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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Despite a New Outlook, Office 2003 Offers Little Reason to Upgrade

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 19, 2003; Page F07

The best reason not to buy Microsoft Office is Microsoft Office. This suite of e-mail, spreadsheet, word-processing and presentation software so thoroughly dominates the market that it has become its own toughest competitor. When Microsoft has already jammed so many features into earlier versions, why bother upgrading to this year's model?

That's true more than ever in Office 2003, in stores Tuesday for Windows XP and 2000. The one component to get significant attention from Redmond, the e-mail/contacts/calendar manager Outlook, offers rewards for trading up.

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But Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the other core Office tools, have barely changed. If it weren't for a new, garish blue theme, few home users could tell the 2003 editions from their predecessors. (That gaudy window dressing, incidentally, can be turned off only in Windows XP's Displays control panel, at the cost of switching the entire XP desktop to the old, plain-gray look; Windows 2000 escapes this aesthetic offense.)

Home users, however, aren't the point of Office 2003. Microsoft is focused on business users, in particular those working in offices with the Microsoft server software required by most of the new features (for example, the ability to prevent other users from copying a document or e-mail message).

Since these additions don't work in homes, I won't be talking about them here. Instead I will address only what comes in the $399 Standard Edition ($239 for owners of Microsoft Office 97, Microsoft Works 6.0 or any newer versions of each) and the $149 Student and Teacher Edition

Outlook leads this pack. The 2003 version (like prior releases, it supports POP, IMAP and Hotmail e-mail accounts, plus Microsoft Exchange office accounts) adds a spam filter that regularly nails about three-quarters of my junk e-mail. Unfortunately, it is not programmed to learn from my own use, so that's as good as it will get until Microsoft issues an upgrade.

Outlook 2003 sensibly blocks attached program files (the primary way viruses spread these days) and also stops spammers from using "Web beacons" to track who reads their garbage. When anyone who is not in your Outlook contacts list sends you mail with links to picture or sound files elsewhere on the Internet, Outlook won't download those files unless you say so.

Three other changes make it easier to stay on top of your mail, instead of vice versa. Outlook 2003 briefly flashes incoming messages' senders and subjects in an unobtrusive translucent overlay in a bottom corner of the screen; clicking on one opens that e-mail. The program can then sort messages by "conversation," showing the flow of chatter on one subject, and its "search folders" allow you to save particular queries of your mail file for quick re-use.

The rest of Outlook 2003 fails to show the same thoughtfulness. A new, optional, three-column inbox view is too cramped on any but widescreen monitors. In failing to offer a quick way to edit account settings, Outlook falls well behind the competition. On the other hand, since there's still no useful mailbox-export option, you'd have a hard time switching to competing programs anyway.

Outlook's edit-contacts interface now lets you add a mug shot to an address card, but it continues to do a masterful job of hiding alternate street and e-mail addresses. And the calendar module desperately needs a way to unplug the group-scheduling options that gum up the works at home.

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