Microsoft Outlook vs. Apple Mail: Which email client is best for business?

Outlook and Mail are two leading email clients for the Mac. Is one better than the other? Read on to learn why one veteran IT consultant thinks so.

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Image: Shutterstock/oatawa

Although I may be dating myself, I remember when email first hit the scene and AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy were leading providers. Each offered its own application embedded within proprietary software. Some 30 years later, email is everywhere. We casually receive and reply to messages even when standing in line for burritos and think nothing of it.

Thankfully, email client applications have made remarkable strides from those original basic and limited interfaces. With many professionals' days ruled by email, the most minor of application adjustments can make a world of difference. Small, seemingly insignificant but recurring gains accumulate. Such small improvements, regularly repeated, help you work faster and more efficiently. So it's worth your time to revisit not only the email client you use but the way you configure its settings.

Mac users have a choice. Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook are two leading email clients. Both are outstanding apps, but having preferred Mail since 2005, I've found myself gravitating to Outlook since discovering Microsoft's "new Outlook" option.

As a Mac user, it's easy to overlook Outlook. Mail's adoption requires almost no thought. The program is loaded by default and integrated elegantly within macOS, whereas Outlook long required downloading, installing and configuring, plus a license, the last a complication largely resolved for the masses, now. Microsoft 365 subscriptions include the program and a November 2021 Info-Tech Research Group report confirms that Microsoft's Office 365 suite commands an 87.5-percent share of the market and is used by almost 600,000 US companies. Although other options exist—with webmail interfaces and Thunderbird among them—Mac users frequently have access to both.

SEE: What Apple users should expect when using Microsoft 365 subscriptions (TechRepublic)

Mail has many strengths, certainly. The ease with which email accounts are associated with the app is one. Mail benefits from being integrated within macOS, as mentioned earlier. That means you don't have to install the app; it's already there, and hooks are already present from other programs directly into Mail that simplify forwarding everything from Notes to images via Mail messages.

Apple's email program also presents a clean interface. Intuitive use and ease of operation are additional benefits. Mail's airy presentation is easily navigated and simplifies hiding and displaying folders and subfolders.

Likely your real target, for either email app, is new messages that arrive and require reading, responding, saving and/or deleting. Both email clients, rightfully, make new messages the focus and offer sorting mail by conversations, too.

The apps also permit customization and adjusting a number of elements. For example, using Outlook, you can enable a focused inbox, display message previews, show sender images and customize the toolbar. With Mail, you can adjust the same settings, display a favorites bar for commonly accessed folders and add or remove mail actions to the Touch Bar on so-equipped Macs.

As you would expect, both Outlook and Mail offer message preview and layout options. For example, I've adjusted my Mail window to display previews, the reading pane to the right, the favorites bar and just icons for select specified mail actions within the toolbar (Figure A).

Figure A

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Tweaking Apple Mail to work the way you operate pays dividends throughout the day each day, so the time spent customizing Mail's operation is well worth the investment.

Outlook boasts the same capabilities (Figure B).

Figure B

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Outlook is easily customizable and boasts one feature Mail doesn't: the ability to reply to and even delete messages from directly within the preview.

In fact, Microsoft's made great strides and deserves credit for simplifying and improving Outlook's operation. As noted in Microsoft Outlook vs. Apple Calendar: Which is best for business?, Outlook's Calendar is a full-featured program that's become easier and friendlier to operate. The same is true for Outlook's mail component.

Surprisingly to me, I'm waiting for Apple's developers to catch up to Microsoft's. Typically, in my experience, Apple leads the charge for innovation, as previously demonstrated with the development of the iPhone, App Store and its own silicon, for example. But Microsoft has included a feature I've found makes using Outlook a better option than Mail: the ability to reply to messages and even delete individual emails from directly within the message preview itself. The feature's similar to a car's backup camera; you're fine skipping the capability until you have it, then you can't go without.

Does just one advantage, such as the ability to manipulate email messages from within the preview, justify switching apps? In this case, I think so. While Mail is a robust and reliable email client, the frequency with which many Mac users interact with email justifies the change, especially as Outlook has come so far developing a clean interface and simplifying operation. As with Outlook's Calendar, Microsoft's done well maintaining more advanced features, but they're hidden behind a simple canvas that better helps you concentrate on accessing and using the features you need and use most, while tidying the entire look. That's as winning a combination as is email on a Mac.

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By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...