Outlook.com vs. Gmail: Android app showdown

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Microsoft's Outlook.com Webmail service recently passed the 25 million active user mark, a milestone the company celebrated by releasing an Android app for Outlook.com. The supposedly new Android app is part of the software giant's plan to take on Gmail, Google's critically acclaimed Webmail service, which has about 425 million active users.

Microsoft recently hired a research firm to recruit an unspecified number of Gmail users to see how Outlook.com measured up to Gmail. Microsoft claims that 4 out of 5 study participants said they would switch to Outlook.com because of its clean user design, improved spam blocking capabilities compared to Gmail, and Outlook.com's photo and document sharing capabilities.

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To turn up the heat on Gmail, Microsoft also plans to release many new features in the coming weeks including one-click message archiving, extended keyboard shortcuts, and further inbox customization.

But while Microsoft is steaming ahead with new Outlook.com features, early adopters who have downloaded the new Outlook.com Android app are crying foul. The app currently has a two-star rating on Google Play based on 485 reviews. Most reviews complain that the new Outlook app lacks Microsoft's “Metro” user interface, similar to Outlook.com on the Web, and the app appears to be nothing more than a repackaged version of the Hotmail for Android app.

“I thought Microsoft would be using this application as an opportunity to show us Android users how good the Metro UI is. Obviously not,” said Matthew Wilson who left one of the many negative reviews for the Outlook.com app on Google Play. “The Gmail app is still the king on Android.”

Is the Gmail app better than Outlook on Android? Let's take a look comparing the Gmail app to Outlook on a Nexus One running a modified version of Android 2.3, Gingerbread.

Interface Basics

First, let's get one nagging question out of the way: Yes, the new Outlook for Android app is nothing more than the old Hotmail app with a rebranded name, as far as I could tell. If you know what the Hotmail app is like, then you already know about the “new” Outlook.com app.

At the top of the screen are four tabs by default: Home, All Emails, an individual account tab, and Search. The “Home” tab lists all your accounts currently connected to the Outlook.com app. From this tab you can add or remove multiple accounts and specify which account should be the default for replies and new messages. The “All Emails” tab is a unified inbox that is really only helpful if you are using multiple accounts with the app. The individual account tab lists all your current messages for a specific account and can retain up to 30 days’ worth of incoming messages. If you need to view another folder such as your sent or junk folder, it will show up in this tab. If you have more than one account connected to Outlook, you will have a tab for each individual account. Finally, to the far right is the search tab for locating people in your Outlook.com contacts.

Gmail on Android has a far simpler interface than the tab-based menu Microsoft uses, and Gmail also supports multiple accounts. All you see at first glance in Gmail for Android is a list of your messages with a box on the top right showing you which account you're viewing messages for and a box on the top left indicating which folder you're in such as the inbox. To add or manage accounts, you just tap on the account name in the upper-right corner. If you need to view a different folder, just tap the box in the top left and select the folder or label in Gmail speak from a list. Unlike Outlook.com, Gmail for Android focuses on providing a simple list of your latest e-mail messages and nothing more.

The menus

As any Android user knows, to find an app's settings and other functions you typically tap the menu icon on your phone. For Gmail on Android, the menu icon brings up a number of features including the ability to refresh your inbox, compose a new message, manage accounts, manage Gmail labels, search, settings and help.

Using the menu icon in the Outlook.com app, however, is more complicated since the options change based on which tab you're viewing. If you're on the Home tab, you can manage the app's general settings such as managing notifications and alerts and the ability to add a PIN lock. The menu icon from the “All Emails” tab gives you the option to compose a new message or sort messages alphabetically. Each account tab contains the bulk of the menu options you're most likely to use such as refresh, pause, compose, individual account settings, alphabetical message sorting, and the ability to sync other folders such as a Hotmail alias or your Sent items folder.

Contacts and Calendar

Both Google and Microsoft let you sync online contacts and calendars from their respective services with your Android phone. Google's sync method is baked into the phone's OS, while Microsoft's happens through the Outlook.com app.

Quiet Time

One nice feature Outlook.com has is the ability to stop syncing e-mail at certain times of the day or week, giving you some much needed time off from the daily e-mail grind. You can, for example, tell Outlook.com not to notify you of new messages between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., or whatever time period works best for you. You can also tell Outlook.com not to sync new messages during the weekend or on other specific days during the week. Quiet Time is managed on a per account basis so you can turn off your work account on Saturdays while still receiving messages sent to your personal e-mail address. To try Quiet Time, tap on one of your account tabs then tap menu icon>Account Settings>Quiet Time.You can still grab new messages by syncing manually during specified quiet times.

You can also just pause your message syncing whenever you feel like it by tapping menu icon>Pause. This will automatically stop Outlook.com from syncing new messages for a specified period of time. The default is one day, but you can increase the pause length to as long as 14 days, a helpful feature if you're going on vacation.

It's a shame that Microsoft didn't overhaul the Outlook.com app with a more Metro feel, the way it did with the SkyDrive app for Android released in August. Changing the basic look and feel of the Outlook.com app may have also prompted the company to simplify the app and get rid of the tabbed menu bar at the top.

If you're already an Outlook.com or Hotmail user, then you might as well use the Outlook.com app. But if you're one of the supposedly numerous people tempted to jump from Gmail to Outlook.com to use as your permanent e-mail service, you might want to hold off on that switch until Microsoft comes up with a better looking and simpler e-mail app for Android.

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