Microsoft's default Windows Store email client for Windows 8 is pretty basic. It's slowly gaining features, but it's no match for the email clients we've grown used to over the years.
That's not a problem for Windows 8 on the desktop, where it quickly becomes a secondary tool for sharing email from other Windows Store apps, and most email ends up being handled by Outlook or Exchange, or whatever you were using before you upgraded.
Unfortunately for Windows RT that's not the case: we're stuck using the Mail app and left comparing it unfavourably to the mail clients on our smartphones and pining for the desktop mail clients of old. There are rumours of an Outlook RT under development, but no timescale for it appearing on our slates.
Of course, there are alternatives in the shape of web clients for popular services, and IE 10's support for offline working can come in handy here (especially if your mail lives on an Exchange 2013 server, where you can take advantage of the new offline version of the Outlook Web App). But none of them have the same capabilities as a full-blown desktop mail client — something that comes in handy at 38,000 feet in the air…
So we were pleased to hear last year that the folks at NitroDesk were planning to bring their TouchDown mail app to Windows 8 and Windows RT. We were even happier to install the beta code on our test Surface tablets.
Now the beta's public, though you'll need to install a Windows 8 developer licence on your device before it can run, as TouchDown is not yet in the Windows Store. Luckily much of the process has been automated by NitroDesk, with a simple installation script that handles much of the process for you — from downloading, to starting the developer licence process (all you need is your Microsoft Account details, and you'll be able to run TouchDown for a month until you need to get a fresh licence).
If you use Android and have to connect to an Exchange server, you're probably familiar with TouchDown. An Exchange ActiveSync email client from a small team of ex-Microsoft staff, it's consistently been our Android mail client of choice (especially when, as it often does, the Android team breaks something in its own EAS client code). With support for Android tablets, as well as phones, and recently for iOS, TouchDown is ideally placed to make the jump to Windows 8.
Like Outlook, TouchDown brings email, contacts, calendar, tasks and notes into a single app. You can sync mail from your Exchange server to your Windows 8 device — without affecting data from the Mail, Calendar and People apps, as TouchDown uses its own database for Exchange data.
Slide up from the bottom of the screen to open a contextual app bar. Mail can be flagged and tagged, and there are filters to help you show only unread mail, as well as a folder view that lets you choose what folders to sync. You can also choose to switch between a day view and a week view for calendars. Early versions had very few options, but the latest builds have added many more features and configuration tools to go with them. With support for IRM on the horizon, and with many other enterprise security features being added, TouchDown for Windows 8 looks to be the missing enterprise mail client that Windows RT devices like the Surface have been crying out for.
If you do decide to try out the beta, don't rely on it for all your mail. This is beta code that's still changing, and to make sure you understand this, each time you start up you're shown a changelog that lets you know when to download a new version. There are still rough edges in the TouchDown beta, and you'll need to update regularly as the team fixes bugs and rolls out new code — especially as it adds improved security policy support. We're not entirely sure about the rounded corners in the panes in the app, a design point that harkens after TouchDown's original Android version. It's a little disconcerting compared to the clean right-angles of Windows 8's modern design.
When finished and finally approved by the Windows Store (we understand it's recently been submitted), TouchDown on Windows 8 — and especially Windows RT — looks as though it will be close to the mobile mail app Windows 8 needs. Even as an early beta, it's functional, fast and, above all, gives you many of the features conspicuously missing from Microsoft's own Mail app.
Windows 8 needs more Windows Store apps like this: apps that push the envelope and show that you can use the WinRT environment to deliver enterprise-grade code that doesn't hide features or simply clone a website or reformat a news feed.