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Bill Bennett

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Microsoft’s four flawed Windows 8 mail clients

If you’re not confused by the half-modern, half-old-school Windows 8 user interface, try navigating the operating system’s email client choices. That’s a real muddle.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 comes pre-loaded with a whole slew of what were formerly called Metro apps. Some are pointless – what sane person would even click on the Travel app more than once a year? Others are second-rate or under-powered.

Windows’ built-in Mail app falls into the last category. It looks good, but that’s about it. There’s not much flexibility. Performing simple tasks like searching or attaching files are unnecessarily complicated and it can’t even open the inline images served up in emails coming from my Gmail account.

The good news is there’s an alternative. In fact, Microsoft offers three alternatives. Top of the list in terms of familiarity is Outlook 2013 – which arrived on my system as part of the Office suite. Outlook is not bad for a full-blown desktop email client and looks even better than the built-in Metro Mail app.

But desktop email clients are so 1990s. And the address book part of the application – which was the best reason to stick with Outlook and not move to web-based email – is not as useful as it was. Compared with Gmail, Outlook 2013 feels clumsy. If you have to use it because that’s how they roll where you work, then the application is acceptable. I work for myself and my decision is to bypass the behemoth for something lightweight.

Live mail

Maybe something like Windows Live Mail. Or maybe not. Windows Live Mail – which you can download as part of the misleadingly named Windows Live Essentials package – is in effect a cut-down, milquetoast version of Outlook.

Like the other two mail clients we’ve already rejected, Microsoft has done a grand job of making Windows Live Mail look good. It has a calendar and a decent address book along with a nice RSS reader, but is is still not as practical as Gmail.

Outlook.com is Microsoft’s web-based mail client. The service is a reworking of Hotmail, which was looking tired. Again there’s a beautiful crisp design. All four mail clients look good and have well designed user interfaces. It is hard to fault Microsoft in that department. It is even harder to fault Microsoft over the way Outlook.com works.

Overall a terrific tool for reading and writing mail. It would be my weapon of choice except for one failing – and sadly the failing isn’t to do with Outlook.com. The reason why I’m not using Outlook.com as my mail client is because it can’t play the role of Windows 8’s default mail client.

You can set any of the other three apps as the default – opening when you hit a mailto link in a browser window. Gmail can do this from Google’s Chrome browser running on Windows 8, so you’d think it would be trivial to get Outlook.com to do the same. Think again. It can’t. There are even snarky messages from Microsoft support people at the often excellent Microsoft Answers site explaining to us dumb users why making this possible would be a bad thing. Screw them.

So for the moment, I’m going to stick with Gmail. Gmail is not perfect, but it is web-based and behaves the way I want. That’s reason enough.

Update: I’ve just read Windows 8 Mail App: Better, but Still Bad by Steve Wildstrom. He seems on the same track as me.

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