With all the hoopla surrounding the roll-out of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5, it's easy to overlook Outlook Express, the e-mail package and newsgroup reader included with IE 5. But for many of us, e-mail is still at least as critical as Web browsing.
Depending on your point of view, the news about Outlook Express 5 can be bad or good.
Bad if you're into heavy-duty e-mail contact management and HTML-rich e-mail and looking for a raft of new features. (Of course, in that case, you're probably already using full-fledged Outlook 98 or Eudora Pro, anyway.)Good if you're comfortable with Outlook Express 4, are most concerned with basic e-mail functions, and don't want to deal with yet another learning curve.
The latest version's improvements concentrate on tasks such as making it easy for multiple users on a single machine to manage different e-mail accounts. And new step-by-step wizards walk you through some of the advanced features that were available in the previous version, such as setting up rules for handling incoming e-mail.
But if you've been an Outlook Express user, you'll be able to jump right in.
Getting up and running
Outlook Express 5 installs along with IE 5, and the only change noticeable at first is a new icon. If you've been using OE 4, the first time you open OE 5, you'll get a message saying that OE 5 needs to convert your old OE 4 message and address book files. Yes, once again Microsoft has changed the file format for a new version of its software. It's irksome, but not surprising.
The conversion process is automatic. On my Pentium II 333MHz, it took 4 minutes and 25 seconds to convert 156MB of message files. Thankfully, there was no change in the file sizes after conversion. (I'd expected the new format to take up more space.)Note that if you decide you really don't like OE 5, and you uninstall it and return to OE 4, things will get a little dicey. All messages that you received in OE 5 will be lost, leaving only the original OE 4 messages available.
Startup screen shifts
After file conversion, OE 5 fires up, with a startup screen that's similar to OE 4's except for two changes. First, your address book is now shown on the lower-left side of the screen, just below the list of mail folders. That makes for handy access without having to go through drop-down menus.
Second, the pictorial icons for common chores have been replaced with a text-oriented list, and you'll see a new "Find People" link. This pops up a dialogue box that lets you search for people or businesses in your address book, or specify one of a half-dozen Web-based search tools such as Yahoo's people search.
Fortunately, OE 5 retained all the custom settings, options, and preferences that I'd set up in OE 4.
Keep it on the server
One very useful new feature of OE 5, especially if you travel extensively, is support for Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), a rapidly spreading 'Net mail standard that gives you better control over your mail than the old POP3 standard.
If your Internet service provider supports IMAP (and an increasing number do), you can access your e-mail from any Internet connection, and download only the message headers -- leaving the messages themselves on the ISP's server. You can then choose which messages you want to download to your local machine and work with offline. The next time you access your ISP, all messages on your local PC and server are automatically synchronised.
Microsoft has put a great deal of effort into setting up an easy way to establish multiple users, with what is essentially a fill-in-the blanks process. This is particularly handy if several people share a single machine and each want to access and manage their own e-mail and address books. Each user has their own private, password-protected area, although it is possible to create a shared address book for all users.
Even if you don't share your PC, the multiple user feature makes it easier to manage multiple e-mail accounts by letting you establish multiple identities for yourself. You can also create multiple signatures for use with different accounts. One thing hasn't changed: You still can't use OE 5 to access your mail from CompuServe, America Online, Lotus' cc:Mail, or Microsoft Mail.
When it comes to e-mail, I'm a firm believer in plain text. But you may feel differently, and OE 5 includes a wizard for creating custom stationery. Included are about 20 designs, mainly for family and personal use (such as holiday letters and baby announcements). You also can create your own, customising fonts and background colours.
If you get a lot of e-mail, and are organised enough to set up rules for handling it, OE 5 can help. The basic features haven't changed. You can, among other things, automatically send messages from specific sources to specific folders, automatically forward e-mail, or delete messages. But such processes were confusing in OE 4, and OE 5 improves them with a wizard. One intriguing new feature in OE 5 is "junk mail filtering," but the feature wasn't available in the pre-release version I tested.
Controlling the wild newsgroups
Finally, if you're into newsgroups, OE 5's integrated reader has a new feature that can help manage the avalanche of messages found in most newsgroups. You can designate specific message threads in newsgroups as "watched," and you'll see all messages in that thread as they arrive. On the other hand, you can also designate specific threads as "ignored," a great way to avoid the often-tiresome "flame" threads that don't seem to lead anywhere.
Making the choice
Should you upgrade to Outlook Express 5? Yes, you probably should -- especially if you're anxious to download and start using IE 5, since the two are well integrated. Unlike too many upgrades in the past, OE 5 seems solid and bug-free, although only time will tell. Overall, Microsoft has taken a conservative and reasonable approach to this upgrade. And did I mention that it's free?