Although it's way too early to put money on Outlook 11.0 as the best e-mail client this side of, well, Outlook, we're tempted. This long-awaited version of Outlook, the e-mailer-cum-scheduler that's among the cornerstones of the Microsoft Office suite, won't debut for at least six months, but from what we've seen of an unreleased beta, this PIM might finally get it right.
Finally, a new interface
Right off the bat, Outlook 11.0 looks different. The new interface is brighter and admittedly a bit busier, but it's promising nonetheless. Most noticeable is Outlook's new Reading Pane, a larger version of old Outlook's Preview Pane. The Reading Pane not only sprawls across more of the screen, it's also easier to read since it uses Microsoft's ClearType technology to render the view. (Click to view screenshot.)
The big win, though, comes from two new tools for managing e-mail glut. You can flag messages for later reference with just a single click (no need to type in a date, as in earlier Outlooks), and this early version even lets you build so-called Search Folders to show customized views of your messages. We'll tell you how.
Stealing some tricks from one of our favorite Outlook add-ons, , Outlook 11.0 now lets you set up folders that show, say, all of the messages from a specific contact, all of the messages with attachments, or all mail older than one week. Outlook 11.0 comes with three of these search folders preset for you: For Follow Up (flagged messages), Unread Mail, and Large Messages (that is, messages that contain attachments that are larger than a user-defined size, say 100K). But you can easily create new folders yourself using a wizard found in the File menu. We love it.
On the big-business front, Outlook 11.0 now includes a mode called Cached Exchange that automatically keeps a local copy of your mailbox, letting you work offline without any disruption or manual retrieval. In addition, you can display two calendars side by side (yours and someone else's, say, or two for yourself), which is good for looking at a general schedule and one that's pertinent to your most important project, for example. And Outlook 11.0 links even more tightly to Microsoft's SharePoint, the online work space that debuted with the last edition of Office. Among other benefits, the SharePoint integration notifies you whenever someone else on your team updates a document in the online work space.
We've been using Outlook 11.0 Beta 1 on a daily basis for many weeks now, and it seems stable so far--we haven't lost a message yet. We're impressed with the added functionality, too, especially the Search Folder concept. We'll keep you posted as this mailer goes to market, so stay tuned for our full review of Outlook 11.0 and the entire Office 11.0 suite.