Way back in the mid-1990s, Microsoft infamously started work on its Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser. But IE wasn't the only product to come out of the software giant's push to the Web. Among other things, Microsoft developed separate Internet email and USENET newsgroup clients, called Internet Mail and Internet News, respectively. These originally separate applications were quickly aggregated into a single application, which was renamed Outlook Express. And this application was included in all Windows versions up to and including Windows XP.

Fun fact: The Internet Mail and News applications were codenamed Athena.

Tip: The name Outlook Express incorrectly suggested that the application was somehow a smaller, less functional version of Microsoft's premier e-mail and personal information management (PIM) client, Outlook. This is incorrect. More problematically, Outlook was never--and is still not--a superset of the functionality provided by Outlook Express. Instead, Outlook Express includes certain functionality that was never included in Outlook, such as support for USENET Newsgroups. And Outlook, of course, includes numerous features that are not found in Outlook Express, including Exchange Server support, calendaring and tasks, and more.

In Windows Vista, Outlook Express has been renamed to Windows Mail in order to be more consistent with other bundled applications. Don't be confused by the name change, however: Windows Mail is just the latest version of Outlook Express. (Version 6, to be exact.)

New features in Windows Mail

When compared to its Outlook Express predecessors, there are some differences in Windows Mail. Unfortunately, not all of these changes are improvements.

Slightly updated user interface

The first thing you'll notice when you fire up Windows Mail is that it's been updated subtly to conform to the new Windows Vista application look and feel. It still includes a classic menu bar, unlike most true Vista applications, but the old bulky toolbar has been replaced by a smaller blue toolbar similar to those found in other Vista productivity applications like Windows Calendar.

Beyond that, the user interface of Windows Mail is almost identical to that of Outlook Express. There is a new Contacts button in the toolbar that replaces the old Contacts panel from Outlook Express, and various icons used throughout the Windows Mail user interface have been refreshed to be more Vista-like. But that's about it: Even the Windows Mail menu structure and Options dialog are virtually identical to those of its predecessor, with very few exceptions. Put simply, Windows Mail just isn't a brand-new application, let alone a major update.

Of course, if you are a dedicated Outlook Express user, that's probably good news. There's not a lot of relearning to do if you've upgraded to Vista.

No more support for Web mail

The biggest change in Windows Mail, unfortunately, is a bit of bad news. That is, support for Web-based e-mail services, including Microsoft's own Hotmail (including Windows Live Hotmail and MSN), has been eliminated. In Outlook Express, you could choose between POP3, IMAP, and HTTP mail server types; the latter was used for Web mail accounts. In Windows Mail, that last option was eliminated. Only POP3 and IMAP accounts are now supported.

Secret: In mid-2008, Microsoft ended support for Web mail from Hotmail and MSN in Outlook Express as well, citing the obsolete nature of the technologies needed to keep it working. So now Outlook Express users are out of luck too. (You know, more than usually.)

Instant Search

Like much of Windows Vista, Windows Mail is integrated with the operating system's instant search functionality. This means that Windows Mail picks up a handy instant search box in the upper right corner of the main application window. To search the current view--be it an e-mail folder or online newsgroup--simply select the search box and start typing. Searching is instantaneous, as it is in the Windows Vista Explorer shell, so it will begin filtering down the list as you type. Also, instant search will search across all applicable criteria, including sender, subject line, and e-mail or newsgroup body.

Secret: Interestingly, the old Find toolbar button from Outlook Express is still available in Windows Mail. Why would you need Find when Windows Mail includes instant search? Actually, there are some good reasons. The Find dialog box enables you to search in a very fine-grained way, where you can specify exactly the person, subject, or message you're looking for. More important, perhaps, you can also specify where to look using the Browse button. Unlike instant search, Find isn't limited to the current folder view.

Secret: You can also search your Windows Mail-based e-mail from Start Menu Search.

Windows Contacts integration

Where Outlook Express integrated with the Windows Address Book (WAB) used by previous Windows versions, Windows Mail integrates instead with the new Windows Contacts store found in Windows Vista. You can access Windows Contacts from within Windows Mail through the aforementioned toolbar button, from the Tools menu, or by tapping Ctrl+Shift+C.

Automatic spell checking

Windows Mail includes built-in automatic spell checking, a feature that was missing in Outlook Express. (To get this functionality in Outlook Express, you would have had to have installed Microsoft Word or any other part of the Microsoft Office suite.) The Windows Mail spell checker is a bit less functional than the one included with Word or Office: It cannot suggest replacements for misspelled words on the fly, but instead offers suggestions only when you try to send mail.

No more identities

Because Outlook Express was first designed to work with Windows 95 and subsequent consumer Windows products, none of which had any understanding of truly individual user accounts, it used a construct called identities to allow users to create two or more pseudo-user accounts within the application. You could use identities in various ways. First, multiple users accessing Outlook Express from the same PC could maintain separate identities so that their e-mail accounts wouldn't comingle. Second, individual users could set up multiple identities within Outlook Express in order to separate them.

Identities no longer exist in Windows Mail. Now, users are expected to each maintain their own user account, each of which has a separate desktop, configuration settings, and so forth.

Secret: If you upgrade an older computer to Windows Vista and were using Outlook Express with multiple identities, Windows Mail will run a wizard the first time it's launched that lets you import identities into your user account. You can run this wizard on each account to ensure that the correct identities are matched to the correct user accounts in Vista.

New mail storage

Windows Mail, finally, uses an entirely new storage engine for e-mail that is more reliable and offers better performance than that used by Outlook Express. Anyone who's been frustrated by Outlook Express' antiquated storage engine--seen most frequently when the application slows to a crawl while accessing large e-mail folders or newsgroups--should appreciate this change.

On a related note, it's now much easier to move the Windows Mail storage around in the file system because Windows Mail stores everything--its e-mail and newsgroup folders, account information, and settings--in a single, easily accessible folder. So when you move the Windows Mail storage folder, everything else moves with it. This also makes Windows Mail much easier to back up. All of the Windows Mail data files can now be found in C:\Users\User Name\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Mail by default. To back this up, simply copy this folder to a different location, like a rewriteable optical disk or removable hard drive. If you are backing up Windows Mail, be sure to back up your contacts as well. Contacts are stored in C:\Users\User Name\Contacts by default.

Secret: To move the Windows Mail storage folder to a new location, navigate to Tools, Options, Advanced in the application, and then click the Maintenance button. Then, click the Store Folder button. In the Store Folder dialog box, click the Change button and browse to the new location.

New security features

In keeping with the push for better desktop security in Windows Vista, Windows Mail picks up a couple of useful features that make it marginally safer than Outlook Express.

The first is a new Junk Mail filter, which is very similar to the Junk Mail filter found in Microsoft Outlook. You can access Junk Mail options from the Junk E-mail Options dialog. Here, you can choose a level of automatic junk e-mail protection and set up Safe Senders, Safe Recipients, and Blocked Senders lists. There's also an International tab for automatically blocking mail written in languages you don't understand and e-mail from certain top-level domain names. If you're familiar with Junk e-mail protection in Microsoft Outlook, it's almost identical, but with one major exception: Junk e-mail protection in Windows Mail works only for POP3 accounts, and not IMAP accounts.

Secret: Windows Mail's support for IMAP is lackluster for other reasons, too. In addition to not providing junk e-mail protection to IMAP accounts, Windows Mail also does not support message rules with IMAP.

Windows Mail also includes a Phishing Filter, which can prevent certain e-mail?based scams. (Microsoft added antiphishing technology to both Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Mail in Windows Vista.) In Windows Mail, unlike with IE 7, the Phishing Filter is on by default.

Windows Live Mail: The next generation

Windows Mail comes free with Windows Vista and I'm sure there are millions of dedicated Outlook Express users out there who will simply begin using its replacement when they upgrade to Windows Vista.

Fair enough. I will offer this one bit of advice, however: Microsoft has further upgraded Outlook Express/Windows Mail into a new brand new application called Windows Live Mail. It's available for free from the Web as part of the Windows Live suite (see my review). And it is vastly superior to Windows Mail, offering a true superset of the functionality found in the Windows Vista application.

You should seriously consider using Windows Live Mail instead of Windows Mail. This new application rights virtually everything that is wrong with Windows Mail.

Secret: Yes, Windows Live Mail is designed to work primarily with Microsoft's Windows Live Hotmail and MSN email services. And, yes, the application does work particularly well with those services. But it also works just fine with any POP3 or IMAP email account as well, just like Windows Mail. In fact, one of the best uses of Windows Live Mail is to access two or more email accounts simultaneously from the same place, one or more of which might be a Live account.

Final thoughts

Windows Mail is largely a disappointing upgrade over its Outlook Express predecessor, but then the original was no great shakes either. This application does include a few interesting new features, including a phishing filter, automatic spell checking, and better performance, so it's worth a look if you're a die-hard Outlook Express user only. Most people will find Windows Live Mail to be the superior upgrade, however, as that free product offers dramatically better functionality. You've been warned.