Catch-up: MS-Office 2010 Outlook Mail Client

Continuing our look at Microsoft Office 2010, there is a number of upgraded tools, utilities and facilities to make life easier, more productive or simply drag the Office Suite into the new decade.

One thing I’ve hated for several versions is Outlook. As a mail client it used to function well in Office 2000. The bloat and user-interface overload then set in and the speed fell off. I migrated to Thunderbird and web-mail clients. The MS-Office 2010 attempts to dig Outlook out of this hole…

The new version of Outlook adds a variety of features to help with the most common productivity problem we have; e-mail overload.

The Outlook interface has changed radically with the addition of a full Ribbon. This tries to put all the common functions within easy reach that were previously scattered through several sets of menus. If you dislike the mass of icons and drop-downs in the Ribbon then you will most likely hate this too.Otherwise you get the same overall Outlook layout with the work area divided into multiple panes.

Faster mail handling
Outlook now has Quick Steps , which should speed up mail handling. Right-click on a message (above) and the context menu provides all the actions you can carry out; move to a folder, forward, create calendar appointment with the recipients, reply only/reply all, delete and so on. This is all standard stuff, but you can edit, delete or add new items to the Quick Steps menu by choosing from a set of predefined Quick Steps or by creating your own using a wizard interface.

Better message threading
Learning from Gmail and Blackberry, this version of Outlook finally closes the weakness in handling threads of messages. Prior versions were limited and confusing with threading:

  • You can choose to arrange all your mail by conversations, using the Conversation View.
  • Right-click on an e-mail and select Find Related, Messages in this Conversation. You will see a view of all messages in the conversation which can be collapsed and expanded.
  • Show Senders Above the Subject: flips the sender and subject lines so that the subject is now on the bottom.
  • Always Expand Conversations: automatically show threaded conversation in expanded view, showing participants (a Gmail standard).
    Use Classic Indented View: Turns off the fancy conversation graphs that are supposed to show you how different people and messages relate to each other. A neat idea that doesn’t really work.
  • To reduce the e-mail clutter you can ‘clean up’ conversations by deleting all of the unnecessary quoted and previous text in long e-mail threads; only non-duplicate versions remain. However, all of the quoted and previous text and e-mails are actually deleted, not just hidden, so use with care. A choice of hide or delete which you could apply to individual threads would be more useful, although, I concede, yet more complex.

Mail Search
Outlook has an even more detailed search capability than the rest of Office, which is just as well. The inconspicuous text box above the email previews works as expected for words or phrases. Better is the Search Tab in the Ribbon interface, which supports search by contact, subject line, attachments, date ranges, reading status, categories and more – all things you could do less easily in old versions. You can also open recent searches.

Mail Tips
Shades of the Office Assistant and Clippy, here. Outlook will warn against sending out e-mails outside certain norms, for example, sending a message to an excessively large distribution a group, sending mail to a recipient out-of-office, or sending off-site to external parties which might compromise confidential information. The rule-base for this is set-up only in Exchange Server, so this is a corporate tool.

Sadly and despite complaints after Office 2007, Outlook retains exclusive use of Word as the e-mail text editor. The option of using the Internet Explorer rendering engine for creating and displaying e-mails composed in HTML was removed despite the fat that Word is one of the worst HTML rendering programs on the planet.

Un-Sociable
Microsoft is still struggling to get to grips with the Social Internet; I also suspect that secure, reliable integration of social features with the Windows codebase is proving beyond Microsoft’s technical and legal ability to manage. Social Connector imports social network contacts into Outlook so that you have that information available when you send emails. Office 2010 supports four different social networks – Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Windows Live Messenger. The connectivity isn’t installed by default, so you have to go to the Microsoft Office website and download the plugin (doh!!).

Once you run the Social Connector, go to the People Pane in the View Tab, then click on Account Settings. A pop-up will show all of the connectors you have downloaded and installed. Clicking on the checkbox next to a particular social network will bring up a login screen. Social Connector grabs information from those sites about people you in your Outlook contacts, so you can add information about them within Outlook.

Information about a contact will appear below the reading pane, minimized by default, so you have to click on an email to open it for reading (doh!!!) and then find the small contact listing, separated by a movable white bar, at the bottom. The interface design in Outlook still needs a lot of work. If you’re talking to contacts regularly in email you will want to add them as a friend, which you can do by
clicking on the little green plus symbol, assuming you can work out what it’s for.

The whole Social connector is really only half a job done and Microsoft needs an expanded feature native in a later version of Outlook.

Verdict
It’s an improvement, certainly, I’m just not sure it goes far enough, either to compete with Gmail and Blackberry, or having enough in the way of web services integration, but that’s a wider Microsoft issue and not Outlook’s fault. AJS

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