New Yahoo Mail Offers a Refreshing Alternative to Gmail

Yahoo has started rolling out the new version of Yahoo Mail it's been beta-testing since last fall. I've been playing with it for awhile and mostly enjoying the experience. It's a very credible Webmail client-similar in general feel and some particulars to Hotmail's 2010 update. If, like me, you spend most of your time in Gmail (and aren't 100% happy with the experience) it's kind of refreshing to spend time in an alternative which is quite different in approach.

Here's some of what's new:

  • Yahoo says the new version is twice as fast as the old Yahoo Mail (and it does feel quite speedy-I don't get the "Loading..." screen that I do with Gmail).
  • There's a quick reply feature (similar to the one already in Gmail, but easier to find) that lets you begin typing a response to a message without having to click a Reply button. And it works not only for e-mail but for Facebook alerts-Yahoo Mail is smart enough to route your responses back to the Facebook items they're replying to.
  • As in Hotmail, Yahoo Mail now turns links to online photos into embedded thumbnails and slideshows. This feature is designed to work with both Flickr and Picasa Web Albums (although I had trouble with Picasa when I tried).
  • In a feature that's also been available in the old Yahoo Mail, there are applications: third-party add-ins that add new features, such as an Automatic Organizer from OtherInbox that's a bit like Gmail's Priority Inbox, an All My Receipts app that sorts messages that include receipts and tracking info, and a Send Large Files app from YouSendIt.
  • Yahoo Mail already had a cool, desktop e-mail client-like feature which Gmail and Hotmail lack: as you open up e-mails, they appear in their own tabs, making it much easier to jump between messages and/or your inbox. With this new version, it's emphasized this approach by turning off the message preview pane in the inbox (but you can turn it back on if you like).

A few things I don't like:

  • I find the, um, colorfulness of Yahoo Mail's interface a bit off-putting...especially the big colorful bar with the giant Yahoo logo across the top. My dream e-mail client, like my dream word processor, would be a largely neutral container for words-and I therefore vote for white space over color and graphics. (You can choose different themes for Yahoo Mail, but they consist mostly of different fancy looks for the topper.)
  • On a similar note, I wish you could get rid of the TRENDING NOW link in the upper right-hand area, which points to stuff unrelated to your e-mail elsewhere on Yahoo.
  • Like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail deals with the tricky issue of integrating advertising into the interface by cramming a tall, skinny ad on the right-hand side. It's distracting-hey, ads are supposed to be distracting-and makes the whole experience a little less serious and productive-feeling than Gmail, which uses only text ads. (Also, I'm getting only Yahoo house ads in one of my accounts, and mostly ads for Coke in Spanish (!?) in the other.) I don't begrudge Yahoo the ability to monetize its useful service. And you can get rid of the ads for a reasonable $20 a year.
  • I wish that Yahoo Mail mimicked Gmail's concept of archiving-a super-quick way to get messages out of your inbox. (You can kludge together an imitation of it by creating a folder named Archive.)

This new Yahoo Mail is the first major refresh in years, and it's presumably in part a reaction to Gmail's increasing dominance among hardcore Webmail users, at least in the US. (Both Yahoo Mail and Homail still have more members than Gmail overall.) But it doesn't feel all that Gmailish. It doesn't try to match the sheer quantity of features (especially when you count the dozens of experiments in Gmail Labs), and the interface is more coherent and less cluttered.

Would I dump Gmail for Yahoo Mail? Well, no, not now. For one thing, I'm using Google Apps' hosting features, so I can make Gmail the e-mail interface for my own domain names and integrate e-mail with Google Docs. For another, I really like Gmail's mobile versions, as seen on the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets. I also dig Google Voice's clever integration into Gmail (it's the only way to make and receive Google Voice calls on a computer). And there are plenty of other nice touches in Gmail, like the nifty built-in PDF viewer.

So I'm not moving. But I am impressed, and I just might forward my e-mail accounts to Yahoo Mail so I can dabble in it further. It's great to see both Yahoo and Microsoft finally making a commitment to beefing up their Webmail clients-for several years, it felt like Google was the only major company that realized that there's tons of potential to make Webmail way, way better than it ever was in the past...

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