A look at what is new and different in Outlook 2007

While Outlook 2007 does not bring the same jaw-dropping interface changes that accompany other modules in the Office 2007 suite, Outlook 2007 does provide a number of new and very useful features. And, the interface does change a bit to accommodate some of these new features. Scott Lowe explains some of the new things you'll find in Outlook 2007.

When Office 2007 arrives in late 2006 or early 2007, it will come complete with a brand new, refined interface and a whole slew of new features designed to make it easier for you and your users to get your jobs done. While Outlook 2007 doesn't bring the same jaw-dropping interface changes that accompany other products in the Office 2007 suite, Outlook 2007 does provide a number of new and very useful features. And, the interface does change a bit to accommodate some of this new stuff. I'll explain in this article some of the new things you'll find in Outlook 2007.

The visible stuff

Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003 do look very similar, but there are a few things that jump out, including the To-Do Bar and the new RSS Feeds feature. Other features, such as integrated search and attachment previewing, are more subtle, but good additions to the product.

The To-Do Bar

When you get your first look at Outlook 2007 (Figure A), one thing jumps out at you right away: The addition of the "To-Do Bar" down the right side of the screen.

Figure A

The To-Do-Bar invades the right side of the screen.

Personally, I love the new To-Do bar. You'll notice that it contains a calendar with bold text for days on which you have scheduled appointments. Further, upcoming appointments are now visible front and center and, since they are appointments in Outlook, are color coded to your preference. Before Outlook 2007, in order to see calendar items like this, you needed to change Outlook views. But, since most people spend a vast majority of their Outlook time in the mail view, the addition of the mini-calendar view comes as a time-saving convenience.

Below the calendar is a look at the current tasks you have on your task list -- again, this addition negates the necessity for you to change views just to look at different information. This task area also doubles as place in which messages you have flagged for follow up appear for easy reference. In Outlook 2003, Microsoft provided you with a search folder that gave you quick access to messages that you had flagged. But, to use this feature, you still needed to change your view. If you don't use some method to track your flagged messages, they eventually scroll off the screen and are more easily overlooked. By keeping them at the forefront, Microsoft has made it less likely that you'll fail to follow up on something you considered important enough to flag in the first place.

Additional coverage of Outlook 2007 on TechRepublic is available here.

RSS Feeds

If you take a look back at Figure A, you'll notice that, in the Mail Folders section of the screen, there is a new option called RSS Feeds. As you would expect, this is Outlook 2007's default storage space for handling news feeds. This is also a most welcome addition to the product!

Upon installation of Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook 2007, once you start one of the applications, it asks you if you would like to synchronize your RSS feeds so that the same feeds are available in both programs. However, be aware that, if you're using an Exchange account, any feeds to which you subscribe will automatically save news headlines into your Exchange mailbox. If your company has low mailbox size limits, this may not be an ideal situation.

Outlook 2007 allows you to add feeds individually or in bulk by importing an Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) file. Once a feed is added, either through Outlook or through Internet Explorer 7, the feed contents become immediately available in both applications.

Integrated search

With the explosion in the amount of e-mail, number of document, and just about every kind of data, a number of desktop search tools have been created. These tools help users and administrators manage and locate data on very short notice. Microsoft has provided their own desktop search tool -- Windows Desktop Search -- that hooks into Outlook 2007 and indexes your mail and other Outlook items. Personally, I still prefer the third party (and also free) Copernic Desktop Search, but the Microsoft tool isn't bad, either. And, it's also a welcome addition to the suite and to Windows in general.

If you want to add desktop search capabilities to Windows and to Outlook, when you first start Outlook 2007, you are prompted to download the search tool, if you like. If you choose to wait to install Windows desktop search, you can click the "Click here to enable Instant Search" option above the mail list. The option stays visible until you install the tool.

Attachment preview

Outlook 2007 also includes an attachment preview feature that, once you use it, will make you wonder why it took so long to include. Attachment preview supports most common file types and shows you a file's contents from within Outlook without the need to launch a separate program in a separate window. This makes for a much more seamless experience. Figure B gives you a look at this feature. Notice that pertinent document details, including the file name, size, author and last date of modification are included at the top of the window.

Figure B

Attachment preview makes it much easier to view document attachments in Outlook.

For the record, Outlook Express has provided attachment previewing for a long time. It's about time this feature came to Outlook.

Improved collaboration and security

Besides deeper integration with SharePoint, Outlook 2007 gives you some other collaboration improvements, including the ability to create and subscribe to calendars stored on Internet sites, including on Office Online. Second, if you need to share calendar information with other people, you can send them a "calendar snapshot", an HTML version of your calendar.

When used in conjunction with Exchange 2007, Outlook 2007 provides a lot of security improvements, such as managed e-mail folders, which are normal mail folders, but that have retention and expiration policies defined by the administrator. You can also restrict what users can do with received e-mail messages through the use of information rights management (IRM) and Windows Rights Management Services (RMS). When implemented, IRM and RMS allow you to set policies that can prevent messages from being printed, forwarded, etc.

Mileage may vary

So far, I haven't found anything to dislike about Outlook 2007, except general minor grumbling about things like a Rules Wizard that needs to be more intuitive, but that's been true for a long time. Further, I wish Microsoft had taken the time to provide a right-click context menu for the main items (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, etc.) in the navigation pane.

I've been using Outlook 2007 in beta for a few months now and have found that I really like the new features, particularly the To-Do Bar and the RSS feeds. You mileage may vary, but these are good additions to a good product.