If you depend upon Microsoft Outlook's e-mail and calendar, the 2007 version offers welcome changes that can save time and keep you on your toes. Microsoft renovated all of its Office applications for 2007, but many of these updates simply repackage existing features. By contrast, Outlook 2007 offers new features that could change the way you work. Admittedly, many of these tweaks are for ease of use and don't exactly reinvent this desktop e-mail client, but the changes enhance what Outlook already did well and make for a more elegant and practical experience overall.
Our installation of various Office editions on Windows XP computers took between 10 and 20 minutes, which was quicker than prior editions of Office. You'll have to be online to access services later, such as Help and How-To as well as Clip Art and document templates. Our review of Microsoft Office 2007 details the installation process and the ingredients of each edition. Under the hood, the Outlook Connector is mostly the same as in the past for setting up your e-mail. If you run Outlook 2007 on Windows XP, you'll either have to install its new Instant Search separately or keep the older search engine. Windows Vista users already have Instant Search through the included Windows Desktop Search.
Luckily for those upgrading, Microsoft has spiffed up the formerly drab, grey look of Outlook without rearranging most of its commands. Unlike the 2007 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Outlook 2007's main interface shuns the Ribbon toolbar and keeps its File, Edit, and other menus. That makes it easy to jump right in and start using Outlook 2007 if you're accustomed to an earlier version. The Ribbon emerges once you begin to compose a message or an appointment. Within the main window, a new, collapsible To-Do bar summarises your current appointments and tasks for the day.
When you compose an e-mail message, the tabbed Ribbon appears, allowing you to format the text as well as attach files, contacts, and images. A similar window appears when you schedule appointments, set up tasks, or edit individual contacts. Under the Options tab, you must choose HTML or Rich Text if you want to attach images. If you're working in plain text, the buttons for dressing up messages will fade. As with the layout of other Office 2007 programs, contextual tabs appear and disappear based upon your work at hand; for example, the picture-formatting menu shows up only once you've clicked on an image. Getting used to this can take some practice.
After using Outlook 2007 for several weeks, we found it hard to return to Outlook 2003 -- largely because we'd grown used to the ease of dragging e-mails to the calendar for scheduling, as well as seeing each day's tasks appear within the calendar. These little changes can be a big deal if Outlook is your messaging and scheduling nerve centre.
Items that you flag for follow up appear within the To-Do bar, and there's more flexibility in flagging. Just right-click the flag icon on an Outlook e-mail, and you can specify precisely when to follow up on a message. Forget to mark an item as complete? It rolls over to the next calendar day until you're finally finished. Right-click the rounded box that represents the Categories column for a specific e-mail message, and you can colour-code a message with multiple colours. This allows you to view scheduled items as a "heat map" on the calendar for a quick visual signal of what's hot on your to-do list. You can also set a Quick Click for Outlook to label messages with the colour of your choice by default when you click on its Categories box.
If you receive a message that sets off Outlook's alarm bells, the e-mail client prevents images and other suspicious content from loading until you allow it. Just click the warning message to open options for downloading the attached pictures and managing other security settings. When we clicked Change Automatic Download Settings from a suspicious Outlook e-mail message, we were taken to the Trust Center to pick which types of content to permit. Microsoft leaves the strictest settings on by default. You'll also receive a warning when you forward or reply to an e-mail message that Outlook's security settings have flagged.
Message composition is improved, especially when formatting an e-mail. Outlook's use of the tabbed Ribbon commands expands its capabilities. You can insert a photograph and preview live changes to it from a pull-down menu of styles. You can highlight text within an Outlook message, right-click on it, and quickly translate or find synonyms for the selected word. Still, it took us a couple of days to get used to the tabbed layout when we were writing e-mail messages.
Outlook 2007 lets you add RSS feeds within your list of folders so you can read your favorite news and blogs. You can match the feeds with those selected within Internet Explorer 7 but not within other browsers such as open-source Firefox.
Integration among applications has improved throughout Office 2007. For instance, if you receive a PowerPoint presentation attached to an e-mail in Outlook, right-clicking on the file name lets you preview a slide show. Similarly, you can preview documents from Word and Excel 2007 within an Outlook message. You can even highlight Excel columns and rows, although you can't edit them.
However, there are some downsides to Outlook 2007. We wish that it had tagging so we could organise e-mails by content, as Gmail does, rather than within folders. We found Outlook's Search Folders function for filtering less than intuitive. Also, many of the newsletters to which we subscribed were missing images and suffered from gaping blank spaces when read in Outlook 2007. In Outlook 2003, the same HTML e-mails looked polished and tight. That's because Outlook 2007 uses the same HTML standards as Word 2007 rather than those of Internet Explorer to render messages. Designers of newsletters and targeted e-mail advertising may have problems creating Outlook 2007-friendly content.
We like that Instant Search lets you pull down a list of criteria to drill down within a search, and it retrieved data faster than Outlook 2003 did. Instant Search is supposed to scour your messages, appointments, and RSS feeds, but it failed to find words within recent messages we had filed into Inbox subfolders.
Service and support
Boxed editions of Microsoft Office 2007 include a decent, 174-page Getting Started guide. Microsoft's online help is excellent, although we're displeased that Microsoft and other software makers are increasingly promoting do-it-yourself assistance. You can also pose questions to the large community of Microsoft Office users via free support forums and chats. Microsoft Office Diagnostics tool, included with Office 2007, is designed to detect and repair problems if something goes haywire.
Light users of Outlook are unlikely to need the changes offered by the 2007 version, but they may still benefit from the improved scheduling, message composition, and security. If Outlook is the nerve centre of your digital communications and scheduling and you've wished for more flexibility in its older versions, then we recommend this upgrade.