One of the biggest trends in technology lately has been the fusion of many devices into one. Why have just a regular cell phone when you can get a built in PDA too? Likewise, what good is that refrigerator if you cant order your groceries on it? When looking at computer software, we can see Microsofts attempt at product integration in the longstanding Microsoft Outlook line. As of the latest version, Outlook is currently a calendar, address book, organizer, task list, and a management tool for offices. Oh, and of course, its also an e-mail client.
The question to ask is whether or not Outlooks many roles make it a good choice, and for the most part the answer is yes. While the product occasionally suffers from the jack-of-all-trades, master of none syndrome, the tight combination of features, as well as the softwares ability to cooperate with other Microsoft Office products makes it a good all around application. Average users may find that Outlook (and its price) is geared more towards a professional lifestyle, and this is true, but for power users and those already purchasing the Office suite, Outlook is the obvious choice.
Outlook: An E-mail Client
As already stated, Outlook is a mammoth when it comes to features. Similar to Microsofts overall business strategy, Outlook will not settle for anything but complete coverage of your daily tasks. In fairness, however, using a copy of Outlook without taking advantage of its full feature set would be a waste; this is not the product for someone who is looking for simply an e-mail client.
However, the largest or at least key aspect of Outlook is in fact its e-mail features. When launched for the first time, Office asks you to add your e-mail accounts into its database. Outlook is capable of seamlessly handling different types of accounts, including POP3, IMAP, and web mail servers such as Hotmail. This is a nice option because it means that all of your sources of mail are brought to one central location for easy handling. Once mail has been downloaded to your computer, you may read and manipulate it as you see fit.
When it comes to viewing and sending mail, you will find Outlook similar to most all e-mail clients as they generally work the same way. You have the option of using Microsoft Word to view and write your mail (if it is installed), a nice choice due to its ability to use tables and more dynamic message elements easily. Another nice quality here is that the mail aspect of Outlook is integrated well with the programs other features, allowing you to easily book an appointment received by e-mail to your tasks list, among other things.
Outlook: A Calendar
One of the features of Outlook that I personally enjoy the most are the calendar capabilities. Using this fairly robust set of tools, you can schedule and organize various events in your life in an easy to follow and understand format. The calendar in the program looks identical to an actual calendar, viewable by month, week, or single day format. Events you have entered appear on their specific days in a chronological list, as well as in the Outlook Today section of the program, which gives you an overview of your upcoming schedule.
Items on the calendar can be colour coded for classification at a glance, under such categories as personal, business, and important. You may enter added details inside the event itself, and be notified at a certain time before the event arrives. An everyday example of this would be entering a 2:15 meeting into your calendar, with further details inside, and an alarm to remind you of the meeting at 2:00. Outlook will advise you of scheduling conflicts if two events overlap, allowing you to juggle your plans until you find something that fits properly.
Your time in Outlook can be set as free or busy, and this schedule can be uploaded to a website or viewed by others at work. This is a nice idea, as it allows those you authorize to know at what times you are available throughout the day. Microsoft offers a Free/Busy website service without charge, another strong feature that will allow you to collaborate your schedule with that of your friends and colleagues. When sending e-mail requesting a meeting, these schedules may be accessed at will to find the most convenient times for both of you.
Outlook: A Task Scheduler
Although overshadowed by the more fulfilling calendar components, Outlook has another feature that operates as a task list. After entering a task description and a due date, the task is moved to a list with others you have entered and awaits completion. Additional details may also be included such as task priority, completion percentage, and logged work hours; minor features that may prove useful to some. It is interesting that tasks can be delegated to others through e-mail, a very nice feature that can be used to share work and status reports between a group.
In the future Microsoft should embrace the connection between the task scheduler and calendar services, hopefully combining them into one. I would like to see my task due dates shown as events on my calendar, and calendar items able to have the extended information of tasks, without creating one of each for the same event. This would help avoid the redundancy of the two separate features.
Outlook: An Address Book
While not a feature that is able to stand on its own, the Outlook address book is an integral part of the overall application. The contacts section allows you to create an individual card for every person you desire, detailing almost all the imaginable information about that person. Names, addresses, phone numbers, and so on are then stored within Outlook and are accessible from the other areas of the program.
Your contacts can easily be entered as recipients of e-mail, their birthdays added to your calendar, and their files associated with tasks that you select. This is reflective of the overall integration of features that makes Outlook work so well. It is nice to be able to pull up phone numbers or driving directions easily from your rolodex of friends and coworkers.
Microsoft Outlook is a great e-mail client and organizational tool for those with lives that depend on this type of application. Once you have used the program to consolidate your messages, schedule, tasks, and relationships into a single source, you will likely find yourself enjoying your new found management and workflow. The way that each section of Outlook works together is intuitive, saving you a lot of unnecessary repletion and frustration once you get past the initial learning curve.
Those who are only seeking the basics of internet e-mail or scheduling will likely find that Microsoft Outlook is overly bloated for them. These users may want to seek out a better freeware alternative, such as the child program of Outlook, Outlook Express. Those who desire the full set of features the program offers, or who have purchased Microsoft Office for its other components, however, should consider Office to be a capable and practical solution for many of their daily computing tasks.
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