Outlook has been helping users make sense of their inboxes and schedules since the 1990s, and is now the model of a modern email and calendar tool, available across the desktop, mobile, and web.
Competition from Apple Mail on the Mac and Gmail in G Suite (and just about everywhere else) remains strong, though. So does Outlook still have what it takes to be the top tool for managing personal and company information?
It's available as part of an Office 365 subscription, or – if you don't mind missing out on regular updates – as a standalone Office 2019 purchase.
Microsoft Outlook for Office 365: interface
There are only so many ways you can display emails, and Outlook lets you use most of them – from the Gmail-style conversation view, to the recently added Focused inbox (designed to catch only the most important emails), you've got full control over how your messages get collated.
Like the other applications in Office 365, Outlook makes use of a ribbon menu to bring the most relevant features and functions right to the fore when you need them. It's probably a little more cluttered than it needs to be – see the web and mobile apps for evidence of that – but the ribbon can always be hidden if needed.
In fact you can show or hide just about any part of the interface with a couple of clicks, so it's easy enough to change if it's not to your liking. There's some nice use of subtle color for flagging and categorizing emails, and if you do get stuck then the 'Tell me what you want to do...' option on the menu bar is actually useful rather than gimmicky.
The Outlook interface is clean and intuitive enough then, but – more so than with Word, Excel and PowerPoint – there is still a sense that it's being held back by all the legacy features it's forced to include. Look at the simplicity of Gmail on the web, for example, and the Outlook interface begins to look positively bloated by comparison.
The calendar part of the UI, accessible with one click from your inbox, manages to combine a sense of minimalism with some nice little flourishes – like the miniature weather forecasts that appear above the calendar. Microsoft has done a better job of keeping everything accessible here, perhaps because there are fewer features to worry about.
Microsoft Outlook for Office 365: features
With a heritage spanning more than 20 years, it's no surprise that Outlook comes with just about every feature you could want from an email program: filters, flags, smart searches, due dates, out-of-office replies, scheduled sending and much more besides.
More recently, Microsoft has tried to add more artificial intelligence to Outlook, with the automatic sorting of emails into and out of the Focused inbox for example, as we've already mentioned. There's also the MyAnalytics data analysis add-in that can spot patterns before you do – a schedule getting too full with meetings, advising against sending after-hours emails, and automatically picking out to-do tasks from email threads.
Another update added to Outlook in the last few months is automatic payments, right from the inbox, with partners including Stripe and Braintree on board. We also like the ability to find related emails – from the same sender or pertaining to the same conversation – very handy as well.
On the calendar side, you've got everything from custom views to automatic meeting scheduling (for when all the attendees are free) to play around with. Actually, one of the key reasons for buying Outlook is because of the tight email and calendar integration. If you need your schedule to be at one with your inbox, creating meetings from emails and so on, this is something Outlook does really well.
Outlook remains a feature-packed powerhouse of an app for managing email, no matter how many messages you get or how many accounts you need to manage. The question is whether there are actually too many features here – and whether the majority of users aren't just better off with Windows 10 Mail or Outlook on the web instead...
Microsoft Outlook for Office 365: mobile and web
There's no doubt Outlook remains packed with features for the discerning emailer – but is that a curse as well as a blessing? Fire up Outlook on the web and it immediately feels crisp, simple and fresh compared with the rather bloated desktop edition, even though it's keeping most of the key features in place.
Thanks to a recent lick of paint, it's now much easier on the eye, and much more of a genuine competitor to the mighty Gmail on the web. The calendar component still feels rather basic and sluggish, and options like search and sorting could still use some significant improvement, but Outlook Online is not to be sniffed at.
Likewise with the Outlook apps for Android and iOS. Microsoft has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its apps for the mobile operating systems made by Google and Apple, and it shows. These are two of the most intuitive and appealing email apps you can get on these platforms, with swipe actions and search tools designed to help you get through your emails as quickly as possible.
The apps include the calendar component as well, for checking up on your schedule on the go – and again they make the desktop version look rather dated and cluttered in comparison. One feature that does work well is the ability to view Microsoft Office files (attached to your emails) right inside the Outlook apps.
The polish of Outlook on Android and iOS does owe something to the mobile apps from Apple and Google themselves – but even if Microsoft wasn't first to nail email on a smartphone, it's done a respectable job of dragging its long-standing desktop client into a form that feels intuitive and useful on a smaller screen.
Microsoft Outlook for Office 365: pricing and verdict
To get Outlook as part of Office 365 Business, you need to fork out £7.90 per user per month (plus VAT) if you're paying annually (or $8.25 in the US), or £9.50 per user per month (plus VAT) if you're paying monthly (or $10 in the US). A 30-day free trial is available if you want to give it a go before committing, or you can opt for the one-off Office 2019 purchase.
On the one hand it's hard to fault Outlook – it remains packed with features, reasonably intuitive to use, and undoubtedly the most powerful email solution for desktops and laptops. Microsoft is now regularly adding AI-inspired touches that promise to be genuinely useful in dealing with the deluge of emails that continue to pour in for most of us.
On the other hand it feels like Outlook has been overtaken somewhat by faster, slicker tools from Apple and Google – and indeed by Microsoft's own Outlook clients for the web and mobile (and by the stripped-down Mail app for Windows 10). For most of us, email doesn't have to be as complicated as Outlook makes it.
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