Depending on who you talk to (and there was some discussion of this point in the recent podcast), Outlook is either an essential tool for email or the spawn of Satan. Those in the latter camp are likely to have experienced some kind of PST file disaster in the past, or simply been stuck using Outlook 2003 for so long that they’ve forgotten what a good piece of software actually feels like. Of course, many of 2003’s crimes – such as the glacial search – were addressed in Outlook 2007 and have also been tackled by various third party plug-ins over the years, but Outlook 2010 consolidates a lot of this progress.
Starting with its ribbon, the standout feature is the Quick Steps box. This is similar in appearance to the ‘Styles’ box in Word and are customisable shortcut actions for such as emailing your manager or team. This is a nice, but not earth shattering addition, and on the whole the ribbon interface – which changes significantly as you move between email, contacts, calendar and so forth – works as well as we’ve come to expect. Backstage View doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement, though, with just a smattering of standard options.
Elsewhere, the interface, cosmetic differences aside, is very similar to that of Outlook 2007. By default your folder view is on the left, with calendars and tasks on the right, and your inbox and preview pane through the middle. It’s an interface that’s ideally suited to the widescreen monitors most of us use these days, but if you want to concentrate solely on your email you can use the Reading View – activated via a small button in the button right of the screen – that minimises the folders, calendars and ribbons in one click.
One change in the interface comes in the addition of the People Pane which, when activated, sits below emails. Of all the new features of Outlook 2010, the People Pane is our favourite as it saves a lot of sifting through old emails to find what you need. It gives you a snapshot of or your dealings with the subject/sender of the email, as well as all the attachments they might have sent you, meetings you have arranged and RSS feeds. It also feeds you status updates from social networks, a feature reliant on what Microsoft calls Social Connectors.
Social Connectors are plug-ins for social networks, with LinkedIn and MySpace currently available and Facebook and others due later this year. Once installed they will pull all sorts of information from the networks, including the obvious like status updates but also more useful stuff like contact information and profile photos. If you do use a network like LinkedIn extensively it’s a great way of ensuring your contact information remains up to date. This feature has great potential, then, but in its current form it has its limitations. Your local and LinkedIn contacts are kept separate, creating duplications and ultimately not making best use of all that extra information. This approach is understandable to an extent as users would probably complain more if their carefully constructed address book was sullied, but some way of merging this data would be extremely useful and a natural next step.
One addition we have no quibbles with, though, is Calendar Preview. This pops up a preview of your calendar on meeting request emails, so you needn’t switch back and forth to check whether a request fits in your schedule. Other small, but very useful features, include warnings when you’re not replying to latest email in a conversation, while Exchange users get ‘Mail Tips’ warning them if any recipients are out of the office or have a full mailbox.
Not all of Outlook’s new features are quite as successful, however. Conversation View, much touted in the Technical Preview and Beta releases as Outlook’s take on Gmail’s threaded emails, has been deactivated by default due to its habit of lumping together generic sounding emails. Another irritant, one we highlighted way back in the Technical Preview, is Outlook’s dreadful HTML rendering. Around 90 per cent of the newsletters and the like that landed in our inbox didn’t render properly, though they were generally still readable. It’s not a reason to avoid Outlook, but at this point in its life Outlook ought to handle things a lot better.
Outlook remains a peerless and extremely powerful email client, but – ribbon interface aside – not all of its new features are resounding successes. Unlike Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which feel close to exactly as intended, Outlook has elements that feel like a work in progress and its HTML rendering should be much better by now. We’d recommend, if you can, trying before you buy to decide whether the upgrade is necessary. If not, you can save £100 by buying the Home & Student version that doesn’t include Outlook.