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Windows Live Services That Make Windows 7 Better (part 2)

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11/27/2012 6:41:00 PM

4. Windows Live Hotmail

Why you want it: This is one of the most pervasive and successful online services ever created; you get a free account with your Windows Live ID.

Type: Online service

Significantly upgraded in 2007, Windows Live Hotmail (mail.live.com or hotmail.com)—more commonly referred to simply as Hotmail—is now a modern and mature Web mail service. It offers desktop application–like capabilities through its Web-based interface. It features excellent Windows and Windows Mobile integration hooks, and can be accessed from Microsoft's popular Outlook e-mail client.

For hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Hotmail is a big part of what it means to be online, connected, and communicating with other people. Of course, Hotmail also accommodates the various ways and places in which people now want to access e-mail. That is, many people now want to access e-mail constantly, whether they're at work, at home, or, with a new generation of mobile devices, on the go. Microsoft has Hotmail-based solutions for all of these scenarios. Home users can, of course, access the Web-based Hotmail service or access Hotmail through Outlook 2003 and 2007 via free Outlook Live Connector software (part of Windows Live Essentials) .

Here are some features of interest in Windows Live Hotmail.

4.1. User Interface

From a look-and-feel perspective, Windows Live Hotmail closely resembles a desktop e-mail application such as Outlook, as shown in Figure 4. There's a toolbar at the top, with all the expected options, such as New, Reply, Forward, Delete, Check Mail, and so on. There's also an Outlook-like three-pane view, with a folder list, e-mail list, and Reading pane displayed horizontally as you move your eye from left to right across the page.

Figure 4. Windows Live Hotmail is the dominant Web e-mail service today.

One important part of the Hotmail user interface is the Reading pane, which works like similar features in Microsoft Outlook and Windows Live Mail. This pane, which can be displayed on the right, on the bottom, or disabled altogether, enables you to view e-mail as you navigate from message to message in the e-mail list, without having to open a separate window or, as is more typical with Web mail, navigate to a new page. The result is an e-mail application-like experience.

As part of the wider Windows Live Web experience, Microsoft also provides some stylized themes so you can personalize Hotmail and the other services you access online.

4.2. Security Features

If you're familiar with some of the security features Microsoft has added to Windows 7 applications like Internet Explorer and Windows Live Mail, then you won't be surprised by the security advances in Windows Live Hotmail. There's a new safety bar—similar to the information bar debuted in Internet Explorer—that displays color-coded alert flags for e-mails that Hotmail finds suspicious. This provides a nice visual cue about the safety level of the message. For example, you'll see a yellow safety bar if a message with embedded images, links, or attachments arrives from a source that's not in your contacts list or safe senders list; and you'll see a red safety bar when a potentially fraudulent e-mail message, such as a phishing e-mail, arrives.

Hotmail now automatically scans all e-mail attachments. This scanning is free and works regardless of whether you've configured a similar AV scanner on your desktop computer.

Hotmail also sports pervasive junk mail controls with automatic reporting and user-controlled block and allow lists for fine-tuning e-mail filtering. Overall, the level of protection is just about exactly right and what you'd expect from a modern Web mail solution.

4.3. Productivity Enhancements

Windows Live Hotmail provides every user with virtually unlimited storage space. Microsoft's policy here is simple: it will increase your storage requirements in the future as needed in order to ensure that storage space is never a differentiator between Hotmail and other services. That's a big deal, because it means that virtually all e-mail users could manage all of their e-mail via Microsoft's servers if they wanted to.

When you compose a new e-mail message, Windows Live Hotmail provides automatic address completion functionality, which is handy. The recommended addresses are drawn from your contacts list as well as the list of e-mail addresses from which you've received e-mail.

In another e-mail application-like feature, Hotmail provides automatic inline spell checking with suggested corrections, just like the desktop-based Windows Live Mail product: you'll see a squiggly red line under potential misspellings, and when you right-click that word, a list of corrections appears. You can also add words to your Hotmail dictionary via this right-click menu, or just choose to ignore the notation. Unfortunately, there's no grammar checker.

You can also drag and drop e-mail items (but not folders, not even for reordering), much like a desktop application. If you want to drag an e-mail message from the Inbox to the Deleted folder, for example, you just click and hold and then and drag it over, as shown in Figure 5.

Hotmail also supports multi-selection, so you can select multiple e-mail messages, contiguously or not, and drag them to new locations, or right-click and perform actions such as Mark As Read, Delete, and the like.

Figure 5. Hotmail's drag-and-drop functionality works like a desktop application.

Windows Live Hotmail provides full-text searching of e-mail from a prominent Search box in the toolbar that also enables you to optionally search the Web. E-mail searches are returned in a temporary Search Results folder and appear inline in Windows Live Mail just like the Inbox. (If you do choose to search the Web, Windows Live Mail opens a new browser window and forwards your request to the Live.com search engine.)

E-mail composition includes all the HTML e-mail niceties you'd expect, with various font and font styles, text justification, bulleting, indenting, and so forth. You can easily insert hyperlinks from the toolbar, and note a cool new feature called a Search Link: simply highlight some text in your message, click the Search Link button, and you'll create a hyperlink that will search Live.com for the selected text.

Another hidden feature is the Photo Upload tool: when you are ready to attach a file in an e-mail message in Hotmail, you'll see two options in the pop-down menu: File and Photo. As expected, File displays a Choose File dialog from which you can navigate in your system to find the file you'd like to attach. If you choose Photo, you'll see the Photo Upload tool, which loads in the browser window and enables you to graphically navigate through pictures in a single folder and select the ones you'd like to add, as shown in Figure 6.

As you mouse over individual photos in the tool, you can select them for inclusion and rotate them in two directions. If you click a photo, the tool moves into Edit mode, from which you can perform other operations related to contrast, brightness, cropping, and the like. It's no Photoshop, of course, but it's a nice feature.

Figure 6. Windows Live Hotmail includes a sophisticated photo-attachment system.

Once you've selected all the photos you want, click the Upload Now button and resized versions of the images are added as attachments to your e-mail. By default, larger photos are resized so that they're no more than 600 pixels in the largest dimension. Thumbnail versions in the actual e-mail are no larger than 320 pixels.

Microsoft is also now making industry-standard POP3 access to Hotmail available for the first time. This means that you can use virtually any e-mail application with Hotmail, not just Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Mail. This functionality previously required a $20 yearly fee.

And speaking of POP3 access, thanks to a new POP aggregation tool, users can also choose to make Hotmail their only e-mail interface. Here's how it works: you can configure Hotmail to receive, send, and respond to e-mail from up to four of your other e-mail accounts, assuming those accounts offer POP3 access. When configured like this, you need only to access Hotmail to get all of your e-mail. When you respond to a message sent to a different account, it will appear to have been sent from that account. You can optionally send new e-mail from any configured account, not just your Hotmail account. POP aggregation is a great idea because it simplifies managing multiple accounts. And if you become a fan of Hotmail, it allows you to stay in the environment you like best, while easing the pain of leaving your old e-mail service.

Finally, a Web Messenger feature provides a little Messenger-like icon in the Hotmail tool-bar that indicates your Messenger presence status (online, offline, etc.). New IM-related messages and other notifications appear as Messenger-like "toast" pop-ups in the lower-right corner of the browser window.


The Photo Upload tool requires IE. If you're using Firefox or another full-view-compatible browser, you'll see only the File option, in which case you can simply attach photos as you would any file. Note that these files aren't automatically resized, so be careful if you're sending photos in this way.

5. Windows Live People

Why you want it: Microsoft's contacts management system aggregates contacts from across all of the other Live services you use, including Hotmail and Messenger.

Type: Online service.

Windows Live People (formerly Windows Live Contacts) was formerly considered a subcomponent of Hotmail. It has been upgraded along with Hotmail, while sporting a number of new features of its own. These include contacts searching, one-click contacts addition, and so on. Windows Live People (people.live.com), shown in Figure 7, integrates with both Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's instant messaging client, and also with other Windows Live services. If one of your Messenger contacts updates his or her personal information, for example, those changes are reflected across all Windows Live People–compatible products and services, so you'll see the changes in your contacts list in Hotmail as well.

Figure 7. Windows Live People provides centralized contacts management.

Windows Live People also integrates nicely with various portable devices, especially Windows Mobile–based smartphones. Here, Microsoft is delivering on its "software plus services" mantra in a major way, because accessing your contacts—and thus their phone numbers—via a mobile device is, of course, the ultimate example of anywhere/anytime information access.

6. Windows Live Calendar

Why you want it: Microsoft's online calendaring service supports all the expected scheduling features plus tasks management and calendar standards interoperability.

Type: Online service.

Windows Live Calendar, like Windows Live People, was formerly a subcomponent of Windows Live Hotmail. And like Windows Live People, Windows Live Calendar (calendar.live.com) is now on a separate development path and has been heavily updated since its inception.Windows Live Calendar is shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8. Windows Live Calendar
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