Windows Live Mail beta

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Windows Live Mail beta

Bottom Line

This is a first beta, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Windows Live Mail is still rather buggy with many unfinished features. We wouldn't recommend that you download it for the time being, but there's plenty of potential. It remains to be seen whether Live Mail can rise to the top of the email tree, but there's plenty to be excited about.

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Whether you love them or loathe them, very few software programs can claim to be used by as many people on a daily basis as Outlook Express and Windows Mail. So the successor to these programs was always going to attract considerable interest. Well, the name of that successor is Windows Live Mail, and we've had a good look at the first beta version.

Getting started

The software installed cleanly in Windows XP SP2 and Vista. In XP Outlook Express vanished from the Start menu, but the program still existed (clicking Start, Run and typing 'msimn.exe' got it going). Likewise, Windows Mail disappeared from Vista's Start menu but remained accessible as winmail.exe.

You'll be required to set up an email account. Our Hotmail details went through without a hitch, but we experienced more problems when trying to use a Gmail account - we had to fill in the server names and settings ourselves.

For both accounts, Windows Live Mail left the messages on the server instead of deleting, a smart default setting that gives you the option of reading Gmail or Hotmail messages with a browser. But the initial layout for the message list and preview pane wasn't as smart, squashing four vertical columns into the program window (pictured).

Active Search

Three of the four columns show folders, the message list and a message preview. The fourth is an Active Search option with a search box at the top and results below. Live Mail automatically scours the web for 'keywords' in messages you read. But as it searched for "Outlook Express" after finding the term in the body of the welcome message, we didn't like Active Search and turned it off.

A handy search box sits above the message list, but it doesn't seem to be able to look for content within the message body. The 'Search folders' option is even worse, and struggles to find anything at all. The hidden advanced search option makes up for some of these shortcomings with its thoroughness.

Filter tips

Live Mail's spam filtering needs some tweaking. Under the default 'High' setting for junk email filtering, the program incorrectly identified 25 valid Gmail messages as spam (out of about 80) and moved them into the junk email folder.

The same held for the phishing filter: Live Mail marked two benign messages as potential phishing risks and blocked links contained within them. You can select 'Unblock message' in a red alert bar at the top of the message to re-enable message URLs. Composing new messages is extremely easy. We were especially impressed by Live Mail's photo-message function, which allows you to add pictures to the message body as thumbnails. You can then enter captions, perform minor edits and choose whether to shrink the image before sending.

It doesn't work terribly well at the moment - multiple test photo messages displayed incorrectly, with the thumbnails pushed up over the message header - but this feature will be great when it's finished.

As you'd expect, Live Mail can filter messages based on rules you create, but it's hamstrung by an inability to apply those rules to Imap or HTTP accounts. We were able to create rules for our configured Gmail account, which uses the POP3 protocol. As well as handling email, Live Mail can subscribe to RSS feeds, but currently this feature lags some way behind Netvibes (netvibes.com) or the Sage add-on for Firefox.

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