Hands-On with the Outlook.com Beta

Posted on August 9, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Outlook.com with 19 Comments

Hands-On with the Outlook.com Beta

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a public beta for the next version of Outlook.com. I’d been thinking about switching back to Outlook.com from Gmail/Inbox anyway, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.

As you may have read, however, not everyone who uses Outlook.com will get the “Try the beta” offer right away: Some users won’t see it for a few weeks. And sure enough, I wasn’t offered the beta yesterday, or today. Fortunately, there’s a workaround published by Tom Warren over at The Verge. So I jumped right in.

(Should you use this workaround? Read the caveats first, because if you use this and leave the beta, you can never come back.)

My first impressions are quite positive. Where the old Outlook.com (like the Outlook on the Web interface from Office 365 on which it is based) seems tired and old, the Outlook.com Beta looks fresh and modern.

In fact, this might be the first time I’ve thought that Windows 10-style iconography—seen most obviously in the Outlook.com Beta’s Navigation pane—actually looks right. The overall look and feel is quite nice, and is much more professional looking than the native Mail app in Windows 10.

The only real issue is that the new look and feel is confined to the Mail experience, plus the new Photos experience, which is also referred to as the Photo Hub in the UI, and Mail Settings. Once you navigate into Calendar, People, or whatever, bam, you’re back in the old blandness. But of course, Microsoft addressed that yesterday: The other components of Outlook.com will be updated in the weeks/months ahead as well.

Anyway, using Microsoft’s announcement as a rough guide, I decided to check out the new features. Here’s what I’ve seen so far.

Search. From what I can tell, Search works much like it did before, in that it makes suggestions as you type and provides search results in an inbox-like view. But I like the prominent presentation of the new search box—previously, it was semi-hidden at the top of the Navigation bar—and the folder filtering.

Quick Suggestions. The Outlook.com Beta will display Quick Suggestions as you type in an email message, and you can configure whether these suggestions are based purely on keywords or also on your location. That said, I can’t get it to work: Place names, valid flight numbers, whatever; nothing seems to trigger the Quick Suggestions pane.

New photos experience. A new Photos view—a Photo Hub, if you will—organizes all of the photos you’ve sent and received via email. I haven’t used by Outlook.com email actively in quite a while, I emailed myself some pictures in both directions to see what this might look like. And it’s a great idea: You can filter the photos by individual people, or by all photos or just those you’ve sent.

Expressions. I’m not big on emojis let alone animated GIFs, but testing the new Expressions feature is easy enough: Just type a smiley face. First, a little flyout appears with some relevant choices. Or, you can choose More (“…”) to get the full Expressions pane with many more choices. Since I don’t normally want to see that pane, the way this is implemented is, for me, perfect.

Performance. This is one obvious issue: When you switch between any two Outlook.com Beta experiences—say, go from Mail to Photos—the screen flashes white, an Outlook.com logo appears, and then the thing you selected slowly appears after that. It’s mind-boggingly bad. Hey, it’s a beta.

Overall, I like the direction this is heading. But given the performance issues and the lack of a consistent UX across the other Outlook.com components (Calendar, etc.) I’ll hold off on the switch. But it seems likely I’ll want to make this change when these issues are fixed.


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