PrintMy first venture with email was with the audible “You’ve Got Mail!”

Since then, my email has filtered from HotMail, Apple Mail, Yahoo and Gmail – but looks AOL is getting ready for a new overture with ALTO – so far I like it and may say goodbye to Gmail if it keeps improving past the beta.

After reading a feature in Fast Company a couple of months ago, the Alto proposition interested me because Gmail has gotten both clunky and I’ve ran out of space. I’ve never liked their filing strategy either as folders get cluttered as time moves forward and there’s no good way to use the interface to layer incoming messages into a good notification system without looking at the individual files.

ALTO is in a BETA for now and they’re using an invite for early adopters, but I was pleased to get my invite on the day after Christmas.

Among my favorite attributes:

  • 1. Excellent user interface with no ads (for now)
  • 2. Stacks are a great way to sort
  • 3. Elegant tablet friendly navigation
  • 4. Social Integration
  • 5. People filing
  • 6. Rules are automatic

When you first login to the ALTO interface, there’s a nice clean and light interface that seems influenced by the tablet generation. There’s a nice iconic strip on the left for your individual email accounts and other settings.

The main galley of ALTO displays their Stacks function which is explained in the opening screen as ALTO integrates your email from your first email account. I used Gmail and while the two programs were communicating, an opening video gives you a brief primer describing what may be the most important feature of the ALTO interface.

“Stacks” are a Pinterest-like masonry interface that displays small square icons that preview email. You can create a stack with a title like “Bills” and drag emails into the box and all future emails from that sender will arrive in the stack. It’s a feature like “Rules” in other email programs, but the click and drag feature makes the initial setup amazingly simple.

As new emails arrive, the boxes realign so that the most current messages in a stack are at the top.

There are a couple of automagic ALTO features which aggregate emails from retailers, daily deals and social interactions into blue boxes that are already part of the service. That’s kind of nice too with all the Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter and Linked In notices that arrive all the time and to some degree don’t warrant the same attention as personal email deserves.

The Daily Deal and Retail are welcome too because although I sign up for these services, I really don’t care to look at them. Perhaps ALTO will allow you a way to hide these boxes are customize them further in the future, but for now, the function seems to be an advantage to other services.

AOL Alto Inteface
AOL Alto Inteface

As emails arrive, the left strip shows either individual accounts are all accounts. The left nav reminds me of a tablet app and is pinned nicely to the left to provide thumb navigation or simple a nice thin drawer for accessing your data.

ALTO has a People sort much like most other applications and when the icon is selected, a slideout menu allows you to select a user and see their most recent email.

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 11.46.57 AMSettings, new accounts and search functions are standard in most email applications and there are nice simple icons that allow immediate access to the functions.

For the moment, AOL has no advertisements polluting the user interface and although that may be a plan for the future, it certainly is a competitive advantage compared to other free email services. It may be that they plan on monetizing the program based on storage in the future, but I’m sure I’ll need to become addicted before making that decision.

 

 

Among the major features, I like the nice subtle elements that appear through ALTO. There are tool tip flyouts for each button, nice pop-up screens for composing new messages and plenty of other eye candy.

One of the new features that might find itself as one of my favorites is the way ALTO moves attachements and photos into its own stack. Sometimes you just want a Pinterest overview of your documents without looking through emails and filtering text to find photos or PDFs.

My only criticisms might be in the underwhelming way that ALTO displays individual email. There’s nothing groundbreaking in that view and perhaps there is no better standard than header, message, etc.

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 12.59.02 PMAlso – the Social Interactions functions offers both an table and index display, but I found the overall kind of plain, although there is a nice infographic to display your activity.

I’m a sucker for new toys – especially on the day after Christmas. ALTO looks promising too. I found myself immediately engaged in the process of setting up Stacks. Unfortunately though, I’m still looking at my Gmail accounts and this interface is another layer to add on the increasing robbery of my time and attention.

Hopefully, AOL will continue to improve the service and one day, I might be able to use this one-stop interface for managing what has become an increasingly important tool for work, life and leisure.