What works for you: Hotmail versus Gmail

Megan morrone By Megan Morrone

The newest version of Hotmail might not have Gmail’s cool factor, but it does have some new features worth a second look.

Find out how Windows Live Hotmail stands up to Gmail in terms of spam filtering, security features, and social-networking integration.

New developments in spam filtering

Remember when spam e-mail was just annoying sales pitches for stuff we didn’t want? Then unwanted e-mail morphed into a delivery vehicle for viruses and spyware. Now we also have to contend with a constant barrage of fraud and phishing scams designed to trick us into giving away our personal and financial information. Such messages might even trick us into installing malware ourselves.

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Along with our browsers, our e-mail program is a first line of defense against these kinds of scams.

Both Gmail and Hotmail have filters that whisk away spam before we see it, and they both do a pretty good job of not ensnaring our important mail in the same net. The services get smarter by analyzing spam data from their large subscriber bases and by using technology originally developed for other parts of their companies.

In the case of Hotmail, Microsoft utilizes the same spam-filtering technology (SmartScreen) used in Microsoft Exchange Server and Internet Explorer. In other words, Microsoft isn’t just saving the good stuff for its paying customers.

Google’s spam filter uses algorithms developed as part of the company’s PageRank technology to classify and help identify spam. Many spammers try to thwart language-based spam filters by sending spam messages as images. Gmail uses optical character recognition developed by the Google Book Search team to catch this kind of junk mail.

New protections from account hijacking

Getting your account hijacked by a spammer is annoying, embarrassing (No, Mom, I did not send you a link to a video of Katy Perry naked!), and potentially expensive. My Gmail password was stolen, and the cyber criminal immediately began charging things at Google Checkout, which was linked to my Google account and my credit card. Google alerted me before I even noticed it myself. I wish Hotmail had a similar feature.

Both Hotmail and Gmail let you use their service with the HTTPS protocol, which prevents casual snoopers from eavesdropping on your e-mail and stealing your password. This service alone can go a long way toward saving your account from being hijacked.

The use of HTTPS is the default for Gmail, but you have to turn it on for Hotmail (and you should, especially if you use unsecured Wi-Fi connections or public computers a lot). It might slow your movements on the Web a bit, but that’s a small price to pay for not getting your account password stolen on an unsecure connection.

To turn on HTTPS in Hotmail, go to the Accounts/Connect with HTTPS page and click the radio button for Use HTTPS automatically. As you can see in Figure 1, you could get errors if you try to use HTTPS with various other programs that connect to Hotmail. However, according to the Inside Windows Live blog, “An update on SSL support,” you can now use HTTPS with the newest version of the Outlook Hotmail Connector and with Windows Live Mail.

hotmailhttps
Figure 1. The Hotmail Connect with HTTPS page

How to recover from a hijacked account

Hotmail and Gmail both allow you to associate your account with a mobile phone number, so they can send you a code via a text message if your account is hijacked. Gmail has an elaborate, two-step verification process (description) that involves printing out codes; Hotmail, however, lets you associate your account with your personal computers so that you can recover your account by using only one of those PCs.

In recent weeks, Microsoft has rolled out or announced a few new and unique Hotmail tools for thwarting hijackers. Here’s how they work:
  • My friend has been hacked! The first people to discover that your account has been hacked are usually your contacts, who are barraged with spam and phishing scams that appear to come from you. As detailed in a Microsoft Windows Live blog, Hotmail recently added a new feature that lets any user report an account that looks like it’s been hacked. In fact, Hotmail even lets you report a suspected Gmail account that has been hacked, and Microsoft sends that information to Google.

  • Strong passwords required. According to the blog post linked above, Hotmail will also “soon” roll out a new feature that not only tests the strength of a password but also prevents users from using common passwords such as password and 1234567. Microsoft blogger Dick Craddock also warns: “If you’re already using a common password, you may, at some point in the future, be asked to change it to a stronger password.”

Testing social-networking integration

The jury is still out on whether Google+ will be a Facebook killer. So far, only the tech elite have access to Google+, and everyone knows that they don’t use social-networking tools in the same way real people do. For now, Google and Hotmail both integrate well with social-networking tools, but whether you’ll continue using Facebook or switch over to Google+ might have a lot to do with which e-mail program integrates more seamlessly for you.

Right now, you can easily chat with Facebook friends within Hotmail by connecting your Windows Live account to Facebook. Make sure Chat with my Facebook friends in Messenger is checked, as seen in Figure 2.

chooseoptions
Figure 2. Choose your options in the Connect to Facebook dialog box.

Hotmail will probably always have better Facebook integration because of Microsoft’s partnerships with the social-networking giant. And don’t expect Microsoft to willingly integrate Google+ with Hotmail any time soon. You can watch YouTube videos in Hotmail, but if you want a more seamless experience with your e-mail program, use Gmail.

They say, where there’s a will, there’s an app. So if you really want to mix and match social-networking tools with the e-mail program of the rival company, of course you can. But if you’re reluctant to trust third-party applications, or digging around under your hood doesn’t interest you, choose your e-mail program based on the social-networking tool you use most often.

It’s the same story for productivity software. If you use Microsoft Office, you can view, edit, and share documents more smoothly with Hotmail. If you or your company has tossed aside Office for Google Docs, it makes sense to use Gmail.

The verdict? Hotmail has made a lot of changes lately, and Microsoft continues to improve the product — especially when it comes to security. But then Microsoft had a lot of catching up to do. If you’re thinking of switching from one to the other, open a new account in the rival service and then forward your mail to it for a while so you can test all the features before deciding.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Megan Morrone is a freelance writer in Sonoma County, California. She has hosted podcasts on TWiT.TV and was on the original cast of The Screen Savers on TechTV, where she wore geeky costumes and threw computers off cliffs before YouTube existed.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2011-07-28:

Megan Morrone

About Megan Morrone

Megan Morrone is a freelance writer in Sonoma County, California. She has hosted podcasts on TWiT.TV and was on the original cast of The Screen Savers on TechTV, where she wore geeky costumes and threw computers off cliffs before YouTube existed.