Verdict: A hit-and-miss refresh of the interface and a paucity of new features doesn’t make for a compelling upgrade
When we first clapped eyes on the consumer preview of Outlook 2013, our initial reaction was that somebody had forgotten to colour it in. The whitewashed interface remains intact for the final release, with only thin rules and a very slight tint helping to distinguish between your inbox and the surrounding menus and panels.
Mercifully, Microsoft has seen fit to add coloured themes to the final code - when we say coloured, that’s any colour as long as it’s grey. Light grey and dark grey are the only two options, although at least these provide a distinction between content and menus.
The other noticeable change to the interface is the way you navigate between email, calendar, tasks and contacts (now renamed People). Giant text labels for each of these modes appear at the foot of the Outlook window, and you can hover the cursor over them to have a peek at their contents, in much the same way as hovering over Windows taskbar icons provides a peek at the app.
It’s an efficient way of checking upcoming appointments or the availability of your “favourite” colleagues. However, you can also choose to have such listings appear in the To-Do bar running down the right of the Outlook window, so there’s a degree of unnecessary duplication.
Other visual tweaks have been made since the preview release. There’s now a thin rule between messages in the inbox, which looks neater. The delete and flag symbols, which appear when you run your mouse over messages in your inbox, now turn red when you hover over their icons. These are small but thoughtful changes that make it easier to quickly deal with the clump of messages in your inbox after a week off.
Another new option allows you to hide all menus, leaving a narrow grey strip along the top of the screen that expands when clicked. However, this forces you to run Outlook maximised, so you have to devote the whole screen to a menu-free Outlook, or put up with menus in a smaller window.
The most significant new email feature is inline replies. This allows you to compose an instant reply from within the Reading Pane, instead of opening a New Message window. It’s more akin to the workings of a webmail service such as Gmail than a fully-fledged email client, but it’s efficient and cuts down on the clutter of multiple Outlook windows. It’s important on a touchscreen PC, where switching between windows can be tricky.
For consumers, Outlook no longer demands that you download a daft “connector” to access your Hotmail account, while businesses may well be interested in the new Site Mailboxes feature, which allows you to create a shared inbox, calendar and task list for members of the same team.
Calendar has had very few changes made to it: a timeline appears on the daily/weekly view; there’s a mini weather forecast nestled beneath the ribbon; and an option to create meetings in Lync – although Skype meetings are curiously omitted.
There’s more to the People slice of Outlook than a new name. It has a new default view that displays a sheet of details about your contacts, including various email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and status updates, as well as a photo cribbed from linked social networks. However, unlike Windows 8’s People app, Outlook is, disappointingly, incapable of blending all your contacts from various address books and social networks into a single, deduplicated list.
Finally, we arrive at the feature that should have the coders hanging their heads in shame: touch mode. Apparently designed to make Outlook usable on a touchscreen tablet, it does nothing of the sort. It’s been improved since the preview, with wider spacing between menu items and icons, and we’d be happy scanning our inbox using nothing more precise than our fingertips.
However, attempting to compose an email with the onscreen keyboard is a bizarre form of torture: we weren’t even able to write in the message field without resizing both the Outlook and onscreen keyboard windows. Outlook 2013 isn’t a touch-friendly application.
For all our gripes, Outlook remains a powerful, invaluable business tool. We wouldn’t even contemplate running our business email and calendar in anything else. That said, there’s little in the 2013 iteration that makes it a tempting upgrade, and a couple of features – particularly touch mode – should never have passed Quality Assurance.
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