altomail

Review : AOL’s Alto Mail [You can snooze your Inbox]

In Technology by Guest Author

I am a sucker for new online services, specially emails and when AOL announced its new offering Alto Mail, I was really excited as anything coming on the heels of Microsoft’s Outlook.com with a premise of making mail arrangement a more visual affair had to be definitely worth a try. So does it really deliver the goods?

First of all let’s get this straight: Alto Mail is NOT a new Email service, it is just a new web based email client which you can connect to view your Gmail/Yahoo/AOL/iCloud content. (Only Yahoo.com accounts will work, no “.co.in” or “.co.uk” or any of the other Yahoo local domain names work with Alto). Once you login to Alto with any of your above mentioned accounts, give it a few hours (well it will depend on the size of your inbox and folders) to pull in all the emails/contacts from your account. But even before the import is completed, any emails sent from Alto will reflect in your ‘Sent’ folder of your linked mail account.

And let me just slip in a ‘minor’ issue here that Alto Mail has too many issues on Chrome (I tested on Chrome 22) starting from look and feel (see the jarred fonts in below snapshot) to core functionality like viewing a message! To say the least, I was very disappointed when first messages (imported from Gmail) started appearing.

Note the jarred font on Chrome 22

What’s worse is that you can’t even scroll down a long message and even the subject is not displayed.

Note that the mail subject is not displayed

Really AOL? You haven’t made your big ticket launch work on one of the most used browsers? Why don’t you just put a disclaimer on your site (like 90s), “Works only on Internet Explorer 9″ because all these issues were not there on IE9.

Same text and same font rendered perfectly fine on IE9
Alto Mail landing page. See the stacks on right.

Self-proclaimed ‘email’s chicest new space’ Alto brings with itself a new metaphor for arranging mails in, what it calls, ‘Stacks’. All messages containing photos are grouped in one stack, with photos in a grid format and you can share, download or see the email in which the photo appears. This is very similar to ‘Quick Views’ feature in Outlook.com where in ‘Photos’ you can see all the messages which have any photo embedded in them. However with photos arranged in a grid like format and endless scrolling it is definitely easier to search the photos and messages associated with them.

Photos arranged in a grid like fashion in ‘Photos’ stack

There are other stacks like ‘Social Notifications’ which clubs all emails from Facebook/Twitter and other social networks, ‘Attachments’ which groups all emails having any sort of attachment not just documents. So an email from Netbeans User Group which had .xml and .java attachments was also listed here and so were the mails having .rar attachments.

Stacks are definitely a new style to arrange the mails but except ‘Photos’ and ‘Attachments’ there is not much differences between them and folders. The mails will still be listed in a vertical list format.

Social Notifications stack shows a pie-chart sliced by senders.

You can create a new stack by dragging and dropping any message on stacks UI and all the messages from the sender of that message will be clubbed in that stack. Reminds of Folders/tags in Outlook.com but in a more visual format.

Compose icon is tucked on the top left corner of the page and if you click it, this window with bare minimum options is shown. You can give the recipients’ email IDs, subject and your content along with an attachment. There are no options to add cc/bcc or use any formatting. No problem these options will be shown in a ‘Full Compose Window’ which will be shown once you click on the little compose icon on top right of the window. Only glitch is that, clicking on this icon does nothing! So if you have to send a formatted mail with some recipients in cc and some in bcc please head over to your mail account.

Well you can say that it is a new service and there are bound to bugs but then such features are assumed to be working even in a private beta! Even the ‘Help’ is buried in the ‘Settings’.

There is not too much to complain about but then there is almost nothing to be really excited about too. There are too many loose ends which disappoint. E.g. if you click on any of the slice of the Pie Chart shown on Social Notifications stack, it will show you all the messages from that sender but then you will really have to wonder how to see all the messages again! There is no visual cue for you to go back to your previous view.

Clicking on any email or any stack opens it in a new tab, much like Yahoo mail. But unlike Yahoo Mail, there is no header at the top which cuts a lot of clutter. As a matter of fact, there is not even a logo of Alto on the page. And if you don’t look on the tab to see page title you won’t find any branding of Alto on entire screen!

The page layout is much like Outlook.com with message list on left and reading pane on right. However while Outlook.com gives you an option to move reading pane to bottom or even switch off the reading pane, Alto Mail doesn’t give any such options. As a matter of fact, Alto hardly gives you any settings. You can just select from available Stacks:

Or choose from different Message Display settings which decides how much message snippet is shown in the message list. So Relaxed will show 2 lines, Comfortable 1 line and Compact will just show subject.

One interesting feature is ‘Snooze’ which can be used to receieve a message later. You can select any message from the list and click on snooze icon to set after how many days or hours you want to get the mail again. To quote Alto Help:

Pick 1-2-3-4 or 5 days, or click the dot-dot-dot to get options for 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, or 6 hours. Click Choose a day to pick a date from the calendar. That’s it. The message compresses in your message list and will re-arrive like a brand-new message after the specified time has elapsed.

I really don’t understand the use of this and that’s why I used ‘interesting’ rather than ‘useful’.

At this point Alto Mail is not something that may lead you to ditch your existing mail interface (except maybe Yahoo! Mail and just for lesser clutter) and switch on to Alto. There are no easy means to arrange emails (like ‘Sweep’ in Outlook.com or even define rules to move it to any particular folder). Yes, you can arrange emails in stacks but that works for only a certain sender. And then no support for messaging or integration of social networks or any of the various features which may even compete with your existing mail service. I don’t see any reason what so ever to ditch my dear Gmail interface.

[Guest article contributed by Abhishek Asthana, who runs a cool initiative DonateYourPC.in]

Recommended Read: Explained : How to turn off the new compose feature on Gmail