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  • Microsoft Outlook for Mac — Not Quite There

    October 7th, 2010

    I have long held a love/hate relationship with Microsoft’s Mac email software. Whereas the previous entrant, an email/contact manager known as Entourage, offered a powerful range of features, it proved endlessly flaky to me in the real world.

    For one thing, those inevitable lockups and, second, the feeling I was trudging through quicksand whenever I asked the app to do some serious work. Far too often, Entourage would just bog down while retrieving email from one or more of my regular accounts, which are all IMAP by the way. I use that protocol to store the messages on the server, and thus I’m able to keep them in sync regardless of which device I use.

    In any case, I looked forward to the second coming of Outlook for the Mac. Although only long-term Mac users will realize this, Microsoft had a version of Outlook available in the late 1990s, before the transition to Mac OS X.

    I suppose Microsoft’s logic is that they needed a consumer-focused email client on the Mac, which is why they gave us Entourage and not Outlook.

    However, Microsoft, in architecting Office 2011 for the Mac, decided we needed full, or nearly full, compatibility with the Windows version. So we have the ribbon, which is basically a context-sensitive toolbar that has drawn mixed reviews on the other platform, and Outlook, which is not offered in the basic Home and Student edition of Office 2011. I presume Microsoft expects consumers to stick with Mail or one of the other free email clients, such as Thunderbird.

    While the basic email/contact manager setup in Outlook mirrors that of Entourage in large part, it’s designed as a more industrial-strength app with superior support for Exchange email servers. One key improvement, both from a performance and reliability standpoint, is keeping your messages in separate files, rather than throwing everything in one huge, monolithic database.

    Outlook for the Mac has also been coded, supposedly from scratch, in Apple’s Cocoa environment, which supposedly means better compatibility with Mac OS X features, not to mention superior performance.

    Now I don’t pretend to understand the underlying coding issues, but I found the overall behavior of Outlook to be extremely similar to Entourage, other than the noticeably snappier response. Sure, the dialogs are prettier, and preference settings are more Mac-like, but functionality didn’t strike me as all that different, other than the enhanced, or at least changed, feature set.

    My real concern, however, is that there are some seriously annoying bugs, no doubt symptoms of the 1.0 release, which make it extremely difficult for me to use Outlook, at least for now.

    There are two ways to set the app up after installation. I used both, first importing my account information, rules and signatures from Apple Mail. But after I encountered some difficulties with the setup, I went ahead and quit the program, deleted the settings files, and added the new accounts from scratch, one by one.

    The import process is especially faulty. Even such granular settings as using a server’s IMAP Idle command, which lets it dispatch messages to you ahead of whatever schedule you set, wasn’t retained from Mail to Outlook. Rules were especially troublesome, and they were all non-functional without serious editing, and even then, I couldn’t achieve reliable performance.

    Understand that my email rules are largely ones that dispatch a message to a specific folder if it meets certain criteria. One criterion, however, doesn’t exist in Outlook, and that’s the ability to consult message content, a feature that is supported in Mail. I had always assumed Microsoft had more powerful Rules and, except for this missing feature, maybe that’s true.

    When it came to actually handling email, again I ran into some flaky behavior.

    For one thing, in some accounts, I prefer to use the disclosure triangle to reveal subfolders, but I’d rather hide them in others. These simple distinctions were lost by Outlook between launches. That never happens to me in Mail.

    I also ran into a problem quoting material from HTML mail in a new message window. The act of selecting and replying was sufficient for the quoted content to lose its formatting.

    None of this erratic behavior was cured by cleaning out Outlook and entering my accounts from scratch. I’m also concerned that Microsoft won’t allow you to reorder accounts by drag and drop, the way you can do it in Mail. The default account, whatever it might be, is always at the top, and everything else is placed alphabetically depending on the label you attach to an account.

    To add insult to injury, after I returned from a short errand, I was confronted with a prompt informing me that Microsoft had to quit the program, giving me the option to send them a report about the problem.

    At this point, I’d had enough. I simply quit Outlook for good, but will be happy to revisit Microsoft’s newest Mac email/contact manager app when the inevitable maintenance update arrives. With Office 2011 for the Mac going on sale later this month, I’m sure Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit is already working on that update.

    But I had hoped for something better.

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