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There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s wearing a Microsoft T-shirt.
Of course, when it comes to business-friendly webmail services, Gmail has been the go-to tool for as long as anyone can remember. Outlook? That was purely a desktop mail client. Hotmail? Most business users wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot spam filter.
But, now, here comes Outlook.com, Microsoft’s new webmail service. And you know what? It’s pretty good. So good, in fact, that it deserves a chance to challenge Gmail head-on. Call it the elephant in the room versus the 800-pound gorilla.
Gmail already has legions of fans and a solid reputation as a versatile, reliable mail service. Outlook.com needs to prove that it’s not just Hotmail with a fresh coat of paint, that it can give business users the tools they need to work quickly, efficiently, and securely. And how does it rate at handling both work and personal email? Can it keep them separate but equal? For that matter, can Gmail?
Before I put these two in the ring, however, keep in mind that Outlook.com isn’t intended to replace Outlook for Windows. Although you can use the former to manage multiple mail accounts (both business and personal), as you can Gmail, it can’t import Outlook PST files—only Outlook contacts exported to a CSV file. If you’re thinking that Outlook.com might just be the tool you need to free yourself from the shackles of its desktop counterpart, think again. (See the comparison chart at the end of this article for details.)
Proof positive that you can’t judge a book by its cover, Gmail is almost certainly the world’s ugliest webmail service. Anyone new to it would likely be put off by its cluttered and unintuitive layout, its confusing sidebar, and its text-heavy design. Learning your way around Gmail isn't hard—and there are rewards for doing so—but it isn't pleasant, either.
Outlook.com, meanwhile, looks warmer and more welcoming, using larger fonts to delineate sidebar sections and message headers. You can quickly switch among a dozen color schemes, all of which accentuate the interface without overwhelming it. Gmail, on the other hand, has lots of themes, but most of them merely add extra distraction to an already cluttered interface.
Even the online Outlook’s ads look nicer, with thumbnail photos that pop up when you mouse over deals that catch your interest. Gmail continues to mix in largely text-based ads, without so much as a shaded background to help separate them from actual inbox matter.
And from a productivity perspective, Outlook.com wins the day with single-click actions for tasks such as deleting messages and marking them as unread—tasks that require two or three clicks in Gmail.