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A week with AOL's new Project Phoenix mail

AOL Project Phoenix Email
As a someone who's been using Gmail since the invites actually meant something, I've become quite comfortable with my inbox. While it's not the most widely-used webmail app around, Gmail has set the bar for geeky features pretty high -- and those features are what keep me coming back. So how does AOL's newly revamped mail app (codenamed Project Phoenix) stack up? I was pleasantly surprised.

Yes, AOL is Download Squad's parent company -- but that doesn't mean I'm going to automatically love every app they develop. Phoenix, however, is really good. It's got a few features that I wish Gmail offered -- like a tabbed interface, quick compose (more on this later), a look reminiscent of native desktop apps, and integrated social network updating via Lifestream. It's also dead simple to connect accounts from other services such as Gmail and Windows Live.

Step one after setting up my account was to import my Gmail address book. It's got all my contacts from the past five or six years, and I'm pretty much lost without it. Phoenix uses Trueswitch to handle the heavy lifting, and the import process was mostly smooth. I did end up with some duplicates, and some imported phone and email for the same person as two separate contacts. Duplicates aside, with my address book now on board I was ready to begin sending messages.

For me, the Phoenix quick compose box might be its best feature. With all the text messaging and status updating I've been doing in recent years, I've grown accustomed to sending shorter notes. I don't need a full-sized compose window for many of my messages, and Phoenix makes it easy to fire off a quick "Hey Sebastian, let's run this post at noon" without leaving my inbox. Quick compose isn't just for emails, either -- you can also send SMS and AIM instant messages, and post status updates via AOL Lifestream.

Phoenix offers quick compose for replies, too. Hover over any message in your inbox, and icons to delete or reply appear. Click reply, and the compose box slides in below. You can also choose to display your inbox three ways: compact view (subject only), expanded view (subject + first 130 or so characters), and a reading pane (which displays the full message when you click any subject).

As with other webmail apps, Phoenix integrates instant messaging. Right now only AIM contacts are supported -- which mostly makes sense, since this is an AOL app. AIM Express, however, supports Facebook chat as well. It's only just arrived in AIM Express, so perhaps it will make the jump to Phoenix soon. Being able to chat with Facebook contacts would be a huge plus.

Integrating multiple inboxes is a breeze in Phoenix, and an update this week has greatly improved access to Gmail. Replies are automatically sent from the account which received the original message, though you're free to select one of your other from: addresses if you like.

Like Gmail, Phoenix lets you star important messages and save to folders, though you can only assign a message to one folder. There's also a nice sidebar which displays any attachments -- like the pictures you see above. Click an image to view it, and a lightbox-style viewer appears in the middle of the window. Hover the image, and forward and back buttons appear so you can cycle to the next or previous image.

The sidebar also gets used to display other messages in a conversation thread. I find it slightly nicer than Gmail's way of displaying messages in a thread, since it doesn't take up any vertical space but still shows the first sentence or two of each message.

Phoenix supports filters as well, though it's not a smooth experience at the moment. To set filters up, you're redirected to the setup page at the current AOL Mail Web app. All the filtering options you'd expect from a good mail app are there -- sender, recipient, CC, BCC, and subject and body keywords. You can also configure a filter to send alerts via AIM or SMS when a filter is triggered by a new email.

Right now, Phoenix is a very nice update to AOL mail -- which is admittedly pretty darn good in its current incarnation. It's got a lot going for it, from its native app looks to its quick messaging and social networking features. With some additional polish to features like filters and instant messaging, Phoenix will be a very interesting alternative to Gmail, Hotmail, and other webmail apps.

Phoenix is currently invite only, so request one on this page if you'd like to get early access.

Tags: aol, apps, email, gmail, hotmail, phoenix, web, webmail