Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Windows Live Mail

Windows Live Mail is Microsoft's successor to both Outlook Express and Windows Mail, the latter of which ships with Windows Vista. Microsoft describes Windows Live Mail as a superset of both of these consumer-oriented email products, and they will only actively develop Windows Live Mail going forward. Windows Live Mail is dramatically nicer than either Outlook Express or Windows Mail, and it includes a lot more useful functionality, especially if you're a Hotmail user. (This applies equally to and accounts as well.) But Windows Live Mail isn't limited to just Hotmail accounts: This is a full-fledged Internet communications client, with support for POP3 and IMAP email, RSS feeds, and USENET newsgroups.

Originally envisioned as an ad-supported email client for Hotmail users, Windows Live Mail has evolved over time and is now a much more impressive release as a result. The shipping version of Windows Live Mail--now available in a feature-complete public beta--offers seamless Hotmail/ integration, as expected, POP3 and IMAP email functionality that rivals third party applications such as Mozilla Thunderbird, RSS support, USENET newsgroup support, and integration with various Windows Live services. If you use Hotmail and/or other Windows Live products like Windows Live Messenger, you're going to want to check this one out. Heck, if you use Internet email of any kind, you're going to want to check this one out.

Windows Live Mail sports the new Windows Live look-and-feel, which is heavy on the whites but with high-contrast bluish-green accents. Like newer versions of Outlook, and like the Web-based Windows Live Hotmail, the Windows Live Mail application is visually split into three mail columnar panes, from left to right: Folders, Message list, and Reading pane. Actually, there's an odd fourth pane called Active Search, too, but you can and should turn this off: Active Search is a weird front-end to Microsoft's Live Search service, and its real purpose is to deliver ads and sponsored results.

In many ways, Windows Live Mail works like Windows Live Hotmail, and if you're familiar with the new version of that Web service, or with traditional email clients like Outlook, you'll have no problem getting up to speed. Architecturally, Windows Live Mail is based on Outlook Express and Windows Mail, so some UI bits, like the Options dialog, and the files Windows Live Mail creates, like the .eml email files, might look familiar. What's old is new again.

I am using Windows Live Mail as my primary email client since a few weeks and have absolutely no issues. I like some of the customization bits: You can color-code the folders for each email account you configure and apply a Windows Live color scheme to the entire application so that it matches your other Windows Live applications and services.

Speaking of integration, Windows Live Mail is particularly useful if you're a Windows Live Messenger user. It can be configured to automatically log you onto Messenger whenever you launch the mail client. On the flipside, if you see an email alert in Messenger and click it, Windows Live Mail will launch instead of forcing you to use the Web client. The Contacts portion of Windows Live Mail, which is also a native Windows application, integrates your traditional email contacts with your Windows Live Messenger contacts list, too. A Blog button on the application's toolbar lets you publish the current message to your Windows Live Spaces blog.

As a modern email application, Windows Live Mail supports instant search, which works wonderfully. There's also an Outlook-like search folders feature, though I haven't found a way save email searches as dynamic virtual folders. Instead, stock saved search folders, like Unread email, Unread from contacts, and Unread feeds, are available.

So why would you want to use Windows Live Mail instead of the Windows Live Hotmail Web service? First, and most obviously, Windows Live Mail works offline. So you can sit on an airplane or in some other disconnected location, navigate through and read your email, respond to emails, write new emails, and perform other actions that would be impossible with the Web client while offline. Once you're online again, all the pending email is sent and everything is synched up again, just as with Outlook and other traditional email clients.

Windows Live Mail also features email account aggregation, so that you can easily access email from two or more accounts (be them Hotmail/ accounts or any combination of POP3 and IMAP accounts), all from the same location. With Web-based email services, you might need to have a different browser window open for each service.

From a safety perspective, Windows Live Mail also provides protection against phishing attacks, viruses, and other malware. This works for all account types, so even though your Hotmail account may be protected by server-side AV scanning, your POP3/IMAP accounts might not. And if you're into the Windows Live stuff, the integration pieces are quite interesting as well.

Windows Live Hotmail is free and available for users running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2) or Vista (any version). If you're currently using Outlook Express or Windows Mail, I strongly recommend upgrading to this product immediately. It is nicer looking, works well with non-Hotmail accounts, and offers much more useful functionality than its predecessors. I like it quite a bit.

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