E-mail aims to achieve more with less clutter
WEBMAIL providers seem bent on giving our messy inboxes a makeover. Microsoft has introduced its new take on e-mail with Outlook.com, AOL gave a fresh look to its mail service two weeks ago, and Google is expected to smarten up Gmail after its recent acquisition of Sparrow.
1. Microsoft Outlook.com — four stars
Microsoft has declared its intention to change how we have conversations with its new Outlook.com service by linking e-mail, video and messaging in a more seamless way —"unified communications".
The new service is not a web-based version of the Outlook e-mail program in its Office suite. It is more like a makeover for its Hotmail service in the style of Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 operating system, which will underpin its tablet and PC products, and Office 2013, thanks to similar fonts, design and navigation principles.
For now there is an option for Outlook.com users to switch back to Hotmail if they prefer, but I already know I won’t be choosing that. I like the new look: it tidies up and tucks away features such as calendar and contacts, leaving me with the essential view of my e-mail.
Many of the features Microsoft is touting for Outlook.com are already available in Hotmail — editing attachments in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint web apps, or unifying contacts from social networks and other sources. But now everything is more tightly integrated and pleasing to the eye.
Less pleasing are the over-protective security features or the overzealous default Quick Views, which filter shipping updates and e-mails with photos and documents into folders — and, in my case, too many other e-mails.
On the communications side, I can open a Messaging pane to chat with Facebook friends as well as Microsoft Messenger users. Skype video chat will be enabled in the inbox at a later, so far unspecified, date.
Outlook.com has unlimited storage for e-mails and is linked to the SkyDrive cloud service for storing documents.
Perhaps the best feature of Outlook.com, however, is that even with the addition of very many new features it focuses on the e-mail we most care about with its uncluttered interface.
2. AOL Mail — three stars
The service famous for it’s "You’ve got mail!" tagline has slipped in popularity in recent years but, for the remaining faithful, it is encouraging that AOL is prepared to give it a facelift.
Under the new look, your e-mail is more spaced out and has a first line of the e-mail showing below the subject field. The icons for actions along the top are clearer and more organised and the left-hand navigation can collapse to a thin strip to allow a wider view of your inbox.
A new box on the left-hand side has tabbed access to instant messaging, contacts, calendar and tasks.
There are more ways to customise and personalise the look but, overall, this is a modest upgrade.
3. Google’s Sparrow — four stars
For all the cleaned-up design of Outlook.com and AOL Mail, Sparrow’s spare looks has them beat. This minimalist e-mail software for the Mac (there is an iPhone version too) lets me focus on my list of e-mails and their preview pane by reducing the icons to just a few on one side.
Social features are added subtly, such as the way connecting to Facebook inserts pictures of friends next to their e-mails.
There is excellent integration of several Gmail features, and hopefully additional ones will soon be added with the acquisition, such as the ability to drag labels on to e-mails.
While Gmail is my preferred webmail service, it does still look like it was designed by engineers. Maybe Sparrow will turn an ugly duckling into a swan.
Ask the tech expert
The problem: I have a lot of old electronics and video games I never use. Should I consider trade-in sites? — Anon, US
The answer: You live in the US, so there are many choices — though you have to shop around for the best deals — from well-known retailers such as Amazon, GameStop and BestBuy to specialist websites such as Gazelle, Glyde and NextWorth. People in the UK have less choice: Amazon will trade just games and their hardware, while Weeebuy offers cash for "your electronic trash".
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited
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