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

Posted on May 10, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 48 Comments

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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