How many times a day does Outlook remind you about a meeting or a task? Maybe you also receive reminders about email messages or contacts that you need to follow up on. Triggering alerts for a variety of different types of items is one of Outlook's key features. However, like almost any software feature, reminders have limitations and special settings that are worth exploring.

The chief limitation of Outlook reminders is that they occur only for items in the Inbox, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks folders in your default information store, whether that's an Exchange mailbox or a personal store (.pst) file. If you set a reminder on an item in any other folder-–including an Exchange Server public folder—Outlook notifies you that it won't fire a reminder on the item.

Slovak Technical Services' Extended Reminders tool, which you can purchase for $15 at http://www.slovaktech.com/extendedreminders.htm, triggers reminder alerts from mail, appointment, contact, and task items in any folder in the default store. It requires Outlook 2002 or Outlook 2000 in Corporate/Workgroup mode. With Extended Reminders, you can, for example, apply a flag to a message in your Sent Items folder to remind you to follow up if you don't get a response. Extended Reminders doesn't, however, fire reminders on public folders.

If you use Outlook 2002 and exchange meeting requests with someone outside your Exchange organization who uses Outlook 2000, you need to be aware of an obscure interoperability problem related to appointment reminders. By default, Outlook 2002 uses the iCalendar standard to send a meeting request to Internet recipients. If the request includes a reminder, an Outlook 2000 recipient will see the raw iCalendar format instead of the Accept, Decline, and Tentative buttons associated with Outlook meeting requests. The solution is to omit the reminder from the meeting request.

Some of the user settings related to reminders are easy to find in the Tools, Options dialog box. Others are a bit buried. On the Preferences tab, under Calendar, you can select the "Default reminder" box to automatically set a reminder on new appointments and designate how far in advance you want Outlook to send the reminder. Under Tasks, you can set the default time when a reminder will fire for a task due on a particular day. Unless you set a different time, Outlook will use the start of your workday as the default. You set the workday times in Tools, Options by clicking Calendar Options on the Preferences tab.

The workday times also have an effect on the default reminder time for a message flag in Outlook 2000. The default reminder time for a message flag is the end of your workday. That doesn't make any sense to me, and unfortunately, you can't set the default message flag reminder time independently like you can the default task reminder time. Microsoft partially addresses this problem in Outlook 2002 by making midnight the default reminder time for message and contact flags. You can, however, set a different time for each message or contact flag to override the default.

The biggest improvement in reminder handling in Outlook 2002 is the integrated Reminders window. In earlier versions, each reminder pops up its own message. If you come back from vacation to a lot of overdue tasks in Outlook 2000, you can spend quite a while clicking each reminder pop-up to dismiss it. In Outlook 2002, all reminders appear in a single window. You can select multiple reminders and dismiss them or "snooze" them for a certain amount of time. Or, if you really want to feel caught up, you can click the Dismiss All button.

Although you can't change the default snooze period—it's always 5 minutes to start-–Outlook will remember if you prefer a different amount of waiting time before the next reminder. For example, if you snooze a reminder for 2 hours, when that reminder appears 2 hours later and you're in the same Outlook session, Outlook will offer to snooze it for another 2 hours.

You can, as you might expect, double-click any item in the Outlook 2002 Reminders window to open it. What I didn't learn until after I'd been using Outlook 2002 for many months is that you can mark tasks complete from the Reminders window. Just right-click the task reminder, and choose Mark Complete from the context menu.