The just-launched Outlook.com offers plenty in the way of web-based email action. It goes head to head with the current favourite, Gmail, which with things like Google Docs, Apps and Drive integration, is fast becoming a one-stop shop for managing your working life on the web.
So how does Outlook.com fare against Google’s gargantuan email service? Is sticking with Gmail still the best way to go?
We have already written quite an extensive piece on signing-up for an Outlook.com account, so will keep this side of things pretty brief. It is incredibly simple.
Go to Outlook.com and choose between either using a Microsoft email account you might have already created, say Hotmail or Live, or create an entirely new one. It's all done in a single page of details and shouldn’t be too complex for most.
With Gmail it is pretty much the same approach. One page of details and you're away. There is the option to add a photo which will then double up as your Google+ profile picture, but you can skip it.
For most, what will really decide which service to go for is just how easy it is to get set up. Don’t forget these websites are about more than just email - they are for managing your entire online life.
First let's take a look at Outlook.com. A pretty straightforward website in its layout, the whole thing is geared towards Microsoft’s Metro UI design aesthetic. This means the same stripped-down approach to design as Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. On the left are your mail folders, which you can quickly customise with a single click. Below that are quick views, which enable you to do things like getting access to your documents and photos straight away.
Outlook is geared towards getting everything setup automatically. On the right when you first open up the service are several grey boxes offering options such as the ability to add Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
This is handled slightly less smoothly and requires you to leave the comfort of the Metro UI to go to the old-look Live.com pages. Connecting Facebook, for example, also seems to demand access to a lot of our Facebook settings. Still, its nice to be able to use the chat facility with Facebook.
The final thing you'll want to do is sync your contacts with Outlook.com. This is pretty much as smooth as it gets: a single-click process with one logon required for the various services you connect.
Gmail works slightly differently from Outlook because all its connected services are managed from tabs above the email inbox itself. You have things such as calendar, contacts, maps and the all-important Google Drive a single click away.
They're not difficult to set up either - just click the relevant service and it should be enabled straight away. Certain things like Google+ may require a few more details, but in the main Google is very straightforward to get connected.
Just like with Outlook you can also star and file emails into different folders. You cannot, however, search for those specifically with certain types of attachments. Nor can you read those attachments entirely within the mail client itself, a separate page usually opening instead.
The ability to set notes and keep tasks is very handy. Again it is all about keeping things a single click away. We can’t really fault Gmail for its set-up, although Outlook is almost just as good.
What do you get when you join up? With both Outlook and Gmail there is a tonne of extras thrown in that would normally cost you plenty more to own as software on a desktop computer. But which is best?
Pretty much everything exciting with Outlook.com takes place via the little arrow that sits next to the Outlook logo. Click it and metro-style tiles will drop down with quick links to things like people, your calendar and your SkyDrive.
All of these link seamlessly with the Outlook service, some doing very clever things with your email. Take sending a photo for example: rather than clogging up the receiver's inbox with large files, a link is simply sent to its location in your SkyDrive along with a thumbnail. They can then choose whether to download the original.
In terms of set-up, getting stuck in with everything else Outlook.com has to offer really isn’t that difficult. Using SkyDrive as an example, we had never touched the service before with the test account we used and it was there ready to go. We didn’t even need to click anything to confirm we wanted to use it. It’s a shame that the SkyDrive tab switches the user interface from the slick Outlook.com layout to that now vintage-looking Windows Live interface, but we are sure that will change.
Don’t forget that Microsoft has already promised to add other services into Outlook.com, including Skype integration, which will make up for the current hangouts and Google chat trump card that Gmail has.
Outlook.com’s Calendar syncs up nicely with other Windows devices and lets you set reminders and calendar specific events. We like that you can change the entire colour scheme of Outlook.com, including the calendar app. Our choice was purple, bringing things in line with our Lumia.
Actual email sending itself is simple and very slick. Microsoft has taken the nice-looking font from Windows Phone 7 and incorporated it into Outlook.com, definitely a good move. On top of that you get the same icons and menu layout as Windows Phone 7. It’s all part of bringing things in line with the Metro UI and looks great.
Google does things quite differently from Outlook.com. Rather than trying to keep everything contained within one fluid browser page, most of its services open up a new tab or window. The grey bar on the top links straight through to Drive and calendar as well as many of Google’s other services.
The calendar app might not be the best-looking thing Google has ever made, but it certainly works well. Don’t forget absolutely anyone with an Android phone can sync things instantly with the desktop version of the calendar, as well as edit and add to them.
If you choose to adopt it, then Google+ is there for you to play with, as is Google Drive. The latter is incredibly useful and, like Outlook.com, lets you do things like create documents and spreadsheets. These can be shared with other Google contacts who can also edit them live, as well as be exported to use on the desktop and offline.
As for actual email use, this is incredibly easy. Google will have all your contacts synced up in no time and should, like Outlook.com, let you change the font and attach files. Although do remember this doesn’t work with SkyDrive and as such adds a much larger file to an email.
In the end the differences between Gmail and Outlook.com really come down to preference. That it is so simple to upgrade from Hotmail makes it a bit of a no-brainer for current users of the service.
If however you are about to setup a new email account, we would instead take the following into account. Ff you are an Android user you will already have a Gmail account and we advise sticking with that.
If however you are a Windows Phone 7 adopter, plan to buy a Windows 8 tablet when they arrive or simply like Microsoft’s way of doing things, then Outlook.com is definitely a good choice.
Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below ...