Google Workspace vs. Microsoft Office

Gmail vs. Outlook: Which works better for business?

When it comes to email, calendar, and contacts, Microsoft Outlook has long ruled the roost, but Google Workspace’s combo of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts is worth a second look.

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Contacts

Writing, receiving, and managing email involves communicating with other people, of course, so you need a way to manage all those contacts. Outlook has a contacts interface built in, while Gmail relies on Google Contacts, a separate Google Workspace service, to do the job. I compared how Google Contacts and Outlook handle contacts, including creating them, using them and managing them.

Google Contacts

Google Contacts does a good job of listing everyone with whom you’re corresponded via email and showing their contact information. It’s got a number of very useful features, but there are a couple of annoyances.

To get to Google Calendar from Gmail, just go to the column of tiny icons on the upper right of your Gmail screen. The fourth icon is for Contacts. Click it and a pane slides out showing your contacts. Here you can click any contact’s name to see a pane that shows their details and lets you start an email, chat, or video call with them, or schedule a meeting with them.

To do more than that, you’ll need to click the Open in new tab icon in the upper-right of the pane to go to the full-page Google Contacts. Annoyingly, in both places Contacts by default sorts your contacts alphabetically by first name, not last name, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to change that. You can, however. To do it, click the Settings button toward the top right of the screen, select More settings, and from the screen that appears,  select Last name in the “Sort by” section.

You see the names of all your contacts in an alphabetized list. As you scroll, you see the name, email address, phone number, and job title and company for each of them. You can create labels that you can affix to each contact — for example, Department Heads — so that you can easily sort and find contacts by label. The label for each contact shows up as you scroll as well.

If you hover your mouse cursor over any contact, at the far right of the listing you’ll see three icons: a star icon to mark the contact important (starred contacts appear at the top of your list), an edit icon that lets you edit the contact, and an icon with three dots stacked vertically. Click the three-dot menu icon to take actions such as printing the contact, exporting its information in CSV or vCard format, or changing its label.

Only contacts you’ve added (or that are in your corporate directory if your company is a Google Workspace customer) should appear in your main Contacts list. When you email someone who’s not in Contacts, Google automatically adds their email address to a separate area called “Other contacts.” You can see that list by clicking Other contacts in the navigation bar on the left side of the screen. Many of those contacts have only an email address, with no name or other information, because you’ve never filled it in.

From the main list, click a contact to pop up a profile screen with more information about that person. Toward the top is their default email address; just click it to send them an email in Gmail. You’ll also find other info such as alternate email addresses and phone numbers, notes you’ve entered about them, title and place of work, and so on.

Especially useful is that it lists the last 10 email interactions you’ve had with them. Click any to jump to it in Gmail. You’ll find a lot of uses for this — for example, for reviewing the most recent interactions you’ve had with a client before meeting with them.

To create a new contact, click the big Create contact button on the upper left of the screen as you’re browsing contacts, and fill in the form. It’s simple and straightforward.

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Creating a new contact in Google Contacts. (Click image to enlarge it.)

If there’s someone in your “Other contacts” list you want to add to your main Contacts list, hover your cursor over their listing and click the “Add to contacts” button that appears on the right. That will move the contact to the main Contacts list, where you can edit it to add more information.

The navigation bar on the left side of the screen has a variety of additional options. At the top is Contacts, which takes you to your main Contacts list from wherever you are. Corporate Google Workspace users may also see a Directory link that shows shared contacts for your domain. Other options let you create labels, import and export contacts, and more. Click Merge & fix, for example, and you’ll get a list of all of your contacts that have duplicates. You can then merge duplicates, which can cut down on contact overload and confusion.

Other buttons aren’t quite so useful. There’s a “Frequently contacted” button that is supposed to show a list of people you correspond with often. Although my list did include many people I frequently email, it missed some. And it also included contacts I haven’t corresponded with for several years.

What does all this add up to? Stick to the basics, and Google Contacts is generally fine. Don’t expect the more advanced features like “Frequently contacted” to work particularly well.

Outlook

Outlook’s contacts feature packs plenty of powerful tools that make adding and managing contacts simple. As usual, there’s overkill because of all the tools available on the Ribbon, but in general it’s surprisingly easy to use despite that.

To get to Outlook’s contact list, click the icon of two people at the bottom of the left-hand pane. When you do that, the middle pane is taken up by a scrollable contact list. The sort order can be quite confusing, because in my tests Outlook sometimes displayed the same contact twice — once with quotes around it and the other time with no quotes.

The right pane displays information for each contact as you click it. From here you’ll be able to send an email, of course: Just click the envelope icon below the contact’s name. If you have multiple listings for the contact, you can combine them by clicking the three-dot icon to the right of the envelope icon and selecting Link Contacts. A screen appears that shows you duplicate contacts or separate contacts with the same name. You’ll be able to combine them into a single, linked contact.

As with much else in Outlook, if you look to the Ribbon, you’ll find countless options for the way the contacts list is displayed. Click the View tab and you’ll be able to change the sort order in ascending or descending alphabetical order, change the way the list is displayed so each contact looks like an individual business card, and choose other views as well.

Over on the Home tab, there are plenty more useful features. Here you’ll be able to create a contact group, for example, for everyone in your workgroup. You can also perform a mail merge to send a form letter or email to a group of contacts. You’ll also be able to forward contact information in vCard or Outlook format, categorize people by assigning contacts different colors, and create a meeting by clicking a contact and then sending a meeting invitation. Creating contact groups and meetings in this way is a big time-saver and will be welcomed by anyone who is looking to improve their productivity via email.

Creating new contacts is simple: Click the New Contact button on the left side of the Ribbon’s Home tab. As you would expect, the form that appears has all the usual features, such fields for name, company, title, address, email address, phone number, notes, web page address, and so on. But that’s just the beginning. The Ribbon that appears at the top of the form has plenty more you can do.

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Creating a new contact in Outlook. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The Insert tab, for example, lets you attach a file to the contact, create a signature, or insert anything from charts to equations in the contact. The Format Text tab gives you the full power of Microsoft Word for text formatting, and the Review tab offers spell checking, grammar checking, a thesaurus, text translation and more. I found all this unnecessary, but it’s nice to know it’s there in case I ever need it.

A quick way to work with a contact after you’ve created it is to right-click it in the main listing. From the pop-up menu you can edit it, print it, categorize it, delete it, and more.

By now you’ve probably gotten the idea that Outlook is an exceptionally powerful tool for viewing and creating contacts. And it is. It’s straightforward to use if you keep to the basics. But as with elsewhere in Outlook, if you want to use advanced features, expect there to be a long learning curve.

Contacts: Bottom line

Google Contacts has a cleaner, simpler interface than Outlook for managing contacts, and if you’re looking for only the basics, is probably a better choice because of that. But if you want to step out beyond the basics, Outlook is a better bet. It has as much power for managing contacts as you’ll ever need.

Calendar

Outlook includes a calendar as a basic part of the program, and so I compared it to Google Calendar, which interacts with Gmail as part of Google Workspace. We’ll look at basics like creating, displaying and searching events, then move onto more advanced topics, such as displaying multiple calendars.

Google Calendar

You get to Google Calendar from Gmail the same way you get to Contacts. Just click the tiny Calendar icon on the upper right of your Gmail screen, and a pane slides out showing your upcoming events. Click the Open in new tab icon in the upper-right of the pane to go to the full-page Google Calendar.

What you’ll see is clean, simple and straightforward. At a single glance you’re presented with the days of the month on the upper left of the screen, with the bulk of the screen taken up by the days with your events on them. You can opt for a daily, four-day, weekly, monthly, annually, or schedule view, which displays a list of all your events by the day.

You can also display multiple Google calendars, as well as multiple calendars from other apps and services, such as your Zipcar reservation calendar, your TripIt travel calendar, and others. And you also have the option of displaying public holidays and your contacts’ birthdays. To turn these options and calendars on and off, look to the screen’s bottom left.

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Google Calendar lets you display multiple calendars simultaneously. (Click image to enlarge it.)

To add an event, click the day and time, type in the title of the event, and you’re done. You have plenty more options, of course, including whether the event repeats and how frequently, whether you want a notification, and whether you want to add videoconferencing via Google Meet. You can also include a description of the event, add notes to it, add a location, and much more. From here you also can send email invitations to other participants. If they accept, you get notifications that they’ll be attending.

Google Calendar integrates seamlessly with invitations received in Gmail. When you get a meeting invitation in Gmail, you can decline or accept it; if you accept it, it’s automatically added to your Google Calendar.

Adding other calendars is a breeze. Click the + button next to “Other calendars” in the middle of the left pane, and you’ll get a variety of options that ultimately lead to many public calendars, including from sports teams, phases of the moon and more. From here you can also paste in the URL of a public calendar to add it.

Unsurprisingly given that it’s a Google product, searching your events is a breeze. Click the search icon at the top of the screen toward the right to open the search box. You can search on any word in any event, including people’s names and email addresses.

The upshot: Google Calendar is about as easy to use as it gets, makes it easy to display your calendar(s) however you’d like, and offers plenty of extras such as adding public calendars.

Outlook

Given how full Outlook is stuffed with features, its calendar sports a surprisingly simple interface. To get to it, click the calendar icon at the bottom of Outlook’s left pane. A small left-hand pane shows the current month and next month, and beneath that you see a list of calendars connected to your account. The main part of the screen is taken by your schedule itself, shown in a monthly view by default. You can also choose a day, workweek, or week view or one that shows only your scheduled events.

Surrounding that is clutter, of course — this is Office we’re talking about. So there’s the Ribbon up top with buttons for tasks such as making new appointments and so on. And on the bottom left you’ll find icons for switching to email, displaying contacts, and more. But you can ignore all this if you’d like, and just concentrate on the main calendar itself. Also keep in mind that using the new, simplified version of the Ribbon lets you reduce some of the clutter but still have access to its powerful features.

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Outlook’s calendar, in the monthly view. (Click image to enlarge it.)

To make a new appointment or meeting, click the appropriate button in the Ribbon. A form appears that lets you type the subject of the appointment or meeting, location, start and end time, and notes. Up at the top, the Ribbon offers more options than you probably want, including the obvious ones like whether the appointment recurs. You can also categorize events, assign them high or low importance, use templates you’ve created, invite attendees, and plenty more.

Spend time with the Ribbon and you’ll find other powerful features. You can add other calendars by going to the Folder tab and selecting Add Calendar, for example. You can then display multiple calendars simultaneously simply by checking their boxes in the left pane, and overlay them on one another by clicking the Overlay button in the View tab. You can easily change the calendar’s appearance in multiple ways, such as moving its panes to different locations, changing the calendar’s time scale (15 minutes, 30 minutes and so on), and much more.

Of course, you don’t have to actually be in Outlook’s Calendar mode to interact with the calendar. You can create a new meeting or appointment from within the main Mail interface, and it will be added to your calendar when you save it. Likewise, if you receive an email invitation to a meeting, you can accept (or decline) from within Mail, and it will be added to your calendar (or not).

Overall, Outlook’s calendar gives you the best of both worlds. It’s relatively simple to use but has plenty of features and customizations if you want to dig deep.

Calendar: Bottom line

Outlook clearly has more features than Google’s Calendar, although it’s also slightly more confusing to use because of that. So if you want pure simplicity, Google is the better choice. Otherwise, Outlook wins this round.

Working on different platforms

Odds are that you and your co-workers don’t just use email on a Windows computer — you likely use it on other devices as well, such as a phone, tablet and/or Mac. So I checked out how Gmail and Outlook work on various platforms.

Gmail

Gmail, of course, is available on any device, including Windows PCs, Macs, tablets, and phones, via the web — but it’s also available on mobile devices as an app.

Gmail’s mobile app mirrors Outlook’s mobile app in its ease of use. It opens to your inbox with a list of all read and unread mail; tap any message to read it, respond to it, manage it, and so on. Tap the pencil icon to create a mail or type some text in the search box to search for mail. To switch to another folder, tap the menu icon at the top left of the screen, which shows not just your folders, but your labels as well. As with Outlook’s mobile app, it’s designed for simplicity above all else.

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You can access Gmail using Gmail’s mobile apps (iOS version shown here).

Outlook

Outlook on the Mac is simpler and cleaner-looking than the Windows version. As with the Windows version, accounts, inboxes and other folders are arrayed down the left; messages in in your current folder are in the middle, and the reading pane is to the right. But the Ribbon is more stripped down than in Windows’ default view, with fewer tabs and fewer choices on each tab. You’ll face no learning curve here; you can get started as soon as you log in.

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Outlook for the Mac is cleaner-looking than the Windows version. (Click image to enlarge it.)

A bit confusing is that in addition to the Ribbon, there’s a menu bar at the top of the screen that appears when you move your cursor there. Some of what’s available on the menu bar is also available via the Ribbon (for example, creating a new email or using text-handling features), but some is only available on the menu, such as getting to a media browser for viewing media. But the most important and most used features are available on the Ribbon, so you should always check there first.

A handy way to use Outlook on the go is via its web interface, a.k.a. Outlook Online. It looks very much like the Windows version of Outlook, with one important difference: There’s no Ribbon. Instead it has a small toolbar across the top of the interface for quick actions like creating a new email, archiving a message, or moving a message to a different folder. As with the simplified Ribbon in the Windows client, a three-dot icon at the right end of the toolbar shows more options. This toolbar changes according to what you’re doing — for example, there’s an icon for marking all messages as read if you’re viewing a folder, and if you’re reading mail, there are icons for deleting, archiving, snoozing and more.

On mobile devices, Outlook trades power for simplicity. Think of Outlook’s mobile app as the anti-Outlook — it’s stripped down without most of the powerful features of Outlook for Windows, and consequently a breeze to use. It’s designed to do things fast — just fire it up, read your mail, send out messages, and get out.

When you log in, you see your inbox, organized by Focused and Other. Tap an icon to create mail, tap another to search mail, and tap another to filter your mail by unread messages, flagged messages, or those with attachments. If you want to get fancy, you can tap the icon at the top left of the screen to do things like switch to other folders or change settings.

Working on different platforms: Bottom line

Outlook and Gmail work equally well on platforms other than Windows. So this shouldn’t be a deciding factor for you in determining which mail program you want to use.

Conclusions

Which is better for business, Microsoft Outlook or Gmail and its partners Google Calendar and Google Contacts? That depends largely on how you and those in your organization use email, and how much time you’re willing to spend learning new features.

Name any email, contacts, or calendaring feature you can imagine, and it will be in Outlook. Microsoft has stuffed countless capabilities you’ve likely never thought of into the program. If there’s anything you want to do, rest assured, Outlook can do it. All that power means a confusing, cluttered interface that can slow down even simple tasks. However, switching to the simplified Ribbon makes Outlook considerably simpler to use.

The Gmail-Contacts-Calendar trio, on the other hand, is generally clean-looking, simple and straightforward to use. When you use Gmail, you’ll spend very little time figuring out what to do and more time doing it. The downside, of course, is that it doesn’t have nearly all of Outlook’s capabilities.

So the choice is clear: If simplicity is your goal, choose Gmail. If, on the other hand, you and your team need every bell and whistle possible, you’ll want Outlook. And if people in your organization have different needs, consider opting for Outlook and providing clear instructions on how to enable and use the simplified Ribbon, which provides a good balance between simplicity and power.

Of course, email/contacts/calendaring is just one segment of these vendors’ office suites. See “G Suite vs. Office 365: What’s the best office suite for business?” for a big-picture comparison.

This article was originally launched in April 2019 and updated in September 2021.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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