Just about year ago, I swore to myself that I was going to walk away from Microsoft Outlook forever. It was a tough call, as I relied on its Personal Information Management (PIM) features, especially Contacts and Calendar, but was tired of the constant security problems. I examined a number of alternatives, including the Mozilla Web browser suite and Apple's iCal, but nothing worked as well. And then I saw Outlook 11 Beta 1, which later became Outlook 2003. And I'm not leaving. This Outlook version isn't just the most radically changed application in Office 2003, it's also the best all-around email and PIM client I've seen. Here are the features in Outlook 2003 that made me forget all about the competition.

Redesigned user interface

For the first time since its inception, the Outlook user interface has been overhauled to be more efficient and, dare I say it, much more attractive than previous versions (Figure). Like other Office 2003 applications, Outlook picks up the color of the underlying OS theme (typically a blue, green, or silver color in Windows XP) and uses weird, nonsensical tubular toolbars instead of the standard system toolbars, which I would have preferred. And, like other Office 2003 applications, each of the toolbar icons, program icons, and so forth have been dramatically updated, creating an overall look that visually pleasing and quite an upgrade from previous versions. You really feel like you're getting something new.

There are other small changes in the UI as well. The reviled Favorites menu is gone, saving me from deleting it manually myself (someone please explain why I want IE favorites in my email/PIM application), replaced by a new Go menu, which features links to Outlooks components, such as Email, Contacts, and Calendar.

But the most dramatic change to Outlook is staring at your right, front, and center. The previous application layout, which was compromised of two basic columns, has been replaced by a new three-pane layout while in Email mode (Figure). The left-most pane, called the Navigation Pane, includes is specific to the component which you're currently using (typically Email) and it replaces the old Outlook Bar and/or Folder View. In Email view, the Navigation Pane features a list of most-often accessed mail folders, and a list of mail folders. At the bottom, regardless of which component is currently accessible, you'll see a new set of view bars showing you the various Outlook components so you can, say, switch to Calendar or Contacts quickly. The point of the Navigation Pane is to hide the physical folder view and replace it with a logical component view that is specific to the way you work. In other words, you no longer have to think like Outlook to be efficient in Outlook.

The center pane in this three-pane layout provides a view of the currently-selected email folder, typically your Inbox. I'll describe this pane in more detail in the next section, but it can be filtered and organized in various ways that are much more powerful than previous Outlook versions. The rightmost pane is the new Reading Pane (called the Preview Pane during the beta), which provides 40 percent more area for email viewing when compared to Outlook 2002, according to Microsoft. Regardless of the actual figure, you can now read most email messages without scrolling, which is sweet, and because it's been infused with Microsoft's ClearType technology, those emails are better-looking and easier to read than ever before. (Note that ClearType only works on LCD screens).

Other Outlook components have been improved less dramatically. The Contacts and Tasks modules, for example, look almost identical to previous versions. Calendar has seen slight improvements, but I discuss those below.

Overall, the new Outlook 2003 user interface is excellent, and a huge improvement over previous versions. It's so good, in fact, that I will never go back and I find it painful having to briefly use Outlook 2002 or other mail programs when the need arises.

Email views

With its new three-pane layout, Outlook is a much better email client than previous versions, but there are many other changes that contribute to this improvement. The most obvious occurs in the center pane, where you can configure Outlook to display your email messages in various ways. I've chosen to display my email in groups, which provides me with headings for "Today," "Yesterday," and various days of the week beyond that, as well as "Last week," "Two weeks ago," and so. This segregation makes managing lots of email easier, because each day's mail is visually distinct.

You can also view email by certain criteria, as in the past. I choose to view only unread mail, sorted by date, for example, but you might choose to arrange email by size, subject, or whatever, or define your own custom view. Sadly, these changes caused Microsoft to move various menu options into deeper subfolders, making it more time-consuming for me to switch between "unread mail in this folder" and "all messages" (Figure). But my email organization skills are a byproduct of less advanced clients. What Microsoft really wants you to do, is use Outlook's pseudo-database capabilities to create virtual views into your email. These virtual views are called Search Folders, and though I'm having trouble adjusting to this concept, I'll work on it. I suspect they'll work great for people who aren't so stuck in their ways.

Junk email controls

Finally, Outlook offers pervasive junk email controls, negating the need for complicated and ineffective Rules to handle email you don't want to receive. Outlook's junk email controls let you choose a level of protection (no protection, low, high, or Safe Lists only), determine whether junk mail is permanently deleted or moved to a Junk Email folder, configure Safe Senders, Safe Recipients, and Blocked Senders lists, determined whether to automatically trust email sent from people in your Contacts lists, and import and export the various lists it maintains (Figure). It's all very complete, and I'm told it works very well if you use a POP3 or Exchange email account. Sadly, I use IMAP email, and since I don't move mail through the local Inbox folder, Outlook refuses to parse my email for spam. I'm hoping this gets fixed for the final release, but now I'm not so sure.

Somewhat improved Calendar

I spend more time than I care to admit in Outlook's Calendar module, and the version in Outlook 2003 is somewhat updated over previous versions (Figure). For example, Calendar is visually more interesting than in previous versions, thanks to a new color scheme; best of all, that color scheme is configurable (Figure). It's not as pretty as the Calendar in MSN 8.5, but it's getting there. Also, you can publish your calendars to a Web site, which is pretty cool though the resulting file can't be subscribed to or automatically updated. Also, it's arguably not the most attractive thing in the world.

Sadly, many of the best new Calendar features are unavailable if you're not using Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. While Outlook does let you create multiple calendars and view them side-by-side (Figure), you can't share calendars with other people unless you're using Exchange. That stinks. I'd also like to see Microsoft adopt some of the Internet calendaring standards now used by Apple iCal and Mozilla Calendar. It'd be nice to share Calendars with people not using Outlook/Exchange.

Ink Email

For the Tablet PC aficionados out there, Outlook 2003 now supports Digital Ink natively for email messages (Figure). This means that you can send handwritten email, which can be mildly annoying to the receiver if she doesn't use a tablet as well. But we can debate the future of Digital Ink elsewhere: It's nice that Outlook now natively supports this feature.

Final thoughts

I live in email all day, every day, and it's crucial that my email program work the way I work and perform efficiently. Outlook 2003 does this and more, with fantastic new organizational tools, a brilliant new layout, and a ClearType-enabled Reading Pane that makes reading email less painful. Outlook's other tools have seen only minor improvements, but that's not a deal-killer. Overall, Outlook 2003 is the best email and PIM client available on any platform, and a tool I miss when it's not available on the machine I'm using. Outlook 2003 is reason enough to upgrade to Office 2003, but you will also be able to purchase this product separately when Office and Outlook 2003 ship in October 2003.