Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Finally, a Worthy Heir to Outlook Express

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

If you didn’t know any better, you might think Microsoft Corp. was trying to confuse you into using the wrong email program — or wanted to scare you away from email altogether. Throughout roughly the past year, the company has introduced two would-be successors to its well-liked Outlook Express email program. One attempt, now discontinued, featured annoying advertisements that couldn’t be hidden; the other comes loaded on PCs with the new Windows Vista operating system but amazingly doesn’t work with Microsoft’s own Hotmail.

Now, Microsoft is hoping to clear up the confusion and simplify lives with a third release to replace Outlook Express: Windows Live Mail. And judging by an early version of the program, the third time could be the charm.

Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail, a free download, enables photo embedding, resizing and touch-ups in the email.

Outlook Express, or OE as it’s called, garnered popularity as a slimmed down, consumer-friendly version of its big brother Outlook, which many people are already familiar with thanks to its widespread use in the workplace. Outlook Express was a straightforward program that let users set up email accounts in a few short steps without help from an IT department.

But in 2004, seven years after its debut, Microsoft stopped investing in OE, causing it to lag behind new email programs with more advanced features. Even so, its simplicity was so attractive that three years ago when Microsoft started charging $20 monthly for new users to check Hotmail emails using OE, people paid.

Now comes Windows Live Mail. The program can be downloaded free at http://get.live.com/betas, and while it’s still in its testing phase and has kinks, it’s already rather good. It includes new bells and whistles like photo-embedding tools, syndicated feeds and integration with instant messaging. But if none of these extras interest you, you’ll be glad to find that Windows Live Mail still offers the same familiarity as OE in all its uncomplicated glory.

It has a few glaring bugs. Its email sound indicator doesn’t notify you of newly received emails. It lost its connection a few too many times when attempting to retrieve email — especially when I first installed it. And when I tried to email a Word attachment using Windows Live Mail, it failed, but this only happened when I used Windows Vista. Unless Microsoft fixes these bugs, which could take until the fall, all of its good intentions might be for naught. But the pluses of Windows Live Mail make me think it could be a worthy successor to OE.

On a separate but confusing note, Microsoft’s Web version of Hotmail was just overhauled, giving it more Web 2.0 functionality such as the ability to drag and drop messages from one folder to another without changing screens. It now incorporates a reading pane for each email like that found in Outlook or Windows Live Mail. Windows Live Hotmail, as it’s now called, is separate from Windows Live Mail.

Windows Live Mail offers new features like integration with instant messaging, but still resembles its predecessor, Outlook Express.
Windows Live Mail offers new features like integration with instant messaging, but still resembles its predecessor, Outlook Express.

Windows Live Mail works on computers running Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista. I tried both, and noted a few slight differences, most of which are aesthetic.

Before Windows Live Mail, I was up a creek when I wanted to set up my long-standing Hotmail account on Vista. My Vista laptop came with a separate but similarly named program called Windows Mail, which didn’t work with Hotmail. I had to set up the Hotmail account on my laptop’s full version of Outlook, which was more exasperating and far too slow. Outlook is designed primarily for Microsoft Exchange email — corporate email set up by companies — and can be slow and clumsy with Web-based or other consumer email accounts.

When I downloaded and installed Windows Live Mail on my Vista and XP machines, setting up email accounts (including Hotmail) took just about 10 seconds each. There’s no limit on the number of email addresses that you can add to Windows Live Mail, as was also the case with Outlook Express. But it took a bit longer for my various Hotmail folders to get set up. Windows Live Mail supports full two-way synchronization, a plus that guarantees any changes made on one computer will be reflected on others through your account.

A feature within Windows Live Mail called Active Search automatically reads emails that are visible in your preview pane and extracts keywords from those messages for advertisements that appear in a column on the far right side. But Active Search can be closed with one click, never to be seen again.

I was excited to use the new photo-embedding tools in this program, though this isn’t a new idea; Apple Mail, Apple Inc.’s equivalent to Outlook Express, already offers photo sizing and slide shows within emails. While composing an email using Windows Live Mail I selected “Add Photos,” choosing pics of a friend’s wedding from various folders on my PC. These shots appeared in my email with designated space below each for titles. Without leaving the email body, you can choose one of three frames to place around each shot, or you can change the picture itself by automatically enhancing it or by changing a color shot to black and white.

Windows Live Mail lets you choose photo sizes within the email to avoid unknowingly sending gigantic emails. Two categories help, labeled “Size in Email” (small, medium or large thumbnails) and “File Size” (small, medium and large; large offers up to five megabytes per photo). If you’re sending these embedded pics with a Microsoft Live ID, a link to a slide show of the photos is sent with your shots and recipients can copy hi-res versions of each image for up to 30 days.

I missed hearing a sound notification whenever new emails arrived. Microsoft says it will fix this and other bugs by the fall, at the latest, which is a long time to wait.

Another thing that bothered me was that each contact name has an icon beside it showing a generic photo, which you’d assume could be replaced with an actual photo of the person. But instead, that icon will only show an image if that person is on your Live Messenger buddy list (Microsoft’s integrated instant-messaging program) and if he or she chooses to show a photo. This seems like a real waste of space for the majority of your contacts who won’t be Live Messenger users.

Junk-mail settings can be adjusted to “Low,” “High” or “Safe List Only,” meaning that only those emails on a list that you create can be received.

As I kept my Windows Live Mail account open, it didn’t seem to be checking email as rapidly as my old Outlook Express program did; this was the case on my XP desktop and on my Vista laptop. The program seemed to have trouble establishing an Internet connection through Windows Live Mail on both PCs more than a few times, though I was simultaneously using a Web browser. This occurred less the more I used Windows Live Mail, but it was irksome at first.

Other interesting features of this new email client include RSS feeds that are specifically organized in your account like emails; I set up five to start and kept a steady stream of news coming in. You can also be notified when of one of your contacts signs on to Live Messenger, letting you link directly into an instant-messaging conversation rather than an email for faster communication. Also, content from emails can be uploaded to your Microsoft Spaces site in a single click.

As usual, contacts from other programs like Outlook and certain file types can be imported into your Windows Live Mail contact list; compatibility will be expanded when the final version of Windows Live Mail is released later this year.

For now, though this email program is still in beta and has its wrinkles, you’ll find it to be a helpful and straightforward program to use, just like its predecessor, Outlook Express.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

  • Email me at MossbergSolution@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications:

Microsoft Corp. charges $20 annually for new users to check Hotmail emails using Outlook Express. Due to inaccurate information from Microsoft, this article states that this was a monthly charge.

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