My Review of Outlook Email

Recently, Microsoft asked me to review/give feedback on Outlook using a feedback service called UserVoice. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, wanted me to say, on a scale of 0 to 10, whether or not I would recommend Outlook to a friend, with 0 being ‘no I certainly/definitely/infinitely wouldn’t’ and 10 being ‘absolutely, who wouldn’t?’

All I wanted to do was to check my emails, but they wouldn’t let me until I filled out the questionnaire. Yes, I had tried to click the little ‘X’ in the top-right corner of the window, but we all know what Microsoft think of that cross, don’t we? (Read: Windows 10 Update Becomes Mandatory Using ‘Nasty Trick’).

Outlook apps

As I couldn’t check my emails, I gave a 6 out of 10, to which they innocently replied “why, oh why, did you give us that awful score?” (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit with the extra words, but innocent is an understatement!). I therefore decided to give them my whole-hearted honest opinion of the current Outlook service which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, not nearly as high quality as the old Windows Live Hotmail service.

Without further ado, here’s what I said, word for word (the pictures I added later, for your reading pleasure):

 

In the days of Windows Live Hotmail, the service was very functional and detailed, but in Microsoft’s opinion, apparently not very ‘user-friendly’. Then came the Outlook revamp, and with it came a stripped-back, user-friendly but slow and sluggish email server. Although keeping my Hotmail/Live/Outlook email accounts open, my main account became a Gmail account. The current service, an upgrade from the fallible Outlook revamp, is only half what Windows Live Hotmail used to be. Outlook was supposed to be the revamp of Windows Live Hotmail, the extension of Windows 8 in email form.

Windows 8 failed to impress with its new and fancy Start Screen, with Live Tiles that were tablet- and touch screen-friendly. Outlook was supposed to replicate this Live Tile structure, and Microsoft set about creating a corporate brand image around Windows 8. But seeing how Windows 8 was a sinking ship the minute it left the harbour, and Microsoft failed to realise this by insisting that Windows 8 was very much better than either Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7, when they announced that Outlook would be the new Windows Live Hotmail, opinion was divided as to the functionality of the new service.

Outlook, as many people will recall, was that useful piece of software found bundled in with Publisher, Word, PowerPoint, Access and Picture Manager to name a few – Microsoft Office. Microsoft Outlook was that nifty piece of software that allowed the user to check their emails without ever going onto the internet or entering Internet Explorer. It allowed you to bypass that horrible wait, and get straight to what you wanted to do, to check your emails and get things done.

Therefore, when Microsoft used the Outlook name to brand their newly-designed email server, the Outlook name was brought into disrepute. Its interface, while definitely more user-friendly than the outgoing Windows Live Hotmail, was slow and sluggish and never really improved. The Live Tile structure of Windows 8 came into play when switching between Mail, Contacts and SkyDrive (later renamed OneDrive after that infamous lawsuit by British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, which forced Microsoft to rename their cloud-storage service).

At best, therefore, Outlook was a watered-down Hotmail, and a stripped back version of the superb, feature-rich Windows Live Hotmail service. It was supposed to be a testament to everything great created by Microsoft, but reminded me that although change can be good, in Microsoft’s case, it isn’t.

Back when Apple announced they were changing the interface of the iPhone and iPod Touch, people were divided about the new flat design of iOS 7. Everyone was used to the flashy icons of iOS 6 that the new flat design looked odd and simplistic – too simplistic, even, for a device that costs nearly £800 pounds. But look how that turned out – by reducing iOS to a set of flat icons, Apple moved forward with upgrading the capabilities of both the software and the hardware. Now we have devices like the iPhone 6S with its fingerprint-sensor home button and 3D Touch, a far-cry from the iPhone 4 and 4S in their heyday. I remember jailbreaking my iPod Touch 4G with Evasi0n to open up the interface to all the tweaks and mods that would allow my iTouch to run the look and feel of iOS 7 while still running iOS 6. Initially, iOS 6 had been brilliant on my iTouch, but after a while battery draining became an issue, and it seemed that, unless I had the SHSH Blobs for iOS 5, downgrading to iOS 5 wouldn’t be possible, so I never fully enjoyed my jailbroken iTouch before its sudden and rather dramatic demise 4 years ago.

The same can be said for Android. In its early days, Android was a mish-mash of ideas and features. The first device I ever owned with Android installed was the HTC Wildfire, installed with Android 2.2 Froyo and upgradeable to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Android was functional, and my phone benefited from HTC’s own flavour, HTC Sense, which itself was in its infancy. It allowd me to check my Twitter status with clever widgets without ever opening the app. The same could be said for Facebook. Aside from the fun tweaks, it was functional and enabled me to get things done quicker (yes, enabled rather than allowed, as Android was and still is better than iOS in many ways, customisation being one of them).

Yes, I may have ruined the phone trying to install a Custom Rom with Ice Cream Sandwich features, in the form of CyanogenMod 10 Buzz (thanks to the forum XDA Developers, which helped out a lot during my years of experimentation), but to this day my HTC Wildfire still works, and is a testament to the greatness that Android became. My current device, the Desire EYE (coincidentally also made by HTC), also allows me to get things done, this time with Android 6 Marshmallow installed and running HTC’s Sense 7.0 UI.

My tablet, a Samsung Galaxy running Android 4.4 KikKat, maybe stuck in the past with no hope of upgrades but it too is functional. It may be used primarily as an entertainment portal and less for work than my other devices, but it too allows me to get things done (i.e. watching the next episode of Miami Vice in peace).

But Outlook is a far-cry from the heydays of Windows Live Hotmail, and not in a good way. Windows 8.1 was a free upgrade to Windows 8 that brought back that all-important Start Button that we loved and missed, but Microsoft still insisted that the Start Screen was better and more touchscreen-friendly than a Start Menu. And so, by ignoring the voice of the public, Outlook also stayed the same and Microsoft tumbled. My trust in them to create a fantastic product faded and, less than 3 hours until midnight on July 29, 2016 (the deadline for the free Windows 10 update), I finally upgraded. I wasn’t happy at first, because I had actually gotten used to using the Windows 8.1 Start Screen. Going back to the Windows of old with a few hints of Windows 8 seemed a bit of a step backwards, but it was a necessary step in the right direction.

And that is ultimately how I feel about Outlook. There were a few good features, such as Sweep, that came with the Outlook interface that have come and gone, or ‘improved’ – I say this with inverted commas because while Sweep is still there, it used to allow me to ‘Sweep’ emails from various different senders AND block all future emails from those senders, all in one go. This was a useful feature if, say, you got a lot of spam emails in your inbox – you know the kind, that come from random senders and which look okay but are not as they ask you to click a link.

Outlook Sweep

Sweep in action – when it works!

I used to get emails regularly claiming to be from Apple, each one a seemingly innocent email asking me to click the link to change my password or authorise a purchase made on my iTunes account. I would’ve fallen for this, had it not been sent to the email account which is NOT linked to my iTunes account (I have 9 active email accounts, each with 2 or 3 aliases, and each one of the accounts and aliases used for a different purpose). I might also have fallen for it if my logical brains had stepped out of the room for a coffee, or if I hadn’t hovered over the link to see some unknown web address display in place of the usual Apple ID URL, and possibly even if I hadn’t noticed several glaringly obvious spelling and grammatical errors (sorry, scammers, I studied English Literature at university!).

But that feature, that Sweep feature I came to love and enjoy, was ‘improved’ and became less useful than before – now, when you select/tick multiple emails, the Sweep option vanishes from the top menu bar and is not an available option, with no apparent way of re-enabling it without de-selecting all those emails. Now, you can Sweep, but one email at a time. Rather tedious when you have upwards of 2000 emails in your cluttered inbox. If you want any other options, it seems, you have to create ‘Rules’ and set up ‘Filters’ under Options/Settings, which is tedious and a rather long-winded way of doing what I want to do. It means what I want to do takes longer to get done, and as we all know, that’s an improvement! (Yes, that is sarcasm. Maybe I should employ a sarcasm sign every time just in case you thought I was being serious – possibly not unlike the sarcasm sign as used by Leonard and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.)

Sarcasm

Source: Big Bang Theory Wiki, from the episode The Big Bran Hypothesis

Microsoft’s Outlook email service is still nowhere near as superb as it used to be, and is a far cry from the days of a superb features list, but it is getting back to what it used to be, which is a step in the right direction. I gave a score of 6 out of 10 because in its current form and flavour, I like the service. It still contains that unique and fresh design that harks back to the Windows 8 Tiles, but with a more functional and feature-led approach. But, as I no longer trust Microsoft, I wouldn’t mind betting that the current inbox design and features won’t last long before Microsoft chooses once more to change the layout to make everything “better” and more “user-friendly,” two terms I have come to hate when it comes to all-things Microsoft.

And that, my dear readers, was my review. Well, they asked me for it, and I gave it!

Chris K.

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