Windows Mail Application: Not Bad, But Just a Bit Flaky

I’ve been trying to rely on the built-in applications inside Windows Vista as must as possible, to get a feel for how much (or how little) they’ve evolved. I think it’s all too easy for experienced geeks to get a new operating system and immediately load it up with all of their own favourite applications – overlooking the built-in applications. That does a disservice to the OS itself, and robs you of finding out how good or bad the included applications really are – let’s face it, the less applications an OS has installed (any OS), the more stable it’s going to be. Out of the box, Vista is a surprisingly well-rounded tool, offering almost everything you need built-in.

One app in particular I’ve been relying on heavily is Windows Mail, the replacement for Outlook Express. I have it configured on every Vista computer in my home to check my personal email, and my business email accounts are only checked with Outlook 2007. On the whole, Windows Mail is a pretty good app: strong spam filtering (though I thankfully don’t get THAT much spam), easy to use, nice user interface, spell checking, and fairly snappy. I’d have no trouble recommending it to people who want to use it as their primary email application. There are some things that I really don’t like though. Yeah, that’s right, it’s bullet time.

  • IMAP sluggishness: I don’t know how or why, but Outlook 2007 is about 500% faster over IMAP than Windows Mail is. When I delete a message in Windows Mail it takes 1-2 seconds before it vanishes. It might be because it’s doing a real delete and moving it to the Deleted Items folder, whereas Outlook 2007 just flags it for deletion and hides it. Regardless, Mail should do that stuff in the background and bring the SNAP back to the Delete button over IMAP.
  • Strange Lock-Ups: Today Windows Mail went all freaky on me, and is what inspired this blog post. Basically, it locked up: but not in a traditional Windows “Not Responding” kind of way. Task Manager said it was working normally, yet when I’d click on any part of the window I’d get the “No, you can’t do that ding”. The kind you get when there’s a dialogue box open somewhere that you have to deal with before you can get at the application itself. After a few minutes I got a warning about my mail server responding slowly, and it prompted me to WAIT or STOP. I clicked STOP. And it still wouldn’t respond – more dinging. I left it for a few minutes and went back to reading my hometown hero Rahul Sood’s blog. I came back and there was the WAIT/STOP prompt again. I clicked STOP again. It wouldn’t respond again. My frustration level was definitely rising…then all of a sudden it started working again. I don’t see any of those problems with Outlook 2007 accessing the same email account, so I have a hard time believing it’s all my mail server’s fault.
  • User Data Storage Location Still Obscure: One of the best things about Outlook is the PST file. It’s a single file that contains all of the user’s data: every contact, every calendar event, every email, every note. That makes it really easy to back up, make copies of, etc. And if you move it from the obscure 12-level deep folder to your Documents folder (or My Documents for you XP types), it’s easy to re-link Outlook to the new file location and then it’s easy to back up. Windows Mail continues the horrid tradition of not only hiding all the email deep, deep inside hidden folders, but also scattering all the user data across multiple files and folders. Where is Windows Mail data located? C:\Users\Jason Dunn\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Mail. Oh, and you can only see that folder if you go into the options to make hidden files and folders visible. Why didn’t they just add an Email folder in the root user level, alongside easy to understand things like Music, Pictures, and Saved Games. How exactly is Joe User going to back-up his Windows Mail data? He’s not – he’s going to lose his email when his hard drive crashes.
  • Window Fuglyness: Windows Mail was created for both email and newsgroups, and I happen to use it for both. The problem is that I have a specific arrangement of the window sections for email. I want the window to be only as big as it needs to be for me to see what I need to see of my email, so I remove columns, resize them, and create the perfect UI for me. When I switch over to the newsgroups view, and it’s all shot to hell. It needs to have remembered window states for each account. That’s probably not technically possible, but I can dream can’t it? This issue is so frustrating for me that I removed my personal email account from Windows Mail on my main workstation and I only check newsgroups with it now.

All in all, Windows Mail is a decent application that most people can rely on for day to day email. But I can’t help think it could be much more impressive if Microsoft wasn’t worried about encroaching on the Outlook fiefdom…