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Microsoft Outlook 2007 Review

While Word 2007 is a pretty radical departure from earlier versions of Word, Outlook 2007 is more of an incremental step. My guess is that Outlook simply didn't benefit from having its entire interface scrapped; instead, selected parts of the program were reworked with the new interface model. It's consistent enough with the old version not to be a huge distraction, and the changes are mostly subtle and positive.


The main interface in Outlook 2007 is almost unchanged: unlike applications such as Word and Excel, the tear-off toolbars and menu bars of 2003 are still there. The new Office "ribbon" interface appears when you open or edit a message, but the toolbars remain in the program's main view - possibly because there's never been the plethora of toolbar clutter in Outlook that there has been in other Office programs. Migrating mail files from older versions of Outlook (that is, if you're not installing on top of an existing copy of Outlook) has also been made slightly easier. If you click on Data File Management | Data Files in the File menu and point to the PST file you want to use, it's set as the default, and 2003-edition PST files can work as-is.

Aside from the ribbon, the most obvious new addition is the "To-Do Bar," a pane that usually appears on the right-hand side of the screen and which displays a condensed view of the current month's appointments and outstanding tasks. I liked it and left it on, but reduced its size to make it a little less obtrusive; you can change which elements and how much of each are displayed. The To-Do Bar and the Mail pane on the left are both selectively collapsible: You can flatten them down to a stub and pop them out on demand. This leaves you that much more room to work without having to turn the panes completely on or off. Appointments e-mailed to others are sent as attachments in the broadly-supported open-standard iCalendar format; everything from Lotus Notes to Google Calendar uses it.

The rendering of folders with many mail items in them has been sped up enormously: If you open a folder with a few thousand messages in it, the rest of Outlook doesn't lock up while it renders the list. (The same goes for any other view with a lot of objects, such as to-do lists). Speaking of speed, the other thing that's been sped up dramatically is Outlook's search function: It's essentially been replaced by the Microsoft Desktop Search Engine. If said engine isn't already installed you'll need to add it manually, but once it's ready, searches that used to take minutes now take only a fraction of a second.

Most of the major interface changes appear when you're reading or editing a message directly (which is where you now see the ribbon interface). Subtle visual aids abound: Outlook does its best to detect if you're reading a message that has quoted components, and uses subtle visual highlighting to distinguish each quoted section. It doesn't work all the time - it got a bit confused when I opened digest-formatted e-mail from a subscription list, for instance - but even if it doesn't work, it's never terribly distracting, and you can always turn it off. (It's in the Options menu, under Preferences | Email Options | "Shade message headers when reading email").

The old categorization system for Outlook items was text-only; now you can categorize items by color instead of just a name. If you already have a set of categories, they're assigned colors, but the existing category names are preserved, and 2007 does its best to preserve backwards compatibility with 2003 categories whenever possible. You can also create custom search folders for items flagged with specific categories, so they don't get buried under everything else. It's not a revolutionary change, but a useful incremental one; there are times when I don't want to have to tag something by a specific name but still want them grouped in some way.

Outlook 2007 uses the same junk e-mail filter system as 2003 - in other words, it's a fixed component that's updated once a month by Microsoft, and it's not trainable except in the sense that you can whitelist or blacklist senders and organizations. Microsoft pre-trains the filter on their end by analyzing a high volume of e-mail known to be spam, which (in their purview) is more efficient than forcing the user to reinvent the wheel and train for spam on his own. In my experience, it actually does a fairly good job of trapping spam and, as with 2003, you can automatically whitelist anyone you reply to.


One problem with Outlook 2007 is the way the "old" and "new" parts of the program seem to be at odds with each other, at least with respect to how program options are presented. For instance, Outlook 2003's option to present e-mail as plain text used to be in the old Options menu under Mail Format. Now it's in the "Trust Center," an options dialog with the new Office 2007 look-and-feel, in the "Email Security" section. I seriously doubt most people are going to look for such an option there. I don't know if it would have been better to move all of Outlook's options into the new Office 2007 option dialogs, but it would at least have been that much more consistent.

Also - and this is a minor note, but one worth mentioning in my case - Fixedsys and other non-TrueType / OpenType fonts can't be used to display e-mail anymore. I'm fond of using the Fixedsys font for plain text email, but as it turns out there's a TrueType replacement for it, which solved that problem.

I'm a longtime Outlook user, and because the changes to Outlook 2007 are more incremental than revolutionary, it wasn't a huge shock to switch to it and continue my existing work. I doubt it's a mandatory upgrade - for instance, the new search engine can be used with Outlook 2003, although it won't be integrated directly into it - but it's a useful one.

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