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Now that at least a handful of private beta invites are out in the wild, we got the opportunity to give AOL’s new email client, Alto a go. While a lot of emphasis has been placed on how ‘pretty’ it is, or how email can be organized by type, we’ve decided to focus on (you guessed it) what’s on the horizon for email designers.

Not a reskin, a whole new client

For those who haven’t seen, or heard of Alto previously, it is a whole-new webmail client by AOL and not simply a reskin of the long-running AOL Mail. Important to note is that Alto itself doesn’t provide users with an email address – at least at this stage, you will need an existing Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL or iCloud account to use this service. So the idea is to provide a much more attractive email experience to existing webmail users, over the traditional approach of getting people to sign up for yet another email address.

To compliment the browser version, mobile Alto is in the pipeline, too.

Alto, with the Campaign Monitor newsletter

As far as providing a nicer email experience goes, Alto isn’t doing too badly. The right-hand side preview pane is large and very clean-looking, as are messages in the inbox – very much reminiscent of iPad Mail. Plus, this idea of creating ‘stacks’, or essentially, filters for organizing incoming messages is appealing. A lot of this extra screen real estate is largely thanks to the fact that Alto is entirely ad-free (for now) – we’ll be curious to see if the usual banners and contextual advertising are something that creeps in over time.

One unusual bug-bear we had is how text flashes when you scroll to read a message in the Safari browser. It’s like the font-weight changes momentarily and as they say, once you see, you cannot unsee. But on the upside, we think the ability to ‘snooze’ (ie. selectively hide) messages for a set period of time is pretty neat.

Yes, on to CSS support already

Credit goes to Alto’s engineers and designers, given that their idea of a good email experience also includes pretty robust CSS support in HTML email. Like AOL Mail before it, Alto didn’t throw up any real curlies, much to our relief. Commonly used properties like background-image and list-style-image are supported, as are margin, padding, border and width. There’s even fairly good CSS3 support, with -webkit-border-radius and box-shadow making the cut.

Another few ‘good to know’ items is that Alto displays images by default – in fact, I don’t think there’s a way to disable them, should you want to. Anchor links also work, as do animated GIFs and web fonts.

As Alto comes out of private beta, we’ll look at adding it to our guide to CSS support. Until then, you can rest assured that it’s not going to give your campaigns too much hassle.

Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow…

So, is Alto set to become a serious email client, any time after now? It’s likely the skeptical will point to AOL Mail’s tiny market share (and steady decline) when dismissing this email client, however we think there’s a glimmer of possibility in it. For one, it does provide a friendly-looking, ad-free interface. It’s also likely to appeal to both AOL’s mom-and-pop userbase, as well as more sophisticated subscribers. We’ll be sure to keen an eye on whether Alto gets steam after it goes public, so be sure to watch this space.

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have received an invite, we’d love to hear what you think about Alto. Is it to your taste? Do you find it makes it easier to say, work through your regular Gmail inbox? Let us know in the comments below.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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