First impressions of Outlook 2013 Preview

As I noted on July 16, alongside every new release of Exchange you’re almost certain to find a new release of Outlook. And so it is with Exchange 2013 as we have a preview release of Outlook 2013 to play with. I downloaded the Office 2013 Professional Plus Preview and installed it onto my work PC (running Windows 8). After all, you might as well use software for real work if you’re to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

The upgrade installation was painless, which is always a good thing. My Office 365 and Hotmail accounts were imported and everything seemed to work. However, then I noticed that I had two Hotmail accounts, one using Exchange ActiveSync (the new approach to synchronization), the other using the older Hotmail Connector for Outlook, which uses MAPI and is now deemed to be obsolete. Hotmail has supported ActiveSync for quite a while now and it makes sense to move to a common approach to synchronization across all platforms, which is after all the reason why ActiveSync exists.

Outlook2013

Unfortunately the ActiveSync version didn’t work so well, so I edited the account properties to point it to m.hotmail.com, which is the access point that I’ve used successfully with mobile phones in the past. Outlook proclaimed itself happy with the change and everything promptly started to work. I then cleaned up by deleting the entry for the other Hotmail account.

The only add-on for Outlook that I use consistently is TechHit’s TwInbox for Outlook, which integrates Twitter into Outlook. The upgrade procedure detected TwInbox and migrated it across to Outlook 2013 and the add-in has continued to work as before. Score one to Microsoft for excellent backwards compatibility for this add-in.

I have never been altogether convinced that the new Metro-style interface is more attractive or productive than the one used by Outlook 2010. In particular, I dislike how Office 2013 insists on uppercasing names as it brings me back to the mainframe era, a time that I thought had long gone. However, I do like Outlook’s new “create reply in reading pane” feature, the way that social networks are better integrated, and some of the smaller touches, such as the weather forecast popping up on the calendar.

The big deployment issue I picked up on was Outlook’s insistence on recreating the offline folders file (OST). I thought that my Office 2010 OST was in pretty good health and couldn’t see any need to have a new version, but Outlook 2013 insisted on populating a brand new file. Whereas this wouldn’t be a bad thing in some circumstances as a recreated OST will remove any lurking corruptions, it’s a real pain when your mailbox is 5GB or thereabouts – and aren’t we all heading in that direction? At least, that’s what the marketing folks at Microsoft, Google, etc. are telling everyone. And of course, although Outlook is sensitive enough to use drizzle mode synchronization to gradually download your complete mailbox, the fact remains that downloads can create a heavy load for networks and mailbox servers. 

For example, let’s assume that you become all enthusiastic and deploy Office 2013 to 500 desktops over a weekend. On Monday morning the users all arrive into work freshly caffeinated and ready to start work with their new software. The first thing on the agenda is to check email, so 500 Outlook 2013 clients crank up and promptly start to download mailboxes to build new OSTs. Not good. 

Although the resulting OST appears to be smaller than its Outlook 2010 counterpart (this could simply be a matter of file efficiency immediately after the OST is created), I still wonder why Outlook 2013 insists on a new OST. Perhaps Microsoft can make it so that administrators can defer or even eliminate the OST rebuild if an existing file is in good health. We’ll see!

I'm sure that there is much more for me to learn about Outlook 2013 in the coming months, especially in its interaction with Exchange 2013. If you're considering an early deployment of Exchange 2013, I recommend that you start to get to know Outlook 2013 as soon as possible because it's likely that there will be some server features that are only exposed in the new client. This has been common practice in the last few releases of Exchange/Outlook and there's no good reason to spoil the habit now.

And by the way, I still see the same number of Outlook synchronization logs as with Outlook 2010, so it doesn’t look as if much progress has been made on that front. Perhaps all will be well when the final production-quality version of Outlook 2013 arrives in due course.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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