Maybe you heard, but Microsoft launched a new email service today. No, not Hotmail -- a completely new, built-from-scratch service. This is Outlook.com, and for the time being, at least, it will exist separately from Hotmail. So why didn't Redmond just give Hotmail a drastic overhaul? Well, friends, there are two explanations. First, the polite one: for technical reasons, the engineers found it easier to build a new service from scratch rather than retrofit the old one. The frank answer: Microsoft is keenly aware Hotmail has a bad rap, thanks to those banners and flashy video ads. In fact, the company has been very candid that it wants not just to compete with Gmail, but siphon away some of its growing user base. As such, Outlook offers a fresh, minimal interface -- far cleaner than Hotmail ever looked. What's more, the ads are more pared-down here: no video adverts, and no targeted ads on messages between people (newsletters are still fair game).
The service is open to the public as of today and you get virtually unlimited storage, along with 7GB of SkyDrive space if you create a new Microsoft account. (Microsoft uses the word "virtually" to hedge itself against spammers who might otherwise use limitless storage to game the system.) And you should take our word when we say it's worth giving the service a shot: we've been testing it for almost two weeks. Go get yourself situated and then meet us after the break for details, impressions and lots more screenshots.
Note: many of our screenshots say "NewMail" instead of "Outlook.com" in the upper left corner. NewMail is a codename Microsoft used before announcing the service to the public.
Gallery: Outlook.com preview (screenshots)