Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hotmail vs Gmail: composing messages

Hotmail vs Gmail: composing messages:
PC Pro editor Barry Collins is conducting a two-week experiment, returning to Hotmail after six years of using Gmail, to examine Microsoft’s claims that its webmail system has improved. You can read his previous blog posts on Moving from Gmail to Hotmail here.
Until now, I’ve largely focused on features that help sort out the chaos of your inbox. But what are the respective webmail systems like when it comes to the seemingly straightforward task of writing new messages?

Auto-filling recipients
Both Hotmail and Gmail auto-suggest recipients when you start typing names into the To field, but both work in slightly different ways. If you’ve connected your Hotmail account to social networking services, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, Hotmail will auto-suggest email contacts from across those services, as well as your own Hotmail contacts, when you start typing a name.
Hotmail compose
You’ll note from the screengrab that Hotmail’s not brilliant at de-duplication. However, you’ll also note the little Pencil and Cross icons next to each name, which allow you to edit the address of a recipient or easily remove them from the To list if you selected them by mistake, which is much easier than having to highlight and manually delete the comma-separated names in the Gmail To field.
Gmail doesn’t hook into other social networking services by default, but it does offer a clever little “Consider including” feature. When you start entering the names of multiple recipients in the To field, Gmail suggests other people who’ve previously been included in round-robin emails with those recipients. One click and they’re added to the list. It’s also worth noting there are Chrome plugins for services such as Xobni’s Smartr Contacts and Rapportive that do connect Gmail to the popular social networking sites and offer enhanced auto-suggest features.
Adding attachments
When it comes to adding attachments or other extras to emails, Hotmail really starts to pull ahead of Gmail.
The two most common email attachments are documents and photos, and Hotmail deals with these superbly. Attach either of these (within the obvious format restrictions) and Hotmail will offer to attach them to an email as normal, or upload them to Microsoft’s SkyDrive service. The latter automatically embeds a link to the documents/photos, thus avoiding issues such as large attachments busting work inbox limits or hefty downloads if the recipient picks the message up on their mobile phone. If you select multiple photos, Hotmail even automatically generates an attractive thumbnail gallery that is embedded in the email message.
Hotmail gallery
More controversially, Hotmail also allows you to insert images from Microsoft’s Bing search engine. You click the From Bing icon, enter your search term in the panel that appears to the right, and select the photo you want to embed into your email. What’s not clear is whether Microsoft has the right to scrape and copy these images on your behalf. We’ve found images that we know are not available on a Creative Commons licence — such as images of the cover of PC Pro or the photo below of our news editor, Nicole. It’s not the copyright crime of the century, and Hotmail’s only scraping thumbnails, but it’s a little cheeky, at best.
Nicole photo
The other downside of Microsoft’s clever image-embedding tools is that they rely on Silverlight. Having to rely on browser plugins to use features in a modern webmail service is questionable, especially if you’re logging in on a work/communal/new PC that doesn’t have the plugin installed. It has also resulted in screens such as this more than once during our tests:
Hotmail crash
Webmail that crashes. Not great.
Gmail is much more rudimentary in its handling of attachments, merely allowing you to upload and attach photos/documents to emails. There’s zero integration with Google Docs or Picasa Albums, for example. It is a touch more flexible if you embed an image directly into the body of an email, providing options to resize the image on the fly.
Gmail embed image
Gmail also offers the ability to create invites, even checking recipients’ Gmail calendars if they’ve agreed to share that information with you. However, not many people we know use Google for their calendaring, let alone share that calendar with us.
Verdict
When it comes to composing emails, Hotmail has the upper hand. The features on offer are more flexible and better integrated with other Microsoft and third-party services than Google’s. When they don’t crash.
On their own, they’re not a compelling enough reason to switch, but we’ve got a few days more of tests to get through before we decide whether Hotmail can tempt us away from Gmail permanently…

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