By Jay Garmon
Outlook includes some radical new features never before seen in a Microsoft email client. But are these new bells and whistles enough to keep the old mail workhorse in the game? We break it down in this review.
There are two products on the market today that are clear threats to Microsoft Outlook: Facebook and Gmail. The latter is a free, intuitive email web app that seems light years easier to use than any Microsoft email product, and its hook-ins to Google Calendar give it room to challenge Outlook as a scheduling app, too. Facebook, meanwhile, is not only the primary contact manager for millions of users worldwide but, as a nexus of conversation and status updates, threatens email itself as the central personal communications system of the Internet.
That’s probably why Microsoft Outlook has so many blatant Gmail and Facebook elements in it. Throw in all the standard Office enhancements and Outlook be the most overhauled app in the new Microsoft Office. The question is whether the overhauls are worth the price of an Office upgrade, especially when Outlook’s competitors are free.
Microsoft Outlook now sports a revised ribbon interface, so if you’re adamantly opposed to the Office ribbon, you probably won’t like Outlook . That said, the ribbon is persistent in Outlook ; it doesn’t diappear when you remove your mouse from the tabs, as is the case in Word . Many new features in Outlook are prominently displayed, and once you’ve acclimated to it, the ribbon is rather fast. For those of you put off by the ribbon in Office 2007, which infamously removed the File menu and replaced it with a glowing Office logo orb, the ribbon is less foreign, but the learning curve is still there. Thankfully, the File menu has returned in Office , including in the new Outlook.
If you select the File menu in Outlook , you’ll be transported to Backstage view, which hides your active Inbox or Calendar in favor of a full screen set of account controls. This is standard operating procedure for all Office apps but feels a bit unnecessary in Outlook, since the sharing and publishing options in Word, Excel, and PowerPointsimply don’t apply to the email client. It’s nice to have a full screen to handle account settings or printing options, but this iteration of Backstage feels like wasted space. Most of your inbox, calendar, and preview pane configuration options are here, so there’s a lot of power present, but nothing a File ribbon couldn’t handle.
The new Outlook ribbon justifies most of its existence with the inclusion of Quick Steps, which are like a hybrid of custom ribbon buttons, Outlook rules, and macros rolled into one. Quick Steps allow you to apply multiple actions to a message or appointment by simply clicking a button in the Quick Steps menu. If you organize mail into folders, Quick Steps are a real timesaver; you can mark items as read and shift them into specified subfolders with a single click. The default Quick Steps buttons are a bit corporate-centric – especially the buttons for composing an email to your manager or converting an email string into a meeting request – but the ability to create custom Quick Steps opens up a world of efficient possibilities for email enthusiasts.
This is where the Gmail imitation gets explicit; Outlook automatically groups related email replies into conversations, just like Gmail. Conversations are identified in your inbox by a grey arrow/chevron box. Above, you can see a collapsed conversation on the left and an expanded conversation, exposing the related reply messages, on the right. Just like Gmail, conversation view saves a great deal of inbox screen real estate and keeps email intuitively organized. If Outlook ’s conversation view stopped there, it would be fine. But for anyone who has ever been trapped in an email string that just won’t end – like the endless Reply All responses to a birthday, baby or promotion announcement – Outlook offers an Ignore Conversation option. By selecting Ignore Conversation, all subsequent responses to the email string remain hidden within the conversation view and don’t generate new mail alerts from Outlook. Once you’ve sent your happy birthday message, you don’t have to clog your inbox with the 25 ones that follow.
Finally we arrive at Microsoft’s attempt to stave off the Facebook-driven erosion of Outlook relevance: the Outlook Social Connector. In simple terms, the Outlook Social Connector imports social networking data into Outlook, giving you a one-stop venue to view status messages generated both within and without Outlook. Microsoft released a Software Development Kit for the Social Connector several months ago, which means you can write a Connector to send status data to Outlook . So far, only MySpace and LinkedIn have opted in, though Facebook and Microsoft Live Connectors are on the horizon.
As it stands right now, the Social Connector is strictly an import tool; you can’t update your status messages from within Outlook , merely read them through a view nicknamed the People Pane. Microsoft’s vision is that you’ll use the People Pane status data to send more relevant emails and schedule better appointments. There are some quirky limits to the Connector that will likely improve over time; it only imports status updates from people in your Outlook Contacts list and only if they signed up for a social network using the email address in your Outlook contacts. For example, if Bob in the next cubicle signed up for LinkedIn using his Gmail address and not the corporate email address in your Outlook Contacts, your Social Connector won’t find Bob’s LinkedIn data. While the Social Connector is a step in the right direction, it’s not quite the unified online communications portal it wants to be.
While versions of the Social Connector have been ported back to Outlook 2003 and 2007, it was designed especially for Outlook , and to connect to SharePoint . If you really want to maintain Outlook as the lynchpin of your social data consumption, you’ll probably want to upgrade to Outlook .
Microsoft Outlook is much more easy to use than its predecessors, ribbon interface notwithstanding. Tasks have been streamlined, especially with Quick Steps, and the Social Connector at least acknowledges that email isn’t the sole – or even primary – method of online communication today. If you use a previous version of Outlook to manage your communications or appointments, Outlook will legitimately enable you to manage those tasks more efficiently. If you don’t live and breathe Outlook already, Outlook ’s new toys probably won’t convince you that it’s time to adopt a Microsoft mail client.
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