Part 2a of my Office 2007 Beta 2 review, I noted that I "live" in Microsoft Word, and while that's certainly true, I do spend a lot of time interacting with Outlook as well: In addition to being my email interface, Outlook plots my schedule, keeps track of my contacts, and manages my tasks. That's a serious multitasker right there, folks, and though Outlook has been unmercifully copied by competitors, it's never been duplicated. One might wonder why anyone even bothers any more.


What's odd, however, is that Outlook 2007--at least the main application window, anyway--does not adopt the new results-oriented user interface that Microsoft created for Office 2007. My guess is that this is so because Outlook simply doesn't lend itself to the new UI style. But Outlook 2007 is also, perhaps, the single most important Office application. I can't believe that Microsoft didn't make this happen. What we're left with is a curious hybrid application, and one that is unique in Office 2007: The main Outlook application continues down the menus-and-toolbars path used by previous Outlook versions, while the sub-windows--such as New E-mail, New Contact, and New Appointment--adopt the new UI. The effect is a little jarring and not a little bit reminiscent of the version of Media Center that will ship with Windows Vista in that it, too, is a halfway house between the old and the new.

That said, regular Outlook users will have little problem converting to the updated UI. The main Outlook window works almost exactly like the old, albeit with a new vertical pane called the To-Do Bar (see below), an instant search box (again, described below), and a newly-collapsible Navigation pane, the latter of which should ease the onscreen real estate shortage for users with normal aspect ratio displays.

New features in Microsoft Outlook 2007 Beta 2

Despite the absence of the new results-oriented user interface, Outlook 2007 is the most updated application in Office 2007 and one of the brightest successes in the new suite. Long-time readers may recall that I wrote something similar about Outlook 2003 in my Microsoft Office System 2003 Editions Review and Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Preview. That Microsoft was able to pull off such a feat for the second time in a row--and, incidentally, finally halt the Outlook Curse, where every other version was a dog) is somewhat impressive. Indeed, it's a bit too impressive: There's no way I can cover every single new feature in this Beta 2 review. Instead, I'll just highlight the new features that I feel are the most important, and save the others for the final product version's review.

Instant search

In my Word 2007 Beta 2 review, I bemoaned the fact that Microsoft wasn't adopting inline search. Well, in Outlook 2007, they are: A new instant search box appears front-and-center at the top of the Inbox pane (as I'll call this second pane in its default view). This instant search box replaces both the horribly weak Find and slightly-better but hard-to-find Advanced Find functionality from previous Outlook versions (though, oddly, Advanced Find is still available). Good riddance, I say.

Instant search is truly instant, using what Microsoft calls "word wheeling" to search as you type. Instant search is also context specific. That means that the search query you type will search the current email view by default, but you can expand the search to include any and all email folders very easily. Search results, naturally, replace the default Inbox view in the second pane.

I've found instant search to be one of my absolute favorite new features in Outlook 2007, and while it would be easy to wonder aloud why it took so long, let's just be happy it's finally there: With the proliferation of personal information and email we must now manage, this is a must-have feature.

To-Do Bar

OK, I suppose one might complain that Microsoft has added yet another vertical pane to the Outlook user interface. After all, things can get cluttered if you're not using a widescreen display. But The new To-Do Bar is so useful--dare I say, so wonderful--that you're going to want to rush out and buy a new display just to use it. And if that isn't an option, you can now collapse the Navigation pane to free up some space. Whatever you do, take a moment to marvel at the To-Do Bar.

Here's what you get: An at-a-glance listing of your upcoming appointments and tasks, arranged logically by date, along with a handy monthly calendar. Big deal, you say? Indeed: By putting this information right in the main Outlook view, Microsoft has made it possible for most users to interact with the Outlook functionality they need most often without having to dive into the various Outlook experiences (like Calendar, Tasks, and Contacts).

Unlike the old Outlook Today view, which sort of provided some of the functionality in a read-only format, the To-Do Bar is interactive. You can add and modify appointments and tasks, for example, and flag items as needed. It's also attractively presented, with the new, colorful rounded-rectangle appointment style also seen in Calendar and color-coding for Tasks.

The To-Do Bar will lead to huge productivity improvements for all Outlook users. It's a fantastic idea, implemented nicely.

Color categories

In previous Outlook versions, you were provided with a list of color-coded labels for appointments, like None, Important, Business, Personal, and the like. The problem with labels is that they weren't modifiable: Personal was green and Business was purple, and you couldn't easily change those colors, rename the labels, or add new labels of your own. The other problem was that they applied only to appointments: There were no labels for tasks.

In Outlook 2007, there is a new concept called categories. Like the old labels, categories are color-coded and can be applied to appointments. But categories are also more powerful than labels. First, they don't come with preset names, so you can give any color its own name. Second, they work equally well with tasks and other Outlook items like email messages. You can even filter searches in Outlook by category if you want. So if you search for all items that are of a certain category, you get email, contacts, appointments, and tasks in the search results.

Better task integration

In previous Outlook versions, the Tasks module was a separate experience from the Calendar, which I always found odd: After all, don't you often need to complete tasks by a certain day or time? How do you decide whether to create an appointment or task for certain time-based items?

In Outlook 2007, tasks have been dramatically integrated into non-Tasks parts of the Outlook interface. They're in the To-Do Bar, of course, but that could have happened easily enough without any remaking of the underlying way that tasks work in Outlook. You can now flag an email as a task, which is handy if you get a to-do message from a boss or coworker. And in the Calendar experience, there is a new Tasks pane overlayed at the bottom of the window, matching up with the Calendar view so you can see when tasks need to be completed in relation to your appointments. You can even drag a task from the Task pane into the Calendar in order to block off specific times to complete that task.

And tasks that aren't completed by their designated completion time are automatically rolled over to the next day. This is a great idea, because it mirrors the way people really work.

Attachment previews

If you accept the fact that Office is an integrated suite of applications, it stands to reason that each Office application should, at the least, understand how to handle documents and other items that were created by other Office applications and, more desirably, be able to handle those items in a truly integrated fashion where appropriate. This is the approach Outlook 2007 takes to attachments now, and it's in keeping with the application's mantra of letting the user work within a single view as often as possible. So when you display an email message that includes an attachment, Outlook 2007 can optionally display that attachment right in the Reading Pane. That way, you won't have to open a second application if you all you need to do is scan the item quickly.

The new attachment preview feature works with the expected document types like text files, Word documents, and Excel spreadsheets, but it also works with some that might surprise you, like PowerPoint. In a nod towards safety, attachments from users who are not on your Safe Senders list are not previewed automatically; instead, you must click a Preview File button to enable the feature with potentially unsafe emails. And of course you can still open and save attachments normally, as you did with previous Outlook versions.

Auto Account Setup

Auto Account Setup is one of the most highly-touted features in Outlook 2007: It's supposed to automatically configure your Exchange Server, IMAP, or POP3 email account when you enter your user name and password. That said, I've never seen this feature work for anything but Exchange accounts, though at this point I think we can give Microsoft a pass because it's still in beta.

The way it's supposed to work is that Outlook will configure the incoming and outgoing email server names, ports, and other technical information for you. I'd like to hear about it if anyone got this working with an IMAP or POP3 server. (Update: A number of readers have told me that GMail POP3 configuration works automatically.)

RSS integration

There's a ongoing debate about where users should consume information published to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. One obvious outlet is your Web browser, because that's where people tend to read Internet-based information now, and not surprisingly, Internet Explorer 7 (see my Beta 3 review) does offer this functionality. However, information published via RSS is pushed out to users, sort of like email, so some argue that you should use an email application to consume RSS-based information. Too, each post from an RSS feeds is conceptually similar to an email message. To satisfy this latter crowd, Microsoft is adding RSS support to Outlook 2007.

The smart thing here is that both IE 7 and Outlook 2007 will use the same RSS engine and data store. So if you're using both products, you can subscribe to a feed in IE 7 and view the feed posts in Outlook 2007 (or vice versa). The back-end data store is the same.

In Outlook 2007, RSS feeds are available via a new RSS Subscriptions node in the tree view that appears below All Mail Items in the Navigation pane (it's at the same level as Inbox, incidentally). You view RSS posts just like you do email, using Outlook's familiar Reading Pane. And because RSS feeds are pushed to you, like email, Outlook will continually ping your subscribed feeds and download new content as needed.

If you're curious about my take on RSS and where it should be consumed, I utilize a hybrid approach. Outlook is absolutely the right place to manage and view feeds. But since many RSS feeds only publish a small portion of each post, you'll often find yourself clicking on a link to view the rest. Those links, of course, open IE 7 (or your browser of choice).

Compatibility with previous PST formats

This one doesn't get the press it deserves, but I should mention one of the most important if unheralded new Outlook 2007 "features": The PST file used by this version of Outlook is the same as that used by Outlook 2003 and previous versions. That means you can move PST files back and forth between Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007 very easily, which is hugely important, especially during the beta period. Color categories (Outlook 2007) and labels (Outlook 2003 and earlier) even correctly move back and forth, which is nice.

Where Outlook 2007 fails

Outlook 2007 isn't perfect, of course. I find the hybrid user interface--in which the main Outlook application is old-school and resembles Outlook 2003's UI, with blue tubular toolbars, and the sub-windows use the new results-oriented UI--to have a slapped together feel. And don't get my started on those old-school toolbar icons: As with their predecessors, you can turn on large icons, but they look horrible. They really need to fix that.

As mentioned previously, the Auto Account Setup doesn't seem to work (at least not yet) on IMAP or POP3 accounts. That could be because of the mail services I access, I guess, or because it's just not ready yet in Beta 2. Stay tuned.

I've had serious reliability issues using Office 2007 Beta 2 on top of Windows Vista, and while I realize that this hasn't been the experience for a lot of readers, it's prevented me from using Office 2007 as much as I'd like. One of the most glaring issues I faced on my main notebook--which is where I use Outlook--is that the instant search feature just stopped working all together, refusing to find anything even though I could see potential hits right there in the Inbox. As with the previous complaint, I'm comfortable chalking this up to a beta issue, but I'll be looking to see how this reacts in later versions.

Finally, I'm a bit concerned that Microsoft has removed Outlook 2007 from the Office 2007 version of Office Student and Teacher Edition which, incidentally, has been renamed to Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007. Instead, this version will include OneNote 2007 (along with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), presumably because students take notes more than they manage schedules and email. I don't agree with that at all, and think Home and Student 2007 should include both Outlook and OneNote (and should drop PowerPoint, which is arguably contrary to the educational aspirations of this suite).

Conclusions

If you are an Outlook user, you will want to upgrade to Outlook 2007. Even in Beta 2 form, Outlook 2007 is a an amazingly feature-packed upgrade with truly useful enhancements like the To-Do Bar, instant searching, and deep task integration. It's worth repeating that I've only touched the surface of the changes to this release, and I'll be looking closer at other changes--like the massive improvements to Calendar and the product's Exchange integration--going forward. There is precious little downside to Outlook 2007.