Introduction to Outlook 2013
Word and Excel get much of the attention, but for most employees Outlook is the Office application that sees almost constant use. It's always running in the background, even when you're working on something else, and it's vital that Outlook presents its information quickly and cleanly so you can get back to the task at hand.
With that in mind, Outlook 2013 has been revamped with a much cleaner look and feel, incorporating less clutter and more white space (and a couple of different coloured themes to choose from), while several new features really do streamline the communication process.
This cleaner approach has come in for some criticism - and we at PC Pro share some of these concerns - but it's well worth playing around with the customisation settings so you can set it up to suit your own preferences. And the look shouldn't take away from a set of tools that make a real difference in a working day.
Staying informed and in touch
The primary function of Outlook is as an email client, and Microsoft has made some big improvements in this regard. It's all geared around getting information from the application with as little user input as possible.
So, as well as the sender's details and the subject line, the inbox preview list now also includes up to three lines of the message body itself, so you can get a quick idea of which to tackle first without opening anything at all.
If you're using the reading pane, once you do navigate to a message and view its contents, responding is now faster and less obtrusive. You can start typing directly in the reading pane to create an inline conversation flow - you don't need to pop out the message into a new window to reply. If it's more convenient you can also start a real-time Lync IM conversation directly from the email.
Focusing on the important emails is now easier too. At any time you can switch to see only your unread emails, and every message in the list can be marked as unread with a single click, or quickly flagged or deleted without opening the mail itself. Of course, with a right-click you can still categorise a mail with a variety of colours, set follow-up times, or move it to a new location, including OneNote.
The familiar Calendar, People and Task panes are still present and correct in Outlook 2013, but with a revamp. You switch between them using the menu at the base of the window, which also tells you how many mails and appointments you have at any point.
You can sneak a glance at any section without having to change focus, simply by hovering over each quick menu: see a summary of your current tasks alongside the calendar, a list of current tasks and their progress, or your favourite contacts complete with a search box - all in a simple pop-up window that appears and vanishes as required.
The calendar view has been spruced up with more colour and displays a live marker line of the current time. It also now imports the local weather forecast for today and tomorrow so you can quickly see if a downpour will destroy your plans. Of course, if you like to have your calendar, tasks and people always in view, you can still open up the To Do pane as normal.
The People section focuses on gathering information in one place, so opening a contact's "People Card" gives you their name, phone, email address, social media updates, online status and more, all in one easy window - and pulled in not just from your contacts but also from social services you've enabled, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.
Directly from that card you can send an email or instant message, call the person using Outlook 2013's comprehensive Skype integration, or schedule a meeting with them via Lync. Meetings take no time at all to arrange: all the attendees' calendars can be viewed in a single scheduling screen, and for a large company the integrated room-finder tool helps to eliminate any remaining guess work.
Search is more powerful as well: it now hunts for specified entries not just in your inbox and folders but also in calendar appointments, contacts and even inside email attachments. A whole range of advanced search options mean you'll never be scrabbling through old emails looking for a particular file or contact.
On the move
With Outlook 2013's Site Mailboxes you can give very member of your team access to a team folder, calendar and task list, which they can manage while on the move using a combination of Outlook, Exchange and SharePoint. Built-in support for Exchange ActiveSync means Hotmail integration no longer requires a downloaded connector, and task lists are integrated into Outlook so all of your upcoming jobs appear in your main window for convenience.
Plus, like all the applications of Office 365, Outlook 2013 has an optimised touch mode for tablets, which enlarges and spaces out the Ribbon menus. It also adds quick email control buttons down the right edge of the screen, while you can use pinch-to-zoom in the calendar view to easily switch between day, week and month views.
When added to the online features of the other applications within Office 365 - meaning you always have access to the latest versions of your key documents - Outlook 2013 is a powerful tool for keeping your entire business in sync and working efficiently.