My Early experience with the new Windows Live Hotmail!

Finally, after waiting so long, I have managed to catch the new Windows Live Hotmail wave 4 which the Windows Live Hotmail Team is gradually rolling out. Windows Live Hotmail introduces some new features that make it more productive, convenient and desktop like when managing your email in the web browser. I have been a loyal user of the of the Web Mail service for a long time now and have witnessed the major changes that have occurred over the years, moving from 1 MB inbox to 1 GB storage, to 5 GB to now over 25 GBs of available online storage for a lot of email!

The new Windows Live Hotmail wave 4! 

This release of Windows Live Hotmail which is in its 4th wave is a lot more cohesive with other facets of the Windows Live services, from photos to Office Web Apps. One of the immediate benefits when working with Windows Live services is the notification experience, for instance, if I am on my Windows Live profile page, I can see a notification in the Windows Live links banner how many unread messages there are in my inbox or access my Instant Messaging Contacts. If I hover over the Hotmail link, a pop out menu displays quick links to my Inbox, Contacts, Calendar and New Email Message. Windows Live Hotmail is fast and I am sure about this, because I am mostly on a GPRS connection which is quite slow 5 KBs per sec. I live in a rural area where there is no LAN line available. Hotmail loaded surprisingly fast, it might not be amazing for certain persons, but its quite satisfactory.

Interface

There are numerous interface changes users can expect when working with the new Hotmail, of course, this is a first use account, so stick with me as I familiarize myself over time. Email is a strong focus and managing it is a key improvement. The Inbox toolbar features a wide assortment of sorting filters which include: All, Unread, Contacts, Social Updates, From groups, Everything else. You can even sort by Date, From, Size and even Conversation, which is a new addition to Hotmail which you can find in Microsoft’s desktop email clients Windows Live Mail wave 4 and Office Outlook 2010.

Conversation View – click to enlarge

Users will note that the Mail pane features some welcome improvements that I have so long waited for. Finally, collapsible groups, this provides a much cleaner and less jarring experience when working in Hotmail regularly, especially if you have a lot of folders or small screen resolution. You will notice two additions in the Mail pane; Quick Views and Messenger. Quick Views provides instant access to Messages you might have flagged and want to follow up later and all your Photos and Office documents. Web Messenger allows you to sign in and conveniently access your instant messaging contacts from within Hotmail. Personally, I wish Messenger was available as a status bar panel in the Hotmail interface, please see my Thoughts on Windows Live Hotmail wave 4 post to learn more. It would be nice if Home, Contacts and Calendar were also collapsible for more convenience.

One immediate flaw I noticed, some Notifications cannot be closed, while perusing the new features, I noticed a banner notification appeared, asking me to re-sign into Hotmail because it has been updated. Of course, I was not interested in doing this immediately, a close button would have been nice.

Again, Windows Live Hotmail wave 4 is about being more productive and you immediately see this in subtle improvements like when you hover an email message. A small floating menu pops up with convenient task options for quickly replying, moving or delete the message. Less clicks, lots of tricks, I like it! 🙂

Email Message

The body of a message is an important part of the email experience and the Hotmail Team added some sophisticated features that makes using Hotmail a lot more powerful. When you select a message, you will notice a Smart faint blue banner at the top of the message header. The Header will indicate if the message is part of a conversation, you can hover the Senders name and a floating dialog will appear with quick task options, an Action Menu reveals a pop out list with a collection of common task, see screenshot for details. If the person is part of your contact list, you can also see their Messenger status.

Conversation View is a lovely feature that makes email messages more sane to read and keep on top of. If you are working on a project within a team where there is a lot of exchanges or collaborating on a document, you are able to see a more accurate and understandable view of the conversation or skip the messages you find most irrelevant or view what is really of interest to you. These are major business features that I am sure will make Hotmail more attractive to SMBs or Home Office users. The presentation is gorgeous too, with light visual cues such as a soft edge shadow to indicate a selected part of a conversation. I also like how Conversation view reduces clutter in my inbox, last month I was in a 22 message marathon with some Help and Support folks and it became so unwieldy to keep track of things, Conversation view will make future messaging experiences like that a breeze. I like how Hotmail also completes an action without the need to refresh the page. It seems Hotmail has done a lot of extensive work where under the hood technologies such as AJAX are concerned.

I still believe there is a bit of wasted space in Windows Live Hotmail though but this is possibly attributed to the Windows Live Wave Banner links at the top of the page. The Windows Live Team could honestly make the ‘Windows Live   Hotmail    Messenger   Office   Photos  | MSN’ links text smaller.

New Email Message

Again, its about accessibility and convenience. In addition to a elegant toolbar strip, users will notice links to Office Docs and Photos. I noted earlier that Hotmail Wave 4 should be more attractive to SMBs and Home Office users. Tight Office integration is an example of this, when you click the Office attachment button, the default folder directory will display only Microsoft Office file types, .doc. .docx, .xl, .ppt etc.

A very convenient improvement, of course, I would have loved if you could attach Office documents directly from Skydrive. The same applies to photos, you can attach pictures and on the fly create a Photo Album on Skydrive along with editing the Album Details and previewing a Slide Show. When you click the Edit Album Details, you have the option of setting permissions on the album from within Hotmail such as when the Album will expire, whether the recipient can edit, add or delete photos. Emoticons have also been improved, when you click the Emoticon button, a Task pane appears with a gallery of popular emoticons you can add to your message. Personally, I think this could be a floating pop out menu.

Office Integration

Microsoft Office comes to Hotmail, in a big way. The synergies users will experience is a more accessible, well integrated experience that makes it convenient to view and edit Microsoft Office files seamlessly. What I like about Quick Views is the accessibility and convenience, here you will find all Office files that you have either sent or received accumulated in this folder, the same goes for pictures – we will get to that later. For instance, you receive an attached Word document, you will notice you have multiple choices, you can either download the document and edit/view in Word or view Docx online right from within Skydrive. Now, the sweet part is editing or viewing using Docx online. When you click the link to do so, Hotmail will immediately take you to a special Microsoft Office web app on Hotmail mode. Prior to this, when I collaborated on reviews, it was so cumbersome when I had to make minor edits, I had to download, make the edits, reattach them and send them off. Now with Office Web Apps and Hotmail integration, I can make quick edits, save changes without any issue of multiple documents to manage or unnecessary re-uploading, basically, this eliminates the unnecessary version control that was once needed.

Working on Office documents through Windows Live Hotmail wave 4

Locally attached documents must be uploaded to Skydrive first before they can be edited

If you attached the document locally from your hard drive, then decide you want to make a edit from within Hotmail, Office Web App will first have to upload the file to Windows Live Skydrive. I would like Hotmail to do this automatically in the future to reduce the time needed or at least make it at option. Its safe in my opinion anyway since Skydrive has both Private and Public folders. Another little minor nitpick is the views of documents in Docx online viewer and editing mode for Office Web App. Why aren’t the document pages maintained when I am editing to keep that Office user experience and fidelity consistent across browser and desktop app?

Photos

Photos in the new Windows Live Hotmail. 

Another major integration in Hotmail wave 4, users will appreciate the experience handling received Photos. One of the appreciated features of Quick Views, it also accumulates all messages that include any photos you have received. There is a bit of a flaw though, since some messages might contain graphical decorations that might be just branded material, but not actual photos. Working with photos though is so much better. Why? In the previous version of Hotmail, when someone sent me a batch of photos, the message was so difficult to navigate because of a number reasons, either, the photos were huge, my screen resolution and just viewing photos in the body of the message was limited by the browse itself and Hotmail.

Enjoying Photos in Hotmail wave 4 is so much fun!

You can even go full screen if you want!

Hotmail takes care of this through a new feature called Active View. What Active View does when you receive a lot of photos is, it minimizes them into small thumbnail previews with elegant options such as the ability to selectively download each photo. You also see little niceties such as the size of each photo in the Active View. If there is accompanying text in the body of the message, you can even minimize Active View, lovely. The best part of Hotmail wave 4 with Photos though is the ability to view a Slide Show of your photos. Just click one of the photos and Hotmail displays a Silverlight based slide show viewer that makes enjoying photos a lot more fun in the browser, you can even go full screen – gorgeous!

Instant Messaging

Richer Instant Messaging options

The new Web app like Web Messenger, even supports tabbed chatting.

 

Options available with Web Messenger

Web Messenger is fully integrated into Hotmail’s Mail Pane and the Windows Live banner too, so your instant messaging experience travels with you across Windows Live Services. In the previous wave of Hotmail, the Web Messenger applet was situated along the mail toolbar next to the options menu. The new Web Messenger functions like a real Web application. When you click on a contact to start a conversation, a small chat window appears on screen. Its a bit more elegant compared to the previous implementation, you still have the previous style of web chat available. Just click the Pop menu window widget. Users will notice other Windows Live Messenger like features available, including the ability to search and view their contact groups. The new Web Messenger also support tabbed chatting. I wish I didn’t have to open a separate page to view and confirm invitations though, a pop out revealing who is asking for confirmation in a Web Applet should have been available.

Advanced Search

The new Advanced Search Options

Users should be pleased to know that Hotmail finally gets search right. Prior releases were so limited and basic when it came to searching the inbox it was practically useless. For instance, there was no option to search a specific folder, if you searched for a particular message and had messages sorted in folders, everything from all those folders would also populate in the search results, very counter productive. In wave 4 this has changed. Advanced Search allows you to fine tune your search queries, you can search by Sender, recipient, Subject matter, particular folder (which is really a great addition), keywords (even better) and date period (definitely will help a lot) and by attachment. Advanced Search makes sorting and managing email a lot more productive. For instance, I participated in a beta program between 2005 and late 2006, so I had some product team emails in my main inbox folder. I wanted to do some clean up, so all I had to do was do a search for msftconn@microsoft.com between August 2005 and November 2006 and there I was able to see all messages from that period, I could then select all messages and move them to a designated folder.

Search results are more accurate and fine tuned

One limitation I notice that still exist in Hotmail, I cannot make multiple selections of emails on multiple pages. So a folder that has a 3 pages of emails, I can’t select emails on page 1, 2 and 3. If for instance I am going to move those messages to a folder, I have to do it one at a time. 😦 I also would have liked when I selected all email messages in a folder and hovered my mouse pointer over the selected messages, that convenient floating task menu should pop up with options either for deleting or moving to a folder.

Clean Sweep

Sweep option for moving lots of emails

Didn’t seem to work in this try though.

I think I might have found a work around for this though in a new addition in Hotmail called Sweep – although it doesn’t seem to work at the moment – I still have to use the Move to menu. Sweep allows you to have a more control over lots of messages by providing tools to do mass management in areas such as moving to a specific folder, deleting all, marking all messages in one full sweep. In the case of Move All, selected all messages from the Search results, I clicked the Sweep Pop out menu > clicked Move All which brought up this dialog with options for selecting a target folder and choosing automate the movement of messages to that particular folder in the future – very, very convenient. I receive a number Newsletter messages from different sources, this should be very handy. Its still limited by the fact that I still have to do it one page at a time. 

Conclusion

Well, my time with Hotmail wave 4 so far is mostly first impressions. I like the improvements I am seeing, although they are long overdue! I have been contemplating for the past few months about moving from Hotmail to Gmail, although I must say Gmails load time on GPRS is horrendous, so that’s why have stuck up to now with Hotmail. I am still put off by the Ad banner in Hotmail, although I know it is likely a revenue model to maintain the service, I think the vertical ad banner is limiting unless you have a large screen, then again, I just don’t like seeing it at all. What are the chances of Microsoft removing it – next to none. 😉 The reason why I bring this up is simply because I have really kind of eased up on desktop mail clients such as Outlook and Windows Live Mail, although I still find them useful for Exchange support, offline access, backup/archiving. Hotmail wave 4 is a lot more robust in features and it will certainly be enough for persons who are constantly connected. I am a big fan of the new Advance Search capabilities, conversation views, the ability to customize the interface a bit more and just the overall cohesiveness with the rest of Windows Live. So far, so good I say.

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