Outlook 98: A Refreshing New Outlook for 98

Outlook, the ugly duckling of the Microsoft Office suite, has finally been upgraded and is available for download from Microsoft Corp.'s home on the Web. Its improvements in performance and ease-of-use may not have turned the package into a graceful swan just yet, but for many corporate environments, it now deserves careful consideration.

Microsoft describes Outlook 98 as a desktop information manager. It combines a sophisticated electronic mail client with a calendar, contact manager, To Do list, journal and sticky note pad. The new version comes as an upgrade to the product first shipped as part of the Office 97 suite.

Installing the new version of Outlook from the Internet is tempting but requires a time-consuming download from busy Web servers. We found it difficult to use the same installation files on multiple machines and were forced to install from the Internet instead of a local server. Installing from a CD copy of the product proved to be well worth the $14.95 investment.

Once installed, Outlook 98 adapts easily to its new environment. It can automatically detect a previously installed copy of Netscape Communications Corp.'s Mail and Messenger or Qualcomm Inc.'s Eudora series of messaging clients. The installation wizard asks if you want to convert the messages and folders from the existing products and transfer your contact information and Internet mail configurations. In so doing, we needed to do very little manual cleanup after the conversion.

As a mail client, Outlook 98 has become a formidable presence. Reflecting Exchange's recent Internet mail improvements, Outlook 98 is a client with multiple personalities: an effective client in corporate Exchange networks as well as in Internet-based mail networks. The user interface for mail is extremely customizible, allowing you to use a series of predefined views or develop your own. A typical Outlook 98 workspace can also provide automatic previews of messages in a small panel at the bottom of the screen. There's no need to actually open the messages to get a glimpse of their contents.

Outlook 98 has dramatically upgraded its rules and filtering engine to help users bring order to their incoming mail. A well-designed Rules Wizard enables even novice users to build mail filters through a simple, nontechnical interface. The Rules Wizard is complemented by a spam and adult e-mail filter engine that we found very simple to use, but sadly ineffective in practice.

Outlook has always attempted to move beyond electronic mail into the realm of scheduling and contact management. The Outlook 98 client's scheduling tool will be the second most useful feature for those in enterprise networks. Microsoft has paid attention to the way people actually work with a personal information manager by allowing users to open the scheduling and calendar tools without having to discard the current view. If you are churning through your incoming mail and receive a request to join a meeting, you can simply open the calendar in an entirely new window, check the meeting time and then return to your undisturbed mail window.

Outlook's emphasis on ease of use extends to all aspects of the product through a feature called Organize. Organize neatly inserts itself into your current view so that you don't have to switch between windows to take advantage of the wizard's features. When we used the Organize feature with mail we were impressed by how easily we could arrange, code and filter messages without having to learn a scripting language. In territory that might be less familiar to a user, the Organize feature really shines, making complex management of contacts and scheduling as easy as moving through a few nontechnical dialogs.

The original version was widely condemned because of its slow operation with Exchange servers, poor integration with Internet mail and notoriously resource-hungry operation. In large networks with busy servers -- and on client machines with large personal information stores -- Outlook was slow to load and move between functions. We compared a client running the older version of Outlook against a similar client running the new version and found that program startup had improved dramatically. Switching between tasks -- for instance, moving between the mail client and the contact manager -- has also been improved, but not as much as program startup. Starting up Word as your electronic mail editor, once an opportunity to take a coffee break, is now more efficient. Outlook is still not nimble, but this new version is an improvement.

Outlook 98's $109 ticket, or lack of a price tag for upgrades, hides the substantial workstation and support cost of the Outlook platform. For corporate networks with an existing investment in Outlook 97 or Exchange-based mail systems, the upgrade is free, so the decision should be a cinch: Outlook 98 is faster, more powerful and easier to use. For those organizations looking for a mail client integrated with personal management tools, Outlook has finally become a worthy competitor in the marketplace. Those looking only for an Internet mail client will probably find Outlook's features to be a bit overkill. For them, Outlook 98's smaller cousin, Outlook Express, might make a better choice.