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Microsoft Office XP Review, Part 4: Outlook 2002

Since its humble beginnings as the weakest link in Office 97, Outlook has grown into an essential tool for millions of people, myself included. At the time of this writing, I'm averaging over 150 email messages per day, and I use Outlook's Calendar and Tasks components to keep my schedule moving; I also use Outlook Contacts as my default address book. So Outlook is, for me at least, a mission critical application. And with the release of each version of Outlook, I upgrade with some sense of dread, a sense that something horrible is going to happen. Thankfully, I back up.

I say "thankfully" because Outlook 2002 (Figure) completely hosed my current PST file several times on different installs. In the end, I had to completely rebuild my Contacts, Inbox, Calendar, and Tasks folders, from scratch, before I could use Outlook 2002 daily. And though this might seem like a damning introduction to this product, fear not: Overall, my experiences have been mostly positive. And in speaking with others that have upgraded from Office 2000 to Office XP, I seem to be the only one that's experienced this problem. So I'm going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on this one.

But man, were my upgrade experiences horrible. In the end, I had to import my contacts and email into Outlook Express and then later import them into a fresh install of Outlook 2002. For Calendar and Tasks, I played with exporting to bizarre comma separated files for a while, but ended up just re-doing it all manually. So I lost my previous scheduling information to PST backups, but that's not tragic. And once I started to use Outlook 2002, I realized that it wasn't a bad upgrade, though in many ways it's less dramatic than some of the other Office XP applications.

An Outlook overview
So what is Outlook, you ask? Outlook is Microsoft's integrated messaging and PIM application, which is to say that it is an email client and personal information manager rolled into one. Outlook's email support has been wonderful since Outlook 98, and this release eliminates the previously separate Corporate and Internet email only modes, which to my mind is the single biggest new feature (Figure). In the past, you could choose to use Outlook with an Exchange Server or not, and while you could change your mind after the fact in Outlook 2000, it was always a one or the other affair. Now, you can add different kinds of email accounts as you will, and mix and match, all in the same program. It works well.

But it is Outlook's PIM functions that are indispensable. If email is all you're after, Outlook Express works very well. But the scheduling and collaboration tools in Outlook really make this product, and I've found it to be irreplaceable for managing my sometimes hectic schedule. Outlook can bring up reminders at specified intervals, and synch with handheld devices and smart phones. Outlook 2002 continues this tradition in fine fashion.

So what's different? Well, Outlook incorporates the new Office XP look and feel, which looks curiously tan in Windows XP for some reason (Figure). Web integration is much more usable in this release, and I actually find it possible to use Outlook as a Web browser and move back and forth between my Inbox and the Web site I'm currently visiting (Figure). This feature was completely unusable in Outlook 2000. Other than that, in general, Outlook 2002 behaves much like its predecessor. So in the next few sections, I'll take a look at the good and bad of what's changed in each of the major components.

New email features
Comparing Outlook to Outlook Express has always been a bit stressful. In a perfect world, Outlook would be a true superset of its freebie relation, but that's never been the case, and it's not now either. Outlook 2002 does a better job of incorporating the best features from Outlook Express, but it's still missing a few of the more useful ones, and it still doesn't have an integrated news reader.

In Outlook 2002, Microsoft has added auto-complete addressing (Figure), which has been available in Outlook Express for some time. But the auto-complete in Outlook 2002 is less friendly in my opinion, because it adds email addresses that aren't in your Contacts list. Let's say I've got a Contact named Paul Thurrott ([email protected]) and I've given him the nickname paul. When I type p and then pause in the "To" line of a new email message, paul should auto-complete for me. And it does. But if I recently emailed someone with an address like [email protected] , that address will show up in the auto-complete drop-down box too, even though I may never have intended to use that address again. So even though I have set up a nickname called paul, this other address will haunt me until I reinstall Outlook. It's frustrating.

UPDATE: Sue Mosher tells me that you actually can delete these annoying non-contacts: When the auto-complete drop-down box appears as you type a name, use the arrow keys to select it and then press DELETE. Nice!

Outlook 2002 does finally add support for Hotmail accounts, a feature that's also been in Outlook for some time (Figure). Hotmail accounts are handled a bit differently than POP and Exchange accounts, in the sense that you have a local store and then the remote store, which are separate. But Outlook does out-do its freebie rival in one way: Unlike Outlook Express, you don't have to deal with a banner ad when you access Hotmail, presumably because Outlook is fairly expensive. And again, like Outlook Express, Outlook users can now easily choose which account they'd like mail sent from, a nice touch.

Outlook defaults to Word as the email editor, as if to prove that Microsoft just doesn't get it. Email is, by its nature, small and fast, and Word is neither. I recommend turning off this feature and switching to plain text email using the Outlook editor, which works very well for email, thank you very much. One thing that Microsoft completely botched in this release: Even the Outlook editor requires you to use word wrap, so if you hard-return to end a line of text, it will capitalize the first word on the next line as if you had intended to create a new sentence (Figure) . This is contrary to the way that I, and I suspect millions others, use email. I wish Microsoft would remember that many people with POP accounts will want to use this product, and that it's not just corporate drones who might be less put off by this behavior.

UPDATE: Daniel Vermeulen wrote in to tell me how to prevent Outlook from capitalizing the first letter of each line: Go to Tools, Options, Spelling, AutoCorrect Options and uncheck the second option from the top, Capitalize first letter of sentences. Like many things in Outlook 2002, this option is really well hidden, but at least you can change it.

Another thing that's completely brain-dead in Outlook is the way in which you create and modify email accounts. In Outlook 2000, you simply choose Tools then Accounts and you're presented with a very simple dialog box for configuring email accounts. In Outlook 2002, an Email Accounts wizard (Figure) comes up instead, and I cannot for the life of me understand how this thing got past quality control. In the first stage of the wizard, you can choose whether you want to create a new account or directory, or view or change an existing account or directory. The resulting windows are so convoluted (Figure) that it took me almost an hour to configure an account that required SMTP authentication (for the record here's how you find this elusive option: Tools / Options / View or change existing e-mail accounts / Next / choose the account / Change / More Settings / Outgoing Server / then check the option titled My outgoing server (SMTP) requires authentication). In Outlook Express, or the previous version of Outlook, this same setting can be found in less than half the steps. Folks, this isn't easier, it's painful.

And I can only stare in open-mouthed bewilderment when I notice that the new mail progress is counted by percentage, rather than the number of emails. So when I get email, it doesn't say Now receiving message 5 of 10, it says  Send/Receive Status 50% complete (Figure). Seriously.

Given this, you might think I'm not that excited about Outlook's email capabilities. That's not strictly true: I use Outlook 2002 for email everyday, so it's not unusable. But compared to Outlook 2000, it's curiously... I don't know, damaged maybe. It just seems like they've messed with it a bit too much. Hopefully a service pack will clear up some of these issues.

New Calendar and scheduling features
The big new feature for Calendar and the other scheduling features, such as Tasks, is that the Reminder window now aggregates any outstanding reminders and presents them in a single dialog (Figure), rather than a collection of multiple dialogs, as Outlook 2000 did. This lets you dismiss, snooze, or open reminders from a single location, and it's an obvious improvement.

In Calendar, appointments can now be colored according to type (Figure). So Microsoft provides colors for Personal, Requires Travel , etc. Not a huge deal, but it makes your calendar more attractive and easy to parse at a glance. And you can create your own types and customize the colors if you'd like.

Overall, Calendar and Tasks haven't changed much, but that's just fine: They worked great already.

New Contacts features
Contacts is likewise very similar to its predecessor. In Outlook 2002, MSN Messenger has been integrated into the product so that when you open the contact card for a user that's listed in your MSN Messenger contacts list, you can see whether they're online, and you can begin a chat session if you're so inclined.

Contacts also feature a new Display As field that determines how a contact is listed in the contacts list. You can also use this as an alternative to the nickname field.

Corporate issues
One thing I'm not going to touch on too much here is how Outlook 2002 works in a corporate environment with Exchange Server. This is simply an experience issue: I don't use Outlook in that way and don't feel comfortable describing the new and changed corporate features. However, Sue Mosher runs an excellent Outlook and Exchange resource called Slipstick Systems. If you want to find out more about Outlook 2002, how it works in a corporate environment, and what features are missing in this release, please head over to Sue's wonderful site.

OK, Outlook 2002 isn't awful, but it's not a slam dunk either, and it should be. I use Outlook too often not to be put off by its stupid little miscues, but Microsoft hasn't thoroughly botched this release enough for me to go back to Outlook 2000 either. If you're upgrading to Office XP, then you're probably best off simply using Outlook 2002. But if you're looking for a reason to upgrade to this latest suite, Outlook 2002 isn't it.

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