What you need to know about Outlook.com as Microsoft brings it out of preview

Running your email as a web app can give you access to Microsoft's latest and greatest features for Outlook.

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With the new Outlook.com, you can open Skype right next to an email.

Credit: Microsoft

Since May 2015, Microsoft’s revamped Outlook.com has remained in preview. That’s over as of Wednesday, and Microsoft has added some new plugin capabilities to go along with it. 

Once known as Hotmail, Microsoft’s new Outlook.com is now built upon Office 365 technology, and the company has begun adding useful plugins on top of it—plus some fun, if impractical, GIFs from Giphy.com. These same plugins are also available to some users of the Outlook desktop apps, though you’ll need to download them as separate plugin apps from Microsoft’s online store.

If you’ve already participated in the preview of Microsoft Outlook.com, you probably won’t find much that’s new. For millions of others, though, things will change. In a blog post, Microsoft said that the new look and feel is going live for users in North America. Users in other geographies will be transitioned over the next few weeks. One note for users of the Mac version of Outlook 2016: you’ll need to delete your Outlook.com account, then re-add it, to see the changes.

Why this matters: While it’s sort of a pain to load up a dedicated browser tab for email and other Microsoft online apps, it can be worth it. Sure, your data is "trapped" in the cloud, but it's also saved constantly, minimizing the traditional risks from PC crashes or hard drive failures. Microsoft often pushes some of its new features online before it migrates them to its dedicated apps.  

A walk through the new Outlook.com

If you’re seeing the Outlook.com service for the first time, however, be aware that Microsoft has made a number of changes over time. Windows 10’s Mail app is a fairly basic way to send and receive email. The new Outlook.com, by contrast, is even more sophisticated, in some ways, than Microsoft’s dedicated Outlook apps.

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Mentions now flag your email to whoever you choose.

For one thing, Outlook.com now pays attention to the people you email with most, so expect to see a list of the your most frequently accessed contacts. We haven’t seen Microsoft add Facebook-style Likes in yet, but the complementary Mentions (an “@” character, then a person’s name) will flag that email as important for a particular user. You can also set your own flags, and pin email to the top of your inbox.

Outlook.com also supports one of the niftier features Microsoft offers, Clutter, sort of a second-level spam filter. (Interestingly, Outlook.com users have another option, too—if you like the way Google’s Gmail organizes its inbox, a new service makes that available for Outlook.com users.)

As you write an email, Outlook now supports emoji and can also make any embedded pictures pop a bit more with some image creation tools.

Email as a hub

Microsoft has also begun to recognize that an email itself has a certain weight to it; if we send an email, it usually means something—there’s a document attached to it, for example, or it may include a formal request for assistance. Outlook.com now launches complementary Microsoft cloud services, alongside email.

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Microsoft’s revamed Outlook.com allows you to open and work on a Word document right next to the email that discusses it.

For example, if you send a Word document, you don’t need to send the actual document; instead you can send a copy of the file that’s already stored in OneDrive, rather than downloading and re-uploading it to the Outlook.com service. (This works for Box and Dropbox, too.) And if you receive a Word document, Word Online will open the document in an adjoining pane, so you can work alongside it. 

Likewise, Microsoft now recognizes that email isn’t necessarily the most appropriate medium in certain situations. Perhaps your mother sends you an email, and you need to respond now; Outlook.com can trigger Skype calls and chats right in your browser.

Those are just the Microsoft-authored tools. A number of plugins now can be triggered right from the menu bar at the top of the screen. Did your buddy send you a teasing reminder that you skipped out on the check? Tap the PayPal icon at the top of the screen, and a sidebar pane will open and allow you to settle the bill. 

Microsoft’s added similar plugins for Uber (a code, OutlookLove, allows you to get a $20 discount), Wunderlist, Evernote, and Boomerang. You can also now embed cat GIFs with Giphy, and check out online reviews at Yelp. If you use the dedicated Office apps like Outlook 2015, you can get most of these via downloadable plugins at the Office Store

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Look at the top of the Outlook screen for a list of plugins to integrate with your email.

Microsoft said moving Outlook.com to the Office 365 platform will help all the platforms work together better, but its online apps have always been test beds of sort for new features. Expect that to continue. “Email remains the backbone of digital communications in today’s world and we’re committed to making email awesome with Outlook experiences at home and at work—across all the devices you use,” according to Javier Soltero, vice president of the Outlook team, in a blog post. “Today’s milestone with Outlook.com is one more key step in that journey, and you can expect to see more improvements and enhancements over the coming months.”

This story, "What you need to know about Outlook.com as Microsoft brings it out of preview" was originally published by PCWorld.

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