Outlook 2010 sucks. And not in a good way.
It’s such a bad piece of software, and the company who wrote it (yes, *them*) cares so little for the poor bastards who have to use it, that it has an annoyance that really irritates me (that has existed for, like, ever), and one fundamental bug that renders it utterly useless as an email client, and relegates it to ‘useful only as an Exchange client’ status.
The annoyance is that when you install Outlook it creates something it calls Local Folders. This is of course because everyone who wants to have an email client, obviously wants to store all their email on their computer’s hard disk, right?
Wrong. Sensible people using Outlook are either using Exchange (where it’s ALL on the server) or IMAP (where similarly, it’s all on the server). Local folders are for people stuck with POP3. Like it’s the 1980s.
And you can not select an IMAP mailbox to be your ‘default delivery’ location, only your Local Folders or an Exchange server.
The fundamental bug? This bug was reported in Outlook 2010′s first beta release, because … it’s fundamental:
If you are using IMAP, Outlook will not display any notification that new mail has arrived. No beep, no popup (those only work with POP3/Exchange anyway), and no little envelope in the system tray to tell you that you received an email.
Although it was reported over a year ago, it has never been fixed, and is in the current release version of Outlook that comes with Office 2010.
So after I was ‘upgraded’ to Office 2010, I used my iPhone’s mail beep to tell me I had received email. Suboptimal but it worked. I also had to check regularly in case any mail had arrived while I was away from my desk for 5 minutes. It was getting to the point where it was starting to get on my tits.
My dislike for Outlook begins – let’s try Thunderbird
Well, then it happened that for some arcane licensing reasons our IT people (without telling about this) needed to change the product key on my copy of Office 2010. On a Friday evening. So when I came into the office on Monday morning, I was greeted by Outlook saying it would not let me start because there was a problem with the licence. I hunted down the IT person who had rogered my machine (“I was using that”) and he tried to fix it. In the end the only thing that would do it was a reinstallation of Office 2010.
So unable to use Excel (which I needed), and frustrated with only having my iPhone with which to wade through email, I had a brainwave: Lets install Thunderbird!
I will point out that I have used Thunderbird before; way back in the mists of time, I installed an early version and while it was interesting, it felt decidedly clunky. If I am honest, after using Outlook with Exchange for over a decade before then using it as an IMAP mail client for another couple of years, Thunderbird still does not feel as slick as Outlook’s UI.
BUT – and this is a big one: THUNDERBIRD WILL TELL ME WHEN I HAVE MAIL.
To me, this is one of the fundamental things a mail client should do. In fact, lets have a quick list of the things I think are important about a mail client. This is my list of features a mail client needs to have, in descending order of importance (most important at the top):
- Must be secure. Email is private, and this needs to be built in from the start. No defaulting to non-SSL/TLS.
- Must support IMAP.
- Must tell me as soon as possible when I have new email.
- Must allow me to read mail in any folder.
- Must allow me to send email, including replies and forwarding.
- Must give me access to attachments.
- Must save all my sent messages.
- Must keep track of people I know and their email addresses.
- Should allow me to view email sent in HTML.
- Should show inline images.
- Should allow me to turn off bits I don’t want. Notes? Don’t use them. Todos? Nope.
- Nice if it has calendar support (or even better – integration)
- Nice if it can show attachments of various types.
I am sure there are others, but you get my point: telling me when I have mail is important. Showing me inline Excel files is a nice-to-have, but when they are only a double-click away, it’s not a must-have.
So back to Outlook. Outlook does one thing extremely well: it is quite simply the best way to talk to an Exchange server, bar none. If you are running an Exchange server, you are using Outlook as the client – because if you are not, you really are missing out on swathes of goodness.
If you are NOT running Exchange, then you should be using POP3 if you want to use Outlook – because Outlook’s support for IMAP is not good. Sure, you can read IMAP mail stores, and it does the whole marking read and moving between folders thing just fine; but sometimes it will say something like “uh-oh, an email’s ID just changed – this usually indacates a bug in the server” and after that it sometimes works and sometimes not, until you close Outlook and open it again.
But let me get this straight: POP3 is just horrible. It is a system that was invented to allow batch-downloading of emails from an inbox. That’s it. Nothing more. You can tell a POP3 client to leave your mail where it found it, when it pulls it from the inbox, but by default Outlook deletes it. Nice.
These days, you are likely to have at least three devices pull mail from your office email account: The computer in the office, the computer at home, and the computer in your pocket. If they all use POP3 and you have it set up to leave messages on the server, you still have the problem that you have no synchronisation of ‘read/unread’ markers between devices. And that’s before I start talking about folders. POP3 has no concept of folders.
Do not use POP3. Simply … don’t. Let it die.
So … all the cool kids use IMAP. It has folders, and mail is left on the server because your IMAP client just gives you a view of the mail on the server. You read mail on one device, and it’s marked as already read across all devices.
But Outlook’s IMAP implementation is fundamentally broken. So – if you don’t use Exchange, do NOT use Outlook.
Thunderbird compared to Outlook
I have been using Thunderbird for a month as my main work mail client. It suffers from the same annoyance that Outlook does, where it thrusts these ‘Local Folders’ upon you, but with a little tweakery they can be hidden. Score one for Thunderbird.
Its fonts and general appearance are still not as slick as Outlook’s. But I am in need of an email client that works, and Thunderbird is a pretty good IMAP client. One of the better ones, in fact. Score another for Thunderbird.
If I look at the list above, Thunderbird does not have a calendar that integrates with mail. Shame about that, really – Outlook’s calendar is excellent, although it really comes into its own when integrated with Exchange, where it is simply the best calendar management system I have ever had the pleasure to use. Want to invite people to meetings, book rooms, book resources, mark your time out of the office, see who’s free at certain times? Exchange and Outlook are superb for that. Score one for Exchange.
Outlook allows you to ‘preview’ attachments, but in-place modification is a no-no, so a lot of the times you need to open them anyway. That’s also only a nice-to-have on my list, so I am not going to score Outlook for that one.
Thunderbird will tell me when I receive new email. Score one for Thunderbird. (Technically, so will Outlook if you are using Exchange. Score one for Exchange.)
Thunderbird is easy to set up with IMAP, and also tries SSL/TLS before ‘vanilla’ insecure ports. Outlook needs you to jump through a few more hoops, especially if you want IMAP with SSL/TLS, but they can both get a bit complicated. Before I say there is no winner, if you try to setup non-Exchange email on Outlook, it defaults to POP3. And to connect to an Exchange server, you just enter your server name, user name and password. Score one for Exchange, and a half for Thunderbird.
Exchange allows you to have a global address list, whereas Thunderbird and Outlook on POP3/IMAP only have local ones. Score another for Exchange.
Outlook’s UI is slick, and it has many many options to allow you to tweak it. Thunderbird still feels a little spartan in comparison – but it does the job. Score a half for Outlook.
So from a quick check, I count the following:
- Thunderbird: 3.5 non-scientific points
- Exchange: 4 non-scientific points
- Outlook: 0.5 non-scientific points
So there you have it. Exchange wins (and that means Exchange with Outlook!). Thunderbird comes second, and Outlook got half a point for looking nice.
Have you ever set up an Exchange server? Have you ever maintained one? I have.
Unless you use the Small Business Server approach, setting up Exchange yourself is a gargantuan task, and if you want to do anything remotely ‘different’ (e.g. forward all outgoing mail through your ISP’s mail servers on the way out), it starts to get very complicated very quickly.
It is also a very expensive and resource-hungry application. It requires that you run it on a domain controller, running a 64-bit version of Windows, and it needs at the very least 2GB of RAM to itself.
Only available to those who have one of the higher Microsoft Partner subscriptions, or who have deep pockets, or to those who rent a hosted Exchange solution (which are actually pretty reasonable, but you don’t have total control over the server). Not recommended to the small business or the home user, unless they like learning esoteric stuff about bits of Active directory they have previously never heard of. Don’t know what a ‘forest’ is? Best not install Exchange just yet.
Apple OS X ‘Mail’ Application
This is the best email client I have ever used. It handles Exchange pretty well, and while it will do POP3, it assumes you want IMAP – using SSL/TLS.
It hides all the details of IMAP from you (where Outlook does NOT – it leaves items ‘marked for deletion’ on display by default, for example), and it simply works. It is a wonderful thing, when used as an IMAP client. And it’s surprisingly good as an Exchange client.
Tempted to switch to Mac but didn’t want to because you were scared about email? To be fair, there are reasons to be scared about switching to using a Mac instead of Windows. Email is not one of them.
If you are using a Mac, use the included Mail application – it’s wonderful.
If you are using Windows, and you need to connect to Exchange, you need to be using Outlook – the two together are a wonderful combination.
Otherwise, do not use POP3. Do not use Outlook.
I use Thunderbird on Windows, and I like it. At home I use Apple’s Mail application.
Oh – and the cost: Outlook is expensive, as part of Office 2010. Exchange is hideously expensive. Thunderbird is free and open source. Apple’s Mail application is included with OS X, and so is free when you buy a Mac.