Microsoft yesterday released the preview of its new browser-based e-mail service,Outlook.com. Intended to eventually replace the increasingly antiquated Hotmail, the free service brings a minimalist user interface, social media, and Skydrive integration, and a slew of features. As I said in my First Take, it’s a great alternative to Gmail and definitely worth switching to for existing Hotmail or Live.com users. In fact, more than a million users have signed upalready.
To be anywhere near useful, an e-mail service should offer plenty of ways to organize your messages. And fortunately, Outlook.com covers all the basics and more. Below I’ll discuss five ways to manage your messages and keep your inbox neat and tidy.
1. Instant Actions
When you mouse over an e-mail, three gray icons will appear between the sender’s name and the subject field. These “Instant Action” controls let you you delete a message, mark it as unread, or flag it for review (the latter action moves it to the top of your inbox). You can perform the same actions with the Commands bar at the top of the screen, but the Instant Action icons save you a few clicks. What’s more, by hiding the icons until you need them, Microsoft keeps the interface clean and free of clutter. If you’d like, you can add more icons from the Settings menu including moving the message to a folder and marking it as junk. Take note, though, that you can see only three icons at one time.
Mousing over the sender’s name shows a pop-up menu with commands for sending an e-mail to the contact, scheduling a cleanup (see the last step), finding all e-mails from the sender, moving those messages, or deleting them completely. Though officially the menu isn’t an “Instant Action” feature, it’s another way to organize a message without using the Commands bar.
2. Folders and Quick View categories
Outlook.com’s Folders feature is similar to that on other popular e-mail services. When you move a file to a folder it removes it from the inbox, just like if you took a paper file from your desk and stored it in a drawer. You can add e-mails to a folder through drag and drop or by selecting the e-mail and using the Move to pull-down menu from the Commands bar. Default folders include Junk, Sent, and Drafts, but you can create as many folders as you’d like.
Categories work differently. Instead of acting as separate folders, categories are ways to classify messages by their content. So even when you assign a message to category it will remain in your inbox. Clicking on a category, though, shows only the messages assigned to it.
Microsoft has added default categories for messages with attachments and those with a shipping tracking number. When those messages arrive, Outlook.com will detect them and automatically tag them with the appropriate category. Like with Folders, you can create your own categories, though you can assign categories only by selecting the message and using the pull-down menu from the Commands bar. Drag and drop is not an option.
3. Rules and filters
As with Gmail, you can create rules based on the sender’s name or address, the “To” or “CC” field, the Subject field, or whether the message has attachments. Then, you can tell Outlook.com to automatically move them to a folder, flag them in your inbox, forward them to a new e-mail address, add or remove a category, or delete them completely. To access the Rules menu, click on the Sweep menu in the Commands bar and choose Manage rules.
You can manage your incoming messages by sender under the Safe and blocked senders option of the Settings menu. The options include designating which senders are “safe” (so the messages aren’t marked as junk), which mailing lists are safe, and which senders should be blocked completely. E-mails from a sender in your blocked list will be deleted.
4. Junk e-mails
Use an e-mail account long enough and spam will begin to trickle in. And before long it can become a flood. As it should, Outlook.com offers a few tools for junk mail management, the first of which is accessible from the Commands bar. Clicking the Junk option will reveal choices for marking the message as Junk, reporting a phishing scam, or alerting Microsoft if you suspect that a friend’s account has been hacked. If you mark a message as junk accidentally, you can reverse the action in your Junk folder. That’s a necessary feature since future messages from that sender will be deleted.
In the Settings menu there are more tools for Junk e-mail management. Just click the Filters and reporting option to set junk mail filters, decide whether you’d like to report junk mail to Microsoft, or block content from all unknown senders.
5. Sweep and schedule cleanup
Though no broom is involved, you can sweep your inbox using the pull-down menu on the Commands bar. Here you can move all messages from a sender or delete them as a group.
Under the same menu, the Schedule cleanup feature brings additional options such as keeping only the recent messages from a sender or deleting anything older than 3, 10, 30, or 60 days. Or if you prefer, you can move the older messages to a specific folder.