Microsoft Outlook 12 beta 1

• See the Outlook 12 (beta 1) slide show

Overview: Bill Gates believes that citizens of the information age don't suffer from data overload but instead ache from a lack of relevant content. If only we could better organize the incessant streams of digital data flowing at us, Microsoft's founder believes that we'd work more efficiently. With that in mind, the changes unveiled within Microsoft Outlook 12 (beta 1) are built to help you better filter the correspondence, duties, and appointments percolating through your Inbox, to-do list, and datebook. Office 12 incorporates tools that are available in version 2003 only as third-party add-ons, such as stronger desktop search and a built-in RSS reader. Turn to our slide show of Outlook 12 (beta 1) for image previews of this renovation.

Upside: Perhaps to the joy of current users resistant to drastic changes, Microsoft Outlook 12 (beta 1) doesn't adopt the top-heavy ribbon of features that will mark the interfaces of the next Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. But this popular e-mail application is welcoming a host of time-, task-, and content-management tweaks. Outlook 12's new calendar better integrates tasks, so you can see your to-do list scheduled alongside the usual meetings and appointments. Business users can send digital business cards and calendars to people within or outside of the company and publish schedules to Office Online. Corporate users of Microsoft SharePoint 12 will be able to overlay their team calendars and change both at once. A new To Do bar along the right-hand edge of the interface displays ongoing tasks. Right-click an e-mail message to turn it into a task and assign it to a coworker. Either to the delight or dismay of procrastinators, today's unfinished tasks automatically roll over to tomorrow.

A rebuilt search engine will replace the frustratingly slow and inefficient one from Outlook 2003. And news junkies can make use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds within the message Inbox, eliminating the need for third-party apps such as NewsGator. Outlook's newsfeeds can travel with your smart phone or handheld. Outlook 12 also expands choices for formatting e-mail; new features appear within the message composition window.

Downside: Users new to the Microsoft Office suite may dislike the menu-based layout of Outlook 12, as it differs from the ribbon interface in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Many of the useful changes previewed in Outlook 12 (beta 1), such as calendar sharing, focus on corporate clients instead of fixing basic glitches that may irritate users of any stripe. For example, we dislike the hard-to-wrangle organization of folders within the left pane of Outlook 2003, and version 12 won't change that. Also, Microsoft is rebuilding Web-based Hotmail to mimic the drag-and-drop, multipaned layout of Outlook; but at this time, Outlook 12 is not expected to provide any new integration with Hotmail.

Outlook: Microsoft intends for this early beta rollout of Outlook 12 to resolve many of our complaints about version 2003, such as shoddy searching skills. We look forward to testing Outlook 12 (beta 1) further to find out how well it helps us manage chores and content over time. For images of the new features, turn to our slide show of Outlook 12 (beta 1).