Outlook 2010 includes some notable refinements

The upcoming version of Outlook offers some useful capabilities, including conversation threading, Quick Steps, and enhanced contact and calendaring features.

Outlook has been a fairly stable mail client since 2000 -- and it's only getting better. The upcoming new release, Outlook 2010, includes a few significant differences from previous versions. In this article, I will touch on some of these new features.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

Inbox Ribbon

One feature that stands out right away is the expanded use of the Ribbon. No longer confined to just the message windows, it now appears across the top of the Inbox as well (Figure A).

Figure A

Microsoft Office Outlook 2010 Inbox
Outlook 2010 also handles conversations in a new way. The original ways we are all used to are still there, but conversation threading has been added. The implementation isn't quite as perfect as I would like, as in it is currently done using Subject lines, but it is a decent feature nonetheless, and it makes email somewhat easier to manage. I'd like to see the feature use subject and sender or message ID for grouping conversations, but that is something for another discussion. Figure B shows the threading (or conversation) with messages expanded (email addresses have been removed). Figure B

Threading of messages in Outlook 2010

If a thread contains unread mail, it will appear in the folder as unread with the new message displayed. Following the subject of the message, the number of unread messages in the thread will be displayed . Notice that some messages within the thread are in my Inbox and others are in sent items. This grouping helps keep track of all messages in a thread regardless of where they live within your mailbox.

I was sure this feature was the next big thing until the particular thread shown in Figure C arrived. Yes, it was intended as a test message. But when I expanded the thread to see what it might look like, I saw the reason behind the need for a different implementation of threading (Figure D).

Figure C

Collapsed thread with new messages
Figure D

All messages matching the subject appear in the thread.

Quick Steps

Outlook 2010 introduces Quick Steps, an expedited way to complete an action using predefined or custom rules. Several are included by default, such as To Manager. When configured with your manager's info, it will create a copy of the selected message to send to your manager. Another default Quick Step is FYI, which inserts FYI into the subject of the forward rather than the ever-present FW.

The Ribbon in the Inbox is the first place you will see Quick Steps items. Figure E shows this view (expanded for better visibility). Figure E

Outlook 2010's Quick Steps

As you can see, quite a few options are already available. But if you need to use a repetitive action that isn't listed as a Quick Step, you can create your own by clicking Create New or New Quick Step.

When creating a new Quick Step, you can select from a subset of actions:

  • Move To Folder moves the selected message(s) to a specified folder.
  • Categorize And Move sets a message category and moves to a specified folder.
  • Flag And Move sets a message flag and move to a specified folder.
  • New Email To sends a new message to the specified recipient.
  • Forward To forwards the selected message(s) to a specified recipient.
  • New Meeting creates a new meeting request.
  • Custom Action allows custom items to be chosen for use as a quick step.
Note: Choosing Custom Action from the list will display a large number of Quick Step actions.

Quick Steps are much like rules in Outlook (which still exist), but they get toolbar buttons and shortcut keys assigned to them for easier on-the-fly use.

Outlook 2010 has also revamped the contacts feature. The Contacts folder looks much the same as before, but contact details within a message have changed. The summary popup you see when you click on the name of the sender in an email message is much improved, and the Details dialog, which appears when you double-click on a contact, is much easier to read and manage.

Figure F shows my contact card. Here, I can schedule a meeting, IM, or call the user if I am signed into an instant messaging application and see their presence and if my environment supports these features. A tab at the bottom of the dialog displays information about the contact's organization. Figure F

Contact card
Note: The contact information displayed in the contact card is pulled from the Global Catalog Entry for your Exchange environment, not from your personal contacts list.

Calendaring in Outlook 2010

The calendar remains largely unchanged in functionality in the upcoming release. It does appear more streamlined and in my opinion looks better than previous calendars. The Ribbon is heavily incorporated for common tasks, such as changing the view from Month to Week.

Calendar sharing, possible in previous releases, is more prominent as in Outlook 2010. And schedules have changed a bit. In previous releases, looking at a group schedule opened a dialog box displaying the show time as a portion of the selected user's calendar. Outlook 2010 takes this a step further by showing your groups from the scheduler in the left calendar pane and adding the calendars of those on the list below each group.

Selecting a group displays a grid-like view of free/busy data in the main Calendar window, similar to group scheduling in previous versions. This occurs if the group is too large for the side-by-side calendar display to fit on the screen.

Selecting a single user from the list displays their free/busy information as a calendar view next to your (or any other) open calendars. If you have permissions to view their calendar, the information is populated to replace the free/busy info.

Figure G shows a standard Calendar view in Outlook 2010 and a Group Schedule view. Figure G

My calendar (left) and Group Schedule (right)