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Your webmail inbox is the center of your online ecosystem, and not just for your primary email account, but for every other account you have that’s connected to it. Which one’s better? It’s time for the battle of the webmail giants, and it’ll be a doozy. In one corner, we have the Whale of Webmail, the defending champion inboxer: Gmail! In the other corner, the scrappy kid with a big name, the King of Clean, the Preview of Pain, Outlook.com!
Gmail vs Outlook.com: Battle of the best webmail clients
Outlook.com looks great. It’s clean and simple in the Modern UI style: white background, black text, one bright color, low information density. It looks better than the desktop Outlook, and Outlook webmail, and it looks much better than Gmail. It’s easy to configure the preview pane—you have to dig in the Labs section to find that in Gmail. On the other hand, customization is limited to changing the one color, and you only get 18 options there.
Outlook.com’s inbox is clean and modern and has a preview pane by default, but offers much less usable information at a glance than Gmail’s.
Gmail is more themeable—you can choose background images, color schemes, and even information density, but even at its most minimal it’s more cluttered than Outlook.com. It’s the same sort of cluttered as the Outlook desktop client—the price you pay for having a lot more information available at a glance. Gmail can look great or horrendous; Outlook.com just looks good all the time. It’s close, but Outlook wins this round.
Gmail’s inbox is information-dense and extremely configurable, but too much information onscreen means info can get lost in the noise.
The Outlook.com composition window is large and clean and easy to use, but Gmail lets you compose a message in-line with the thread you’re replying to, or in a pop-up window in the corner, so you can keep tabs on other messages or your entire inbox while you’re writing.
Both Gmail and Outlook.com offer robust tagging and sorting for messages, and both have enough keyboard shortcuts to be usable without a mouse. Gmail offers 10GB of storage; Outlook.com doesn’t advertise a limit. Outlook.com also allows you to easily unsubscribe from bulk mail.
Outlook.com’s Quick Views are fantastic, letting you easily find messages with photo or document attachments, tracking numbers, specific labels, or flags. Gmail’s Label views can do the same, but take more manual setup.
There’s just no contest here. If you can find the right settings to enable, Gmail is incredibly powerful. Priority Inbox does a frighteningly good job at sorting your email by importance, Send and Archive keeps your inbox tidy, and the Labs fix problems you didn’t even know you had.
There are Labs settings to enable an Outlook-like preview pane, tweak the Chat interface, add calendar and documents widgets, even “undo” sending an email—which has saved our bacon once or twice. You can view multiple Label inboxes at once, play Google Voice messages in Gmail, and so much more. Outlook.com’s customization is modest, and that’s an understatement.
Gmail ties into the enormous Google ecosystem, from Calendar to Drive to Google Accounts to Google Plus (meh). Outlook.com ties into your Microsoft Account—which you use for everything from Xbox Live to Office 365 to Skype to logging into Windows 8.
You can open Microsoft Office files on the web directly from your Outlook.com inbox, but you can do the same for Google Docs files in Gmail, and you can view Office documents (and convert them for editing) in Drive, as well. Outlook.com ties into SkyDrive and lets you send large attachments easily, while Gmail does the same with Google Drive. Gmail has Google Hangouts and Google Plus integrated, while in Outlook.com you can chat with your Facebook or Live Messenger friends. Each, of course, works best if you’re heavily invested in its corresponding ecosystem, so we’re calling this a tie.
Both Outlook.com and Gmail connect via HTTPS by default, with 128-bit encryption, and both let you send and receive messages from POP3 accounts. Google also supports IMAP.
Gmail has had two-factor authentication for a long time now; Microsoft Accounts only got it in April, though Outlook.com did have an option to sign in with a single-use code sent via SMS, so you didn't have to enter your password on someone else's computer. Two-factor authentication is absolutely essential for any online account you don't want hacked. Given that your Gmail and Outlook.com accounts tie into your entire Google and Microsoft ecosystems, anyone who gets your password can access your entire digital life--unless you have two-factor authentication enabled.
Finally, Google supports multiple sign-on, so if your work or personal website uses Google Apps, you can be signed into that as well as your Gmail account. Outlook.com doesn't. Between that, and IMAP support, we're giving this round to Google.
With ties in two rounds, Gmail only beats Outlook.com by one round. Google’s offering has better security options and more power under the hood—if you can figure out how to make it work. Outlook.com is clean-looking, ties into more social networks, and has useful features right out in the open with less tweaking. It can’t match Google’s eight-year head start, but it’s catching up quickly.