For the past year I have used my Surface Pro for double-duty, managing both my corporate enterprise (Microsoft Exchange) and personal (Outlook.com) email accounts. The Mail, Calendar, and People applications that ship with Windows 8.1 certainly do the job, and have gradually been updated with new functionality since their release.
Still, I could not help but miss certain pro-level features that I had become accustomed to as a lifelong Outlook user, and there are few Metro-designed alternatives in the Windows App Store to choose from. This all changed when I moved up to Outlook 2013, which has greatly changed the experience of using my Surface Pro when on the road. It’s not a perfect solution – but if you are longing for a more powerful email, calendar, and contacts client, read on to determine if upgrading to Outlook may be just what you need.
The Basic Windows 8.1 Apps Get the Job Done, but With No Bells and Whistles
Don’t get me wrong – there are features about the Windows 8.1 bundled applications that I really like. All three are true Metro applications with non-cluttered interfaces that work great with either a mouse, a stylus, or just your finger. They each support Live Tiles, and their notifications work great within the Windows 8.1 environment. All three are easy to set up, typically with just your username and password (for commercial providers such as Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo! and AOL), and your IT-provided information for enterprise accounts (such as server and domain name). And, of course, they are included with the operating system which means you can be up and running right out of the box without the need to purchase any extra software.
Microsoft has also been good about updating the features to its stock applications since the release of Windows 8. In the past year, the Mail application has gained the ability to drag-and-drop messages between folders, set the default font and size for new messages, and improved on the use of the right-click menu for common commands. The Calendar application can now access your Exchange server to let you view the availability of invitees to proposed meetings, and a helpful “work week” view was also added. The People application, which already did a great job supplementing local contact information with details from Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, was revised to allow easier postings of one’s status to social media sites. Each update shows that Microsoft is listening to its user base rather than resting on its laurels.
However, there is no doubt the built-in applications are primarily directed toward consumer users. Electronic business cards (vcards) are not supported, nor are invitations sent from iCalendar (.ics files). The Mail application still does not support digitally signed or encrypted emails, despite S/MIME support having recently been added to Windows Phone 8.1. While there have been improvements to folder management, moving emails remains cumbersome largely because the system fonts are not customizable and the folder view takes up half the screen. I am a big fan of a monthly calendar view, but the font size and inability to manipulate the window makes the 30-day mode in Calendar almost useless (compare this to, say, Pocket Informant on iOS which can render an excellent monthly view even on an iPhone or iPad Mini). And while the People application is a great hub for integrating your social media accounts, it can feel cumbersome when all you want is a list view for a sizeable collection of business contacts.
Outlook Brings Certain Advantages, but is Not a Perfect Solution
Running the full version of Outlook addresses just about all these issues. It pulls together email, contacts, calendar, and tasks in one application, so there is a lot less jumping across applications to get things done. Encrypted and digitally signed emails (whether using local certificates or an external CAC reader) are supported, features that are increasingly important to security-conscious corporate and government users. You get a wide array of views and easier integration of multiple calendar accounts or subscriptions, and scheduling meetings with colleagues is much easier than using the standalone Mail and Calendar applications. Outlook 2013 also brings with it LinkedIn integration, with a nice touch being the importation of photos even of people with whom you are not LinkedIn contacts. Lots of customization and years of enhancements make you realize just how compromised the bundled Windows 8.1 applications feel.
Another great application is Lync 2013, Microsoft’s enterprise instant messaging client. If your organization supports it, and you can configure Outlook on your Surface Pro, than Lync should also work (for me it required importing and installing my corporate SSL certificates). It is a great way to bring IM, audio/video chat, screen-sharing and even whiteboard features to your Surface Pro while on the road, and one less reason to lug around a full-size laptop.
Keep in mind, however, that Outlook on your Surface Pro is not a perfect solution. First off, if you want Outlook or Lync you will have to buy them as part of a Microsoft Office standalone or subscription package (there is a Metro version of Lync in the Windows App Store, but it is limited to certain subscriber-based systems). Also keep in mind that Outlook and the rest of the Office line are not Metro applications, and while Microsoft has implemented some great touch-centric features they still work best with a traditional mouse and keyboard. And on a first- or second-generation Surface tablet, the fonts used by these programs can be awfully tough to read especially on a bumpy plane ride or toward the end of a long day (an issue that may be less problematic on the upcoming Surface Pro 3).
Also note that while most corporate enterprise accounts can be easily set up with the Mail, Calendar, and People applications, this may not be so with Outlook depending on how your corporate server is configured. This is because the full version of Outlook will not by design access certain “mobile” servers used to connect to tablets and mobile devices. In the case of my corporate account, the Surface Pro must either be connected to the enterprise Wi-Fi network or through a VPN client that my IT department installed. The extra step of running the VPN before booting up Outlook makes it a bit more cumbersome than using the Mail application, but is well worth it in terms of the added features that I have been missing.
What’s the Best Solution for You?
According to rumor, Microsoft will eventually release a Metro version of Outlook that will supplement or even replace the Mail, Calendar, and People applications altogether. It is also likely that as the Windows 8.1 ecosystem grows in popularity, more Metro third-party applications will be released geared toward power users looking for more feature-rich mail, calendar, and contact management software. Until then, Outlook may be the best solution for Surface Pro users looking to squeeze every bit of use from their machines. For this road warrior, it breathed new life into my Surface Pro!