The latest surprise release of Outlook for Mac 15.3 is largely what you'd hope to get in an Outlook refresh: At long last, a version that looks and works almost identically to the Windows version. This is great news if you live exclusively in an Exchange environment, but you may want to mute your celebration if you also deal with other calendars and contact lists created elsewhere.
Outlook and the Mac have a long and ugly history. For many years, there were, at best, rudimentary and semi-functional Mac versions of Outlook, which created a self-fulfilling cycle that the Mac was not ready for or worthy of use in the enterprise. Various versions of Outlook Express and something called Entourage performed some or most of Outlook's functions through the early 2000's.
But those substitutes had no actual code from the baseline Microsoft Office suite, of which Outlook is a part, and the user interface was different enough from Outlook to create problems for support and IT departments. It didn't help that Entourage never quite reached parity with Outlook as an Exchange client.
It wasn't until late 2010, with the release of Office Mac 2011 (the most recent version to date) that Entourage was buried and a full version of Outlook for Mac was released. But even then, the user experience was different from -- and less capable than -- the Windows version. In fact, it was dissimilar enough that moving from one platform to another was frustrating.
Last month, screenshots started to leak out of Outlook for Mac 15.3, part of an anticipated new version of Office slated for next year. Surprisingly, Microsoft released a no-extra-charge Mac version shortly thereafter through its Office 365 SaaS service.
Parity with Windows -- sort of
The big news is that, at long last, Outlook for Mac has more or less reached parity with Outlook for Windows. Rather than worrying about making things "Mac-like," Microsoft's designers have become confident enough to build out their own design language across platforms. The interface is cleaned up and icons are simplified. Outlook for Mac looks and works like the same Outlook you'll see anywhere.
The Ribbon interface is cleaned up in Outlook 15.3 and mirrors the Windows version. Unread messages are clearly denoted by a blue bar to the left of the message abstract -- much easier to see than the bolding that marked unread messages in the previous version.
Links to the various pieces of Outlook -- mail, calendar, contacts, tasks and notes -- have been moved from the left column under the mailboxes to the bottom margin of the window. They used to be easy to miss, especially if you had many accounts and many folders. Now, they've got a prominent place of their own.
A nice touch: In Calendar view, there's a new Weather Bar on the right side of the screen, above the calendar. It shows the forecast for today and the next two days, either for your current location or any other place of your choosing.
Performance is quite quick, even on older machines. I tested Outlook 15.3 on a three-year-old MacBook Pro running OS X 10.10 (Yosemite, the most recent release). The app was more than acceptably responsive -- better even than Apple's native Mail app.
Still work to be done
But, as the first app from this version of Office to be released out of the chute, there are some signs that Outlook 15.3 is not quite finished. For example, it can't import Entourage or .mbox files, so if you haven't updated Outlook since 2000, you'll have a problem bringing in your old email. In addition, there's no way to import contacts from a delimited file. And because of the way Gmail tags messages, you may encounter problems with duplicate messages if you also filter Gmail with Outlook’s rules. If you’re bit by this, either don’t use Outlook’s rules for your Gmail or use IMAP settings to unsubscribe to Gmail’s All Mail folder.
Want more? Large attachments may fail to transmit and an automated interface with a cloud service such as Microsoft OneDrive or Dropbox -- which would solve that problem -- is missing.
Perhaps more problematic is Outlook 15.3's inability to play well with much of anything outside the Exchange ecosystem. Although IMAP support appears solid (and you can finally have multiple IMAP accounts and an Exchange account running at the same time), there's no support for CalDAV or CardDAV; you won't be able to sync calendars or contacts with any other program or ecosystem, including Outlook.com.
And there's no export facility. None. Zero. Not even to .pst (Office for Windows archive) files. What happens in Outlook for Mac stays in Outlook for Mac.
Also, although there's substantial parity with Outlook 2013, it's not quite perfect parity. You can't propose a new time for a meeting on the Mac. You can't create a table in an email, although you can copy one from Word. You can't request a read receipt or recall a message. The Ignore, CleanUp and voting functions aren't supported. You still can't manage a distribution list or sync a personal list with Outlook for Windows. Quota information isn't available and you can't display calendars side by side.
Even the help system feels not quite ready for production. Rather than being built out, it consists mostly of ReadMeFirst.txt type information: How to import from older versions, known issues and the like.
Electronic software distribution has changed the game. Without the need to press DVDs and deal with a hard distribution channel, developers can release product when it's "good enough" -- but maybe not perfect. Whether the timing of this release may or may not have been Microsoft's choice, Outlook 15.3 is undoubtedly good enough -- and it can be considered a hint of announced and rumored things to come for the rest of Office. But keep in mind that this is an early release -- it's not buggy, but neither are all the features solidly in place.
So should you upgrade? If you live entirely in an Exchange environment, there's really not much reason to avoid it. But if you live in a world of multiple ecosystems -- Exchange, Apple, Google -- and need to keep everything synced up, wait to see if Microsoft adds a few fixes in the next round. Right now, this is not the software for you.
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