This is one of the latest and best creations in the history of mail-programs. It can really piss me off when it won't load my mail or it loads them in the wrong order, place, time, but with a little time spent on setting up things correctly it can be used easily, comfortably, with no filtering needed. It is the Microsoft's number one mail program, and it's worth using. If you have a problem, you can even go on the web and track down the solution - from inside the program. It is a bit put of date, although, since Outlook 2007 (Office 2007) beta version has been released.
Microsoft Outlook 2003 has been with us for a few years now. It is Microsoft's latest solution for managing e-mail, contacts, schedules, tasks and notes. It comes bundled with Office 2003 for a hefty price of £360 or can be purchased separately for around £85. However, if you buy Office 2003 Standard for Student & Teacher Edition you can expect to pay around £90 and you get Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Outlook 2003, which seems a better investment. This review has mainly been based on the Professional version which has some added functionality. Some of the tools and features mentioned may only be useful to you if you use this version at work or are planning to upgrade to this version in the future, but you still find a lot of helpful stuff for home use. It is worth pointing out that Outlook is not just an e-mail client, as it is a much more powerful tool used for all kinds of management as you will be soon to discover.
Setup & installation
Depending on whether you have bought Outlook as part of an Office package or standalone, the initial installation will obviously be a lot different. If you have purchased the Office suite then it will normally be installed as a separate component. It takes about 10 minutes or so to install Office after you have entered the serial number and agreed to the terms and conditions depending on the specification of your PC. If you have Office 2003 installed but not the Outlook component, then you can easily go into 'Add or Remove Programs' and choose to modify the installation and check the box next to Outlook to have this installed. If you are installing Outlook as standalone then I expect this installation to be a lot quicker, maybe less than 2 or 3 minutes.
Once Outlook is installed and you have run it for the first time, you will be presented with a setup wizard that will guide you through what type of e-mail you want to setup. In a business environment this will be via an exchange server where you specify the server name and your user credentials but for home use you would normally choose the POP3 option for most ISPs or HTTP for msn or hotmail accounts. If you have an e-mail address already setup with your ISP, such as NTL or BT, then you will be required to enter the POP (incoming), SMTP (outgoing) and username & password details. You will then be ready to go and free to organise and manage your e-mails till your heart's content.
The one factor that will persuade you to purchase this new version of Outlook is dependant on what it has to offer in comparison to previous versions, so here's what's new in Outlook 2003.
One of the newest features of Outlook 2003 is the offline or cached mode that becomes active if your e-mail server or ISP connection goes down. This is supposed to work so that you can continue to send e-mails (which get transferred to your drafts) without getting error messages telling you that your e-mails could not be sent or there is a problem. You will notice that 'offline' is displayed down in the bottom right corner of Outlook and if your connection was to be re-established then this will change to 'online'. Your e-mails you have sent since your connection has gone down will remain in the drafts folder until the connection is back online, at which point your e-mails will be sent to their destination automatically. The cached mode will also continue to display all your e-mails in your inbox which is normally located on the mail server and all your contacts, schedules, tasks and notes information.
This is mainly designed so that you can continue to work without being hampered by 3rd party network problems that are usually out of your control.
Layout & Design
The grouping of e-mails into order consisting of date, subject, sender, size, attachments and much more with use of expanding them from collapsed columns is a great idea. Now, if you were to sort by date for example which is the default, you will see a list of columns sorted into groups with headings such as 'Last Week', 'Yesterday' and 'Today', which makes them easier to read and manage. The collapsed columns are a great way to show more of your e-mails on one screen with less use of having to scroll up and down.
I think they have also vastly improved the layout of Outlook as you can now set it up so that you can clearly preview your e-mails in the right hand side pane of Outlook with your list of e-mails on the left. This could not be done in previous versions of Outlook, as you could enable a preview pane but this would only fill half of the screen, whereas Outlook 2003 shows a full page which is available from just one mouse click on your e-mail.
As with most Microsoft product updates, you'll be so pleased to know that the colours have been improved! Like it or not, colours of folders and e-mails are now even crisper than before so it looks nice and pretty. It's not as if we needed it but I suppose it does look a lot better.
If you use outlook 2003 at work then you will probably already be aware of the calendar functions and how to gain access to a colleague's calendar (set with permissions). In previous versions you had to add an additional inbox to your e-mail profile and assuming you had permissions set on the other person's inbox, you would be able to open up their calendar to view dates and appointments etc. The only problem with this was that you could only view one calendar at a time on one page, so if you wanted to compare your dates with a colleague's dates, you would be constantly flicking back and forth from one to the other which was quite annoying. Outlook 2003 gives you a checkbox list of calendars you are currently connected to and if you tick the ones you want, they will be shown side-by-side on one page, which makes it much easier to read and compare. There's even a better range of colours to use for appointments so that they stand out from one another.
Junk E-mail Filter
Junk e-mail is also another problem that we all get and Outlook 2003 tries to combat this by automatically filtering junk e-mail into your junk e-mail folder. Microsoft has developed some state-of-the-art technology which evaluates whether a message should be treated as junk e-mail based on several factors outlined in the 'Junk e-mail filter'. I believe this works by picking out common phrases that spam e-mails would normally contain, such as Viagra and Penis enlargement to name just a few. It will also take into account the time the message was sent and the message structure. The filter by default is set to a low setting which is setup to catch the most obvious spam. You can change the settings of this to be more aggressive with content or even set it up so that junk e-mail is deleted as soon as it comes in. I have witnessed this working to a degree, as I've seen a few e-mails which are spam get filtered into the junk e-mail folder but there are still a few I regard as spam that don't get filtered out. I guess you need to really have a good look at the filter settings and tighten things up to benefit from it.
Safe & Blocked Sender's Lists
So what happens if someone you know sends you an e-mail that is treated as spam? It shouldn't normally happen, I've not seen it happen to me yet but you can add the senders address to your 'Safe Senders List' which the Junk e-mail filter will ignore. What is also great is that people in your contacts list are never treated as spam, so if you have all your friends and colleagues in your contacts list you never have to worry about it.
If you want to tie your e-mail down even more then you can add a list of e-mail addresses or domain names to your 'Blocked Senders List'. So if you find an e-mail containing spam that slips through the filter then you can add this to the list and never get an e-mail off them again.
As more and more spam e-mails are created everyday from new domains or senders, it is a good idea to keep your Outlook 2003 client up to date with a periodic Microsoft update, just like you would for an anti-virus or anti-spam program.
Rules & Customisation
The 'rules' wizard has also been vastly improved with Outlook 2003 whereby it is now even simpler to configure your e-mail to do what you want them to do. Rules are very useful for organising your e-mails in a structured way, so if you like to keep separate folders under your Inbox relating to different aspects of work, then you can fully configure your rules to shift e-mails to the right folders. The amount of rule settings has increased so you now get an even wider choice of controls and exceptions. If you use Outlook 2003 from home, then you might wish to have separate folders setup for different friends so that the rules you have setup will pass all e-mails from certain e-mail addresses into the corresponding folders. One word of warning when setting up rules is not to make them too complicated, as you will find that your e-mails might disappear out of your Inbox and into other folders making them hard to find.
Customisation tends to be a key element these days with most new pieces of software and Outlook 2003 is no different. Tying back into the rules again, you could use the rules to customise different colours to appear for different e-mails. So if you wanted e-mails from Ebay for example to appear in red, this is easily done.
The preview pane is great for some but others might not like it, so this is easily adjusted to half page or turned off completely. If you find that the preview pane slows down your PC due to it trying to display all the e-mail's image contents etc then you can choose for outlook not to display the pictures automatically which speeds things up.
We still have the familiar Outlook shortcuts where you can create links to various functions or folders but strangely, the shortcut page is a button in itself and you can also add and remove buttons which are used as links. Surely this would have been easier to have one or the other and not both.
The 'folder sizes' hyperlink that is included under your folders list is a useful quick link for checking what folders are using up the most space on your e-mail. This is also helpful if you are trying to find a lost e-mail that might be quite large in size due to attachments.
Voting buttons & Quick Flags
One of my favourite Outlook tools is the voting buttons. Although not new in this version of Outlook, I'm still glad they haven't got rid of it. This may come in very handy if you are due to organise your Christmas party at work for example. With the voting buttons you could create several location venues as buttons that will appear on the recipient's e-mail. If you then sent this out to your office they can all click which location they would prefer using the corresponding button and a vote is then tallied for that person. The sender in this case would then get a response back indicating what location that person has chosen. By clicking on the button indicating that person's choice, this will bring up a results sheet, indicating who has selected which location in a spreadsheet-like format. This feature is so simple and easy to use and saves so much time entering data manually into spreadsheets. One note to remember is that the buttons will not appear in a preview of an e-mail, as you have to go into the e-mail to see them. I think Outlook 2003 has been improved whereby if someone was to vote more than once, it will only count the latest one as a single vote. On previous versions you could vote as many times as you want in order to offset the results, which was a bit of a loophole.
The quick flags feature is a nice addition that improves the way you can tag messages. If you have some important project or question that you need to deal with later in your mailbox but don't want to forget about them or accidentally delete them, then this feature will be of great use to you. By right clicking on the flag icon next to your e-mail, you can assign it a coloured flag (maybe blue relating to one project or purple relating to your lottery syndicate). You can then arrange your e-mails in anyway you like, even put them in separate folders, knowing that your most important ones are already flagged. They can be retrieved by using the new 'Search Folders' feature to display them all with the click of a button nicely arranged in flag order.
A handy feature that is useful in a business environment is the Information Rights Management (IRM). With this tool you can reduce the risk of confidential e-mails and attachments being viewed or edited by unauthorised personnel. This is done by specifying who can receive files in an e-mail and setting restrictions on copying, forwarding and printing.
In previous versions of Outlook there was a small envelope icon that would appear in your taskbar to notify you of new mail if Outlook was running in the background. Outlook 2003 takes this further whereby it displays a pop-up as well as an icon showing the sender, subject heading of the e-mail and the first few lines of the e-mail known as the Desktop Alerts feature. You can even open or delete the message from this notification window which saves you having to flick back to Outlook.
If you are lucky enough to own a tablet PC and like using the pen to write instead of the keyboard, then you can use Outlook 2003 to do the same by using the Inking support tool. This allows you to use your digital pen to annotate files and write e-mails in your own handwriting (ideal for a signature). I've seen this being done by someone who owns a tablet PC and seems like a very handy tool.
There are so many more tools available in Outlook 2003, but to cover them all would probably fill a 100 page document. I've tried to include the points which most people will find useful and interesting and hopefully show you how much of an improvement it really is. If you ask me if it's worth upgrading, I would definitely say yes. If you're worried about losing any data if upgrading from an older version you shouldn't be. Outlook 2003 still has the common file extensions for Personal Folders (.pst) and Personal Address Books (.pab) so you can quite easily link in your old address books and personal folders without any major issues. If you do get corruption problems with these file types you can always use the Inbox Repair Tool (scanpst) to correct errors.