Five surprisingly great things about Outlook 2013

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I've made no secret of my dislike for Microsoft Outlook. In fact, last year I announced my plans to "divorce" Outlook in favor of a smaller, faster mail client.

Alas, because a lot of the writing I do centers around Microsoft Office, I've stuck it out with Outlook, at least on one of my PCs. And over the weekend I made the move to Outlook 2013, which debuted last month as part of the new Office 2013 suite.

What I expected: More clutter, more bloat, more features I don't need.

What I got: A surprisingly streamlined and pleasant program with some features I actually do need—or at least appreciate.

Here, then, is my list of five surprisingly great things about Outlook 2013:

1. One-click Unread-mail filter

One of Outlook 2013's best features: a one-click unread-mail filter.

Unless you're an avid practitioner of inbox-zero techniques, chances are your inbox is full of read and unread messages alike.

In the Outlook of old (i.e. 2010), you could view only unread email by clicking the Filter button, then choosing Unread.

In Outlook 2013, there's a big, easy-to-spot Unread button right at the top of your inbox. Click it and presto: You see only those messages marked as unread. Want to go back to the full inbox view? Just click the All option right next to it. These are the kinds of simple but effective productivity improvements Microsoft should be making. Kudos for this one.

2. Message preview

Traditionally, the Outlook inbox has shown you the sender's name and subject line for each email. To see the actual contents, you'd have to double-click it (or click it once to view it in the preview pane).

Outlook 2013 offers message preview (accessible in the View tab), which lets you preview one, two, or three lines of the message body right inside the inbox—a great way to scan messages without having to open each one individually.

And speaking of the preview pane, you can now reply to (or forward) an email right in that pane, without having to reach for the ribbon.

3. Zoom slider

Depending on how an email is formatted or the size/resolution of your screen, the text might be too small to read comfortably—or too large for the confines of, say, the preview pane.

Thankfully, Outlook 2013 brings over a great feature from Word: the Zoom slider. Available in the lower-right corner of the preview pane, it lets you make quick and easy adjustments to the zoom level for the message you're viewing.

However, the setting doesn't carry over to other messages in your inbox, and if you click away from one zoomed email and then click back to it, your zoom setting is lost. Don't know if that's a bug or a "feature," but it's a bit annoying.

4. Attachment reminders

Borrowing a page from Gmail, Outlook can now warn you when it appears you've forgotten to include an attachment referenced in the body of your message. It's a small thing, but if you're constantly on the receiving end of "You forgot the attachment!" emails, this should come in mighty handy.

5. Themes

Who says Outlook can't look pretty—or at least less drab? You can dress it up with your choice of visual flourishes, including about a dozen themed backgrounds (calligraphy, clouds, stars, etc.) and three color schemes (but only white, light gray, and dark gray, alas).

Still not perfect, though

Much as Microsoft has made great strides in improving Outlook's interface, a lot of the behind-the-scenes settings menus (especially for things like advanced views) remain incomprehensible to mere mortals. And Outlook 2013 is not what I would call competitively priced: You either need to buy it as part of Office 2013/365 or pay $109.99 for it on its own.

Still, I'm happy to see this product making progress, both in terms of productivity and simplicity. Finally, Outlook feels less like an adversary and more like an ally. Your thoughts?

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