Review: Windows 8 Metro Mail App Preview

Windows 8 Metro Mail app previewWe’re still looking at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which now has the Metro interface and the new-style Metro apps. The one you’re likely to try first is the Metro Mail app.

This is an Email management app, somewhere between the Windows Live Essentials client, Windows LiveMail and the Mail app on Windows Phone. Services that can be integrated are Hotmail, Gmail, Exchange, Office 365 – and that’s currently it.

It’s an App Preview, so far there’s no POP or IMAP mail integration. That’s not the only limitation:

  • it’s easy to jump between accounts and folders, but there’s no conversation view and you can’t flag email or even mark it as spam.
  • it’s designed with the touch-friendly Metro interface in mind and it’s quite usable, at least for the basic tasks of reading and writing messages.
  • it’s not as fully functional as Windows Live Mail

It’s problematic because this is clearly still in an early stage of development that looks like a proof-of-concept and that’s worrying because this is supposed to be a Beta release.

If you’re familiar with Windows Live Mail, that looks a lot like Outlook, with a familiar ribbon interface offering the full range of options for reading, sorting, and flagging e-mail. Windows 8 Metro Mail is far more basic. I configured the client with Hotmail and Yahoo and both accounts work fine from there. You just can’t do a lot right now; read, compose, move e-mails to folders, mark as unread, run basic searches through mail. There is rich-text html email and folder support in the mail app.

It is very limited at present. My laundry list is quite extensive:

  • the multi-pane layout of Outlook may be visually cluttered, but it provides quick access to a lot of functions. In Metro Mail’s main window, I’ve got three panes but no folder view.
  • in Outlook, emails by default take up two lines in the list but you can collapse them to one line to get more emails on the page. Metro Mail has each email taking three lines in large text. There’s no notion of conversations or threading.
  • you may need to use a proxy to get to some mailservers but no Metro app picks up any proxy settings you set up in Internet Explorer; including the Metro version of IE10.
  • another limitation arises in having separate Windows 8 clients for Mail and Calendar. Windows Live has your e-mail accounts and calendars integrated, making it easy to add events from your inbox. There’s no integration between the separate Mail and Calendar applications in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Both Metro apps work, they just don’t work together.

You may say cleaner and simpler is usually better and that a lot of Outlook users could do with a bit of a simpler interface, but the strength of Outlook is that it’s deeply customizable. There is almost nothing mail or calendar-related that it can’t do, provided you know where to find it, particularly now we have the Ribbon interface. Metro kills all that.

I also have a basic issue with the interface design. Everything in Windows 8 Metro, including Mail, is flat. Whilst I like white-space, there are no drop shadows and borders help me separate elements on the screen. It’s like after 30 years of interface design Microsoft has gone back to Notepad.

What is worrying is the productivity loss. In Windows 8 Metro  I have to open a mail app, a calendar app, a to-do list app, a reader app, and a contact app in order to do the same thing I can do from one Outlook screen in Win7. And I am not a necessarily a fan of Outlook.  I don’t know anyone who gets so little mail that this simple interface will be sufficient

The answer, of course, is Touch. Window 8 is using the Metro UI built for Windows Phone 7. It’s all about touch screens, everything geared toward operation by fat fingers on glass. Tablet PC’s. For that, the flat, white space and large target area for stabbing digits is essential. I’m just not convinced the one-size-fits-all is appropriate for every device and every user. Which is why the corporate clients are getting the Metro By-pass edition.

Microsoft has not yet released a Windows 8-specific version of Outlook, the business-class e-mail client that is part of Office. A beta version of MS-Office 15 is expected this summer. Expect is to run on a conventional desktop. AJS

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