Windows Live Hotmail

Much like the ongoing renovation of Yahoo Mail beta, the MSN Hotmail service has undergone a face-lift that makes it resemble a desktop e-mail client. Like Yahoo, the new Windows Live Hotmail uses a blend of dynamic HTML and JavaScript--dubbed AJAX--to preload messages so that you don't have to wait long for content to appear. Other convenient tweaks include the capability to drag and drop messages into folders. Unlike Yahoo and Gmail, Microsoft's popular e-mail service has emerged from beta testing as a final product for all users to try--although more features are likely to trickle in soon.

Microsoft also is building bridges between desktop and Web-based e-mail with the impending releases of both the Outlook Connector beta synchronizer and the Windows Live Mail beta download.

Setup and interface
The interface of Windows Live Hotmail resembles that of Microsoft Outlook, with messages organized into panes. You can highlight multiple messages at a time using the SHIFT and CTRL keys, and drag messages into various folders. There are several other keyboard shortcuts, such as the up and down arrow keys to move among Inbox messages. And clicking the right mouse key on a message brings up options for replying to an e-mail, among other choices. The interface also offers the choice of nine color themes to fit your tastes. Clicking the logo in the upper left corner of the screen pulls down a list of options.

Windows Live Hotmail organizes messages into panes, letting you drag and drop e-mails into folders.

Windows Live Hotmail features an animated banner ad atop the page. This ad may target you according to details you entered when signing up, such as your city and gender. Unlike Gmail, however, Windows Live Hotmail does not sift through the text of your messages to serve up personalized advertising.

The Classic view, which you can revert to at any time, better resembles the old layout of Hotmail. Whether you choose the Classic or new look, Windows Live Mail offers 2GB of free storage and up to 4GB for $19.99 per year. And instead of shutting down your account after a month of inactivity, Microsoft lets you ignore your e-mail for 120 days. Still, after having lost several years' worth of messages by ignoring an old account in the past, we'd prefer a service without a cutoff date.

Among the features that you can't find elsewhere at this point, Windows Live Hotmail includes a built-in audio player. When you open a message with a music file attached to it, Hotmail prompts you to save or open the file in Windows Media Player. Click Cancel to play the song in your Inbox. Once you click another message, however, the song stops. A cool photo-uploading feature previews what's on your hard drive and allows you to rename and rotate pictures before attaching them to an e-mail message (This and the inline audio player work only in Internet Explorer.) We're curious to see how Microsoft might integrate a video player at a later date.

Prefer the old Hotmail? You can't get it back, but the Classic view comes close. Classic view is the default, and you can revert to it at any time after using the newer style interface.

Also, a built-in spelling checker underlines suspect words with a red squiggly line, reminiscent of Microsoft Word. In addition to sorting messages by sender, subject, date, and size, you can show only messages with a particular subject or sender, or those containing attachments.

Windows Live Hotmail automatically blocks images and Web links unless you authorize them. A yellow or red security bar appears atop any message flagged as a security threat, such as a phishing e-mail. We like this easy-to-follow approach. However, while the security bar blocked some spam content, it did not appear in potentially suspicious messages sent to us by contacts we had already labeled as trusted senders.

When logged on with Internet Explorer, you can play MP3 and WAV files directly from your Inbox.

Unfortunately, an RSS reader, built-in previews of Microsoft Office documents, and calendar integration are all lacking, although Microsoft says that it will continue to update Windows Live Hotmail with new features in the coming months and beyond. Other features offered currently by competitors such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail beta include built-in chatting. However, Windows Live Hotmail can detect the presence of fellow Windows Live users and then bring up a Windows Live Messenger window if you want to chat. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this feature to work the first day of the Windows Live Hotmail launch.

Overall, we've found Windows Live Hotmail faster and sleeker than its predecessor. However, users who are accustomed to the old-style Hotmail may prefer to use the Classic view. The features of popular, Web-based e-mail services from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google are so similar that we don't see an overwhelming reason for anyone to switch brands aside from personal preference for a specific feature set. We'll report back with a full review and rating after continuing to test the final service.