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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.

MailWindows’ 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.

Outlook 2013The 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

Windows Live MailMaybe 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.

outlookdotcomOutlook.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.

At first sight, People looks promising. The contact management app is part of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. If you use both, the databases sync, giving you a single address book.

People can pull contacts from Linkedin and Twitter. That’s handy. It pulls them from other sources, but as we’ll see in a moment, that’s less of a blessing than it sounds.

Looks aren’t everything

While the phone app looks great, the Windows 8 version looks a little odd on a large display with lots of white space. This design makes more sense when you use the app in the snapped view across part of the screen showing names in a vertical list.

You can pin individual contacts to your start screen – though heaven knows why anyone would. And speaking of needless features, there is a What’s New view where you can see a person’s social media posts.

People does a good job of automatically merging identical contacts from multiple accounts. I didn’t find any obvious duplicates in my list.

Search good, essential

Search works well enough – it needs to. You can type the windows key plus Q from any Windows 8 screen, then choose People from the list of apps down the right side of the screen.

One problem is the fills with rubbish entries pulled in willy-nilly from the various linked accounts. More than a third of the names it shows on my computer are people I’ve never heard of. A handful are written in other language characters and pictograms.

People tells me Outlook is the source of these strange names – I suspect this is Outlook.com and not the Outlook 2013 application (which has its own, shorter list of contacts not including any of the mysterious names).

I’m guessing here that Outlook collects the names of everyone who sends me an email, possibly every name cc’ed on incoming email.

Unmanagable

Pretty quickly People degenerates into a long, unmanageable list of non-useful names. Sure you can search it to find people’s email address or phone numbers, but you can do the same searching your email database. Sometimes just googling the information is easier.

So here I am, almost one month after installing Windows 8 and I’m facing either hours of culling unwanted entries from the database or relegating People to an unused, unneeded app cluttering up my computer.