Outlook 2003 Gets Productivity Boost

Consolidated views make the user experience simpler and more effective.

The user interface changes in Microsoft Corp.s Outlook 2003 walk a fine line between significant changes and minor tweaks—all of which make for a simpler, albeit information-dense, user experience. eWEEK Labs found that Outlook 2003s consolidated view elements greatly simplify the overall user experience and eliminate a good deal of dead space. Unfortunately, some of the changes go only halfway toward simplifying everyday tasks.

In addition, performance and offline use improvements require that companies upgrade to Exchange 2003.

On balance, the changes to Outlook shouldnt require extensive retraining for most users. However, for some users—mainly those who have highly customized Outlook or run add-ins—the upgrade will be problematic; in eWEEK Labs tests, some modifications and add-in applications did not work after the upgrade. Outlook 2003 is available as part of the Office 2003 suite or separately for $109.

The biggest change in Outlook is that the Outlook Bar has been consolidated with the Folder List into a single Navigation Pane. This change simplifies the interface, saving space and, at least with managing e-mail, potentially saving a mouse click or two.

The Navigation Pane also gives users quick access to other contextual information and tools for the Calendar, Tasks, Notes, Contacts and Journal features. For example, in the Calendar Navigation Pane, we could quickly set the calendar view and determine which shared calendars could be viewed. A users system platform can also influence context: We noticed that the elements of the Calendar Navigation Pane changed when switching from portrait to landscape mode on a Tablet PC.

Outlook 2003

Microsofts Outlook 2003 includes a number of enhancements that will make it easier for users to organize their e-mail, calendar items and tasks. Furthermore, Outlook 2003 consolidates a number of user interface elements in a way that speeds up common operations. Most of the improvements focus on the user interface, but companies that deploy Exchange 2003 will see better performance and reduced help desk calls due to changes in the way Outlook and Exchange communicate.

  • PRO: Improved e-mail lists and organization options; contextual tools and data access in e-mail, Calendar and Tasks Navigation Pane; new preview screen improves message viewing.

  • CON: Not all Outlook 97 and XP add-ons will work with update; flagging doesnt automatically create follow-up tasks; some organizational elements are not as customizable as we would have liked.

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Microsoft has tweaked the in-box message list and Preview Pane, now called Reading Pane, to include more message information and a vertically oriented view. We found that this vertical view not only makes better use of on-screen real estate but also provides a much more readable view of messages than the horizontal Preview Pane.

The message list includes a few improvements that proved helpful in general. For example, we liked the two-line message subject view because it made it easier to read the most relevant header information.

The options for organizing message lists are quite extensive and include a conversation view that organizes messages more efficiently and coherently than the threaded message view in Outlook XP. The only knock we have with this capability is that we would have liked the ability to fine-tune some of the arrangement criteria.

Other e-mail improvements include new folders to help organize messages, including search folders.

Search folders include a number of canned searches but also allow users to create and save custom searches and results. The search folders update automatically as new messages flow into the in-box, provided that folders have been accessed recently. Inactive folders will update when they are opened. These folders can be stored on Exchange Server and so can be accessed by Outlook Web Access as well. Searches created using the Find tool can be saved as search folders.

On the calendar side, Navigation Pane organization certainly will encourage the use of shared calendars. The new Calendar view places shared calendars side by side, providing more meaningful information than is available in the group meeting planner. Outlook also supports linking to team calendars from within Microsofts SharePoint Services.

For administrators, the biggest changes in Outlook will be improved performance during send and receive operations between Outlook and Exchange 2003. We didnt notice performance improvements in our tests, and we wouldnt expect most users to, either, but the improved communication should help on the server side. The cached Exchange mode lets users keep a copy of their mail file locally so that interruptions in network connectivity dont result in support calls. Outlook can also automatically detect connection speeds so that communication happens more efficiently over slow connections.

On the spam-fighting front, the Junk E-Mail filter in Outlook has been tweaked to catch more mail. The filter allows some user control via save and block lists, but a little more control over the rules determining how e-mail is filtered would be nice. Microsoft will be periodically updating the filter via an automatic update feature.

Outlook also provides content filtering that blocks content from outside sources and can block Web beacons and links that verify e-mail addresses to spammers.

Outlook includes a number of smaller improvements that will undoubtedly save users from some hassles and embarrassment. For example, distribution lists can be expanded in the To: header, and the auto-complete feature now starts populating the list after a single letter and orders names based on how often theyre used, rather than alphabetically. This will reduce—at least a bit—the likelihood of sending an e-mail message to the wrong recipient.

Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be contacted at [email protected]

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