The Windows 8 Consumer Preview comes with a pre-installed e-mail client for webmail and Exchange. While it's designed with the touch-friendly Metro interface in mind, it's quite usable even in traditional desktop mode, at least for the basic tasks of reading and writing messages.
Windows 8 Mail is an alternative to the mail client in Windows Live Essentials, a free productivity suite for download on the stable versions of Windows in use today. Microsoft has not yet released a Windows 8-specific version of Outlook, the fee-based, business-class e-mail client that is part of Office. A beta version of "Office 15" is expected this summer, Office President Kurt DelBene said this week.
For now, we have the free, consumer Mail client to look at, and it's one of the highlights of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. It's not as fully functional as Windows Live Mail, yet it outshines much of the rest of this experimental version of the operating system.
So far, I have a hard time picturing myself using the Metro interface as my regular desktop. One reason for that is it so clearly geared toward touch usage. Peter Bright explains just how to use Windows 8 with a mouse and keyboard, including the proper use of those pesky "hot corners," but many of the operating system's applications are still in a proof-of-concept phase. The Mail app stands out in Windows 8 because it is quite usable for daily e-mailing, even with a mouse and keyboard.
Let's take a look at Windows Live Mail running in Windows 7:
As you can see, there is a big difference. Windows Live Mail looks a lot like Outlook, with the familiar ribbon interface offering tons of options for reading, sorting, and flagging e-mail. Windows 8 Mail is far more basic, yet perfectly usable and (to my eyes) easy to look at. If I could separate the Mail application from the rest of the operating system, I'd probably have no trouble using it today despite its status as a beta product. That's not a criticism of Windows 8—this is a preview version of the operating system that Microsoft does not intend for daily use.
I set up the Windows 8 Mail client with Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange, and all three accounts loaded perfectly with no hassle or extra configuration required—just type in your e-mail address and password. The available options are the basic ones, with the ability to move e-mails to folders, mark as unread, search through mail, and more.
One limitation arises from Microsoft's decision to create separate Windows 8 clients for Mail and Calendar. Windows Live puts your e-mail accounts and calendars into the same program, making it easy to add events from your inbox. In the Consumer Preview of Windows 8, there's no integration between the separate Mail and Calendar applications. Both work fine, they just don't work together.
Early screenshots of Office 15 show a fusion of the ribbon and Metro interfaces, and an integrated mail/calendar client. Outlook for Windows 8 will be the premier mail client, but it will cost money, and many people—particularly those tablet buyers Microsoft wants to court—will be satisfied with an easy-to-use, free mail application. While it will be months until we see a final version, Microsoft looks set to deliver just that.