A command bar at the top of the page provides access to commands as needed. If a command isn’t available in the current context, it’s not visible on the screen.
The preview pane (a feature that’s still experimental in Gmail even after eight years) lets you read and reply to messages without leaving the main screen. Action icons that appear when you move the mouse over an item in the message list let you file, delete, or flag the message with a single click or tap.
The new Outlook has some impressive mail management smarts built in. It automatically recognizes newsletters and other recurring types of mail. A Schedule cleanup option in the message header (also available on the command bar), lets you create rules on the fly that automatically delete or file similar messages to reduce clutter. You can specify, for example, that you want to keep only the most recent message from a “daily deals” site. You can also define how many messages you want to keep from a particular sender or automatically delete/file newsletters after a set number of days.
For newsletters that don’t contain an obvious unsubscribe link, the new Outlook adds a universal unsubscribe feature at the bottom of the message. When you select this option the web service sends an unsubscribe request on your behalf and creates a message-blocking rule.
One huge differentiator between old-school webmail services like Gmail is the new Unified Address Book in Outlook.com. It takes a page from Microsoft’s People hubs in Windows 8 and the Windows Phone platform to pull together your traditional address book—where you manage names and details—and combine it with social media services of which you’re a member.
The advantage, of course, is that you always have the most up-to-date contact information for friends and colleagues, assuming they update their profiles. The new Outlook does a pretty good job of combining records. If you have contacts that appear in multiple locations, you can manually link or unlink those records as needed.
Supported services include anything you can link to your Microsoft account, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Flickr. You can import contacts from Google and Facebook if you want to keep them locally.
In terms of creating and sending photos and file attachments, the new Outlook integrates exceptionally well with SkyDrive, so that you can email large attachments and photo albums, storing them on SkyDrive with well-integrated links that the recipient can access with a click. The spec sheet says single attachments can be up to 300 MB in size. If they're stored on SkyDrive, you don't have to worry about the message being rejected by the recipient's mail service.
And of course, the service incorporates all of the Office Web Apps, which makes the process of sharing Word documents, PowerPoint slide decks, and Excel workbooks much more seamless.
On the back end, the interface for managing an email account is cleaner. You can still create aliases that you use for sites and contacts where you don’t want to share your real address. And if you just want to experiment with the new service, you can redirect your Gmail messages temporarily to the new account or sign in with an existing Hotmail or Live address. (I’ve had my Gmail account redirected to Hotmail for a year without problems.)
I’ve put together a screenshot gallery showing off some of the new features. (See "A guided tour of the new Outlook.com.") I’ll also be putting together a FAQ to help sort out your options for linking and forwarding existing email accounts.