FAQ: Trying Microsoft's new Outlook.com

How to get a new Outlook.com email address, where to go for help, what devices and apps you can sync to the service

Microsoft on Tuesday rebooted Hotmail as Outlook.com, serving notice that the former is headed toward retirement and that the latter is the new face of the company's 15-year-old online email effort.

Analysts might have shrugged at the move, but users didn't: By the end of Tuesday, Microsoft boasted that 1 million people had signed up for the new service.

Was it because of the integration with SkyDrive and Office Web apps? The new UI? Or just curiosity?

Who knows. But what we do know is that there are lots of questions about Outlook.com. Here are the answers to some of the most pressing.

I use Hotmail now. What happens to my email? The next time you open Hotmail, you may see the new interface.

If you don't, you can switch by choosing "Upgrade to Outlook.com" from the Options menu in the upper right corner when you're at your inbox.

How do I get one of the new Outlook.com addresses? For a brand new account, go to Outlook.com. (You may need to log out if you've already used the new site, then return to Outlook.com.) Start the process by clicking the "Sign up" button on the left. Fill in the form, which includes a field for your new xxxxx@outlook.com address, complete the CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart") and click the "I accept" button at the bottom.

What does it look like? Very Metro. The user interface (UI) has the same flattened, color-subdued look as a Metro app in Windows 8. By comparison, the traditional Hotmail UI looks like a carnival -- busy, garish, loud, cheap.

Obviously, Outlook.com's UI will mesh well with Windows 8. Depending on your opinion of that UI, however, it may seem jarring on older or non-Microsoft OSes, including Windows 7 and OS X.

Can I keep my old address and still use Outlook.com? Yes, you can.

You can keep Microsoft-related addresses ending with hotmail.com, msn.com and live.com while switching to the new UI.

I want to ditch my Hotmail.com address. How do I do that? Start at Outlook.com. If you're not automatically pushed to the new UI, switch by choosing "Upgrade to Outlook" from the Inbox's Options menu -- and select "More mail settings" from the gear icon's menu. Click on "Rename your email address."

Enter your existing Hotmail.com address -- the portion to the left of the @ character -- and click Save while "outlook.com" is visible in the drop-down list. If the address is already taken, you'll see a message to that effect.

Does Outlook.com show me ads? Yes, it does. Text-based ads, to be specific.

If you want an ad-free screen, you have to fork over $19.99 annually for what's still called "Hotmail Plus." According to Microsoft, subscribing to Plus keeps ads off Hotmail and Outlook while they operate side-by-side.

Will Microsoft force me to use Outlook.com? At some point, yes.

There's no public timeline, but Microsoft said that when it wraps up the preview, "we will upgrade [users] to Outlook."

We expect that even after the preview ends, former Hotmail users -- perhaps identified by their account addresses -- will be able to access a "classic" UI for some length of time. That's been Microsoft's practice in the past when it's made drastic changes to the look of Hotmail.

How much SkyDrive space do I get? All new Outlook.com accounts receive the SkyDrive-standard 7GB storage allotment.

Migrating or upgrading an existing Hotmail account doesn't boost the storage on your already-in-place SkyDrive by that amount, however; you get bupkis in that scenario.

I love Gmail, want to try Outlook.com, but don't need another email address. How do I proceed? Sorry, you can't avoid the new address.

No surprise -- Outlook.com takes direct aim at Google's Gmail -- Microsoft has published a short list of steps to forward your Gmail messages to Outlook.com, link Gmail contacts to the new Microsoft service and even set Outlook to send messages from your Gmail address.

Check out the how-to instructions here.

Can I use Outlook.com on my smartphone or tablet? Yes. Microsoft has posted instructions for adding an Outlook account to an Android, iOS or Windows Phone device here.

Can Outlook.com sync my mail to another PC or my smartphone? Yes. The new service relies on Exchange ActiveSync to synchronize not only email but also calendars and contacts.

ActiveSync was developed for mobile sync, so it's no shock that the technology synchronizes data between Outlook.com and various devices, including those powered by Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Outlook also syncs with Outlook 2013, the email client that's part of the Office 2013 suite, which was released as a preview last month. It also synchronizes with the Metro-ized Mail app in Windows 8, although you'll have to add your new Outlook.com to the app.

Some are out of luck, though: Mac users running the Entourage or Outlook 2011 clients can't sync their mail with Outlook.com. Nor can users of OS X's own Mail client.

Can I view Office document attachments sent to my Outlook.com account? You can do better than that.

Outlook.com includes integrated access to Microsoft's Office Web Apps -- cloud-based, Webified versions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word -- so that those programs' documents can be viewed, edited and saved within the browser.

No setup is necessary. When you receive a Word document attachment, for instance, you simply click on the icon that shows in Outlook's inbox to launch the Word Web app. (The Office Web Apps were already part and parcel of SkyDrive, so when Microsoft tied Outlook to the storage service, the Web-esque Word and friends came along.)

For some reason, we weren't able to open a Word doc from Windows 8's Mail app using Office Web Apps; Microsoft wasn't able to come up with an explanation or solution.

I don't like it. Can I switch back? Yes. At the upper right of the Outlook.com window, select "Switch back to Hotmail" from the options menu. Hint: It's marked with an icon that looks like a gear.

Any problems with the preview? The most prominent problem discussed Tuesday on reddit.com, where the Outlook.com team took questions, was the CAPTCHA used to prevent bots from registering accounts.

"Your CAPTCHA is not only filtering out bots but also people. I for one tried 10 times with no luck and will not be registering for the time being because of this," said one commenter named "soowarn."

The CAPTCHA was case-sensitive, and so required users -- or lost users in the cases of those who quit trying -- to determine whether a letter was uppercase or lower.

In a post Tuesday, ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley also reported that some Office 365 subscribers were unable to sign up with Outlook.com.

Finally, scores of users headed to Microsoft's Answer support forum, frantic because they were unable to access their Live.com or Hotmail.com mailboxes and messages after mistakenly changing a Microsoft Live ID or after converting an older account to Outlook.com. (See the next Q&A for the link to that forum's thread.)

Where do I get help? Microsoft will soon add Outlook.com to the Answers peer-to-peer support forum currently labeled "Hotmail, Messenger & SkyDrive," which will then become the go-to locale for Outlook help.

In the meantime, Microsoft asked that Outlook.com users post questions to the thread titled "Where can I report my problem with Outlook.com mail?"

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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