The New Hotmail
Part 3: What's New in Hotmail
The new Hotmail delivers a host of functional changes aimed at uncluttering your inbox and making users more efficient. The anti-clutter work involves spam, as you might expect, but also "gray" mail, annoying non-spam email that seems to plug up all our inboxes and prevent us from getting to the email that's important to us. The efficiency improvements come in a variety of ways, from new filtering and search capabilities to the ability to interact with content that usually requires a visit to other web sites, right in the inbox. And of course Hotmail is a conduit to Microsoft's new Office Web Apps, and it can work seamlessly with that service to provide a better way to share documents with others.
Here's a rundown of the new features.
Eliminate inbox clutter
According to Microsoft, nearly 90 percent of all web mail traffic is composed of spam, up from 35 percent in 2006. Despite this, only 4 percent of the mail that makes its way into Hotmail users' inboxes is spam, a figure that the company describes as "competitive," while also noting that if it used the same metric Google uses to measure Gmail's anti-spam effectiveness, the figure would be one percent.
Spam, of course, is only part of the problem. As more and more people come to rely on email as their primary interaction point with the online world, a growing percentage of the mail that many people consider spam is, in fact, gray mail. This is mail like newsletters, advertisements from vendors you do business with, and so on.
So the new Hotmail includes a number of new features and enhancements to existing features to help combat inbox clutter. It benefits from Microsoft's impressive SmartScreen anti-spam technologies on the back-end, and they've been improved and bolstered by additional features and functionality as you'd expect. But from the user's perspective, Hotmail's ability to cut through the dreck and help them find the email that matters most is, perhaps, of more interest.
To this end, Hotmail now provides Quick views, accessible from the navigation bar. Quick views are like filters, but they apply to your entire email account, not just the current folder. And it provides one-click access to commonly-needed email, like those that contain photos or Office documents, or those emails that are flagged as important or contain shipping updates.
If you're looking for a more traditional filtering feature, the Hotmail provides that as well via the new mailbox filter list. These filters do work against only the currently-viewed mailbox, and let you filter the view down only to unread mail, email from your contacts, from social networks, from groups, or everything else.
If this isn't enough, Hotmail also provides near-instantaneous auto-complete on mailbox searches from the Bing search bar. As you type, potential results will appear in a drop-down list, segregated by messages, from line, subject, and to line.
And if you have specific search needs, there's a powerful advanced search feature as well.
Finally, your most important Hotmail-based email is also exposed via a new "Hotmail highlights" section in the new Windows Live home page, which sort of replaces the old Today page. I don't personally find much use for this, but it has a handy place for people with less-than-dramatic needs to check up on their email, social networking updates, and Messenger friends, all from one place.
Gmail users are probably familiar with the fact that their webmail solution automatically organizes all of their mail by conversation, linking messages from the same thread into a single entry point. This can be useful, and certainly some people do prefer this method of email organization, so Microsoft has added it as an option in the new Hotmail (as it did in Outlook 2010 as well). But what the company discovered, too, was that far more people dislike Conservation view than like it, so it's disabled by default. (You can't disable Conversation view in Gmail.) I happen to prefer Conversation view, and the implementation in Hotmail is nice, with collapsible messages.
The new Hotmail also offers a much simpler take on inbox rules, which are powerful but confusing to most people. (Traditional rules are still available, of course.) Called Sweep, this feature can be engaged manually against particular emails or kinds of emails, and, if you're really trusting, can be enabled to run automatically as well. "Swept" mail can be moved to a different folder or simply deleted, your choice.
Better communication capabilities
Microsoft has had a web-based version of its Messenger service for a while now, but in the new Hotmail, it's integrated right into the webmail client, so you can logon from the interface you're using all day long anyway. Messenger conversations pop-up in a small mini-window in the lower-right corner of the browser, and if you have multiple conversations going, a tabbed interface appears. (You can also display Messenger conversations in a separate, small browser window.)
If you need to send Office documents or photos via email--and let's face it, tons of people do just that every day--Hotmail has some interesting new capabilities that kick in whether the others you're communicating with use Hotmail or not. The key to this advantage is SkyDrive integration, so instead of just foisting attachment-heavy emails on your friends and family, Hotmail will instead use the 25 GB of SkyDrive storage each subscriber gets for free. So in the case of photos, you can now send a whopping 10 GB of photos per email; these emails can have up to 200 photos, each of which can be up to 50 MB in size. On the receiving end, your recipients will get a photo-laden email without having to actually go through the pain of downloading because all the photos are stored up on your SkyDrive storage.
Hotmail also integrates with the SkyDrive-hosted Office Web Apps as well, so you can more easily share Office documents. You get the same storage allotment as you do with photos--10 GB of documents per email, with up to 200 documents of up to 50 MB in size each--and can edit received documents directly from within Hotmail, without needing to download them first.
And for a growing collection of popular online content, Hotmail offers an interesting new feature called Active Views. So if someone sends you a link from a supported service--YouTube, Hulu, Flickr, SmugMug, and Justin.tv, currently--or you get an email with a tracking number for a package, Hotmail will display the content directly and not require you to visit other sites. So YouTube videos will play in a nice pop-up display, and you can track those packages without clicking or copying and pasting. Active Views will obviously get better over time, but it's a nice start, and if you do use one of those supported services, it's a nice experience.