Extra Pepperoni

To content | To menu | To search

Tuesday, September 30 2008

Outlook Annoyances: September 2008 Update

I've been using Outlook heavily for a while now, so I have found many flaws. I realize Outlook 2007 fixes some of these, and includes its own issues. Note that I have complained about most of these here -- this post is a consolidation & update.

Filtering

  • Outlook Options (program-wide preferences) is not available from message windows -- only from the mailbox viewer window. This is true in Thunderbird/Mac too; presumably copied from the MS model. Dumb.
  • Outlook's filtering isn't very good. It is not flexible enough -- no booleans & very limited criteria available.
  • Two filters that match the same message will typically "copies" the message to two different different mailboxes. This is confusing -- why does the first match move (from Inbox) while the second copies? There is a "stop filtering" action, but turning it on for each message is a waste of time and precious filter ruleset bits.
  • I hit the accursed 32kb rules limit. Despite this post, I am capped at 32kb total in rules (client-side + server-side). Apparently this limit is raised to 256kb if the client is Outlook 2007 and the server is Exchange 2007. Someday, perhaps.
  • Some filter actions are handled on the server, while others (particularly flagging) are only performed on the client. This complicates rules unnecessarily, and creates inconsistencies if the PC is shut down or logged out. PCs need to reboot relatively frequently for patching and updates.
  • I thought it was cool that Outlook checks group memberships automatically when filtering. Unfortunately this cannot be turned off, so it's quite awkward to filter messages sent to a list separately from messages sent to a member of the list.
  • The pop-up window for new mail appears before filters run, so I am notified of new mail. I don't want to see.
  • If I click on such a notification, Outlook shows me the message, marks it as read, and then filters it.
  • I have several filters that match on Subject strings, but Outlook only offers "contains" (no "starts with" or "does not start with"), so I cannot specify original messages, and distinguish from replies/forwards.
  • The filter area shows a list of criteria with checkmarks at the top with blue underlines under the keywords. The bottom shows the same labels, with the same blue underlines. But at the bottom they're "links" to dialog boxes for entering the criteria, while at the top the same "links" aren't clickable. Way to misuse a visual cue, and do it in the most confusingly inconsistent way possible!
  • Oh, and the rules dialogs are all modal, so once I start creating a rule, I cannot open candidate messages for comparison against the rule.

Display & Windowing

  • I find the Reading pane indispensable, because Outlook is slow to load messages into new windows.
  • Inbox does not appear at the top of the mailbox list!
  • Outlook keeps forgetting my favorite mailboxes.
  • When I relaunch (or launch on another PC), Outlook loses my view settings.
  • Outlook does not remember open messages (including drafts) across launches. In fairness, Eudora is the only client I know that does this -- apparently Notes does too.
  • I can make Outlook sort a mailbox with the newest messages at the bottom (the default is newest-at-top), but then when I click the mailbox, Outlook selects the bottom (newest) message in a mailbox, whereas I want to read oldest first.
  • Outlook can allow commas as address delimiters (which is what they are in the actual mail messages, as part of the SMTP standard), but then I cannot type names, because we have autocomplete disabled and Outlook doesn't recognize a correct "Last, First" recipient when it's set to allow commas as delimiters (even though Outlook uses them once I click Check Names).
  • I tried to keep my mailbox "caught up" or "clean" (all messages read). Outlook doesn't mark a message read until I deselect it. This meant that when done, to have it stop showing that last message as unread, I had to select something else.
  • When reading a bunch of new messages, and Outlook selected one I didn't want to read, I had to click another message to get the Mark Unread menu command available; then scroll up to the top and click on the first message to continue.
  • Now, after a few problems where Outlook marked a message read before I was ready, I have it set to never mark messages read when I read them in the Reading pane. As a result, I spend more time than I really want manually marking messages read, but overall it works better this way.
  • I can collapse a thread to easily mark the whole thing as read, but then I have to expand it again before Refresh will hide it from my fresh search mailbox.
  • Refresh (F5) doesn't work. I have refreshed as many as 10 times without having the list of messages become correct.
  • When I delete multiple messages and some are out of view, Outlook seems to select the top message in the current window. The "next message" does not depend on where the scroll thumb is! Ironically, iTunes/Mac has a similar bug.
  • In Conversation view (which would be a lot more useful if it didn't waste 2 messages worth of space per "Conversation"), if I use down-arrow to select the next conversation, it expands the conversation instead. Use left-arrow/right-arrow to collapse/expand conversations -- they aren't needed for mailbox navigation! At least Control-KP+ expands all conversations.
  • I cannot find a good way to sort threads by date; I'd like every thread (perhaps every thread with new messages) grouped together, with the messages in each thread sorted internally by date, and the threads sorted by date (typically of the first message). In Outlook I can group "Conversations" by Subject: or group by From: line, but new messages/threads keep showing up at the top of the mailbox. This makes it very difficult to work through recent mail in chronological order, as not only do new things keep popping up at the top of the list, but additionally existing threads move up when someone replies to them. I find myself constantly working down from the top, towards some unmarked line which divides "stuff I've at least initially processed" from "earlier stuff I haven't yet seen" (much of which has to be deleted); when I finish scaning the second group, the invisible line divides "stuff I've at least initially processed" from "older stuff I've at least initially processed, which definitely needs attention at some point". Not a good way to work, but the best I've been able to manage in Outlook so far.
  • I have figured out more what's wrong with Refresh. First, I have to hit F5 repeatedly to make Outlook clear more and more read messages from unread-only views; second, collapsed conversations are not cleared; I have to expand them out and then hit F5 again. This is particularly annoying because Outlook has such a strong tendency to always keep one message selected and thus read (although it's not marked read, so I cannot simply mark it unread; I have to mark it read, then mark it unread, and then make sure Outlook doesn't preview it again), so it's quite difficult to reorganize a mailbox and get to a "clean" view (only new messages/threads) without losing some messages which Outlook insisted on selecting/previewing/marking read while rearranging.
  • Sometimes when I delete messages, Outlook selects the next message down (which is correct, given that I view messages in ascending date order). Other times it selects the top message in the mailbox, which is only the right thing to do if it's the last message in the mailbox. This inconsistent behavior may be connected to whether any off-screen messages are selected, but that shouldn't matter. I shouldn't have to wonder where the selection will go, or try not to select messages across more than one screenful at a time, or rush through selecting and deleting mail or collapsing threads, for fear of a new message coming in, removing my selection, and selecting, previewing, and (almost) marking one of those messages read, before I had a chance to delete, mark, or collapse it. This means that if client-side filters are active, the user must wait after launching Outlook, until it's finished filing messages into the current mailbox, as new messages will constantly disrupt the selection until Outlook is finished running client-side filters. Even if Outlook has been running a while, it's easy to select a few messages for processing, be interrupted by new mail, deal with whatever was previewed and start selecting again, be interrupted again, and have to deal with the second undesired selection/preview before attempting to return to manual selection for managing email. Amazingly frustrating, and a great way to 'lose' unread mail.
  • With a multi-monitor setup, the best way to use Outlook is with the mailbox filling one display and the attached preview pane covering most of another display. Unfortunately, as I select different mailboxes, the preview switches off. Each mailbox remembers its own preview arrangement, which is important because I generally only read messages (via preview) in my "fresh" search pseudo-mailbox. In other mailboxes, clicking a message shouldn't mark it read, so preview (the "Reader pane") is a bad thing everywhere except in "fresh" (and often in "fresh", as well!). Aggravating matters, sometimes (mostly when I lock the PC) Outlook turns off the preview and shrinks the mailbox to subtract the preview area. This leaves the mailbox covering one display but not extending onto the next. When I switch back to a mailbox with preview on ("fresh"), the preview reappears one character wide, rather than covering most of the secondary display as before. Very aggravating -- I now use one window for "fresh" and one for other mailboxes, and gave up on windows larger than one display.
  • In Outlook, it's impossible to determine directly what mailbox a message is in from the message window. I find myself searching across all mailboxes by title (using LookOut, which is no longer supported and not standard) -- fortunately LookOut identifies the containing mailbox, although it often cannot open the messages it finds!
  • It's also impossible to open a message in its own window from the reading pane; the workaround is to Shift-Tab back into the mailbox window and then hit Enter to open the message window from there. Dumb.
  • I often want to delete a collapsed thread ("Conversation"). Outlook insists on expanding it first, which wastes time and often results in unread messages appearing and then being deleted -- disconcerting, as it gives the impression I'm losing important (unread) mail. Worse, Outlook cannot mark a thread unread without expanding it, which moves the selection into the thread and marks that one or two messages read when deselected (unless the selection lasts a second or less, as I had set Outlook to mark messages read after a second, because I cannot eliminate the delay, and above one second it doesn't automatically mark short messages which I read quickly as read; I had to go back and mark them read manually later). If I had just read a new message in threaded mode, and wanted to mark it unread, I had to either hit Control-Q to mark it read or move to another message and back (assuming I've had the current message previewed for at least a second), mark it unread (Control-U), then hit left-arrow to collapse the thread.
  • Worse was marking a whole thread unread (more common) from the keyboard. Then I had to collapse the thread to implicitly select the whole thing, hit Control-U to mark the whole thread read (implicitly expanding it), and then hit left-arrow within a second to collapse it again before Outlook decides I've read a message in preview. Now that I mark everything read manually, I still need 4 keystrokes, but at least the last one isn't racing the clock.
  • When I delete a message, Outlook immediately selects (and in "fresh" previews) another message. When I'm reading mail, this is generally what I want, so I can deal with the next message. When I'm trying to delete or file mail, it means Outlook automatically starts the process of dealing with another next message, and unless I'm very quick marks it read as soon as I deselect, so I must decide what to do about the new selection. This makes it harder to stop reading mail in the current mailbox, as every time I complete an action, Outlook picks the "next" message and engages me in dealing with it; stopping without losing unread status on a message I haven't actually read yet requires contortions. When I know I'm about to stop, I tend to deal with a message or thread and then hit Control-up-arrow to jump to the top of the mailbox, which should be the first message I read (so already marked read), but is often a new message that's come in recently; I then have to decide on and handle that before I can move on to another mailbox or activity.
  • Normally, when a thread ("Conversation") is collapsed, Outlook deselects its messages. Sometimes (unpredictably) it still shows the preview for a hidden message, which breaks the Control-Q Control-U left-arrow dance, and I have to instead hit Control-Q Control-U left-arrow up-arrow to get a collapsed unread thread.
  • F5 (Refresh) doesn't clear collapsed conversations; this is annoying. On the other hand, sometimes messages disappear immediately upon being marked read, which means I don't even get a chance to mark them unread; they're effectively just gone. I have no idea what triggers the second problem; fortunately it's not that common, as it tends to result in losing mail -- often mail I was saving for later attention.
  • If I have a message which has been previewed for over a second, I know it's effectively read (it will be marked as such as soon as I deselect it, unless I drag it into another mailbox first). It would be good if I could use Control-U to tell Outlook not to mark this message read as soon as it gets deselected, but instead I have to mark it read, then mark it unread, and then move away within a second -- before the preview timer marks it mostly-read again.
  • Outlook cannot select multiple mailboxes at one time, which is ungood; on the other hand, it makes an effort to be helpful -- when I select a mailbox, it kinda-sorta move the selection into the message list (which is pretty reliably what the user really wants, since you can't do much with mailboxes except delete or move them). It's all a bit confusing.
  • The flag column is at the right side of mailbox list windows, and cannot be moved. I'd like to move it left, to be alongside the other important columns, but cannot.
  • In general, there are many customization options for mailbox display, but the controls are all over the place, so hard to find and confusing to use.

Things I like

  • Outlook can show me mailing list (group) membership. It's called "Outlook Properties" in the menu, despite being maintained on the Exchange side, but after I got over thinking that couldn't be the right place, this is quite handy.
  • The setting to view all received email as plain text is amazingly useful; there's a handy option at the top of each message window to see formatting.

Searching

  • There are at least 4 different types of Find. Control-F in some places, F3 in others, F4 in others, and LookOut (now Live Search). Sometimes I hit Control-F to Find, and Outlook forwards a copy of the message instead.
  • I cannot Find unless the selection is in the right part of the message window. Amazing!

Super-Modal

  • I have to use View Options to see full headers (in the Message Options window), but while that window is open, the main Outlook program is visible but completely unresponsive. Alt-Tab doesn't show Outlook windows, and I cannot access the others until I close. I thought Outlook had crashed, until I realized it was accessible again after I dismissed Message Options.
  • Similarly, emptying Deleted Items (which must happen every time I quit) locks up the whole program until done. In fairness, other programs empty the trash modally, but don't necessarily force it at quit.
  • Every single time I Logout, Windows tells Outlook to quit. Outlook starts emptying my Deleted Items mailbox, and I watch the race. Then I normally cancel the logout so Outlook can finish -- it's almost never fast enough to complete the operation before the Windows timer runs out. This means automated reboots, as for patching, are crashing Outlook while it's in the middle of modifying my mailbox on a regular basis. I guess this doesn't cause huge amounts of grief because everything in Deleted Items is expendable, but lame lame lame.

Keyboard

  • I found a couple pages of Outlook keyboard shortcuts (the online help lists shortcuts too). Many are standard Windows shortcuts, but a few were new and useful for me.
  • Now that I use Thunderbird at home and Outlook at work, it strikes me how similar Thunderbird is, even extending to some misfeatures (design flaws, not quite bugs), such as over-using the Esc key. Thunderbird has a few notable improvements, such as being able to mark messages Read and Unread with the M key, instead of Ctl-Q/Ctl-U, or S to flag messages (stored as an IMAP tag; this shows up in Eudora as Label 15).
  • In both Outlook and Thunderbird, Esc closes message windows; this is inconsistent with all other full windows, which are closed with Command-W/Control-W, and makes messages feel particularly ephemeral. In Outlook, when I open a received message and hit the Space bar to scroll to the next page (which works in every other email client and browser I know), it instead inserts spaces at the beginning of the received message, which is completely absurd.

Misc

  • AutoCorrect absolutely would not let me type "SAs" (System Administrators) until I killed it.

Sunday, September 28 2008

Windows Annoyances: September 2008 Update

I've been using Windows regularly for a while now. I have many gripes. I realize Vista and Office 2007 fix some of these, but I'm pretty sure they'd be aggravatingly slow on my desktop PC, where Windows XP isn't. Note that I have complained about most of these here -- this post is a consolidation & update.

Windows

  • In the Alt-Tab task switcher, I cannot Hide (Command-H), Quit (Command-Q), or click an application's icon to switch directly to it. This is aggravated by the fact that icons in the switcher often correspond to windows rather than on the Mac, where they correspond to applications (each with one or more windows), so there are many more icons to Tab through, and often several indistinguishable windows (4 Firefox windows generate 4 identical unlabeled icons; so do 4 open messages in Outlook). Considering Windows has had this feature for longer than Apple, it's shockingly lame.
  • I cannot hide the current application (window) from the keyboard (Command-H), or Hide Others (Command-Option-H).
  • I want to drag icons onto applications. The Start bar, Windows' equivalent of the Dock, doesn't accept dragged files -- Microsoft knows it should because it pops up a message when I try, but they didn't make it work.
  • I want to drag proxy icons from document windows into other windows (typically Outlook messages). Proxy icons seem like such a minor thing, but Apple introduced them years ago, and I feel the lack in XP keenly.

Text (UltraEdit, UltraCompare Lite, & kate)

  • I miss BBEdit. UltraEdit is very good, but BBEdit has many advantages, and I haven't yet encountered any UE advantages (although presumably there are some). I use UE and vi daily, and kate periodically -- when it's faster than vi but not worth bringing the files back to my desktop, or pointing UE to my account on a UNIX box.
  • kate is broken in several ways, although I'm not sure how much to blame Exceed. Specifically, Copy & Paste are unreliable (sometimes they both work, sometimes only one direction works, and sometimes neither works!). Shift-selection from the keyboard doesn't work. Tip: In Exceed, assign the left modifier keys to X11 instead of Windows.
  • I really miss the bbedit command, particularly for opening local and sftp files from the command line. I miss being able to bbedit in a loop!
  • In Windows, Control-Backspace works in some places, but inserts non-printing ('box') characters in others.
  • I see that UltraEdit offers 4 different flavors of Find & Replace: Plain, perl regex, UNIX regex, and UltraEdit regex. This seems crazy to me -- I consider anything that's not 100% backward-compatible with PCRE a bug, but I am not selling to a population of users who live in MS Word. BBEdit's is based on PCRE.
  • BBEdit's Find Differences is much better than either UE's (both files must be in a rooted window, and UltraCompare Lite is confusing and awkward). kate uses kompare, which is pretty weak. Neither kompare nor UltraCompare is very well integrated. BBEdit v9 makes major improvements to Find Differences.
  • UltraCompare Lite (like UltraEdit) displays documents inside a root window, which makes comparing across 2 monitors a pain, since the root window must be manually sized to cover 2 displays.
  • UltraCompare Lite doesn't have BBEdit's (new) character-level comparison, which I've wanted for years.
  • UltraCompare cannot compare unsaved windows.
  • UltraCompare's merge functionality is very confusing -- there are lots of obscure buttons, and some simply don't work. Manually copying from one document to another is a pain, as it requires a switch to UltraEdit (the UC docs aren't editable) and a re-compare (leaving the original one open) to get a fresh comparison.

Internet Explorer 7

  • I can increase the font size, but if I do the window grows beyond the window size -- there's some brain-dead full-page magnification, rather than the classic (and useful) text size increase.
  • If I increase the font size, selection highlights no longer align with the text I'm dragging over. It's bizarre.
  • In PDF tabs, Control-W doesn't work; I find this extremely aggravating, but fortunately Command-W works fine in Safari (even with the Acrobat plug-in).
  • I still hit Control-L to select the URL for copying, and IE7 still fails to do it, bringing up a blank URL entry dialog, instead of selecting the URL in the current window as Safari & Firefox do. I shouldn't need to use Alt-D instead to select the current URL. That Control-L window has no reason for being.

Misc

  • MS Office Communicator flashes in the Start bar, many times, whenever someone types to me (unless that window is already in the foreground). It's very distracting -- on the Mac I tend to turn this off, or set it to only once. For some reason it annoys me more on Windows.
  • When someone sends me a message in Communicator, the "buddy list" window's icon flashes in the Alt-Tab task switcher, rather than the updated conversation.
  • I open a bunch of programs whenever I log in, so I created a batch file to launch several applications and PuTTY sessions. Unfortunately, it launches one application and then stops. In a UNIX (Mac) shell, I'd use a trailing & on each command, so the script could continue to the next one without waiting, but I was unable to find a working equivalent for .bat files.
  • The inevitable overnight reboots are quite disruptive. They make me appreciate the Mac more, where this kind of thing is less common, and the system (Finder) makes an effort to resume where I left off.

Thursday, August 7 2008

UltraEdit

I've been a serious BBEdit user for years (I suspect a beta password many years ago was a joke at my expense). I use vi daily but am not a fan, and I find emacs inexplicable. As an system administrator, editing text files (typically configuration files and scripts) is a large part of my job.

So spending my days using Windows, with no BBEdit, was a concern.

I used kate a bit, and it's not bad, but it's limited (cannot even compare 2 windows!), and Exceed's Copy & Paste support is extremely erratic.

Many people suggested UltraEdit, but due to an installer issue, I was unable to use it. That issue has been fixed, and I got it running today. I'm quite impressed, although I have already discovered that its sorting capability is downright feeble compared to BBEdit's GREP-enhanced sorting. I see that UltraEdit offers 4 different flavors of Find & Replace: Plain, perl regex, UNIX regex, and UltraEdit regex. This seems crazy to me -- I consider anything that's not 100% backward-compatible with PCRE a bug, but I am not selling to a population of users who live in MS Word.

Truly weak: Find for $ doesn't work properly in perl regex mode with UNIX line endings.

I am both impressed and mildly aggravated. UltraEdit is much better than anything else I've used on Windows (or Linux or Solaris), but it's also less polished than BBEdit. I'm not sure how much of my frustration is because I have the advantage of years of experience of BBEdit -- compared to only a few hours to learn UE so far -- and how much is real deficiencies and lack of polish in UE.

Monday, May 5 2008

Outlook Problems #6

Outlook's default behavior is to sort new messages to the top of mailbox windows. I prefer new messages at the bottom, but have noticed that when I start reading mail, threads with new messages appear at the top. So I tried reading mail the way Outlook wants me to, but it still sorted newer messages within each thread ("Conversation") to the bottom of the group, and deleting messages still moved down (to an earlier message in this arrangement). Since it doesn't work right either way, I might as well do it the way I'm used to: newest at bottom (as of the time I first display or last Refresh the mailbox; the newest stuff still floats to the top, which I cannot prevent).

Sometimes when I delete messages, Outlook selects the next message down (which is correct, given that I view messages in ascending date order). Other times it selects the top message in the mailbox, which is only the right thing to do if it's the last message in the mailbox. This inconsistent behavior may be connected to whether any off-screen messages are selected, but that shouldn't matter. I shouldn't have to wonder where the selection will go, or try not to select messages across more than one screenful at a time, or rush through selecting and deleting mail or collapsing threads, for fear of a new message coming in, removing my selection, and selecting, previewing, and (almost) marking one of those messages read, before I had a chance to delete, mark, or collapse it. This means that if client-side filters are active, the user must wait after launching Outlook, until it's finished filing messages into the current mailbox, as new messages will constantly disrupt the selection until Outlook is finished running client-side filters. Even if Outlook has been running a while, it's easy to select a few messages for processing, be interrupted by new mail, deal with whatever was previewed and start selecting again, be interrupted again, and have to deal with the second undesired selection/preview before attempting to return to manual selection for managing email. Amazingly frustrating, and a great way to "lose" unread mail.

With a multi-monitor setup, the best way to use Outlook is with the mailbox filling one display and the attached preview pane covering most of another display. Unfortunately, as I select different mailboxes, the preview turns off. Each mailbox has its own preview state, which is important because I generally only read messages (via preview) in my "fresh" search pseudo-mailbox. In other mailboxes, clicking a messages shouldn't mark it read, so preview is a bad thing everywhere except in "fresh" (and often in "fresh", as well!); unfortunately, viewing messages in their own windows is prohibitively slow. The very confusing thing is that sometimes Outlook spontaneously turns off the preview and shrinks the mailbox to its size excluding the preview. This leaves the mailbox covering one display but not extending onto the next; it looks maximized, but isn't actually in the maximized state. When I switch back a mailbox with preview on ("fresh"), it reappears one character wide, rather than covering most of the secondary display as before. Very aggravating -- I think the workaround will be that I must use one window for my "fresh" filter (with preview), and another for other mailboxes (no preview). Hopefully I can escape more bites from these two bugs.

In Outlook, it's impossible to mark a message (un-)read from the message window, or even to determine directly what mailbox it's in. I find myself searching across all mailboxes by title and refining by date (which I can see in the message window) to find out it message is, so I can mark it unread for later attention. It's also impossible to open a message in a new window from the reading pane; the workaround is to Shift-Tab back into the mailbox window and then hit Enter to open a new message window from there.

I often want to delete a collapsed thread ("Conversation"). Outlook insists on expanding it first, which wastes time and often results in unread messages appearing and then being deleted -- disconcerting, as it gives the impression I'm losing important (unread) mail. Worse, Outlook cannot mark a thread unread without expanding it, which moves the selection into the thread and marks that one or two messages read when deselected (unless the selection lasts a second or less, as I have set Outlook to mark messages read after a second, because I cannot eliminate the delay, and above one second it doesn't automatically mark short messages which I read quickly as read; I have to go back and mark them read manually later). If I have just read a new message in threaded mode, and want to mark it unread, I have to either hit Control-Q to mark it read or move to another message and back (assuming I've had the current message previewed for at least a second), mark it unread (Control-U), then hit left-arrow to collapse the thread.

Worse is when I want to mark a whole thread unread (more common). Then I have to collapse the thread to implicitly select the whole thing (switching to and from the mouse slows me down, and I get too much mail to be inefficient in dealing with it); hit Control-U to mark the whole thread read (implicitly expanding it), then hit left-arrow within a second to collapse it again before Outlook decides I've read a message in preview.

When I delete a message, Outlook immediately selects (and previews, in "fresh") another message. When I'm reading mail, this is generally what I want, so I can deal with the next message. When I'm trying to delete or file mail, it means Outlook automatically starts the process of dealing with another next message, and unless I'm very quick marks it pseudo-read (as soon as I deselect), so I must decide what to do about the new selection. This makes it harder to stop reading mail in the current mailbox, as every time I complete an action, Outlook picks the "next" message and engages me in dealing with it; stopping without losing unread status on a message I haven't actually read yet requires contortions. When I know I'm about to stop, I tend to deal with a message or thread and then hit Control-up-arrow to jump to the top of the mailbox, which should be the first message I read (so already marked read), but is often a new message that's come in recently; I then have to decide on and handle that before I can move on to another mailbox or activity.

Normally, when a thread ("Conversation") is collapsed, Outlook deselects its messages. Sometimes (unpredictably) it still shows the preview for a hidden message, which breaks the Control-Q Control-U left-arrow dance, and I have to instead hit Control-Q Control-U left-arrow up-arrow to get a collapsed unread thread.

F5 (Refresh) doesn't clear collapsed conversations; this is annoying. On the other hand, sometimes messages disappear immediately upon being marked read, which means I don't even get a chance to mark them unread; they're effectively just gone. I have no idea what triggers the second problem; fortunately it's rare, as it tends to result in losing mail -- often mail I was saving for later attention.

Control-Q marks individual messages read, but cannot be used on whole mailboxes (with the selection in the left-side mailbox column). There's no good reason for this, as marking whole mailboxes read is a common function, and in the pop-up menu, it just doesn't have the obvious keyboard shortcut.

Outlook cannot select multiple mailboxes at one time, which is ungood; on the other hand, it makes an effort to be helpful -- when I select a mailbox, it kinda-sorta move the selection into the message list (which is pretty reliably what the user really wants, since you can't do much with mailboxes except delete or move them). It's all a bit confusing.

If I have a message which has been previewed for over a second, I know it's effectively read (it will be marked as such as soon as I deselect it, unless I drag it into another mailbox first). It would be good if I could use Control-U to tell Outlook not to mark this message read as soon as it gets deselected, but instead I have to mark it read, then mark it unread, and then move away within a second -- before the preview timer marks it mostly-read again.

Friday, April 4 2008

Outlook Flaws #5

I found a couple pages of Outlook keyboard shortcuts (the online help lists shortcuts too):

Many of these are standard Windows shortcuts, but a few are useful and news to me.

Eudora stopped working on my home MBP recently, so I'm back to Thunderbird, and it strikes me how similar Thunderbird is to Outlook, even extending to some misfeatures (design flaws, not quite bugs), such as over-using the Esc key. Compared to Eudora, pine, and Apple Mail, Thunderbird is clearly much closer to Outlook. A few things are notable improvements, such as being able to mark messages Read and Unread with the M key, instead of Ctl-Q/Ctl-U, or S to flag messages (stored as an IMAP tag; this shows up in Eudora as Label 15). And with a mailbox selected, Ctl-Q doesn't mark all its unread messages read, which it should.

In both Outlook and Thunderbird, Esc closes message windows; this is inconsistent with all other full windows, which are closed with Command-W, and makes messages feel particularly ephemeral. In Outlook, when I open a received message and hit the Space bar to scroll to the next page (which works in every other email client and browser I know), it instead inserts spaces at the beginning of the received message, which if course is not what I want.

I cannot find a good way to sort threads by date; I'd like every thread (perhaps every thread with new messages) grouped together, with the messages in each thread sorted internally by date, and the threads sorted by date (typically of the first message). In Outlook I can group "Conversations" by Subject: or group by From: line, but new messages keep showing up at the top of the mailbox, instead of the bottom (where they should sort, by date).

I have figured out more what's wrong with Refresh. First, I have to hit F5 repeatedly to make Outlook clear more and more read messages from unread-only views; second, collapsed conversations are not cleared; I have to expand them out and then hit F5 again. This is particularly annoying because Outlook has such a strong tendency to always keep one message selected and thus read (although it's not marked read, so I cannot simply mark it unread; I have to mark it read, then mark it unread, and then make sure Outlook doesn't preview it again), so it's quite difficult to reorganize a mailbox and get to a "clean" view (only new messages/threads) without losing some messages which Outlook insisted on selecting/previewing/marking read while rearranging.


And a little attention (not "love") for IE: I still hit Ctl-L to select the URL for copying, and IE7 still fails to do it, bringing up a blank URL entry dialog, instead of selecting the URL in the current window as Safari & Firefox do. I shouldn't need the mouse to copy the current URL.

Tuesday, March 18 2008

Outlook Flaws #4

I can write Outlook rules to match on Subject strings, but it lacks "Starts with" instead of "Contains", so I cannot specify original messages, and distinguish from Re: for replies.

The filter area shows a list of criteria with checkmarks at the top with blue underlines under the keywords. The bottom shows the same labels, with the same blue underlines. But at the bottom they're "links" to dialog boxes for entering the criteria, while at the top the same "links" aren't clickable. Way to mis-use a visual cue, and do it in the most confusingly inconsistent way possible!

Oh, and the rules dialogs are all modal, so once I start creating a rule, I cannot open candidate messages to confirm the rule matches.

I'm still aggravated that I cannot match on partial strings, like "The Notification Agent" or "root@" (acrosss multiple machines) in the From: line. Matching on Subject: (especially unanchored) is much less precise.

When I delete multiple messages, why does Outlook select a random message, instead of the next one?

In Conversation mode (which would be a lot more useful if it didn't waste 2 messages worth of space per "Conversation"), if I use down-arrow to select the next conversation, it expands the conversation instead. Use left/right to collapse/expand converations -- they aren't needed for mailbox navigation! At least Control-KP+ expands all Conversations.

I hit the accursed 32k rules limit. Despite this post, our systems cap rules at 32kb total (client-side + server-side). Apparently this will go to 256kb, once we're upgraded to Outlook 2007 and Exchange 2007. In the meantime, I'm spending a significant amount of time every day trying to make Outlook 2003 do decent filtering, with very limited success. In particular, Outlook is apparently unable to filter From: "root@*" as a catchall. This would make alerts easier to parse, as distinct from human-originated messages. Yuck!

Sunday, March 16 2008

Outlook failures #3

Q: I have several rules to mark bulk messages as read. How stupid is it that Outlook 2003 beeps, shows me the new mail notifier window, shows the new message in my "Unread Mail" filter; and then marks the message read and hides it?

A: Very.


It's difficult to get a mailbox ("Search Folder") or View/Filter to update; I've hit F5 (Refresh) several times, and watched read messages drop out of my "Unread Mail" search most times (but not reliably), but I haven't had the patience to keep hitting F5 enough to see if the list of messages would eventually correct itself. I've switched to other mailboxes and back, but that doesn't work most of the time either.

Thursday, March 13 2008

More Outlook Annoyance

This is odd. I have to use View Options to see full headers (in the Message Options window), but while that's open, the main Outlook program is visible but completely unresponsive. Message Options is apparently a super-modal dialog, which blocks "other applications", and the Alt-Tab task switcher doesn't even show the main Outlook icon. I thought Outlook had crashed, until I realized it was accessible again after I dismissed Message Options.

In fairness to Apple, I've seen cases in Leopard where Apple's Command-Tab task switcher only shows some of the currently running applications (it sorts itself out fairly quickly), but Windows' super-modal behavior is fscked up, and designed into the application (or the OS!).

Saturday, March 8 2008

Windows and Outlook Annoyances

I've been using Windows on a daily basis for 9 days now. At Rockefeller, I kept it on a VM (earlier, on a physical PC) which I could easily wipe and reinstall. I kept the few installers I need on a Mac so I could easily reinstall and be back in business. Now I have to do much more in XP/Outlook, and I have many gripes.

Things I Miss

These are mostly lacks in Windows, although not entirely.

  • In the Alt-Tab task switcher, I cannot Hide (Command-H), Quit (Command-Q), or click an application's icon to switch directly to it. This is aggravated by the fact that icons in the switcher often correspond to windows rather than on the Mac, where they correspond to applications (each with one or more windows), so there are many more icons to Tab through, and often several indistinguishable windows (4 Firefox windows generate 4 identical unlabeled icons; so do 4 open messages in Outlook). Considering Windows has had this feature for longer than Apple, it's shockingly underpowered.
  • I cannot hide the current application (window) from the keyboard (Command-H), or Hide Others (Command-Option-H).
  • I miss BBEdit -- working with notepad and vi for now; UltraEdit's installer (recommended on TidBITS-Talk) doesn't work in my environment. This will get worse as I start writing and editing more (code).
  • BBEdit (particularly side-by-side diff and interactive reconciliation, which I should be able to find an alternative for, but sdiff isn't it).
  • bbedit (I miss opening files from the shell, including via sftp and from for loops).
  • ssh keys for authentication.
  • Seeing my personal email throughout the day -- the financial/SEC/Sarbanes-Oxley environment requires a lot more separation between personal and work activities.
  • Options (program-wide preferences) is not available from message windows -- only from the mailbox viewer window. This is true in Thunderbird/Mac too; presumably copied from the MS model.
  • Good filtering: Outlook's filtering is very much wizard-driven, but not very flexible (no booleans & very limited criteria available); two filters that try to file the same message will put 2 "copies" of the message in different mailboxes; some options are handled on the server, while others are only performed on the client.
  • BlackBerry filtering: The BlackBerry Curve shows everything in one mailbox; I'd like to see things grouped as I do on Outlook.

Things that bug me

  • I can make Outlook sort a mailbox with the newest messages at the bottom (the default is newest-at-top), but then when I click the mailbox, Outlook selects the bottom (newest) message in a mailbox, whereas I want to read oldest first.
  • I can make Outlook allow commas as address delimiters (which is what they are in the actual mail messages), but then I cannot type names, because we have autocomplete disabled and Outlook doesn't recognize a correct "Last, First" recipient when it's set to allow commas as delimiters (even though Outlook uses them once I click Check Names).
  • Keyboard nickname completion (Command-L in Eudora); I can't find a way to assign a keyboard shortcut to Check Names.
  • I try to keep my mailbox "caught up" or "clean" (all messages read). Outlook doesn't mark a message read until I deselect it. This means that when I'm done, to have it stop showing that last message as unread, I have to select something else.
  • When I'm reading a bunch of new messages, and Outlook selects one I don't want to read (see above about selecting the bottom/newest message), I have to click another message to get the Mark Unread contextual menu command; then I scroll up to the top and click on the first message.
  • AutoCorrect absolutely would not let me type "SAs" (System Administrators) until I killed it.
  • MS Office Communicator flashes in the Start bar and the Alt-Tab switcher, but it flashes the main window's icon, instead of the one for the conversation with new activity. That's just dumb.

Things I like

  • Outlook can show me mailing list (group) membership. It's called "Outlook Properties" in the menu, despite being maintained on the Exchange side, but after I got over thinking that couldn't be the right place, this is quite handy.
  • Outlook checks group memberships automatically when filtering; this cannot be turned off, so I cannot filter messages sent to a list separately from messages sent to a member of the list.