders you wish to block, Hotmail also lets you create a whitelist of senders its spam filters will ignore--a feature you won't find in Yahoo Mail.
You can also tell Hotmail to block specific e-mail addresses or, conversely, which ones its spam filter shouldn't block (Yahoo lacks such a whitelist feature). Like Yahoo, Hotmail lets you keep images inside the messages from displaying, so you can avoid seeing porn or sending "Web beacons" back to spammers telling them their messages have been read. Hotmail also provides a spelling checker and a thesaurus (Yahoo doesn't), along with automatic virus scanning and 30MB of storage on MSN Groups for stashing photos and other files online. However, Hotmail lacks its competitor's automated vacation replies, archiving capabilities, and fancy stationery. Overall, Yahoo's features trump Hotmail's selection. If you pay for extra storage, you should get extra support along with it. Unfortunately, Hotmail's support options--paid or unpaid--are even more limited than Yahoo's.
/sc/21211245-2-300-SS3.gif" width="300" height="225" alt="" />
Got a problem with Hotmail? Good luck getting help. The e-mail contact link is buried five levels deep on the support site, and we could never get it to work correctly.
It turns out that to contact the company directly via e-mail, you must choose "Other--not listed here" as a topic, then you can send for help. Good luck figuring that one out on your own. We sent five queries and each time got an error message (and no response).
Hotmail also offers live chat support (for billing issues only) but no phone options--strange, given MSN's generally excellent support. Paying customers deserve better.