The State of Outlook Printing

Back before the Internet reached almost everywhere, I managed several projects in the broadcast news industry that involved moving information from point A to point B and equipping journalists to do their jobs, no matter where in the world they might be. From that experience, I learned two principles that are very relevant to Microsoft Office Outlook as well:

  • "If it doesn't work offline, it doesn't work."
  • "Sometimes there's no substitute for a hard-copy printout."

Microsoft has given that first principle a lot of attention, with a steady stream of improvements in Outlook's offline story—especially against Exchange Server—in every version. But printing in Outlook is still primitive in many ways. Given that the so-called paperless office seems as elusive as ever, I thought it might be useful to review the state of Outlook printing and see what changes are coming in Outlook 2007. I'll also share some tips and workarounds for common printing problems.

Outlook printing is largely WYSIWYG. If you want to print a view of all the items in a folder, you should first arrange the view on screen the way you want it to appear in the printout. For example, if you want to print a table view, such as the phone list of your contacts or a list of your tasks, you get more information on the page if you turn off Outlook's default behavior of squeezing all the visible columns into the current window's width. Right-click the table column headings, choose Customize Current View, then open the Other Settings options. Clear the check box for "Automatic column sizing," then click OK twice to return to the folder. Now you can resize any column heading to exactly the size needed to show the data for that column. You might want to change the paper orientation to landscape to print more information across a single page.

The biggest limitation in printing from folders such as Tasks and Contacts is that if you want a printout of all the notes from a group of tasks or contacts, you must use the Memo style, which forces each item to start on a new page. For contacts, the workaround is to use Microsoft Office Word to do the printing. Start a mail merge with Outlook's Tools, Mail Merge command, then follow the prompts to generate a Word document that can include any or all contact fields, including all notes for the contact. The "catalog" merge format is good for contact lists.

Mail merge works only for contacts, though; there's no comparable workaround for folders such as Tasks and Journal. In the Calendar folder, you can use the Calendar Details printing style to print a running description of your appointments—including all notes—that doesn't waste paper by starting each appointment on a new page.

When it comes to calendar printing, perhaps the chief annoyance is that the monthly view can show only a certain amount of information per day and thus often cuts off subjects or even omits entire items from a printout. Outlook 2007 with the 2007 Microsoft Office system Beta 2 Technical Refresh (B2TR) actually does a slightly worse job in this area, cutting off subjects that Outlook 2003 prints with no problem.

However, help is on the way. Microsoft is developing Calendar Printing Assistant for Office Outlook 2007, an application that offers a wide array of new formats for calendar printing and can fit more information into each day of the month. (See below for the URL to download the beta.) The Calendar Printing Assistant also provides a way to print a full year's calendar and corrects another long-standing monthly calendar printout annoyance: It shows thumbnails for last month and next month, not this month and next month (the built-in behavior in Outlook).

Many message-printing problems stem from the fact that Outlook 2003 has two editors and three message formats and uses Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to render and print HTML-format messages. For instance, a draft message printed with Word as the editor will have no sender, recipient, or subject information. If you need that information on the printout, you must either turn off Word as the editor or wait and print the message after it's stored in the Sent Items folder. Outlook 2007 solves this problem. Even though there's only one editor—and it's Word (or a stub of Word if the full version of Word 2007 isn't installed)—the To, Cc, and Subject fields print out on draft messages just fine in Outlook 2007.

Outlook 2003's use of IE to print HTML-format messages has always been a mixed blessing. The drawbacks of using IE as the HTML message-rendering engine, beyond the security concerns, are many:

  • You get no print preview.
  • Some messages run off the side of the page or under an image unless you switch the paper format to landscape. (IE 7.0 seems to do a slightly better job on messages prone to this problem.)
  • Some users get print errors because of a poorly registered IE component.
  • You can't remove the default date/time at the bottom of the page.
  • Images in HTML-format messages don't always print well.

The biggest advantage is that IE allows you to select a page range to print. In versions through Outlook 2003, users could select which pages to print, at least for their HTML messages. Outlook 2007, however, has no ability to specify a page range for printouts for any messages. The workaround for Outlook 2007 is to save messages as .htm, .txt, or .rtf files—depending on the message format—then use Word to print the pages you want. (That's also a good workaround for Outlook 2003's plain-text and rich-text messages.)

There are plenty of other long-time printing annoyances with no ready solution in Outlook 2007 B2TR:

  • Like earlier versions, B2TR doesn't print Bcc recipient information for messages in your Sent Items folder.
  • There's no easy way to skip printing a long list of recipients if the original sender put hundreds of people in the To or Cc box (except the aforementioned open-and-print-in-Word method).
  • If you print another user's Calendar folder from Outlook 2007, the other user's name appears on the printout, but if you print another user's Tasks or Contacts folder, the printout will contain your own name.
  • Custom Outlook forms don't print what you see on the screen; instead, they print custom fields in alphabetical order.

In short, printing remains one of Outlook's weaker areas, but perhaps Microsoft's development of the Calendar Printing Assistant heralds a new awareness of the existing deficiencies. I'm sure many users and organizations would like to see task, contact, and message printing assistants as well.

Calendar Printing Assistant for Microsoft Office Outlook 2007

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