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A fresh, faster Hotmail

Now live, it's the new Hotmail--er, wait--Windows Live Hotmail.

Some 280 million Hotmail users are getting a brand-new in-box today. If you're already using Hotmail, a green button will invite you to try the new service when you log in, while the beta tag disappears for testers (pictures here).

Voila, the new Windows Live Hotmail.
Voila, the new Windows Live Hotmail. Microsoft

Microsoft is also building bridges between its desktop and browser-based e-mail services. The Windows Live Mail beta download should be available later this month, succeeding Outlook Express and Windows Mail. Also later in May, expect to see the free Microsoft Office Outlook Connector beta, which will synchronize contacts, e-mails, and folders with the new Hotmail. The current Outlook Web Access will remain for enterprise users only.

Microsoft dug up the foundation of MSN Hotmail and has spent more than two years reconstructing it, brick by AJAX brick. So in addition to a new face, expect more speed; messages will load without requiring the entire page to refresh.

The multipane interface looks just like that of Yahoo Mail beta, which apes Microsoft Outlook--letting you drag and drop messages into folders, or right-click messages for a menu of options. Windows Live Hotmail, however, lets you choose a color theme. Even the "Today" tab of news that loads when you sign in is reminiscent of Yahoo.

Similar to the Hotmail of the past as well as Mozilla Thunderbird, check boxes appear next to each message--but only when you hover over or select an e-mail. This is built to help old-school users get accustomed to the new layout. You can, however, select multiple messages without zeroing in on the tiny boxes.

Windows Live Hotmail has customizable color themes
Windows Live Hotmail has customizable color themes Elsa Wenzel/CNET

New goodies include the following:

    • Storage starts at 2GB and expands to 4GB for $19.99 per year. Yahoo, by contrast, offers unlimited storage.
    • Say "RIP" to the old Hotmail. But, you can switch to Classic view, which closely resembles it.
    • A built-in audio player lets you listen to MP3 and WAV files--including songs and voice mail messages.
    • You can make minor changes to pictures when attaching them to an e-mail message. Unfortunately, this feature and the inline audio player won't work in Firefox.
    • There's no integrated chatting as the Gmail and Yahoo Mail betas allow, but Hotmail can detect when a contact is online and will pop up a Windows Live Messenger window when you choose to chat.
    • Microsoft may be working with an unnamed partner to embed video features. If so, the ability to play movies within your inbox could really set this e-mail service apart from Yahoo's and Google's.
    • An inline spelling checker underlines misspelled words with squiggly lines and ties to a dictionary and thesaurus, just like in Word. Gmail and Yahoo Mail lack this.
    • The security bar atop incoming messages turns yellow or red according to the potential danger. Although Hotmail won't block senders from your contact list, most messages won't show pictures or links until you allow them. Some users may find this too cautious, but I've found it to be a pretty straightforward buffer zone against phishing and other scams.
    • A banner atop the screen may target ads according to your location. Unlike Gmail, however, Hotmail will not serve advertisements based on the text content of your e-mails.
    • You can choose to send messages so they appear to be from your Gmail or Yahoo address.

Many other features are still under wraps and will roll out gradually. Outlook-like features that are still absent include the following:

    • RSS reader
    • Message color-coding
    • Built-in preview of documents from Office and elsewhere.
    • Calendar integration (in progress).
    • Despite the rich text editing for e-mail composition, there's no sign that Hotmail will incorporate an online word processor, a la Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
    • I'm crossing my fingers that built-in mapping, chatting, and voice-calling might also happen at some point.
    • No word yet on whether Hotmail will render HTML as Outlook 2007 does. If so, it would also lack CSS support, thus giving migraines to many newsletter designers.

      Classic view hints at the old Hotmail.
      Classic view hints at the old Hotmail. Microsoft

If you're confused by all the changing names of Hotmail, you're not alone. The first code name for the redesigned Hotmail was Tsunami, replaced later in 2005 by Kahuna, then otherwise known as Windows Live Mail beta. Now Microsoft is keeping the Hotmail brand after all and preceding it with the newer Windows Live moniker that also describes a host of Web 2.0 tools. (The team behind the rebuild reportedly cheered at the decision.)

Just don't mix up Windows Live Hotmail with Windows Live Mail, the new, free desktop client--or with Office Live Mail, which integrates with other Office Live services. For the sake of my sore fingers, I'm referring to Windows Live Hotmail as Hotmail from here on.

Also see this News.comreport about Hotmail for more.