The Outlook is Good

For many of us, Outlook, the e-mail, contact, calendar and task manager module in Microsoft Office, is a crucially important organizing tool without which we’d be lost. Mess with our Outlook and you mess with something very personal to us, a virtual extension of our brain.

If you’ve been following this ongoing series of reviews of the major components in Office 2007 you’ve probably already guessed it – Microsoft messed with Outlook. The good news: not only are the downsides not as bad as we feared, the new version is actually a major win for Outlook fans, with significant new and useful functionality and some nice minor improvements.

Outlook screenshot
Instant Search, an Office-wide feature, replaces the painfully slow search function of past Outlook versions.
(Click for larger image)

We’re still not entirely over our snit about Microsoft betraying long-time devotees by forcing us to learn a new interface (when the old one seemed perfectly adequate), and by removing some of the ability to personalize and customize the Office programs. But the new version of Outlook definitely puts us in a kindlier mood.

For starters, Outlook 2007 does not use the full Microsoft Office Fluent interface, which in the other programs replaces traditional menu and tool bars and vertical text menus with a ribbon and tabbed panels that drop down and stretch across the screen, graphically displaying groups of functions. In the main Outlook 2007 windows – Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks – the menus and task bars remain much as they were, with only minor and entirely welcome modifications.

We’re assuming this decision was made because the ribbon would take too much screen real estate away from display of calendar and e-mails. But as soon as you call up a subsidiary window – any of the dialogs for adding new items, for example – you get the full Office 2007 interface with ribbon and graphical display of functions.

Outlook does also remove some ability to customize, and the changes under the hood may render some macros inoperable. Is this terribly important? Probably not for the vast majority of people, but here is a tiny example to illustrate our frustration at these changes.

One of our pet peeves about Outlook 2003 (and previous versions) – and of others, too, as we know from trolling Internet forums in search of a solution – is that when you view the calendar in month mode and hit the Today button (or select Go To/Today), Outlook displays the first week of the month at the top of the page, the last week at the bottom, with today’s date highlighted somewhere in between. If you’re at or near the end of the month, you see mostly dates that have passed, which isn’t terribly useful.

So big deal. Just scroll down, right?

Not us. We took considerable effort to write a macro to display the monthly view the way we wanted, with the current week at the top of the page so we could see upcoming dates below it – much more sensible. Outlook 2007, we discovered, displays the month view the same illogical way as past versions – but the macro we had labored over no longer works. Argh!

It took us more than an hour to figure out how to change the macro so it would perform the same task.

New and Better
But we’re nit-picking. The good in Outlook 2007 outweighs the bad. Some of the good new features require you to be running a Microsoft Exchange server and/or Microsoft Sharepoint Services, but here’s a list of some of the best of what’s new that anyone can use:

  • Instant Search – fast desktop searching, an Office-wide feature, replaces the painfully slow search function of past Outlook versions
  • To-Do Bar – a side panel (optional) in Mail that provides a consolidated view of daily tasks, flagged e-mails, upcoming appointments, etc
  • Attachment Preview – view attachments within Outlook without launching another program
  • Flagging Mail as Tasks – create a task from an e-mail in one step
  • Task integration on calendar – drag tasks and flagged mail onto a calendar to schedule time to complete them
  • Navigate E-mail Threads – jump from one message to another within a thread
  • Color Categories – a new way to group and quickly find information using color cues
  • RSS Feed Integration – have Really Simple Syndication (RSS) subscriptions delivered directly to your inbox
  • Electronic Business Cards – a new way to personalize and share contact information in a business card format
  • Auto Account Setup – Outlook 2007 can set up most e-mail accounts using only address and password
  • Office InfoPath Integration – embed a form in an e-mail message for the recipient to fill in and return
  • Anti-Phishing and Junk e-mail – improved prevention for junk and malicious e-mail

Microsoft’s Instant Search utility, integrated with Office 2007 but also available separately as a free download, is a general-purpose desktop search tool. It’s not as good, in our opinion, as some other desktop search tools, including the one from Yahoo, but with Outlook integration, Instant Search makes searching for messages about three times as fast as it used to be. A very welcome improvement.

Much To-Do
One of the first things you’ll notice when you launch the new version of Outlook and go to Inbox is the To-Do bar, which appears by default at the right of the screen. You can also display it in Calendar, Contacts and Tasks, but you may have to go to the View menu and select the To-Do bar to tell it to display.

The bar includes a thumbnail view of the month, a list of upcoming calendar appointments, color coded as they are in Calendar, and a list of tasks arranged by date. You can still open Outlook Today — to get a quick view of your day and week — by clicking the Personal Folders icon in the left-hand panel in Mail. Outlook Today does give more detail – more appointments, for example. But the To-Do bar will give most people all the task information they need while viewing e-mail, and in a much more convenient way. And you can have it appear in other Outlook windows too.

You can minimize the bar to make more room for messages – it appears as a thin border along the side of the screen, with sideways lettering showing your next appointment and telling you how many tasks you have. You can also close it completely. And you can reconfigure it to show less of some types of items or more of others.

The ability to view Office and other standard format attachments within Outlook, Inbox without having to open another program, is a nice convenience that saves time when all you need is a quick look.

An unobtrusive bar near the top of the message shows labeled icons for Message – selected by default – and for each attachment. To view an attachment, simply click its icon. A disclaimer pops up pointing out that the version of the attachment you’ll see may not be exactly as it appears when viewed using the program that created it, but you can turn this off for future messages. A 1MB PowerPoint file took a few seconds to load in attachment preview on my 1.6 MHz dual-core laptop. To return to the message after viewing the attachment, just click the message icon.

Outlook screenshot
The To-Do Bar offers a consolidated view of daily tasks, flagged e-mails, upcoming appointments, etc
(Click for larger image)

Flagging e-mail messages as tasks is another nice convenience for some people, though not all. Many workers get instructions from bosses and clients by e-mail. In the past, if they wanted to create an Outlook task to schedule and track an assigned piece of work, they had to retype or clip and paste information from the message into a New Task form.

Now you can simply right click on the flag beside a message in the Inbox to schedule the task. In previous Outlook versions, right clicking brought up a menu that let you select a different colored flag so you could set up a personal color coding system for messages. In Outlook 2007, the menu lets you choose a time frame for completing the task or following up on the message – Today, Tomorrow, This Week and so on. The task now shows up in the To-Do bar and in Tasks and when you double click it, the original message opens.

Making Time for Tasks
The integration of Tasks with Calendar is the kind of feature that makes you scratch your head and wonder why they didn’t do this long ago. You have tasks and you have appointments, but until now, Outlook only allowed you to block time on your calendar for the latter. If you wanted to block time to complete a task, you had to create a “fake” appointment. Now, you can simply drag tasks from the To-Do bar onto a day in the calendar, open the item and set the time you want to devote to it.

One new feature that barely rates a mention in Outlook 2007 literature but that we think is very useful is the capability to jump through a long e-mail thread message by message, without having to scroll to find the message you want. When you mouse over a spot near the top right of the message window, navigation buttons appear that let you jump to the next or previous or last or first message in a thread. It’s not a big thing, but it will make reviewing long threads a little easier.

The new Color Categories is really just a visual extension of the existing categories function. As well as an alphanumeric name for each category, you can now assign a color, which theoretically makes it easier to quickly see relevant items in lists of messages, contacts and tasks. If you’re particularly visually oriented and you don’t need too many categories, it might be a help. If you have a lot of categories, you’ll have to use subtler shades to differentiate them which could defeat the purpose – categories with similar colors won’t stand out from each other.

We’ve really only scratched the surface here. Outlook offers possibly the richest set of new features of all the Office 2007 modules. As with most of the others, it includes great new features for employees of companies that run Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers and Sharepoint servers, including the ability to overlay multiple calendars in one display – a great way to find available slots for meetings involving several people.

For more information about what’s new in Outlook, see the Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 product guide.

Bottom Line
For us, Outlook 2007 tips the balance in favor of the new version of Office. It’s easier to use in several significant ways – such as the Instant Search capability – and in a bunch of small ways that add up. If your life revolves around Outlook, this may be the excuse you need to make the switch to Office 2007.

Be sure to read our reviews on the other major applications in Microsoft Office 2007: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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