clock menu more-arrow no yes

Outlook for iPhone, Android Is a Powerful Productivity App

By combining email, calendar and more, Outlook for iOS is a strong alternative to the native Apple mail and calendar apps, as well as the iOS Gmail app and Google Inbox.

K Quin Paek for Re/code

When you think of Microsoft Outlook, you think of a complicated email, calendar and contacts program for PCs that is especially popular in business.

But in a mobile-first world, Outlook on the computer has become less vital. So Microsoft has just introduced a free, streamlined mobile version of Outlook — one designed for the platforms of rivals Apple and Google.

This isn’t as strange as it sounds. The software giant, which is struggling to gain traction with its own mobile devices and platform, has been pumping out versions of some of its best-known products for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices for a while now. The best-known one was an elegant version of Microsoft Office — sans Outlook — for the iPad, released nearly a year ago.

Now Outlook for mobile is here. After using Outlook on iOS for about a week, I can recommend it as a strong alternative to the native Apple mail and calendar apps, as well as the iOS Gmail app and Google Inbox.

 Outlook for iOS has a “Focused” mailbox and buttons for switching modes.
Outlook for iOS has a
Microsoft

There are, of course, other good email and calendar apps vying for the loyalty of iPhone and iPad users, including CloudMagic, Mailbox (which is owned by Dropbox) and Sunrise. But Outlook stands out because it smoothly integrates email, calendar and other functions, and thus spares you from jumping between apps.

I did run into some glitches and limitations. The Android version of the app is still a "preview product," because it lacks a few features and needs performance tweaks. It crashed on me twice in a short period on a Nexus 5 phone.

And die-hard desktop Outlook users shouldn’t expect to see a miniature version of the PC app in this mobile product.

But Outlook was rock-solid on my iPhone 6 and iPad Air.

Not only is this new Outlook designed for non-Microsoft platforms, it also casts a wide net in terms of the services it supports. In addition to Microsoft’s own Exchange, Outlook.com and OneDrive services, the Outlook app supports Gmail, Yahoo mail and Apple’s iCloud mail. And it can save files to — and email them from — Google Drive, Dropbox and Box.

Unlike mobile Office, this new Outlook app wasn’t built from the ground up. It’s a reworking of an app called Acompli that Microsoft bought for $200 million late last year, and the reincarnation of the app has picked up some key features since then.

Among its features: You can swipe on an email in a list to take an action, and you have the ability to "schedule" an email to go away and reappear at a time you choose. You can even choose in Outlook’s settings which action will occur when you swipe right or left. A swipe could initiate moving, archiving, deleting or marking a message as read or unread.

The key thing I like about Outlook is that, like its desktop cousin, it combines your email and your calendar, from multiple services. In the iOS version I focused on, you can quickly hop between Mail and Calendar by tapping one of a row of icons at the bottom of the screen. (On Android, these choices are in a menu.)

 You can drill down into details of frequent contacts with Outlook for iOS and Android.
You can drill down into details of frequent contacts with Outlook for iOS and Android.
K Quin Paek for Re/code

You can even quickly check your calendar and include in an email a nicely formatted notification of times you’re available.

There’s also a button called Files that displays a list of files you’ve recently received as attachments or which reside in one of the connected cloud storage services. Another button called People lists the people Outlook detects as frequent correspondents. You can see emails and meetings and files involving them, or easily compose an email to them.

My second-favorite feature of Outlook is called the "Focused" Inbox. This is Outlook’s method of surfacing what it thinks are important emails, similar to various approaches Google has taken, but it works across a unified inbox combing multiple services, not just Gmail. Microsoft says this gets smarter over time.

In my tests, the Focused Inbox feature worked surprisingly well after only a few days, though it did miss some important stuff and included some junk. For instance, it ignored several emails from close co-workers, which landed instead in the low-priority "Other" inbox. And it included an email from a perfect stranger, with the subject line "Iran" and a message asking if I was Walt Mossberg.

Still, this feature nicely combines with a "quick filter" button at the top of the screen that can further narrow what’s displayed to only unread messages, those with files attached and those that are flagged.

 Outlook for iOS and Android supports multiple email and Cloud services.
Outlook for iOS and Android supports multiple email and Cloud services.
K Quin Paek for Re/code

I preferred Outlook to Google’s standard iOS Gmail app because it covers more than Gmail, includes the calendar and is actually a bit quicker at switching among multiple Gmail accounts.

Google’s newer Inbox app has numerous intelligent features that Outlook lacks, like the ability to make deferred emails reappear based on your location, or to "bundle" similar types of emails. But it’s not only restricted to just Gmail, it’s restricted to personal Gmail accounts. By contrast, I was able to use Outlook with my iCloud and Yahoo accounts, my company’s Gmail accounts, and with a dummy Exchange account Microsoft provided.

Outlook has some downsides. For swiping, I preferred the latest version of Apple’s native Mail app, which offers more choices of actions in a single swipe. Outlook also lacks Apple Mail’s ability to mark all messages as read or unread with a couple of clicks. And, unlike Apple Mail, it doesn’t work with old-style POP mail accounts like the Verizon email account that came with my broadband service.

The Outlook calendar also doesn’t allow you to edit recurring events. And, unlike with Apple’s native apps, it doesn’t allow you to use a Google account purely as a calendar, even if that’s what you prefer.

Overall, though, the new Outlook for iOS is a potent productivity tool for your smartphone or tablet.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.