Anyone who's seen Apple's nicely-designed iCal, an Internet calendaring standards-based calendar application for Mac OS X, will immediately understand Windows Calendar. In short, Windows Calendar is iCal for Vista, and it supports essentially the same appointment and task features--and international calendaring standards--as does iCal. It is, however, very much a Microsoft application as well, so it sports some Redmond-centric design quirks and even uses the same Reminder dialogs as Outlook, Microsoft's premier personal information management solution. Curiously, as a calendaring solution, the free Windows Calendar is superior to Outlook in some ways, but inferior in others. We'll examine a few of these differences in just a bit.

Windows Calendar is new and unique to Windows Vista. To my knowledge, Microsoft has never included a decent calendaring solution in a shipping version of Windows, though the company did toy with a PIM solution called WinPad during the Windows 95 beta. Windows Calendar came out of the same small team at Microsoft that developed Windows Sidebar and Hold 'Em Poker (part of Ultimate Extras); this team was created to be an incubator-type group that could develop and bring smaller solutions to market more quickly than the rest of the Windows Division. In this sense, they were emulating the development style as MSN, which was also sucked into the Windows Division and renamed to Windows Live.

Introduction to Windows Calendar

Windows Calendar is a calendaring solution aimed at consumers and other individuals, including those that wish to share calendars with friends and family. As such, Windows Calendar features a relatively straightforward user interface that should meet the needs of most people. However, those that wish to connect to back-end calendars on corporate-oriented Exchange servers, and users with other advanced requirements, will find Windows Calendar somewhat lacking.

Windows Calendar presents a three-pane user interface by default, though you can further simplify the UI by hiding two of the panes. On the left is the Navigation Pane, which includes a small monthly calendar and your Calendars and Tasks lists. In the center pane, you see the actual calendar, which can be displayed in four view styles, including Day, Work Week, Week, and Month. (This pane cannot be hidden.) On the right is the Details Pane, which provides a detailed view of the selected appointment or task.

Windows Calendar utilizes a blue toolbar, indicating that it is one of Windows Vista's productivity applications. (A similar toolbar adorns Windows Fax and Scan.) Unlike most Vista-specific applications, Windows Calendar utilizes an old-fashioned menu bar. Unfortunately, the menu bar features a non-standard layout (Options is found under File rather than Tools, for example) and cannot be hidden. There's nothing like consistency.


Click image for a larger version

While Microsoft publicizes that Windows Calendar "integrates" with other Vista applications, that characterization stretches the definition of the word a bit. Windows Calendar does include a toolbar icon for Windows Contacts, letting you easily access your contacts list without resorting to the Start Menu. And yes, you can access individual contacts in Windows Contacts via the Attendees button in an appointment (but not a task). You can also email appointments in standards-based ICS format to others using Windows Mail via the Invite button; these files will work with Windows Calendar and other ICS-compatible applications like Apple iCal. (Email-based invitations can only be sent to contacts that are first added to the attendees list for an appointment.) But that's about it for integration.

Where Windows Calendar does shine is its ability to interact with Web-based calendars. You can subscribe to ICS calendars published online--and there are numerous calendars available, including local holidays, sports schedules, and so on--and even publish your own calendars online, assuming you have access to a compatible Web server and the technical know-how to make it work. This kind of functionality is becoming so mainstream that it's being used by kids' soccer teams to post team schedules, and even by families to ensure everyone is free when a new event comes up: Each family member can be represented by a different calendar, all maintained by mom or dad. Neat.

Using the Calendars section of the Navigation Pane, you can easily create individual calendars, each with its own color: Then, when you create new appointments, you can assign them to a particular calendar as needed. Everyone has their own organizational style, of course: I have calendars like Health, Important, Personal, Phone call, Travel, and Work. (I also subscribe to certain Web-based calendars, including one for US Holidays.) You can also create calendar groups, which is handy when you want to toggle the display of multiple calendars.

Individual appointments can be configured with a variety of useful information, including Name, Location, Calendar, and URL, as well as the date, starting and ending times, and recurrence. Windows Calendar supports both stock recurrences--Every day, Weekly, and so on--as well as more advanced options (continues forever, until a certain date, or for a fixed number of times). You can of course set reminders for appointments, and if you're familiar with Microsoft Outlook, you'll recognize the Reminder dialog, as it's identical. (However, the reminder options in Outlook are richer than those in Calendar; see below.)

Tasks provide similar functionality, except that you create them in the Tasks section of the Navigation Pane instead of the calendar itself. Too, Tasks are not overlayed onto the calendar as they are in Outlook 2007, keeping them somewhat separated from your other scheduled items. You can mark Tasks as completed, as you might expect, but not at various stages of completion as you can in Outlook.

With its electronic sharing focus, you may be surprised to discover that one of Windows Calendar's nicest features is printing: You can print in Day, Work Week, Week, or Month styles, and all are quite attractive in hard copy form.

Competition

While Apple's iCal is, perhaps, the nicest standards-based calendaring solution around, owing to its maturity, Windows Calendar is a great approximation, sort of a Roman copy of Apple's Greek original. And since iCal doesn't run on Windows anyway, it's sort of out of the running. The only decent and free competition I've seen for iCal is Mozilla Sunbird, a standards-based calendaring application from the makers of Firefox (Web browsing) and Thunderbird (email). Unlike its other solutions, however, Sunbird is still in early beta and is somewhat unattractive. For now, at least, it's not a viable option for most people, but stay tuned. And Mozilla is also working on a project called Lightning that will combine Thunderbird with Sunbird into a single integrated product, like Outlook.

Speaking of which, while Windows Calendar is a perfectly capable calendaring solution, it's only geared toward consumers and other non-corporate users. Power users and those with more business-like needs will want to step up to Outlook's more impressive set of functionality. Outlook 2007 offers a number of advantages over Windows Calendar. First, you can configure its Reading Pane to behave like Windows Calendar's Details Pane, except that it can be moved to bottom of the application window if you prefer that layout. Outlook's To-Do Bar can provide a quick glimpse at upcoming appointments and tasks without having to navigate into the calendar module. When you view your calendar in Day, Week, or Work Week view, you can see date-based tasks in a special Tasks pane at the bottom of the display. And Outlook's Reminder dialogs are more full-featured than those in Windows Calendar, though they look identical: In Outlook, you get more Snooze options (5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 4 days, 1 week, and 2 weeks vs. just 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours, 0.5 days, 1 day, 2 days, 4 days, 1 week, and 2 weeks in Windows Calendar). More to the point: You can edit the Snooze time in Outlook, a feature that is unavailable in Windows Calendar. So if you'd like to be reminded in a non-standard time period, like 17 minutes or 6 days, Outlook will let you do that. I miss this feature in Windows Calendar. (There are other advantages to Outlook, of course.)

Windows Calendar offers a few advantages over Outlook as well. You can configure Windows Calendar to display reminders even if the application isn't running, which is handy. (Reality alert: This feature is pretty lame. The first time you get a reminder, Windows Calendar pops up and keeps running.) I find Windows Calendar to be simpler and more approachable than Outlook. And Windows Calendar is, of course, free with Windows Vista, so it's the cheapest and easiest way to check out a modern calendaring solution. Finally, Windows Calendar takes up significantly fewer PC resources than does Outlook, though you'd have to factor in the resource footprint of your email application as well to make that a fair comparison.

Final thoughts

With Windows Calendar, Microsoft has finally added a calendaring solution to Windows, a decision that should be saluted by users given the quality of the offering. Best of all, Windows Calendar is actually based on established Web standards, giving Vista users access to a wide range of publicly-available calendars and the ability to publish and share their own calendars that others can use. Sure, Windows Calendar looks an awful lot like Apple's iCal, but as a Microsoft representative responded when asked about this, there are only so many ways to make a calendar application. Fair enough. To the millions of Vista users who don't know or couldn't care less about iCal anyway, none of this matters: Windows Calendar is here now, it works well, and it's something you should absolutely look into as you investigate the numerous new features in the latest Windows version.