MSN homepage reborn as a blend of news portal and online desktop

Visit the MSN portal right now and you'll get a straightforward news site. It's informative, but it's busy, inflexible and doesn't give you easy access to Microsoft services -- a bit odd when it's frequently your initial homepage on a shiny new Windows PC. Thankfully, Microsoft is aware that it needs to shake things up a bit if it wants to keep you coming back. It just launched a preview of a redesigned MSN that it hopes will not only be easier to browse, but should serve as a kind of web-based desktop that lets you accomplish many of your daily tasks. Read on to see what I mean.

Let's start with the obvious: the new MSN looks a lot like Windows, and that's not just because Microsoft is fond of brand synergy. The layout is both less cluttered and lets you personalize what you see; if you're fond of cars but not entertainment gossip, you can easily add, remove and shuffle the appropriate sections. The company has teamed up with a whole host of content providers for different categories, including the New York Times, Conde Nast and, yes, our parent company AOL.

However, the real centerpiece is the much stronger emphasis on services that turns MSN into more of a hub than a starting point. The top of the site centers on a "Services Stripe" that lets you hover over icons to check your Outlook email, check Bing Maps or even take a quick glimpse at OneNote projects, if you use it. If you thrive in Microsoft's cloud, you may stick around for quite a while. You'll also find utilities like shopping lists, a symptom checker and a 3D body explorer. Moreover, a lot of your personalized content will sync across platforms. Microsoft plans to launch Android and iOS versions of previously Windows-only apps like Food & Drink and Sports -- if you add a recipe or a favorite football team on the MSN website, you'll also see it on your phone or tablet no matter what OS you're using.

You can check out the preview today, although the old site will hang around for an unspecified amount of time. Microsoft hasn't said when it hopes to roll out the site to the public at large, but the Android and iOS apps should arrive with the next few months.

Dana Wollman contributed to this report.