10 key enhancements in Outlook 2007

Outlook 2007 includes a number of new features and usability improvements, from RSS feed support to Instant Search to the Scheduling Assistant. Jim Boyce offers a look at some of the most significant changes.

This article is also available as a PDF download.

#1: The Ribbon

If you have used other Office 2007 applications, you are no doubt familiar with the Ribbon — and you either love it or hate it. Outlook 2007 uses the Ribbon, too, but not to the extent of other Office applications.

The main Outlook window doesn't use the Ribbon, but most of the forms do. For example, start a new e-mail message or appointment, and the resulting Outlook item form includes the Ribbon. As in other Office 2007 applications, the main appeal of the Ribbon is that it exposes commonly used features. What's more, the Ribbon exposes useful features that many users don't know about or don't bother with because they don't want to spend the time hunting for the feature.

I've been using Office 2007 since the earliest beta and didn't discover until this week that you can minimize the Ribbon. Right-click on any group on the ribbon and choose Minimize The Ribbon. Take the same action to restore it.

#2: Navigation Pane and To-Do Bar

Outlook's Navigation Pane provides a quick and easy way to navigate Outlook's folders, views, calendars, date navigator, and other items. When Microsoft introduced the Navigation Pane in Outlook 2002, it was a big improvement over the Outlook Bar. There are a couple of nice additions to the Navigation Pane in 2007.

You can now minimize the Navigation Pane to gain more screen real estate for messages, the calendar, and other views. To minimize the Navigation Pane, click the double left chevron in the upper-right corner of the Navigation Pane. This control changes to a double right chevron. Click that to restore the Navigation Pane.

When the Navigation Pane is minimized, it acts like the Windows task bar in auto-hide mode. Just click on the Navigation Pane to open it. After you select an item from the Navigation Pane, it minimizes itself again. If you don't want to use the Navigation Pane at all, choose View | Navigation Pane | Off to turn it off. Choose View | Navigation Pane | On to turn it back on.

The To-Do Bar works much the same way as the Navigation Pane. You can configure the To-Do Bar to be minimized from the View menu. Then, when you need to use it, click on the double chevrons to expand or collapse it. You can also click on an area of the minimized To-Do Bar to temporarily expand it.

#3: RSS feeds

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is essentially an XML-based means to format news stories and other dynamically changing Web content so that RSS-aware software applications can access and retrieve this content automatically. Outlook 2007 supports RSS feeds, enabling you to receive information automatically from news and other Web sites that offer RSS content. RSS content arrives in Outlook much like e-mail messages and is stored in the RSS Feeds folder by default.

The easiest way to add a feed is to click on the RSS Feeds folder and then click on one of the featured feeds in the resulting RSS directory. You can also right-click on the RSS Feeds folder and choose Add A New RSS Feed to open the New RSS Feed dialog box, in which you enter the URL for the feed. To modify an existing RSS feed, choose Tools | Account Settings and then click the RSS Feeds tab. Here, you can set the synchronization schedule, change the folder to which new items are delivered, remove a feed, and make other configuration changes for the feed.

#4: Instant Search

Instant Search is one of those features you'll come to love in a hurry. Instant Search in Outlook 2007 integrates Outlook with Windows Desktop Search to enable you to almost instantly locate items in Outlook. For example, you can type in a word or phrase and find every e-mail in the current folder that contains that word or phrase. You can also expand the search to incorporate all mail folders, including those stored in your archive folders.

Windows Desktop Search is included with Windows Vista. To use Windows Desktop Search on a Windows XP computer, you must download it from Microsoft. (For a look at how to use Desktop Search in Windows XP, see "Add Vista-like search capabilities to Windows XP.")

Searching in Outlook 2007 is easy. Just click in the Search Inbox field located at the top of the current message window, type a word or phrase, and press ENTER. Outlook performs a search and displays a list of matching items in the window. Click Try Searching Again In All Mail Items to expand the search to all message folders. Click the X beside the search box to clear the search.

#5: Color categories

Categories in Outlook help you organize and locate information. They've been improved in Outlook 2007 with the introduction of color. Previous versions of Outlook offered colored flags you could use to identify items, but they were text-based categories. Now they've been replaced by color categories in Outlook 2007. The category color appears in the message header and in the Categories field in the header list. The main advantage of using color categories is that they make it possible to quickly identify items based on their category.

To assign a category, click the item and then click the Categorize button in the toolbar. You can select an existing color category from the resulting drop-down list, or click All Categories to create and assign a new category. The first time you use a color category, Outlook gives you the opportunity to rename it. Just type a new name in the resulting Rename Category dialog box and click Yes. If you don't want to rename the category, click No.

You can easily organize a view by category. Simply click the Categories header to group by color category. You can also use a predefined Categorized Mail search folder to locate all message that have category assignments.

#6: Quick click category

Another handy color category feature in Outlook 2007 is the quick click category. This feature lets you assign a color category to a message with a single click.

To set the quick click category, click Categorize in the toolbar and then click Set Quick Click to open the Set Quick Click dialog box. Select the desired category and click OK. To apply the Quick Click Category to an item, just click in the Categories field for the item.

#7: Flag recipient for follow-up

You're probably familiar with Outlook's follow-up feature that lets you set a follow-up flag for items. For example, you might want to flag a message to follow up the next day with a phone call. A handy feature in Outlook 2007 is the capability to flag a message for a recipient to follow up.

For example, assume you want the recipient to take action by the end of the week on a message you send. When you are ready to send the message, click the Follow Up button in the Options group on the Ribbon, then choose Flag For Recipients. In the resulting Custom dialog box, choose the desired follow-up action from the Flag To drop-down list. Specify a reminder day and time and click OK. Then, send the message. When the reminder time arrives, the recipient will receive an Outlook reminder regarding the item.

#8: Calendar overlay

If you manage multiple calendars, you'll really appreciate Outlook 2007's new calendar overlay feature, which lets you combine multiple calendars into a single view. For example, you might track your personal appointments on a separate calendar from your business appointments. Or maybe you want to merge a sports calendar with your work or personal calendar, or look at two or three staff members' calendars in one view. Calendar overlay provides a great means for identifying conflicts or getting a complete picture of your schedule.

Merging calendars is easy. Open the Calendar folder. Then, in the Navigation Pane, place a check beside the calendars you want to view. Outlook displays the calendars side by side. In the name tab at the top of one of the secondary calendars, click the View In Overlay Mode button to overlay the calendar with the primary one. Repeat for any additional calendars you want to overlay. To view the calendars separately, click the View In Side-by-Side Mode button in the calendar's name tab.

#9: Scheduling Assistant

If you're using Outlook 2007 with Exchange Server 2007, the Scheduling Assistant can help you choose a meeting time that works best for all of the specified participants. Unlike the AutoPick Next feature, which just automatically selects the next time slot that fits everyone's schedules, the Scheduling Assistant analyses attendees' schedules and suggests several times for the meeting. The Scheduling Assistant identifies for each suggested time how many of the attendees and resources (such as meeting rooms) are free. You can click on a suggested time slot and then choose a meeting room from the drop-down list of available rooms Outlook offers.

#10: Out-of-office scheduling

The Out Of Office Assistant, which enables you to generate out-of-office messages when using Outlook with Exchange Server, has also been improved in Outlook 2007. When used with Exchange Server 2003 or earlier, the out-of-office features are essentially the same in Outlook 2007 as in Outlook 2003. The only difference is the dialog box you use to specify the out-of-office message and rules. To set out-of-office options, regardless of which version of Exchange Server you are using, choose Tools | Out Of Office Assistant.

When used with Exchange Server 2007, you have additional out-of-office features. First, you can schedule your out-of-office period ahead of time. To do so, open the Out Of Office Assistant, choose Send Out Of Office Auto-Replies, select Only Send During This Time Range, and enter the beginning and end dates and times for the out-of-office period. When the start date and time arrives, Exchange begins sending out-of-office replies.

The other Exchange Server 2007-specific out-of-office feature is the capability to send out-of-office replies to people inside your organization that are different from the replies that go to people outside your organization. The Out Of Office Assistant dialog box offers two tabs, one for internal replies and one for external replies. Just click the appropriate tab and enter the out-of-office reply you want to use for that group.

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