Outlook 2007 Gets Mixed Reviews

While most readers like Microsoft's latest e-mail client, some say it's still not ready for prime time.

For the most part, Outlook 2007 is a solid update to a familiar workhorse. That's the general sentiment of readers who have used the new version. Of all the Office 2007 applications, Outlook has changed the least in terms of user interface. There's still the familiar File, Edit and View menu options, not the ribbon interface that's a hallmark of the other Office 2007 apps.

That lack of change is a good thing for most. Whereas the other Office apps require a significant investment of time and training, Outlook is fairly straightforward. "Overall, there's not a huge difference from an end user standpoint, and I think that's a good thing," says Mike Roeser, IT administrator at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Outlook is fairly easy to get up and running as well, say readers, especially with its improved auto account setup features. "When you configure Outlook 2007, it actually pulls in configuration settings based on your login information to Active Directory," says John Sullivan, director of IT for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing in New York. "That helps our desktop guys because it saves them a couple of minutes on each desktop. It's basically two clicks to get Outlook set up at that point."

Auto account also works well for hotmail and other well-known services. "If you use hotmail, it already knows the servers to enter and add for your account, so it's pretty easy," he says.

Still, others have had problems deploying Outlook 2007 in a corporate setting. "You can't apply [Group Policy Objects] the same way you could in the past," says Frank Callanan, co-owner of Webletechs, a consultancy in Carmel, N.Y. "You can't apply GPOs individually based on users anymore." Callanan uses Outlook 2007 with Vista, but says most of his clients run it on XP.

Others can't seem to get Outlook deployed at all. Bob Milhaus, a contract IT service desk analyst at the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C., says that ever since he deployed Outlook on his XP machine, it's been one headache after another. "It's slow, it's unstable, and it has a tendency to crash," he says. "I wouldn't recommend it quite yet."

Justin Carlson, director of IT at Maryland Office Interiors Inc., an office furniture dealer in Baltimore, had a similar story specific to Outlook's new instant search. "When you install instant search for Outlook 2007, it's a performance drag. And if you're a network administrator and want to install the Exchange tools, it completely breaks and won't work," he says. "Here I am, the guy trying to kick the tires, and I can't test the search functionality. That didn't make me very happy."

New and Indeed Improved
A few of Outlook 2007's new features make the move worth the effort, say most readers. Among those are the ability to preview attachments, perform fast e-mail searches, the new To-Do Bar, and its enhanced mobile and calendaring capabilities.

Previews are big in Outlook 2007, much as they are in the other new Office apps. Readers say this greatly improves efficiency. "I constantly have people sending me Excel spreadsheets with quotes for my budget," Sullivan says. "It's not something I need to edit; I just need to see a couple of numbers. Using the preview feature, I don't have to launch another application."

It also bolsters security. "With preview, you no longer open up your system to different viruses," Callanan says. "Now, it's in a protected area until you've had a chance to see what exactly has been sent to you."

Others say the feature that convinced them to make the upgrade to 2007 is instant search. "The search capabilities built into Outlook are incredible," says Todd Bailey, systems administrator at Aplicare Inc., a pharmaceutical company in Meriden, Conn. "It saves you an immeasurable amount of time every day, especially when you're dealing with unusually large mailboxes. If I was recommending that someone go from 2003 to 2007 and they're in a business enterprise environment, that would be the number one reason to switch-for that search capability."

Bailey says the search is very fast, especially when paired with Vista's indexing function. In fact, it starts returning search results even before he finishes typing a query. "Literally, as you type, it gives you results," Bailey says.

Sullivan agrees that the new search function is a huge improvement. "Most of the people here have 4GB or 5GB of archive folders, and going back and finding a press release from two or three years ago is something they need to do on a daily basis," Sullivan says. "So this is definitely a big improvement over XP and Office 2003 with regard to indexing and searching. It literally takes just seconds now with Vista and 2007."

Search also works fairly well on XP. One caveat for XP users, though: they first need to download and install a program called Windows Desktop Search.

"If you have Windows XP and you don't install Windows Desktop Search, you're definitely not going to get the same experience as you would using Vista," Bailey says. "Once you install it, you get close to the same speed and experience."

That could be the problem for some readers who are less than enamored with the new search features. For example, Milhaus eventually removed Windows Desktop Search because it kept crashing Outlook. Carlson says the search capability is far less impressive than a third-party search tool he used with Outlook 2003 called LookOut.

Incidentally, Microsoft bought LookOut and that's the technology upon which it based its current search function. "They stripped it down. It doesn't work as well, it doesn't index your entire Outlook database, and it's slow," Carlson says of LookOut in its new incarnation. "You can tweak it to make it actually look at your entire account, but that's annoying. I can't get visibility into my data."

Carlson says he has tried Google Desktop search, but cautions that the Google tool and Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search don't play well together and end up crashing your system. Now, he uses a different third-party tool from Copernic Inc. to handle searches. "In my opinion, Microsoft search for Outlook is completely deficient and inadequate," he says.

Outlook 2007 Wish List

Although Outlook 2007 sports a bevy of upgrades, there are four features readers would have really liked to see in the newest version of Microsoft's e-mail client:

1. Integrated training: Most say the current tutorials and training options aren't up to the task of getting users comfortable with Outlook 2007. "One feature I'd like to see either online or within the system itself is some kind of self-tutorial training," says Greg Art, director of product development at Aplicare Inc. in Meriden, Conn. "How do I do X? How do I assign a task to somebody and how do I track it -- those kinds of things. What are my options for views? It would be really nice to have a really simple tutorial that people could go to and easily understand."

2. Domain blocking: Most readers are happy with the improved junk-mail filters within Outlook 2007, but say one feature is missing. "When you're in your inbox, and you right-click on an e-mail, the options for junk mail are there but they don't allow you to block the domain," says John Sullivan, director of IT for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing. "From there, you can only block the sender ... I'd prefer to be able to block a domain right from the e-mail."

3. Easier public folders: "In both versions, it's not easy for the average user to jump over to see public folders," says Todd Bailey, systems administrator at Aplicare. "And that's not necessarily just 2007, because they did it in 2003. You have to actually change your view to the folderless view and then scroll down and expand and this and that, rather than just adding it to one of the main buttons they already have. It's not very intuitive."

4. One more calendar view: Although most agree the calendars in Outlook 2007 are greatly improved, readers say there is one feature missing. "If you're in a month view, it only shows a limited number of events each day, maybe four or five total," Bailey says. "The only way to see more events is to click on the small arrow pointing down, and then it changes the view and goes to the single day view. That makes it more difficult because then you have to jump back to the month view that you typically use. It would be better if that day popped up as a separate window temporarily and went away when you took your mouse away from it." -J.C.

Facelift for Calendars
Beyond search, Outlook's next most popular improvement is the new calendaring functionality, especially the ability to overlay two calendars to see conflicts and optimal meeting times.

"We have a public calendar where we post different events, when people are going on vacation, product launches, anything like that," Bailey says. "I like the fact that you can have two calendars side by side, but there's also a feature where you can actually put the two calendars on top of each other."

Teresa Rader, administrative assistant to the director of IT development and engineering at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., agrees. "I have my personal calendar, I have three meeting room calendars, and I have access to other people's calendars so that I can see where they are if someone comes looking for them," she says. "The overlay feature is nice in that I can overlay any calendar on top of any other. You can overlay all the calendars and come up with a block of time when everybody is free much faster."

You can now drag-and-drop e-mails directly into calendars, which readers say is a big time-saver. "That's a neat feature because you can take an e-mail [and] rather than going into the calendar, clicking new meeting and so on, you can just take the e-mail and drag it right into the calendar," Sullivan says. "Then it pops up with the contents of the e-mail and you can see exactly what it is."

It's also easier to share calendars in 2007. "Sharing a calendar is easier and more intuitive now," Roeser says. "You can now send the calendar via e-mail, and that's not something you could do as easily in 2003."

To-Do Bar Works Well
Another of Outlook 2007's new features is the To-Do Bar, which runs down the right side of the screen in the inbox view. It shows a small monthly calendar, upcoming appointments and a task list. It's designed to let users be more productive by letting them see and handle several tasks from one main view.

"It gives you a snapshot look of everything you have going on with regards to calendar tasks and contacts, recent
e-mails and all that," Sullivan says. He notes that with previous versions of Outlook, he had to buy a third-party tool to achieve the same functionality. "So 2007 has let me eliminate a software package," he says. "I only had five or six people using it, but we don't need it anymore because of the To-Do Bar."

Bailey agrees that the To-Do bar is a big help. "That's nice to be able to see that information without having to go to the calendar," he says. "It's a time-saver."

Going Mobile
Callanan says the biggest change he's noticed since moving himself and some of his clients to 2007 is that mobile users are far happier. "They're the ones who tend to complain the most because they need access to things all the time," he says. "And everything's easier in 2007."

Microsoft significantly upgraded the synchronization tools in Outlook 2007 to make the process more seamless. "The upgrade has been solid, and everybody I've dealt with has had no issues keeping things synchronized between devices, laptops and portables or a desktop and a portable," Callanan says. "I don't see the issues we had in the past trying to set up synchs either through all the different wizards or the third-party applications to do it. It just works now."

Mobile users also see a speed increase. "It definitely cuts down on the time it takes for an e-mail to clear and be able to be viewed on a mobile device," he says. "It used to be that e-mail came in and your virus scanner would have to hit it, and then your spam blocker would hit it, and by the time it loaded, three or four minutes had gone by. That's not the case anymore. Now, as soon as Outlook loads, it's done everything. Everything pops up and it does everything on the fly, so you don't need to wait for a second or even third application to kick in and do something before you view e-mail."

Microsoft Outlook 2007

Mixed Opinions
Overall, most readers seem happy with the new Outlook. "Normally, you see people complaining about upgrades, but I haven't noticed that with Outlook 2007," Callanan says. "Everyone seems fairly comfortable and I haven't heard any real complaints."

Others who have struggled to get the new Outlook up and running have a different opinion. "I use Outlook 2007 every day, but I'm seriously thinking of using something else now," Milhaus says. "Either that or the next computer I buy will be a Mac, because I will not personally go to Vista. Or I will just switch my computer over to Linux, and go with Evolution [for e-mail]. I just don't think Outlook and Office 2007 are ready for prime time."


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