Byron K. Patrick
Taking a peek at Outlook’s best new features

Microsoft email application boasts improved interface and functionality.

October 7, 2013
by Byron K. Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Spend some time with Outlook 2013 and it’s clear that Microsoft has made significant, if often subtle, upgrades to its signature Office email product.

The changes aren’t as dramatic as the ones Microsoft gave Outlook 2007, but they are more telling than the tweaks the company made with Outlook 2010.

This article walks you through the most notable new features in Outlook 2013, including the interface upgrades that improve the application’s appearance and efficiency.

The new look of Outlook

The changes with Outlook 2013 start at the top. Microsoft introduced a cleaner look for the top ribbon featuring new graphics and slightly larger text and icons that make it easier for the eye to navigate the dozens of choices available. The differences in the ribbons can be seen in the screenshots below.

In addition to the new clean look, Microsoft has shifted a few commonly used shortcuts to create additional space and add tidiness to the Outlook interface. A simple example of this is the navigation to the various modules of Outlook, such as the Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks. Previously, these shortcuts were displayed vertically on the same panel as the folder tree (see the top image below). Microsoft moved these shortcuts to the bottom of Outlook and now displays them horizontally in what was previously wasted space. This shift expands the view of the folders and creates room for “peek” windows, which open when the cursor is moved over the shortcuts. For instance, hovering over Calendar pops up the Calendar in a peek window, while hovering over People pops up a window into the Contacts list, as shown in the images below.

The peeking capability of these modules is useful because it allows users quick access to information without having to leave their current screen. While hovering over the respective modules displays their peeks, users can click on the shortcut to access the appropriate module. Peeks are prevalent in Outlook 2013. They are also useful for viewing the contact information of an email sender. A simple click on the name or picture at the top of the email opens the Contact Card, as shown below.

The Contact Card not only displays the sender’s information, it also contains contact information from the social networks Outlook accesses—most notably LinkedIn and Facebook. The Contact Card and aggregation of social network data are part of the new People Hub, which replaced the old flat Contacts module of Outlook. The setup of the social networks has moved to the backstage area of Outlook under the File Menu, as shown below.

The social connectors have been around for a few years, but they are easier to use in Outlook 2013 because they already are installed. In previous versions of Outlook, there were separate add-ins. To activate the social connectors, simply check off the connectors to configure and sign up with your account information. Once the connectors are activated, Outlook will automatically update contact information, profile pictures, and recent social media activity.

Another accessibility feature is the addition of the All and Unread buttons at the top of the Inbox. By simply clicking these links, messages are easily filtered. Previously, this functionality was available only from a search folder.

The new functionality changes of Outlook

In addition to the visual changes of Outlook 2013, Microsoft has added functionality that improves the end user experience. One of the enhancements is that the Reply window opens within the Preview Pane on emails, as shown in the image below. Previously, hitting the Reply button would always open a new window, which could get lost behind other windows and would just take up more screen space. Now, clicking reply within the Preview Pane opens the Reply window inside the Preview Pane. For users who prefer a separate window, Microsoft has provided a “pop out” button, which immediately drops a classic Reply window onto the screen. Also, the threaded message drops a flag reminding users that a draft is in process for this email.

Microsoft also has integrated the forgotten attachment detector into Outlook as a native feature. This feature monitors messages for common phrases such as “See Attached.” If Outlook reads such a phrase in a message and nothing is attached, a warning will pop up, as shown below.

Outlook 2013 is also working to reduce the number of clicks to access commonly used features, including one-click functionality to mark a message as unread, as shown below.

And of course, what program these days would be any good if it didn’t provide a weather forecast? In the Calendar module of Outlook 2013, Microsoft has added the Weather Bar, which provides a three-day weather forecast. The Weather Bar has a variety of options available, including picking the location for the weather and choosing Celsius or Fahrenheit.

There is no question that Microsoft put effort into improving the performance of Outlook. One example is the cache mode. Cache mode is the typical setup that Outlook defaults to when not directly connected to the Exchange Server. In the past, Outlook would download the entire mailbox to create a cache on the user’s local computer. This seriously affects performance for those users with very large mailboxes. However, Outlook now defaults to setting up only the last 12 months of messages available offline. Microsoft has created a slider to adjust this setting to ensure each user has access to just the right amount of mail offline, as shown in the image below.

Microsoft Outlook 2013 sports an updated design and interface designed to improve the user experience. For the most part, the company has succeeded, making Outlook well worth a look if you’re considering an upgrade of Office.

Rate this article 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Send your responses here.

Byron K. Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, MCSE, is a co-founder and CEO of Baltimore-based Simplified Innovations Inc., which provides IT services and consulting to CPAs. He is also the current chair of the Maryland Association of CPAs. Follow him on Twitter at @byron_cpa.