For many business users, Microsoft Outlook is the go-to client for email. That includes a good part of the more than 1 billion Office users worldwide. This update to Outlook 2013 sports a clean new look, more social integration, and a few nifty new gadgets, but it's not a revolutionary upgrade. Rather, it's a refinement that reinforces the Microsoft business communication client's position as the most powerful email, contact, and calendar software around.
Outlook 2013 is available either as part of the Office 365 subscription (£80 a year for up to 5 PCs), or the Office Home and Business or Office Professional suite (£175 and £320 respectively). Or you can buy Outlook 2013 standalone for £110, which doesn't seem like the best value for money, to say the least. Is Microsoft aware that one of its top competitors, Mozilla Thunderbird, is completely free, as are purely web-based services like Gmail and Microsoft's own Outlook.com?
All of the Office 2013 apps install on Windows 7 and Windows 8 only, so XP and Vista users will have to upgrade their OS if they want the new productivity suite. If you install from a disc, I highly recommend you run Windows Update; my installation of Office Professional Plus required several immediately. On first run, Outlook starts a setup wizard that gets your mailbox hooked up. It automatically figures out settings for the most common setups.
Though the upgrade to 2013 kept my Google Apps mail add-in along for the ride, it didn’t work, requiring reinstallation. In fact the Google Apps connector software doesn't address compatibility with Outlook 2013, so if you're an Apps user, you might want to hold off upgrading to 2013 until it does. Hotmail users, however, will be happy to learn that using their email in Microsoft’s program no longer requires a plugin.
Outlook 2013 dispenses with any and all window borders, for a truly modern appearance. It sports Windows 8’s cleaner, uncluttered look, with messages displayed in full-screen-width bars instead of the traditional small Windows message boxes.
Program modes like Mail, Calendar, and Tasks are represented by large text links at the bottom, and switching between them now utilises a smooth animated transition. Even better, you no longer have to switch: The new “sneak a peek” feature lets you hover the mouse over these outsize links to display a mini-view of your calendar, tasks, or contacts (a peek at the calendar is shown in the image below). Also, actual typing is now smoother because Outlook, like Word 2013, now uses hardware acceleration.
Outlook 2013 retains the ribbon button bar across the top of its window, though in the updated Windows 8 style. If you really hate the ribbon and would rather have all the space it takes for your email reading, an up arrow hides it. Above the ribbon is the smaller Quick Access toolbar, which, like the ribbon, you can customise to include just the functions you want – new email, paste style, and open file. These remain accessible even if you’ve hidden the ribbon, as do the five menu options – File, Home, Send/Receive, Folder, and View.
The inbox still includes a preview panel that you can place either below or to the right of the inbox. New for Office 2013/365 there are now All and Unread links at the top, which quickly switch you between viewing only fresh or all email. You can still choose to view your emails as conversations, in which case a triangle arrow lets you expand previous emails in the conversation. A reading view collapses the email list to let you concentrate on a message.
You can customise the interface somewhat, but you get more options if you're signed into a Microsoft account. A choice of background flourishes and three background choices – white, light grey, and dark grey – are available. But this is far less interface dressing up than you can achieve in Thunderbird with its add-on themes.
New for Outlook 2013
Aside from the pared down new look, Outlook has some fresh tricks as well. A couple of these derive their inspiration from recent mobile and web-based email. For example, Message Preview: This iPhone-like feature shows you the first couple of lines of the email body text for every message in the inbox, without making you open the mail. You can set this preview to one, two, or three lines of the beginning of the email, and it’s a handy ability to have.
Another new view feature comes from webmail: Inline replies. This saves you from having to open the individual message view to reply. It’s a bit different from Gmail’s inline replies, which, though they save you from opening a new message, still requires opening the message in the first place; with Outlook, you’re scanning a preview pane, which Gmail lacks.
Another set of helpers take their inspiration from the new Outlook.com webmail service – Quick Actions buttons right in the email entry let you accomplish frequently needed tasks like flagging or deleting the message without having to open it.
Search has also upped its game a bit in Outlook 2013: You can now search through not only email, but also through attachments, calendar appointments, and contacts. When you simply click into the search box above the inbox, the ribbon bar changes to Search mode, with buttons for From, Subject, Has Attachments, and search tools such as the Advanced Find, which lets you specify all the search criteria you'd ever want.
Outlook was already pretty strong in the contact management department, but the 2013 version adds more visual appeal and lets you start communicating in every imaginable way, including not just email but also via IM, and even phone. You can also schedule a meeting, either using Microsoft Lync or in person. Hook your contact list up with LinkedIn, and you'll see a person’s smiling face picture on their contact page. You can also see recent social updates from the contact, and add notes for him or her. A nice tool lets you link contacts for which you have more than one entry. The quick peek from any view in Outlook pops up your favourites when you hover the mouse over the big People link at the bottom.
Outlook 2013's Calendar still gives you colour-coded multiple calendars and scheduling. There are calendar groups, shared calendars, and you can publish a calendar directly to a WebDAV server. You can also open downloaded calendars in ICS format, and share a part or all of your calendar via email, with the option to restrict it to working hours that you specify.
You can now also schedule a Lync meeting from inside Outlook's calendar view, if you've subscribed to Microsoft's communications platform. The biggest addition for calendars is really the new weather bar. But that only shows weather for today and tomorrow, not for any day you select on the calendar; it does let you see forecasts for up to five cities, though.
Tasks is one of the less beautified new sections of Outlook 2013, but you can now sync between Outlook and Outlook.com. You can also not only set tasks for yourself, complete with due dates, recurrence, and colour-coded categories, but you can create a task request for a co-worker, and even include billing info.
Outook 2013 still includes the vast majority of features its users have become used to: Built-in RSS subscription reading, full support for Exchange capabilities, signatures, search folders, mailbox clean-up, junk mail filtering, spell checking, stationery, notifications, auto-archiving, and too many other features to mention in this review. One of my favourites is the Ignore button, which saves me from seeing more emails in a thread I'm not interested in.
One thing that unfortunately remains the same is printing, which still suffers by comparison with other Office apps by hiding the choice for printing just the visible page. You can, however, print the view of your inbox as well as just individual emails – a useful capability.
But a few things have been changed or removed. Exchange Server accounts will no longer deliver items to PST files, but instead to the disk-space-saving compressed OST format. You’ll still be able to export to PST, however, but not to Outlook 97-2002 format. Speaking of exporting, you can no longer export directly to Excel or Access format, but you can still export to CSV format.
A couple of features that still exist have had their profiles lowered, including Journal and Notes, which, though still available, don't appear on the ribbon. Finally, Exchange Server offline mode is no longer available, but you can use Cached Exchange Mode in its place. None of this is likely to affect most people’s upgrade decision, but these issues may of course affect some Outlook customers.
Outlook 2013 gets a clean new look, and operates more smoothly. Even deeper social network connections and a few new conveniences make it a top notch email application. But Outlook by itself is probably not sufficient reason to upgrade to Office 2013 or Office 365; it's more of a tag-along benefit. The standalone price of £110 is simply too high, but most users will get it with their £80 a year Office 365 subscription or Office 2013 suite.
If your company uses Microsoft Exchange or even Google Apps, you'd be hard-pressed to find better email software. However, if you're just looking for an email client alone, consider the impressive Mozilla Thunderbird, as while that app lacks many of Outlook’s wealth of tools and social connectors, it has one big advantage – namely that it’s free.