Microsoft Outlook 2013 review: first look

17 Jul 2012

The over-riding first impression of the PC Pro team when opening Outlook 2013 was to cover their eyes. The new Outlook is white. Very white. As our Real World columnist Paul Ockenden noted on Twitter: “the Office 2013 applications all look like wireframe mock-ups, waiting for a designer to colour them in” and that’s particularly true of Outlook. Worse still, there’s no way to change the colour scheme as there has been in previous versions.

Once you get over the whitewash and start fiddling with Outlook 2013, new features start to emerge. The first thing to note is that Office 2013 can be installed alongside an existing Office installation, and Outlook 2013 automatically sucks in your existing mailbox and settings. A word of caution: one member of the PC Pro team found they were unable to open their existing installation of Outlook 2010 once the new software had been installed, but two others were fine.

Visually, the new email view looks very similar to the Mail app for Windows 8 Metro. Unread emails are highlighted with a blue bar, with the currently selected message highlighted in a dull grey. As with the rest of the Office 2013 apps, the ribbon interface can be tucked away if not needed, and if you’re only reading, replying to or forwarding messages, it’s certainly superfluous.

If you’ve got the Reading Pane open, you can take advantage of the new Inline Replies feature, which allows you to reply to a message from within the Reading Pane itself, with your reply entered at the top of the incoming message.

Outlook 2013 also takes advantage of Windows 8’s new notifications system, alerting users to new messages in their inbox with a pop-up in the top right corner of the screen. We prefer the more discreet System Tray alerts of Office 2010, but it’s something that may grow on us.

Other mail features that we’ve been unable to test yet include Site Mailboxes, an Exchange-based feature that allows you to create a shared mail folder, calendar and task list for everyone in a particular team, which could prove handy for businesses that have employees clustered on particular projects.

Calendar

Even attempting to access your Calendar exposes another Metro-inspired element of the new Outlook – the new navigation menu. Switching between Mail, Calendar, People (previously Contacts) and Tasks is now performed by left-clicking on the relevant option at the foot of the page. When in Mail, you can also hover over the Calendar option to see a pop-up containing details of your forthcoming appointments, although you can still have a pervasive mini Calendar running down the right hand side of the screen, if you prefer. Oddly, Outlook has stopped highlighting the days on which you’ve got appointments, which we hope is just a preview bug and not a conscious design decision.

Very little else has changed with the Calendar. A new bar marks the time of day across your Calendar – presumably for those who finds clocks and watches a little high maintenance. A mini weather forecast is also embedded in the Calendar view. Apparently it’s going to rain for the next few days…

People


Metro rears its head once more, with People now replacing Contacts in the Outlook menu. As with the Windows 8 app, contacts are amalgamated from social services such as LinkedIn, as well as your various address books. This is also meant to automatically pull in photos of your email correspondents from the social networks, although we’ve struggled to get this working on several machines today.

Favourite People can also be added to the To-Do Bar running down the right-hand side of the Outlook window, allowing you to see at a glance if/when your team members are free for a meeting.

Touch


Outlook 2013 includes a Touch mode that theoretically makes it easier to navigate on a tablet. The buttons and commands on the ribbon are still far too small for our liking, and we’re really not sure we’d want to use Outlook on a tablet without a stylus or keyboard/trackpad to hand.

There are some hidden touch gestures that work quite well, though. Pinch to zoom on the Calendar view, for example, neatly switches between day, week and month views.

Conclusion

Overall, we’re not particularly impressed by what we’ve seen from Outlook 2013 so far. Most of the changes are cosmetic and not many of them are for the better. The whitewashed interface is particularly insipid, and we hope Microsoft can deliver a splash of colour before the software is finally released.

Now click here for our first-look reviews of Excel 2013 and Word 2013

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