iBasics

Entourage, the Best Overall Email Software on the Market

- 2005.12.08

After reviewing Mozilla Thunderbird and Eudora as potential alternatives to Apple Mail, it's time to dive into commercial solutions to find more choices. Microsoft Entourage is this week's pick.

The first thing to know is that I used Entourage for many years under Mac OS 9 and X - until I discovered Mozilla Thunderbird. I know it well enough that all the compliments and criticism listed here are sincere and deserved.

What would be the best way to describe Entourage? I'd say that Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, should investigate it. The Macintosh Business Unit at Microsoft took freeware Outlook Express and injected several doses of steroids.

Years ago, Outlook Express 5 was a cute, free email application I quickly adopted. Its interface was a natural successor to the beloved Claris Emailer, and its features served basic needs well.

Microsoft decided to add Personal Information Management (PIM) features, Office integration, and flexibility to the package and then renamed it Entourage. In the Office 2004 release, Microsoft added some more steroids to make it even more complete.

In short: Entourage now offers a great interface, a large selection of features, and tight integration with the Microsoft Office suite.

In my opinion, it's the best overall email software on the market.

Eudora has more raw power and subtleties, but Entourage is vastly superior as far as simplicity is concerned. It makes managing your mail easy and shortens every path to its powerful features.

My views on open source and a few points of criticism prevent me and many users from choosing it. However, should your work require project management and other tools that Microsoft Office offers, Entourage is definitely your choice.

Entourage
Entourage - click for full-sized image

It all starts with the interface. Where Thunderbird is brilliant and Eudora should improve, Entourage is solid. I can complain about one flaw, which is the toolbar that doesn't allow you to change a single button. Shame on Microsoft.

But overall, Entourage's interface is neat. Its main window offers the same placement (folders on the left and a list of messages and a preview pane on the right) as Thunderbird. Also, there are six buttons that make your mail, address book, calendar, notes, tasks, and Project Center easily accessible.

Project Center
Project Center - click for full-sized image

Emails, contacts, calendar events, notes, and tasks can be linked together. Not only can you tie them together, but you can use the Project Center to centralize all parts of a project, from messages to files and a schedule, among other things. The features also include making a backup of the project and the ability to share it with other users.

The Project Center can be used as a hub to organize work projects and keep track of everything at once directly from your Mac and as a gateway to the rest of the Office suite.

But what about the email itself?

Edit Custom Arrangements

Entourage has all the flexibility you could want in daily management, from simple flagging and priorities to the possibility of adding and removing columns in the message list pane. You can thread messages and reorder them any way you want, especially if you take the time to create a custom arrangement. That's a power user's dream.

It has a reliable junk mail filter and a great mailing list manager with plenty of little options that truly serve mailing list subscribers well. On top of that, you can change attribution lines (for replies) without digging into obscure files, as I do with Thunderbird.

Preferences

Entourage supports IMAP as well as Thunderbird does, and it supports HTML.

Sending an attachment is also an easy task. Entourage offers many encoding options for different platforms, ensuring that your recipient will receive the right type of encoding.

There are also a few gizmos, such as the scrapbook, but for most of us they are just toys.

Another area where Entourage is impressive is its further integration with MS Office. It uses the same dictionary and "spell as you type" functionality. It also lets you customize your text editing options in Word fashion. If you like the AutoCorrect and AutoFormat features, you can benefit from them in Entourage, too.

Another neat trick: Entourage can smooth fonts even when they are in very small sizes. It makes them easier to read instead of jagged. I am sure that older eyes can appreciate this.

Criticism

There is also some well-deserved criticism to dish out. As useful as Entourage is, it is expensive. It forces you to buy the whole Office suite. That means US$399 for the standard version and US$239 for an upgrade. That's not cheap for email!

The price point means thinking about your needs before reaching for your wallet. Do you need the extra features and Office integration? Do you need the rest of the Office suite? Does the project management function mean concrete time savings? (For that last question, yes.)

Performance is another issue for those of us with older Macs. My five-year-old G4 has two 450 MHz processors, and while other email software responds well, MS Entourage is simply sluggish. I remember receiving an email from a reader telling me that he found Thunderbird slow on his G3 setup. If Thunderbird seems slow, Entourage has to be one heck of a snail!

Database integrity is another issue. While other software splits mailboxes and folders into several databases, Entourage uses one file for the whole database. This adds possibilities for features, but if that one file becomes corrupt, your whole mail database is corrupt.

That's quite a risk. It makes your mail vulnerable to file problems. Therefore, you may lose mail if you have to force quit the application or if a power failure shuts down your Mac while you use Entourage. A potential solution is making daily backups of the mail database.

With all of this in mind, Entourage is a great alternative to Apple Mail. It offers plenty of power and Office integration. But mostly it makes email management easy. It's expensive, but Microsoft offers a 30-day test drive for your convenience. LEM

Link: Microsoft Office (including Entourage)

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