AOL’s Alto adds visual organization to e-mail

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Attempting to stay relevant in a world where even Yahoo! gets more press, AOL on Thursday launched the beta version of its new cloud-based e-mail management tool, Alto.

Alto won’t replace Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL, or any other e-mail services. Instead, the free HTML 5-based client manages your existing accounts in a less linear, more visual way. You visit Alto’s site and sign in with your AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, or iCloud information.

AOL says it looked at how people sort their mail in real life—typically in stacks of bills, personal letters, and junk—and sought to replicate that system with Alto. For those of us whose inboxes are filled to the brim with a mess of unimportant chats, parent-child communiques, work documents, Craigslist furniture links, Facebook notifications, and Groupon deals, Alto may provide some organizational relief.

The tool lets you drag and drop mail into labeled stacks by category or sender, so you can designate messages from your mom or boyfriend to be filed away in their own stack rather than hitting your inbox with the rest of the riff-raff.

Alto's deals and retail stack
If you’re on store mailing lists or have daily deal subscriptions, Alto automatically sorts those e-mails into separate stacks so you can page through the deals whenever you want. AOL likens the experience to window shopping.

Photos, attachments, and social network notifications are also instantly sorted into stacks, so you don’t have to comb through your entire inbox looking for that elusive paperclip icon.

Alto has a clean, well-designed user interface that's fairly intuitive. With your inbox on the left-hand side of the screen and stacks visible on the right, dragging and dropping messages from the inbox to stacks is quick and simple.

Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook, and other e-mail services have their own filing systems, but Alto’s added visual element is useful. You can also manage multiple e-mail addresses on Alto, so if you want to mingle work and personal accounts and use the stacks system to organize, that’s an option.

Alto's address book view

The platform seems like a perfect fit for touch-screens. AOL says it’s working to optimize Alto for mobile and tablet users in the first quarter of 2013, when the client officially opens to the public. Alto is for now in invite-only mode and currently taking requests.

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