One of the most popular e-mail service providers in the early days of Web mail, AOL now returns to mail territory, not with a service but with an online Web mail client that could redefine how we access mail. The client, called Alto, is currently in preview mode and you need an invite to be able to use it. There is no cost involved – just head to and apply for an invite.


We had done just that a few weeks ago, and now we have our invite. To start off, Alto supports iCloud, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, and of course, AOL Mail, and you can log in to it using any of your usernames and passwords in these – it can support up to five accounts from a single user. However, the real surprise comes when the Web app (for that is what it really is – it works from within a browser after all), launches – and it might take some time launching depending on the number of messages you have in your inbox. The launch screen shows you the mails with the name of the sender and a brief preview of the message on the left hand side. Clean and neat. But the real surprise is on the right – where you see messages grouped together like stacked cards under headings like attachments, photos, social notifications and so on.

These groups – called Stacks in Altospeak – arrange mails with similar characteristics and features in one grouping. So all mails having photographs end up in the photos stack, while all mails with attachments will be in another and so on. You can also create new stacks if you wish. It is definitely a neat touch and very handy – we love being able to simply browse through mails with attachments in a single stack instead of scanning our inbox for them. We can see edit teams falling in love with this feature – you can see attachments in one stack, pictures in another and so on. A special mention needs to be made of the Social Notifications stack – selecting it will show you messages with brief previews on the left and statistical data on the right, including a pie chat break-up of messages received from different social networks, and details of which social network has been most active in your mailbox.

That is not all. The People section not only reflects all the contacts that you have saved in your mail account, but also the messages you have received from them and depending on the information you have saved in the account, links to their Facebook account and images of friends you have in common. Once again, a small and yet effective touch, when you consider the relatively bland contacts page we encounter on default Web mail pages.

And of course, when it comes to handling the basic e-mail stuff, Alto does a decent job, although it seemed a tad slower in showing new mail than the web mail accounts themselves. However, you can do just about everything that you can in your Web mail account in Alto – composing, forwarding, deleting, marking spam, viewing attachments and so on. Mind you, you will have to dig around to see the “Actions” tab gives you access to some of these options – it is tucked away in the top corner of the inbox. We also found Alto stuttering a bit in Chrome although it ran along at a brisk pace in both Firefox and Safari, and was at its best in Internet Explorer 9.


All said and done, while it won’t make us give up our default installed-on-PC mail app, Alto does enough to make us access it every day. It is a whole lot easier on the eye, the stacks system actually works and well, it does seem a whole lot less cluttered than some of the Web mail services we have used. Worth signing up for an invite? Definitely, we think.

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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.