The latest edition of Outlook delivers new layout options and features designed to put more information than ever at your fingertips. Change is always tricky with popular software, however. A feature introduced in the beta--conversation view, in which all messages in an e-mail thread are gathered together regardless of when they were sent (à la Gmail)--is turned off by default in the shipping version, following complaints from some beta testers. (You can turn it on by clicking a button.)
To the existing panes (folders, messages, reading, and calendar), the default mail view adds a people pane that shows your recent interactions with the sender of whatever message appears in the reading pane. The people pane is one of the benefits of the most interesting new feature in the beta, Outlook Social Connector, which also lets you view updates from popular social networks for contacts who are members. That function, however, works only with networks that support it with a downloadable add-on (at this writing, only LinkedIn and MySpace provide add-ons; Microsoft says that Facebook and, oddly, Windows Live add-ons are due soon).
I liked Outlook's new Quick Steps feature, which is basically an easy way of creating rules and applying them to specific messages (as opposed to filters, which perform actions on a set of rule-defined messages). The app comes with several predefined Quick Steps, but creating a new one took only a few seconds and a couple of clicks.
Myriad other tweaks simplify setting up meetings from within e-mail, creating a team calendar, finding a room for a meeting, and other routine tasks. As with the other Office apps, clicking the OneNote button in Outlook's ribbon sends the item at hand (contact, e-mail message, or the like) to whatever notebook you specify.
If Office users don't all start using OneNote to take notes (typed or, where digital ink is supported, handwritten), to gather and organize thoughts and information from various sources, and to share everything with colleagues, it won't be for lack of trying on Microsoft's part. The 2010 version of OneNote, now a component of all Office editions, adds some powerful tools, including an improved search function, the ability to turn handwritten math equations into text, and--for shared notebooks--visual cues to show what new content has been added since you last opened the document.
I was particularly impressed by OneNote's ability to record audio while you're taking notes--and then to let you use the notes to play back the audio it captured as you were writing them. On the other hand, I found the program's new layers of note organization confusing: You can now create tabs and sections on three of the application window's four sides, but their hierarchy isn't immediately obvious.
Next: Microsoft's Web Apps