Hands-On: Windows 10 Mail’s New “Density” Feature is Superficial

Hands-On: Windows 10 Mail's New "Density" Feature is Superficial

Anyone hoping that Microsoft would make the Windows 10 Mail app truly scalable will be disappointed by this first UI density update.

As you will likely recall, one of my big complaints about the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) is that the UI is still very much touch-first. It features gigantic UI elements that are finger-friendly but look amateurish on real PCs. If Microsoft were serious about UWP, I’ve argued, it would make the UI created by these apps more scalable.

The issue, as I called it, was one of “command density.” This term dates back to Microsoft Office, and it explains why Microsoft abandoned the old toolbar and menu interface in favor of tabbed ribbons: It allowed the firm to handle the creeping command density of those apps as they gained new features over time.

If you look at a professional application like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop, you’ll see that they have very dense interfaces, with lots of buttons and other on-screen widgets. Put another way, they have high command density. (Each button is a “command”.)

UWP apps, by comparison, feature have a low command density, in part because their buttons (and other on-screen widgets) are so big. Even a “good” UWP app, like OneNote for Windows 10, has comically large ribbon buttons, which you can see very clearly when you use the app side-by-side with OneNote 2016. Other Office apps—and other ribbons—can be even more dramatic. But look how big buttons like “Bold” and “Italics” are on the UWP version compared to the desktop version.

OneNote for Windows 10 (top) and OneNote 2016.

So I’ve long argued that Microsoft needs to make UWP natively capable of creating high command density apps. And that these apps should change, automatically, depending on what type of PC is being used. A “real” PC would have a denser UI, and display more commands/options.

At Build 2018, Microsoft appeared to finally take my advice: It announced that UWP apps would be able to take advantage of new “UI density” capabilities so that they could scale better for different types of PCs.

Excellent, I thought.

And then yesterday, it released a new version of the Mail app for Windows 10 that allegedly includes this functionality: A new “folder and message spacing” feature lets the user switch between spacious (the default, and the only setting previously), medium, and compact views.

“Mail now supports increased density as well, giving users choice over how much information is displayed on-screen,” a slide from a Build 2018 presentation reads (as reported by Neowin).

Too bad it sucks.

All this feature does is change the line space in the Folders and Messages panes. As you move from spacious to medium to compact, the text spacing just gets tighter.

From left to right: Spacious, medium, and compact spacing.

It doesn’t impact the rest of the UI. It doesn’t do a thing to let you permanently zoom message text in the Reading pane, which is this app’s biggest failing. And it doesn’t address any other parts of the UI, like the search box and the toolbars that appear in the Reading pane.

This is really disappointing. Hopefully, there are more improvements on the way.


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Conversation 51 comments

  • Daekar

    10 May, 2018 - 11:50 am

    <p>Stuff like this puzzles me. They have to know this is crap, they're not idiots. Why bother?</p>

  • Chris_Kez

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 12:01 pm

    <p>I think the small goal here was literally to just increase the number of emails and folders you could see on screen at once. This was not in any way about "command density".</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      10 May, 2018 - 4:28 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274218"><em>In reply to Chris_Kez:</em></a></blockquote><p>It's not "command density," that's just the term I used. It's "UX element density," which applies to all visual on-screen elements. They have implemented this for only lists of text—"information," yes—but not for the rest of the UI. </p>

  • SherlockHolmes

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 12:04 pm

    <p>The one thing about the mail app that bugs me is: Why isnt it still possible to change the default font and size permanently?</p>

    • Chris_Kez

      Premium Member
      10 May, 2018 - 12:11 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274220"><em>In reply to SherlockHolmes:</em></a></blockquote><p>I really wish someone from Microsoft would address this. It is mind-boggling. </p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      10 May, 2018 - 4:27 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274220"><em>In reply to SherlockHolmes:</em></a></blockquote><p>Yes. I mentioned that as well. 🙂 It's crazy.</p>

  • pachi

    10 May, 2018 - 12:07 pm

    <p>Do people think the message rendering options being inadequate are related to zoom or more related to the rendering engine they are using? IIRC it's not Edge, correct?</p>

    • pachi

      10 May, 2018 - 12:08 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274221"><em>In reply to pachi:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p><p>I think these new options make it not usable to very usable though. I get rid of the message preview of course, and it looks 90% the same as my Outlook 2016 view now. Except it's much faster.</p>

    • Mharm

      10 May, 2018 - 4:55 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274221"><em>In reply to pachi:</em></a></blockquote><p>They're still rendering HTML in the IE11 engine for now – This 1803/1804 release finally supports Edge, but its an app re-write to get it. They need to get devs writing their first app in the store, then they need to get them updating their old ones… Too many name-brand apps are still written to Modern/Metro specs for Win8! Its time to push or fund and get it done…</p>

  • will

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 12:22 pm

    <p>They could do soooo much with this app if they would stop working on candy features and work on power features. Something that would put this as a light weight alternative you Outlook 2016, or better yet as the full replacement. </p><p><br></p><p>Its been years, and while this app has had some updates and improvements, there should have been bigger changes by now. </p>

  • Demileto

    10 May, 2018 - 12:23 pm

    <p>I often get annoyed by Paul's negativity (IMO), but this is indeed a valid peeve. I don't understand why it's so hard for Microsoft to automatically adjust the command and/or information density of their apps as a function of a) DPI and especially b) Tablet Mode status, because, heck, isn't the whole point of the functionality to adapt the OS's UI/UX to fit the intended input source? If the problem is that CShell isn't finished, then say so, be open with the roadmap, don't half-ass the solution like you're doing.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      10 May, 2018 - 4:26 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274227"><em>In reply to Demileto:</em></a></blockquote><p>I'm only guessing, but I think they lost sight of the script by making mobile one of the form factors they optimized for, rather than different types of PCs. </p>

  • dvdwnd

    10 May, 2018 - 12:28 pm

    <p>For starters, they could get rid of the double title bar that you effectively get with Sets, if we wanted room for more content. Of course, the title in the tab is also truncated, although there is plenty of horizontal space with just a single tab.</p><p>With Sets, the level of fit and polish in the UI has gone down the toilet. Anyone that thinks it will look better in September?<img src=""></p>

    • Demileto

      10 May, 2018 - 5:32 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274234"><em>In reply to dvdwnd:</em></a></blockquote><p>"With Sets, the level of fit and polish in the UI has gone down the toilet. Anyone that thinks it will look better in September?<img src="https://www.thurrott.com/windows/windows-10/159110/hands-windows-10-mails-new-density-feature-superficial">"</p><p><br></p><p>If it doesn't then they'll postpone it, they were very careful this time after the (very valid) criticism over Timeline and Cloud Clipboard not making it into FCU's feature set and their subsequent claim that they didn't promise both especifically for that update (they did) that Sets would arrive to all Windows users when its experience is deemed perfect and ready for deployment.</p>

  • lezmaka

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 12:37 pm

    <p>I didn't see anything in those quotes related to command density, just information density, which is what it does.</p>

  • Bdsrev

    10 May, 2018 - 1:03 pm

    <p>They are definitely bringing this to the UWP OneNote app before it replaces the win32 version, there's no way they would expect Office users to be stuck with a giant touch friendly GUI</p>

  • Dawid Kozioł

    10 May, 2018 - 1:09 pm

    <p>But what if i have XPS 15 with touch. UI doesnt know if i use mouse or touch.</p>

    • RM

      10 May, 2018 - 1:39 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274252"><em>In reply to Dawid_Koziol:</em></a>I'm sure they can figure out that they need Preferences to enable what you want. Such as "Force Compact" or a&nbsp;control to switch between settings.</blockquote><p><br></p>

    • xperiencewindows

      10 May, 2018 - 2:07 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274252"><em>In reply to Dawid_Koziol:</em></a></blockquote><p>That's what the two programs are for. Use Windows Mail on tablets, use Outlook on a real PC, being laptop or desktop.</p>

      • 1armedGeek

        10 May, 2018 - 6:35 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#274275"><em>In reply to xperiencewindows:</em></a></blockquote><p><br></p><p>I do that, but a lot of people don't have Outlook.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      10 May, 2018 - 4:29 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274252"><em>In reply to Dawid_Koziol:</em></a></blockquote><p>Microsoft Office supports touch and mouse modes. That you can configure.</p>

      • Mharm

        10 May, 2018 - 4:49 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#274346"><em>In reply to paul-thurrott:</em></a></blockquote><p>Better yet, just have it obey Tablet Mode on/off for separate densities… I believe Office ProPlus apps now do this… If you switch to Tablet mode, "Touch" is activated, and when going back, it re-defaults to "Mouse"… Then if you want to touch around on your XPS15 (or Surface Pro/Surface Book in my case) then you just convert the device, let it automatically enter tablet mode and Voila!</p>

  • RM

    10 May, 2018 - 1:45 pm

    <p>First, let me say it is great the Microsoft is finally addressing this! Second, they appear to doing what they do a lot of these days. They are being ultra conservative in making changes and will take there time in making the changes. What they really need to do is have targeted discussions with insiders where constructive feedback is given and even conceptual pictures shared. That should allow them to not be as conservative from the beginning and just need to make minor tweaks to get it right during preview. Then they don't need to take 3 upgrades to Windows to get it right.</p>

  • xperiencewindows

    10 May, 2018 - 1:46 pm

    <p><em>"Stuff like this puzzles me. They have to know this is crap, they're not idiots. Why bother?"</em></p><p><br></p><p>Because the developers all have soccer-mom wives, and sweet old ladies as grandmothers.</p>

  • lvthunder

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 2:21 pm

    <p>I don't think the UWP version looks amateurish. I also don't think the buttons are comically big compared to the 2016 version. The UWP version of the ribbon is smaller than the 2016 version making room for more of your document. Why do you need 50 buttons on the screen when 95% of the time you only use 5-10 of them?</p>

    • jwpear

      Premium Member
      11 May, 2018 - 8:50 am

      <blockquote><a href="#274276"><em>In reply to lvthunder:</em></a></blockquote><p>I agree. I find the command density of the Mail app just fine. I much prefer simplicity and the Mail app over "big" Outlook. I adjust the toolbars in Visual Studio and the Office apps I use down to just the commands I regularly use. Why have all the clutter if it is rarely used? I can use the menus when I need other things.</p><p><br></p><p>A big peeve of mine is apps that don't adjust their command density when I'm using my Surface Pro as a tablet. For example, I just installed iTunes from the store after resetting my SP. Did that in tablet mode while relaxing in the recliner. After install, needed to point the media folder to my OneDrive, but struggled through that because the UI elements are so dense.</p><p><br></p><p>My fear in this move to command density is that we go back to apps with poor 90's-era UI's like iTunes. Nothing screams hard to use like an app toolbar that looks like the cockpit of a fighter jet.</p>

  • sgtaylor5

    10 May, 2018 - 2:21 pm

    <p>Can't even move emails from one account to another… and they call this an email client???</p>

  • dontbe evil

    10 May, 2018 - 4:28 pm

    <p>Good start</p>

  • edanco

    10 May, 2018 - 4:36 pm

    <p>This is when I realize I'm either using Windows wrong or am not a power user. Windows Mail works perfectly for my needs and looks great to my eyes. Same with the UWP version of OneNote. In fact, I prefer the look of the mobile version of Word to the PC version. I like a clean, spacious UI. What am I missing?</p>

    • Demileto

      10 May, 2018 - 5:42 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#274351"><em>In reply to edanco:</em></a></blockquote><p>I agree with you on Windows Mail since it IS meant to be simple and easy, but OneNote UWP is slated to replace OneNote 2016 as THE de-facto OneNote for Office 2019 and that Ribbon design doesn't leave much space to add commands that are available in the equivalent Win32 app tab and that we know are coming to the UWP one this year, like Tags.</p>

      • lvthunder

        Premium Member
        11 May, 2018 - 12:06 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#274393"><em>In reply to Demileto:</em></a></blockquote><p>Tags are already in the UWP one. You just have to click the down arrow at the end of the middle toolbar.</p>

    • Mark999

      13 May, 2018 - 9:02 am

      <blockquote><a href="#274351"><em>In reply to edanco:</em></a><em> I also agree. I’m tired at squinting at tiny text on phones and other devices. On all my devices I go to a size or two larger text and scale the screen. Everything I have has a touch screen, so bigger and spaced makes them easier to use.</em></blockquote><p><br></p>

  • djross95

    Premium Member
    10 May, 2018 - 5:01 pm

    <p>It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. I like the compact view. Agree that more could be done, though…</p>

  • bluvg

    10 May, 2018 - 7:08 pm

    <p>Does anyone have the Mail app inexplicably close on them? I don't really pay attention to it, but every so often I have to re-launch it because it closed for whatever reason.</p>

  • edboyhan

    10 May, 2018 - 7:20 pm

    <p>Well, I for one, am really happy to see even this much. The spread out layout on the W10 mail app has always been a pet peeve of mine. The ability to do this is part of some additions to the fluent design system. It goes along with some adaptive scale/size improvements. There is a new attribute added to some UWP API components that lets developers specify a "compact" layout.</p><p>While just the few tighter layouts in mail aren't much, they could allow for more UI element to be added in the space that the tighter layout provides.</p><p>OTOH I'm of the opinion that MS needs to combine the W10 mail team and the outlook.com team (and perhaps the outlook OWA team) with a new direction to rearchitect a light mail client as a PWA that contains the best features of all 3. This would reduce "outlook" name confusion, and provide a single app that can run in a browser while sitting on the task bar as a first class app (and run across multiple H/W &amp; S/W ecosystems). We reduce 3 apps to one, and we finally would achieve some UI and feature consistency.</p>

  • rameshthanikodi

    10 May, 2018 - 8:30 pm

    <p>huh, this wasn't what they showed at build, there must be some kind of mistake</p>

  • Rickard Eriksson

    11 May, 2018 - 1:48 am

    <p>Ah and here i had hope for it to bring real density to the uwp apps. </p><p><br></p><p>The whole lets waste 60% of the screen real estate with useless whitespace paradigm is getting a bit frustrating by now. </p>

  • jecouch66

    Premium Member
    11 May, 2018 - 3:17 am

    <p>LoL. I thought I was Mary Jo Foley for a minute because I see no difference in those pictures. </p>

  • bbold

    11 May, 2018 - 8:24 pm

    <p>I've learned to keep my expectations in check with all tech. That way, I'm excited and thrilled if something like USB-C is included on a Surface Book 2, even though it isn't Thunderbolt. MS giveth and they taketh away. I think that with recent announcements we will also begin to see slower changes. Windows 10 doesn't need more features, it needs its already existing features fine-tuned greatly, including UI unity and customization. I know MS can do this. The problem is, where does that fit on the new scale of importance? I think focusing on stability is the way to go forward right now. That will free up resources to work on other projects that make them more money. (ie 'time to work on other complicated computer science problems!')</p>

  • John Scott

    12 May, 2018 - 10:18 am

    <p>Yeah I always hoped Mail would get better in Win 10. But I gave up on it a while ago. This slight improvement hasn't changed my mind in the least. </p>

  • roastedwookie

    14 May, 2018 - 2:22 am

    <p>Junk quality as usual from MS regarding their own 1st party applications.</p>

  • JustMe

    Premium Member
    15 May, 2018 - 8:47 am

    <p>Is it just me, or does this 'density' feature seem…silly-ly implemented? It doesnt do anything to the rest of the UI, so…am I missing something? What was the intent here? I would have thought that Microsoft would focus on giving the app features to make it almost an 'Outlook Light.' </p>


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