According to Microsoft, Hotmail is the world's largest web-based email service, with more than 360 million active accounts worldwide. But when it comes to buzz, Gmail has had it beat for the past several years. Now that may change. A revamped Hotmail was announced on May 18. It will be available sometime in July or August, with the exact date still to be determined.

I was able to work with the new version and found that it has the fast responsiveness and full feature set of a desktop application rather than a web-based one. It also offers some very nifty features that Gmail is lacking, including better mail management and more ways to eliminate email clutter.

Better interface

To begin with, the new Hotmail simply looks better, it's more graphical and easier on the eyes. And it feels faster and more responsive. Like the old Hotmail, folders are on the left hand side of the screen, and the inbox and reading pane on the right. But that basic layout has gotten a makeover, with a number of links added to the left side of the screen and a new set of links across the top of the right side of the screen to make it easier to find mail.

On the left-hand side, underneath a list of your folders, is a section called Quick View, which allows you to quickly view mail based on several preset criteria. These include mail that you've tagged, mail with photos in it, mail with Office documents as attachments and mail sent from shipping services such as FedEx. Click any category, and you'll see only the relevant mail.

Filters, located just above the main mail screen, allow you to view your email based on several other categories, including unread mail, mail from contacts, mail from Windows Live groups and others. Filtering is particularly powerful when combined with Quick Views. You could, for example, choose to see only mail with Office documents attached that were sent by your contacts. Or you could see all unread shipping updates.

Message threading is also improved by the addition of a Conversation View, much like you will find in Outlook 2010. It lets you easily see an entire email conversation at a glance, including all messages sent and received, rather than hunting for them individually in your inbox, outbox and other folders. This seemingly small feature may be the biggest productivity enhancer in the entire Hotmail upgrade. It can easily save hours each month.

By default, the feature is turned off. To turn it on, you'll have to select Options --> More Options --> Conversation settings, select "Group messages by conversation" and click Save.

Hotmail Active View

One of the niftier new features is the ability to view embedded media content directly within Hotmail, instead of having to go to an external site to view it. So if you're sent a link to a YouTube video, for example, you'll be able to view the video within Hotmail.

Finally, the Sweep feature cleans up clutter by allowing you to delete or move all marked mail in a folder, or mark an entire folder as having been read.

Improved security

Microsoft has added several new security features, most of which work behind the scenes, such as the SmartScreen antispam tool and what Microsoft claims is an improved spammer detection infrastructure.

The one security measure you will notice is the "trusted senders" feature, which puts a green safety logo next to legitimate senders that are often the target of phishing scams, such as banks. Hotmail identifies those messages that are from valid financial institutions and other targeted companies, making it less likely that you'll be victimized by a phishing attack.