One of the IT philosophies that we promote on a regular basis is that you should update your hardware and software — on a regular basis. Or at least have some sort of schedule, rough plan, half forgotten dream, or crayon doodle on a dinner napkin about when things should be replaced. Normally people tend to, at best, replace hardware. Most likely because hardware is what shows the most visual signs of aging, i.e. computer won’t start because something died inside of the box. What commonly gets left behind is software. For the most part, software doesn’t show the obvious signs of aging that hardware does. Aging software is sort of like a man growing older – it was such a gradual process that he didn’t realize how much hair he lost, how much nose hair had replaced it, and how much weight he gained until he compared himself to his high school graduation photos. The point is, like hardware, software also needs to be upgraded periodically.

Now, we don’t advocate upgrading just or the sake of upgrading. But what often happens with software is that people will continue to use the version that they have until they are forced to upgrade. And here is where it gets ugly. Most software manufacturers understand that their users get accustomed to how their software operates. So changes are usually implemented incrementally from version to version, to ease their users into the new version. The problem is if too much time has elapsed and you are suddenly forced to upgrade, not only do you have to deal with a couple of visual or functional tweaks, you are catapulted years into the software future. And for most users, that sucks. But like many things which are good for us, it’s not always fun, and sometimes is uncomfortable, but something that is necessary.

So why am I talking about this? Because I was recently forced to upgrade a piece of software which I had become complacent with, because honestly, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. And when I say “forced” I mean that Brandon told me that I should upgrade because I was using software that was 6 years old (which in the software world is eons, to give you an example, 6 years ago there was no Android phone), and that “you are the one that always says that people should upgrade their software.”

Microsoft Office is the software that I upgraded, to the latest version Office 365 Home Premium to be specific. And rather than talk about all the features, and changes, etc, etc, which I’m sure has been thoroughly reviewed somewhere else on the Internet. I’ll just focus on Outlook, a program which I use extensively, and my first impressions, thoughts, likes, and dislikes.

And if you are still here reading, wow, really? Nothing better to do today huh?

What I don’t like

Let’s start out with what I don’t like, because let’s be honest, everyone always points out the things they hate first. Don’t they?

  • The default color theme in Outlook is way too white, there’s no contrast, and actually makes it difficult to differentiate between the different sections, and to quickly scan and identify what you are looking for. Fortunately this is easily changed in the Office Themes option.
  • The titles in the Ribbon are all uppercase and makes it hard to read. There are a lot of opinions on readability in typography, uppercase vs lowercase, color contrast, etc., etc.. In fact, it’s a pretty big deal when it comes to choosing a typeface, like when the US DOT chose a new font for the highway signs. Not that we’re going to be reading the Ribbon titles while passing at 60 mph, but at a glance, I think the all caps is still harder to read.
  • The header in the Reading Pane takes up a stupid amount of vertical space.
    • After reading through the Office 2013 Preview forums, it appears that Microsoft in all their wisdom removed the option to hide the header because it would confuse most users if they accidentally hid the header. Basically, Microsoft wanted to make Outlook as stupid-proof as possible. Boo.
  • Shared overlay calendars still not “fixed”. Damn it Microsoft… Brandon and I share our calendars with each other to facilitate easy and accurate scheduling. Outlook 2007 introduced the ability to overlay multiple calendars which gave a very comprehensive view of multiple calendars. Super. But when Outlook 2010 rolled around we noticed a behavioral change in the way the overlay calendars worked. In Outlook 2007 my own calendar would always be on the top of the overlay stack, which made sense, because if I added an appointment, it would, by default, add to my own calendar. That behavior changed in Outlook 2010; each time you close and open Outlook 2010, the last shared calendar you added is on top. Which means each time I open Outlook 2010, I have to select my own calendar, to make sure it’s on top of the stack. I was really hoping that Microsoft would fix this in Outlook 2013 to make the calendar stack order persistent, but sadly they didn’t.
    • From my reading around, it appears that an Internet shared calendar will maintain it’s position in the stack hierarchy,  but not a shared calendar within the Exchange organization.
    • Actually, I stand corrected, even in the same session (left Outlook open), periodically when I go to my calendar, Brandon’s calendar will jump to the top of the overlay stack. Wtf Microsoft?

What I like

  • Basically the same layout as Outlook 2007. Don’t have to learn how to walk again.
  • When Ribbon is collapsed, a “New Email”, “New Appointment”, or “New Contact” button is readily available at the top of the left navigation bar eliminating the need to expand the Ribbon, then click to create a new item.
  • Skype integration.
    • When I started Outlook 2013 for the first time, I received a prompt from Skype to allow Outlook to interact with Skype. Now, without the need for a toolbar or Add-in, I can initiate a Skype call right from Outlook.
    • Just by hovering over a contacts name, you get a pop up menu. If you click on the phone-icon drop down, you can select which number you want to dial.
  • Shows a reply status in the email header in the Reading Pane.
    • Ok, so I guess that “stupid amount of vertical space” is used for something useful.
  • The Reply, Reply All, and Forward buttons are all in the Reading Pane header.
    • Gives quicker access to the most common tasks for the message. Though it does take up vertical space, and if you don’t hide your Ribbon (like I did) they are redundant controls.
  • Exchange offline sync settings. Much like on your phone or tablet, Outlook 2013 by default only keeps 12 months of mail offline. This is great for those who have an SSD in their computer which is typically much smaller than a standard hard drive, so storage space is at a premium. And just like on your phone or tablet, when doing a search, both the offline and server content will be searched.

What I meh

  • Animated pane transitions and smooth animated cursor.
  • Weather widget in Calendar.
  • The new navigation to move between different sections of Outlook.
  • The Peek feature on the Calendar.
    • When hovering your cursor over an appointment, it gives a pop up summary of the appointment, the start and end time, the location, reminder, and meeting organizer.

Things I immediately changed

  • Changed the Office Theme to Dark Gray.
    • File > Options > General > “Office Theme”
  • Re-ordered my email accounts/mailboxes in the left navigation.
    • In addition to my Exchange account I have a Gmail account, as well as my Archive PST. When opening Outlook for the first time, my Gmail account was last in the list.
    • Simple drag-and-drop sorting.
  • Added my Gmail Inbox to the Favorites for quick access.
    • Right-click on folder > “Show in Favorites”
  • Minimized the Ribbon to give me more vertical space.
    • Right-click on a Ribbon tab > “Collapse the Ribbon”
    • Or double-click on a Ribbon tab, though getting the clicks right is a bit tricky. Better just do the right-click method.
  • Hid the user photographs
    • File > Options > People > “Show user photographs when available”
  • Re-enabled the check for duplicates when saving new contacts.
    • File > Options > “Check for duplicates when saving new contacts”.
  • Turned the Reading Pane back on.
    • View > Reading Pane > “Bottom”
  • Turned the To-Do Bar back on.
    • View > To-Do Bar > “Calendar” and “Tasks”
    • You need to enable this for each Outlook section, e.g. on Mail, Calendar, People, etc.
      • This allows you to customize which parts of the To-Do Bar you want on each section of Outlook.
  • Disabled hardware graphics acceleration.
    • Apparently my graphics card is getting on in its years. I have an Nvidia Quadro NVS 420 pushing 2 monitors, a Dell G2410, and a Dell E228WFP, and I guess the nifty smooth transitions in Outlook are too much for my card. The transitions will stutter sometimes, or there will be a delay before the transition happens. So I disabled hardware graphics acceleration, which disables the smooth transitions. So, doesn’t look as cool, but also doesn’t delay and make me want to throw my computer out the window.
    • File > Options > Advanced > “Disable hardware graphics acceleration”

What I’m still undecided on

  • The new “People” view in Contacts. Traditionally I’ve always used the “Business Card” view for my Contacts. By default Outlook 2013 uses the People view which has a split screen (2 column) view, with the list of contacts on the left, and the details on the right, kind of like the Reading Pane for email. It’s kind of nice, the People view shows more of the contact information. I’m still undecided if I like it better than the Business Card view.
  • Replying-to or forwarding an email is embedded in the Reading Pane. You do have the option to pop-out the message into a new window. You can still navigate between the Outlook sections, and go back to your in progress reply. Still haven’t decided if I like that or not.
  • The visual changes in Outlook 2013 clearly take its cues from the Microsoft mobile-OS-formerly-known-as-Metro, now generously applied to Windows 8. The lines are clean, there are no superfluous gradients or shadows, the typography for the most part is modern and clean, and Microsoft seems to be taking more advantage of the effect of white space on a user interface.
    • I still question some of the design choices, like the large header in the Reading Pane; and the default all white color theme which is just terrible to read. I suppose MS was trying to go for the minimalist super-clean look, but there is a balance between clean design and functional design.

That’s it for now. I’m actually cheating a bit with this post. I did start writing this post the day I installed Office 2013, but it sat uncompleted in my Evernote for a couple of weeks *gasp*. So I’m trying not to adjust any of my initial thoughts now that it’s been a couple of weeks. I suppose I’ll have to write a follow up post to this, because there are things that I have just gotten used to, and some things which still bug me but there’s nothing I can do about. I will say that I am happy that there isn’t anything about Outlook yet that makes me want to throw my computer out the window. And again, if you’re still reading this, wow, you really need to consider finding a hobby, or I guess you really like reading the incoherent ramblings of an IT person.