Microsoft Revamps its Webmail with Metro-Inspired Design, Rebrands It Outlook.com

Subject: Editorial, General Tech | August 1, 2012 - 09:11 AM |
Tagged: webmail, outlook, microsoft, metro ui, hotmail, email

Hotmail, the latest iteration of Microsoft's web-based email service will soon be getting a user interface overhaul that takes many cues from the company's upcoming metro-ized Windows 8 operating system. In fact, it very closely resembles the new Mail client in Windows 8 as well as the new Outlook client in the Customer Preview of Office 2013 that I have been using for a a couple of weeks now.

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Along with the (in my opinion, much needed) user interface updates comes yet another rebranding. Microsoft is ditching the "Hotmail" name in favor of the more professional-sounding "Outlook.com" webmail name. Now in public beta, users can switch over to the new Outlook.com webmail if they want, but it is not yet mandatory. Reportedly, all Hotmail users will eventually be moved over the new Outlook webmail once the service is in final stages of development. As Ars Technica points out, this is not Microsoft's first rebranding. In fact, it is somewhere around the fifth rebranding/iteration. Here's hoping that it is the last and that they manage to successfully brand the service–and do not tarnish the Outlook name.

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I decided to take a look at the new Outlook.com interface for myself, and you can too. To switch over, log into your current Hotmail account, click on the "Options" link in the upper-right-hand side of the window and choose "Upgrade to Outlook.com." 

The new interface is very flat, and much more simplified versus the old Hotmail. The current Hotmail UI leaves a lot to be desired. It has a rather large advertising panel on the right, rather unattractive scroll bars that do not really fit in with the design's color scheme, and links along the top for other Microsoft services and email functions (like reply, junk, and categories) that can be difficult to read and find. It is a rather dated design by today's standards, especially considering Microsoft's hard push for updated UIs on other platforms–hence the Outlook.com refresh.

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As mentioned before, the Outlook.com webmail UI is very similar to the Metro Mail application that comes with Windows 8. It is broken into a four panel design. The folders and quick views links from Hotmail and the email header list is carried over and given a flat Metro design with stylized scroll bars and a folder list with a light gray background. The third panel serves as the reading pane and sits in between the email list and advertising panel–which thankfully moves to text-based ads only. The contents of your emails are displayed in this panel. It is not a fully responsive HTML design, but it does scale fairly well as the browser window is resized.

Along the top of the screen is a blue bar that holds links for email actions (reply, junk, delete, ect), an Outlook button, Messenger button, Settings button, and account settings (when clicking on your name in the upper-right). The white text on the blue background is much easier to read than the current Hotmail design thanks to the slightly larger text and the better contrast.

When hovering over the Outlook button, a small arrow appears. If you click on that arrow, you get a pop up menu with tiles much like Windows 8's Metro UI for Mail, People, Calendar, and SkyDrive. Unfortunately, the Calendar and SkyDrive links simply go to the respective web sites. And those web sites have not been updated with the new Outlook design.

new_outlook_skydrive_integration.jpg

The following screenshot shows the interface used for creating a new email. Again, you get a flat two panel design with a top navigation bar. On the left, you can add recipients from your contacts or by typing them in manually, while on the right you can use the text editor to add rich text and HTML or compose plain text emails.

new_outlook_new_message.jpg

Outlook.com has a new People tab as well, where you can manage contacts and chat using the built-in messenger client. It is the only other tile that has received a facelift, the calendar and SkyDrive pages are still using the old/current design. It forgoes the blue and white theme for an orange and white color scheme, but maintains the paneled design. On the left you have a list of contacts, and in the middle it lists details the selected contacts. The right-most panel does away with advertisement in favor of a web-based messaging client.

new_outlook_people_1.jpg

One nice new feature is further integration with the various social networks (if you are into that sort of thing, of course). You can now add contacts from your Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter profile(s). Further, the messenger client support talking with Windows Messenger, Facebook Chat, and Skype (coming in a future update) contacts.

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In short, the new Microsoft webmail interface is a much welcomed update. Scrolling and navigation is noticeably smoother than the current Hotmail UI. Opening messages feels quicker as well. Opening the Messaging tab actually replaces the advertising panel completely, which is a nice touch. As mentioned above, the scroll bars are different. They appear to be a bit wider, and very much two dimensional, but the bars actually look much better than the current Hotmail design as they fit nicely into the aesthetic and color scheme.

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The only (rather minor) issue is that, because of the larger text, I cannot, at a glance, check for new messages in the various folders I use. On the other hand, the text is easier to read and the scrolling is fast enough that it's only a minor thing. Further, despite the new Outlook.com name Microsoft's webmail does not support IMAP protocols. And being web-based, if your internet connection goes down you lose access to your email–there is no Google Gears support here.

While the new interface is not enough to bring me away from using a desktop client (which funnily enough is Outlook 2013), it is vastly improved versus the current Hotmail website and is worth switching over to. For being a webmail client, it is a very smooth, and dare I say slick, experience.

More information on Outlook 2013 desktop client–which Outlook 2013 seems to take inspiration from design-wise– I mentioned can be found using the outlook and office 2013 tags. Stay tuned for more Outlook.com information as the beta progresses. What features would you like to see? (I'd like to see the new UI carried over to the SkyDrive site!) Once you have gotten a chance to try the new Outlook.com beta, let us know what you think of it in the comments below (no registration required).

No, Microsoft is not recording your Skype converstations with Mom

Subject: General Tech | July 30, 2012 - 01:07 PM |
Tagged: fud, skype, microsoft, office 2013

It is highly unlikely that the reason many of Skype's Supernodes have been moved to the inside of Microsoft data centres is to allow them to record your Skype conversations.  Consider instead the numerous guides on the net to disable the ability of Skype to co-opt your PC into being a temporary supernode.  With many users opting out of that necessary piece of Skype's infrastructure it could possibly cause quality of service issues with Skype.  As Microsoft is planning on bundling Skype in with the new version of Office, it makes sense that they want at least some supernodes of which they can guarantee a certainly level of QoS to their paying customers.  As The Register points out, they need to find some way to recoup the expense of purchasing the company.

The patent that Microsoft holds to allow for the silent recording of transmissions between two computers, like VoIP, is of some concern but perhaps not as much as some other coverage would have you believe.  The patent application was filed almost 2 years before the purchase of Skype; while it could certainly be used on Skype connections it seems unlikely that it was designed specifically with Skype in mind.  Perhaps a more logical application of this patent would be to offer a way for business users to record conference calls natively and not need to rely on third party software to enable them to do so.  Skype has offered up unencrypted recordings to law enforcement agencies in the past but only did so in special circumstances.  It is likely to continue to do so for as long as the laws of the land consider that process to be legal but the likelihood of general recording of all Skype conversations is almost nil.

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"Skype has issued a formal denial to reports that it has been allowing law enforcement to listen in on users' calls following a change in its system architecture.

"Some media stories recently have suggested Skype may be acting improperly or based on ulterior motives against our users' interests. Nothing could be more contrary to the Skype philosophy," said Mark Gillett, Skype's chief development and operations officer in a blog post."

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Source: The Register

Windows 8 Going on Sale October 26, 2012

Subject: General Tech | July 18, 2012 - 09:33 PM |
Tagged: windows 8, software, operating system, microsoft, metro ui

As the summer continues to fly by, Microsoft is hard at work on wrapping up its upcoming Windows 8 operating system and getting it ready for final release. While the company has indicated previously that the Metro UI-powered OS would be available sometime in October, it release a more specific date today. Specifically, upgrade editions of Windows 8 as well as Windows 8-powered OEM machines will be available for purchase on October 26th, 2012.

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The announcement was made at an annual sales meeting by Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky today. Interestingly, the Windows Team Blog that reported on the announcement is noticeably absent of a mention for retail (not upgrade) editions of the Windows 8 operating system. That may well mean that physically packaged retail versions will not be available until a bit later in the year. Also missing is pricing; there is still no word on how much a full retail version of Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro will cost. Even so, considering Microsoft is making upgrade editions available to anyone with a previous (licensed) version of Windows for $39.99, the retail versions are going to be pretty difficult to justify as they will likely cost much more than the upgrades.

Are you ready for Windows 8?

Microsoft Releases Office 2013 Customer Preview

Subject: General Tech | July 17, 2012 - 06:56 AM |
Tagged: office, microsoft, windows, Metro, windows 8, software, outlook, office 2013, customer preview

Microsoft’s next generation Windows 8 operating system is due out later this year, which generally means a refreshed version of Microsoft Office – the company’s productivity software – is also on its way. To show off the new interface and updated features, Microsoft has decided to release what it is calling a Customer Preview of Office 2013 that will allow you to try out the new versions of Access, Excel, Word, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word.

Office 2013 Title.jpg

The new Office programs feature a refreshed interface that does away with the aero glass windows in favor of the flat metro look, and integrates into Microsoft’s Skydrive cloud storage service. By default, you log into your Skydrive account during installation, and from then on it will store your documents and other files in your Skydrive folder. In addition, Office will allow you to log into the various social networks to retrieve contact data, which is a nice addition to the Outlook email client (in my opinion). You can also utilize the chat features to communicate with friends or coworkers from within the Office 2013 applications. Of course, being designed for Windows 8, Office 2013 has several new ways to interact with the applications using touch controls or a stylus.

The other major change with Office 2013 is the introduction of several new subscription service. While Microsoft has had the Office 365 subscription brand for awhile, they have not really advertised it. With Office 2013, you can choose from four tiers including Office 365 Home Premium, Small Business Premium, ProPlus, and Enterprise. The Home Premium tier is the one that will interest the majority of people as it provides an extra 20GB of Skydrive storage space, a synced Office experience on up to five computers, the ability to stream the Office 2013 applications to another Internet connected computer with Office on Demand, and sixty minutes (every month) of Skype calling minutes. From there, the Small Business Premium and above tiers add business-centric features like HD conferencing, encrypted email, archiving, and other goodies.

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Outlook 2013. As you can see, Office 2013's interface has been heavily influenced by Windows 8's Metro UI.

We’ll be playing around with the Office 2013 Customer Preview this week and will report back, so stay tuned. If you want to try it out for yourself, you can grab the Customer Preview download from the Microsoft website (an Internet connection is required during installation). It can be installed on computers running either Windows 7 or Windows 8.

Also, according to Tom’s Hardware, a version of Office 2013 – specifically Office Home and Student 2013 RT – will come pre-installed on all Windows 8 RT (ARM-based) computers, so that is a nice touch (especially since it’s basically the only traditional desktop application that the ARM tablets will be able to run, at least at launch).

Source: Microsoft

Ribbons and Clippy and Clouds, oh my! Office 15 may be revealed today

Subject: General Tech | July 16, 2012 - 01:30 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, office 15, office 2013, Metro

If you want to see professionals absolutely lose it, hang out in a office during the first time the encounter a new version of Microsoft Office.  Suddenly their barely tamed tool which delivers their emails and allows them to put together slide decks and documents has turned into a wild beast which stands between them and their deadlines.  Those that claim Microsoft has to change their Office Suite in order to stay relevant in the marketplace do not have much familiarity with the Sharepoint and Exchange driven companies which don't decide to stick with MS Office because the ribbons are pretty, they do so because their entire infrastructure is built around Microsoft products.

That hasn't stopped Redmond however and those of you in support positions at work or in your family are in for a nightmare as Office goes Metro.  That's right, if you thought explaining Ribbons to 'C' level executives was difficult just wait until you have to explain the new Windows GUI as the rumours and leaks we have seen all point to Office going Metro.  On the plus side, we should see some sort of Office Suite for ARM based WindowsRT systems, and it isn't Office 365.  The Register has some key dates and should post more info as it arrives.

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What Supersite for Windows saw

"Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is widely expected to announce details of the next version of the Microsoft Office productivity suite on Monday USA Today reports, giving the public its first glimpse of a product that has so far remained shrouded in secrecy.

Microsoft has been calling the new version "Office 15," but come Monday we'll probably know it as Office 2013, assuming Redmond sticks to convention. To date, only "a select group of customers" have had their mitts on the new suite, via a technical preview program that began in January, and then only under a strict nondisclosure agreement."

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Source: The Register

Surface is just a proof of concept?

Subject: General Tech | July 11, 2012 - 01:38 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, surface, ballmer

Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer, recently referred to the Surface ultraportable as "just a design point".  This is bound to disappoint a lot of geeks who fell in love with the new touchscreen tablet/laptop which showed off the new Win8 interface in a much more effective manner than we have seen from previous computers.  On the other hand, many OEM's will find this announcement reassuring as when the Surface was first introduced they were less than impressed at a software company muscling in on their territory.  Still, he expects to sell a million or so of the devices so those who really desire a Surface should be able to get their hands on one.  Check out more about the conference Ballmer held in Toronto at The Register.

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"Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has downplayed the impact of Redmond's "iPad-killer" – aka the Surface tablet – as he wrapped a comforting arm around PC OEMS that may feel a little unnerved by the move.

The covers were lifted off the shiny slate weeks ago, but it was dismissed by several hardware vendors, including long-time partner Acer, which said Microsoft should concentrate its efforts on software development."

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Source: The Register

Surprise! Overclocking your machine does make it less stable according to Microsoft

Subject: Systems | July 3, 2012 - 03:48 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, overclocking

If you've ever wondered if it was worth hitting that 'Report to Microsoft' button after you experienced a BSoD then perhaps this paper from Microsoft Research will enlighten you. After studying reports from 1 million machines that suffered CPU or memory problems, Microsoft broke down all of the data into both failure types and machine types so that they can contrast the results of overclocking laptops and desktops from both major CPU vendors as well as breaking the desktops into ones assembled by a major vendor and ones assembled either by the owner or by a small business. 

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The basic results are easy to sum up laptops are less likely to crash than desktops, CPU errors are more likely than memory errors and underclocking will indeed make your system less prone to crashes.  You are also less likely to see crashes on machines purchased from a major vendor than one assembled yourself or by a small business.  Of course the whitebox versus brand name ratings cannot differentiate between someone who just built a PC for the first time and one assembled by a veteran so it is possible that that rating is a little skewed.

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As for overclocking, you can see that the results are split between Vendor A and Vendor B as opposed to being labelled Intel and AMD but most readers will be able to make an intelligent guess as to which is which.  TACT represents Total Accumulated CPU Time, which does not have to be contiguous and could represent quite a few weeks of ownership if the computer in question is only run for a few hours a day and then shut off.  Whether this time was accumulated quickly or spaced out, it shows that overclocking either vendors chips will have a significant impact on the stability of your system.  Again, there is no division into experienced overclockers and neophytes nor between those who overclock manually or with software or hardware included with the motherboard they chose.  Even still the impact on stability is very large regardless of vendor and if you crash once you can be almost guaranteed to crash a second and third time.  The table only focuses on the first three crashes as by the time that third crash occurs it is obvious they will continue until something is changed.   Check out the abstract here or just head straight to the bottom of that page for the full PDF of results.

"Researchers working at Microsoft have analyzed the crash data sent back to Redmond from over a million PCs. You might think that research data on PC component failure rates would be abundant given how long these devices have been in-market and the sophisticated data analytics applied to the server market — but you’d be wrong. According to the authors, this study is one of the first to focus on consumer systems rather than datacenter deployments."

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Source: Microsoft

Windows 8 Pro Upgrade for $39.99 Through January 31, 2013

Subject: General Tech | July 2, 2012 - 11:22 PM |
Tagged: windows 8, microsoft, software, operating system

A few days ago we covered the Windows 8 upgrade process, and specifically what Microsoft will allow you to bring with you into a Windows 8 install from a previous version of the operating system. At the time of writing, we did not know the pricing for upgrade editions. However, today Microsoft released pricing information for upgrade licenses of the Windows 8 OS.

Through January 31, 2013, you will be able to purchase an upgrade version of Windows 8 Pro for $39.99 in 131 markets. Even better, you will further be able to add Windows Media Center for free via the “add features” option in Windows 8 after you have performed the update. The forty dollar price only includes the digital download version of the operating system. Using it, you will be able to either create your own media (USB or DVD) or purchase a physical installation DVD from Microsoft for an additional $15 plus shipping and handling.

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The Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant is Microsoft’s recommended vehicle for installing Windows 8 over a previous version, but they are also allowing clean installs. The upgrade process is very similar to past transitions (say, from Vista to 7). The difference is that you do not need to have the media downloaded to begin the upgrade. After purchasing, it has a built-in downloader that will download the required files and verify them (you can further pause and resume the download).

If you prefer to buy locally, you will be able to purchase a retail-packaged version of Windows 8 Pro Upgrade for $69.99 until January 31, 2013. Beyond the upgrade versions, Microsoft has announced that System Builder versions of Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro will be available, though they did not state a specific price for the DIY-friendly versions.

You can find more information over at the Windows 8 blog, but I have to admit that it is a much more attractive price than I expected for the Pro version (much less free WMC!). Is this a price that might convince you to upgrade, or will you be sticking with a previous Windows version regardless?

Microsoft Reveals Windows 8 Upgrade Options

Subject: General Tech | June 29, 2012 - 04:30 AM |
Tagged: windows 8, windows, upgrade, operating system, microsoft

ZDNet has managed to get its hands on some details regarding Microsoft’s Windows 8 upgrade paths. The company will support upgrade installations from XP SP3 to Windows 7 in various forms, and with some caveats. Users will not be able to do cross-language upgrade installs or upgrades from x86 (32-bit) to x64 (64-bit) Windows 8 (or vice versa).

Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system (check out our guide) is set to be available to consumers this fall, and the company has started prepping its partners on how the upgrade process will work for users running previous versions of Windows. The short answer is that users running at least XP with Service Pack 3 will be able to perform an upgrade install to a version of Windows 8 with the same language and architecture as the current version. The longer answer is that – while you may be able to upgrade – you may not be able to keep all of your applications, system settings, and/or data when moving to Windows 8 depending on your particular configuration.

Let’s run down some example upgrade situations.

For users running Windows XP SP3 or higher, you will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 and keep all of you personal files. You will lose all system settings and installed applications, however.

If you are currently running Windows Vista pre-Service Pack 1 (SP1), you will be able to perform an upgrade installation to Windows 8. You will be able to keep your personal files, but will lose any installed applications and system settings.

If you have Windows Vista SP1 (or newer), you will be able to keep your personal files and system settings. On the other hand, you will lose any installed applications as a result of the upgrade to Windows 8.

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Further, as general rules of thumb, you can upgrade to Windows 8 (non-Pro version) from Windows 7 Starter, Windows 7 Home Basic, and Windows 7 Home Premium installs. You will be able to keep all of your settings, files, and applications. Also, you can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro from Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Pro, and Ultimate and keep the same system configuration, installed applications, and personal files. If you are a volume licensee currently running Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Enterpirse, you will be able to perform and upgrade installation to Windows 8 Enterprise without losing any data, settings, or applications.

Just as with previous releases of Windows, if you want to move to the new version of Windows that has either a different language or different architecture (32-bit/64-bit), you will be required to perform a clean installation (not a bad idea in any event, actually). One detail that has not been released (or leaked) yet is pricing and whether or not we will see steep discounts for student versions, those that tested any of the Windows 8 preview builds, or family packs. If you eschew the DIY route and buy a new OEM computer between now and January 31, 2013, you will qualify for a Windows 8 Pro upgrade copy for $14.99, however.  It will be interesting to see just how Microsoft prices its upcoming operating system, especially before any applicable discounts. Microsoft has streamlined the number of SKUs but also made Pro the version to get for even some home users; and because it’s the equivalent of Windows 7 Ultimate where they price it will be interesting (or rather disheartening should I let the cynical side of me win out).

Have you tried Windows 8 yet, and if so, will you be upgrading to it once it’s officially released? Any guesses on the final prices?

Source: ZDNet

The Surface Tablet should be cheaper than an Ultrabook, but not by much

Subject: General Tech | June 20, 2012 - 01:34 PM |
Tagged: surface, ultrabook, Pegatron, windows rt, windows 8, tablet, microsoft, arm, tegra 3

You've met Microsoft's two new Surface Tablet by now, either in Scott's write up or elsewhere on the net and are aware that there is a less expensive ARM and Tegra 3 version and a more expensive Ivy Bridge model.  What you might not have known is the expected pricing, a lack that DigiTimes remedies this morning with the prediction the WinRT model will cost at least $600 and the Win8 model more than $800.  Both are being assembled by Pegatron Technology but the amount being assembled is still unknown.  The Surface Tablet is certainly attention grabbing but it costs significantly more than other tablets and many full notebooks, but it likely to be lower priced than either Intel or Apple's ultraportable devices which puts it in an odd spot in the market.  How many will be willing to pay that much for a multi-touch tablet with dock?

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"Sources from notebook players have revealed that Microsoft's 10.6-inch Surface tablet PCs will be outsourced to Pegatron Technology for assembly; however, there is still not a firm estimate for order volumes.

The sources also estimated the end-market price of the Windows 8 Pro-based Surface tablet PC with Ivy Bridge processor to be at least above US$799, while the Windows RT-based model, featuring Nvidia's Tegra 3, will be priced above US$599."

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Source: DigiTimes