In the past Microsoft’s products have been known more for their office environment omnipresence than their convenience. Microsoft Outlook for your desktop, in particular, was never an easy or fun program to use. But if you worked in a corporate office, you did it anyway –– usually because you had to.
Perhaps the greatest feat of Microsoft’s refreshed Outlook app, then, is that you might actually want to use it. Released on Thursday for iOS and coming soon for Android, the dynamic new email app works with Exchange, Outlook, Gmail, iCloud, and Yahoo Mail, and it’s much better than you might imagine a Microsoft Outlook would be.
Outlook subscribes to the same on-the-run management mantra as Google’s recently released Inbox: No one wants to roll up their sleeves and start digging into their email while they’re on a phone; that’s work better done on a laptop or a tablet with a keyboard. On the phone, they just need a triage system to stomp out the urgent fires. Outlook aims to be that triage system.
Think of the app as your desktop inbox, stripped down to only its most necessary functions. It filters the most important emails to your main screen, allows you to archive emails and set reminders with swipe gestures, and lets you attach files from an impressive number of Cloud-based services. Not to mention — and here’s where it trumps the very similar Inbox app — its integrated calendar is incredibly easy to use and convenient.
It may not be the prettiest app of them all — Gmail’s inbox is filled with colorful labels and fun, bubbly widgets, while Outlook’s is largely full of work-appropriate muted grays and blues — but Outlook is by far the quickest and most functional. Which is impressive, considering Microsoft’s storied past of clunky, overly detailed software and dated office assistants like Clippy. It’s almost as if it was designed by an actual living human being!
The Cream Rises to the Top
In the new, self-aware Microsoft Outlook app, your main screen isn’t your full inbox. Instead, it’s a filtered, “Focused” collection of what the app’s algorithm deems most important. The very low qualification for a message to make it in on this page is initially pretty much just being sent by a human. But over time the Outlook app learns what’s important to you.
So maybe a newsletter you used to really enjoy has recently fallen out of your favor. Outlook will recognize that and automatically banish it to the “Other” folder, never to be seen again.
As with most modern email apps, you can also swipe left or right on individual messages to accomplish different tasks. Swipe left and the message will be “archived.” Thumb right and you’ll be given the opportunity to schedule a follow-up to whatever that email was about. This is endlessly helpful for those of us who often open an email while on a commute, read it, head to dinner with a friend, and promptly forget everything that was in the email. Something about not being at your work desk makes it much harder to absorb information. This tool ensures you won’t forget to address a task just because it’s no longer shown as “unread” in your inbox.
Much like Google Inbox, Microsoft would prefer to have a large cache of your old data than give you an easy way to delete your messages. Some of this may be for practical data mining, and some may be for ad targeting purposes. Either way, individually deleting an email requires opening it. This is annoying, since sometimes the subject line is reason enough to know you want it gone. The only way to mass-delete from the main screen is by holding your thumb on a message until check mark bubbles appear to the left.
As expected, Outlook’s predictive search feature is by no means as responsive and accurate as Google Inbox’s –– Google, after all, has years of search history and stronger search technology that it can use for context. But I found that it gets the job done.
Penciling You In
The most important feature of any on-the-go email app is a responsive and easy-to-use calendar that will sync well with the one you’ve got on your work desktop. This is where Microsoft Outlook nails it.
Its brilliance begins when you compose an email. At the bottom of your draft, you’ll see a choice of three icons.
When you tap on the calendar image, you’re given the option to either “Send Availability” or to “Create Invite.”
The former will take you to a calendar, where you can choose a day and then select multiple times that work for you by simply tapping next to the time stamp in the day view. Once you’re done, Outlook will package that for you in a neat little widget and send it along to your recipients. If they’re using Microsoft Outlook, each of these times will be a link to your calendar. Tap on one and it’ll give you the option to view your calendar or create a meeting right then and there. If they’re not using Outlook, at the very least your availability shows up in a nice, easy-to-read list.
And by the way, even if those widgets won’t automatically translate to another service’s calendar, Outlook still very seamlessly integrates your Gmail calendar into its one, easy to manage master schedule.
Files for Days
It’s just as easy to find an attachment on your phone as it is to schedule a meeting. Not to mention, Microsoft made sure to include most every Cloud storage service under the sun in its attachments feature. You can access it in that same icon row that appears when you start to compose an email.
When you tap the paper clip icon, you’ll be given the option to choose from your photo library, take a photo, or
Choose from Files
From there a list of all your Cloud storage accounts will show up, in addition to recent attachments you sent through your email account. You can log in to OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive, and easily search through your many important documents.
Though it’s really unlike Microsoft to do this, they’ve included lots of other cool features in the app that are convenient additions to its core purpose. For instance, like Gmail for your desktop, Outlook has an Unsubscribe link at the top of every promotional email, so you can cut an annoying newsletter out of your life at any time (something I am a huge fan of doing).
And as with iMessage, you can also easily send a map of your current location by using the same icon bar that shows up whenever you begin composing an email.
And finally there’s a quick “People” view of your most recent contacts (sort of like Gmail Inbox). It’ll give you a straightforward list of everyone you’ve been in contact with recently, which is helpful if you need to remember the name of some obscure person you’ve been emailing with or just need a shortcut to message your mom.
Worth a Try!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Microsoft — inventor of the Zune, incubator of former CEO and enthusiastic sweater Steve Ballmer — made the best email app I’ve ever used. Forget that crazy virtual-reality HoloLens they just announced; the Outlook app is proof that the company has looked inward and begun to understand what people want. So go ahead and try it. Believe me, I’m just as surprised I’m saying that as you are.