The Case of Outlook not downloading RSS content because of a problem connecting to the server

The Problem

I had been using Outlook to subscribe to RSS feeds for many years. Mostly because I like to have my email and news in one place with the ability to add them to my Outlook to-do list for follow-up.

Over time, however, I noticed that one feed after the other stopped updating. Even feeds from Microsoft sites such as TechNet and MSDN which I had assumed simply had to be compatible with Microsoft’s own RSS reader. Trying to remove and then re-add them gave the following error:

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I eventually found out that all feeds that no longer updated had been switched from HTTP to HTTPS, which seems to be unsupported by Outlook.

The Cause

This support document describes the scenarios in which Outlook supports authenticated RSS feeds. Basically, support is extremely limited. Normally, HTTPS is not supported and the workaround using Internet Explorer’s Common Feed List did not work for me.

Initially, Internet Explorer would download the RSS feed and they would show up as unread items in Outlook, but after the initial download I wouldn’t get any new items in Outlook, even though they did show up in Internet Explorer.

The Solution

Searching online for a solution did not turn up anything. Either people described workarounds that did not work for me, or recommended simply abandoning Outlook in favor of some other feed reader.

So I implemented my own solution and wrote a very simple proxy server that runs a local web server via HTTP that fetches the requested feed via HTTPS from the original source. By configuring Outlook to use this proxy, I now receive updates for feeds in Outlook even when the source uses HTTPS.

This RSS-via-HTTP Proxy runs as a service in the background. Its source code and some instructions on how to configure it are available on GitHub.

Office 2013: A Mixed Bag for Me

Whenever a new version of Office or Windows comes out, I pretty much buy it right away (heck, for Windows 8, I even took a day off work to install it on launch day). So when Microsoft was offering its Office 2013 applications as a subscription service, I bought a copy of Office 365 Home Premium, since I was basically subscribing to Office anyway. And I think they offer a pretty good deal, because for just 87 EUR for the first year (a sale on Amazon, normally it’s more like 99 EUR, I think), I got:

  • what I consider the must-have Office applications: Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote,
  • Outlook (which hadn’t been included with the Home versions of Office before),
  • Access and Publisher (a.k.a. Office applications I never use at home),
  • 20 GB of additional storage on SkyDrive and
  • 60 minutes on Skype (which I haven’t found use for, so far).

Not bad, considering, I had almost maxed out the 25 GB on SkyDrive I had before and considering I would otherwise have to buy Outlook separately.

General impression: very positive

But not only did the licensing model change, Microsoft also revamped and dramatically improved the installation experience. I just had to go to office.com/setup enter my license key, sign in with my Microsoft Account and the installation would start. The installer was less than 1MB and right away created links to the applications on the start screen.

While the installation was still in progress, I could launch an application and immediately start using it. Office let me know that the application hasn’t been completely installed just yet, but as the needed bits are downloaded and installed on demand, there were only short delays when I started playing around with Excel while it was still downloading. They say I can use a streaming version of Office with my settings even on PCs that don’t have Office at all, though I haven’t tried that yet. This is pretty cool.

Even more cool is the fact, that I now have up to five installations included in the license and I can manage these on office.com, deciding which version (Mac or Windows) and which language I would like to install on which of my computers. So finally I can have Office in English and no longer have to put up with the often inconsistent and sometimes weird translation into German.

Excel: pretty nice

As I said, Excel was the first application I tried out while it was still downloading, since it is also the Office application that I use the most except for Outlook (more on Outlook in the next section). I think it is fair to say, that in general Excel has seen the most moderate changes over the years: It’s basic user interface still looks a lot like VisiCalc form 1979. So in this release, too, I haven’t come across anything major that’s changed.

There have, nonetheless, been a few subtle improvements. Such as more context sensitive menus. For instance, when clicking a chart, you can now change the design and filter data right there, without having to dig around in the ribbon for that functionality. There is, however, the danger that duplicating access points for features like this, leads to a more cluttered user interface and possibly users wondering whether those are actually two different features, not knowing when to pick which. I think it’s working, though, in the case of Excel, although I will come back to that in the case of Outlook where it doesn’t.

The new feature I like the most, though, is got to be Quick Analysis: Just select a range of data and click the icon on the bottom right of the selection (or press Ctrl+Q) and Excel will present you with a selection of tools to quickly analyze and get a feel for the data. By hovering over the options to graph the data, apply conditional formatting identifying top and bottom values etc. etc. you can very quickly familiarize yourself with a dataset.

And of course there are some features that are kind of fun, but not worth the upgrade on their own. Like how the selection rectangle slides over from the previously selected range when you select a new range. Or how the new values slide in from the top when a calculated cell’s value changes. I have found this to be quite useful, tough, as it makes cells that have changed stand out more and makes it easier to see where in a sheet there have been updates.

Outlook: unusable at first

Because migrating my RSS feeds and four email accounts with all their settings has always been a bit of a hassle, I had waited until the weekend to take on Outlook 2013. the actual migration of settings, as it turns out, was pretty easy, because Outlook 2013 had already imported the accounts from my existing Outlook 2010 profile. There were a couple of things, it hadn’t imported for some reason, like the quick steps I had set up to mark as read and archive mails with one easy click or my RSS feeds. But those things were easily re-created.

What I found shocking, though, were the changes Microsoft had made to the way they handle IMAP and Hotmail accounts. Because of these changes, I was initially unable to use Outlook and seriously considered staying on 2010 (at least for Outlook). Maybe it was naïve of me, to just buy Office and think everything would be alright, because Microsoft had discussed the changes to IMAP in Outlook in a blog post and there has been a lively discussion in their support forums whether those changes were well done (most suggest no, and I agree).

For IMAP, Outlook now uses XLIST to ask the IMAP server which folders are the special folders for Sent Items, Deleted Items etc. In 2010, you could manually select those folders and I had set up all of my accounts in such a way that Outlook on my PC, the email provider’s web interface and my Windows Phone would use the same folders. Unfortunately, my email providers don’t seem to support XLIST, because Outlook felt it needed to create separate folders called “Sent Items (This computer only)”, “Deleted Items (This computer only)” etc. And since there is no more option to map those folders manually, that made the list of folders that much longer and harder to use. Of course, it didn’t help that all folder icons were eliminated from the list as well, making it impossible to find the right folder at a single glance.

Outlook macros to the rescue

A quick internet search showed me that I wasn’t the only one upset about this (see the discussion mentioned above). But thankfully there was this tip providing a macro to move sent items out of those additional folders into the proper ones. I adapted that macro a little and I think I now have an even better workflow for sent items than I did with Outlook 2010. The way I have set it up now, is that whenever an item is added to any of the Sent Items folders (be it the one my phone uses or the one Outlook uses), the item is marked as read and transferred to the archive folder I keep on one of the IMAP servers. So no longer do I have to manually go through those folders moving items I had sent. The same thing works for deleted items, which I move into a single Deleted Items folder in a local PST file. So I now just have six folders under my favorites: my four inboxes, the Sent Items and the Deleted Items that my macros aggregate everything into.

With Outlook 2010 I had created local folders in the Hotmail PST for incoming POP3 messages, but it seems you can no longer move messages into any of the Hotmail folders. So no longer can I just move messages I need to read later or follow up on into my Hotmail inbox that gets pushed to my phone. Instead I have to sync the other inboxes on my phone manually. It’s not that big a deal, but it was another item on my list of disappointments.

Other Outlook flaws

With the most urgent problems solved, I started using Outlook 2013 instead of 2010 for all my email, RSS feeds and general “personal information management” (as that type of application is called). That’s when I discovered some of the other, albeit less dramatic flaws in Outlook 2013.

Such as the fact that the calendar in the to-do bar only shows today’s appointments and not those of the coming days as it did in 2010. Or the extraordinary amount of space taken up by people’s pictures, cluttering up the header area of messages and drawing attention away from the most important part: the message’s content. Thankfully there is a post on Super User on how to de-clutter Outlook 2013.

Among the things one apparently cannot get rid of: the additional reply buttons at the top of a message. While it might be nice to sent off a quick reply inline without having to open up another window to type it into, I find these redundancies don’t help to make an already complicated piece of software any easier to use.

On the plus side, to-do items in the Hotmail data file are no longer just local to your computer, but instead they were pushed to my Windows Phone and when I deleted the item there, it was immediately deleted in Outlook as well. That’s a very welcome change.

Other things I find objectionable

I love the fact that Office now follows the Windows 8 design principles (white space instead of lines to separate things, use of typography to establish hierarchy of on-screen elements, simple color schemes without gradients, fewer and simpler icons). However, I think they have overdone it with the all-caps text. Single words in the ribbon tab headers are fine, but status bar messages such as “ALL FOLDERS ARE UP TO DATE” are too much in my opinion. Has no one there heard about the negative impact all-caps have on readability?

And speaking of Windows 8 design: when I installed Office on a Windows 7 machine, I noticed that it was using the same Windows-8-style window frames there to. I don’t even know why Windows allows applications to provide their own window frame. I have yet to come across an application that used this for good. I think all windows should just get the same Aero glass frame or whatever else the user has set as the default on their system. No needless deviations from the system default. Period.

The remaining applications

I haven’t mentioned Word or the other Office applications, because I don’t use them as regularly as I use Excel and Outlook. I did open a couple of documents to read in Word and they seemed fine. I like that fact that I can now use Word to read PDFs, because Microsoft’s PDF Metro app is pretty basic and couldn’t correctly display a few PDFs I had.

I do use OneNote fairly regularly to write down things, URLs and other pieces of information I would like to have synced between my PC and my phone, but such basic functionality hasn’t changed as far as I can tell.

As for the other applications: I don’t use Access and Publisher at all and PowerPoint I only use at work, not at home. So I have no idea how good or bad they are in Office 2013.

Conclusion

In spite of all the problems I mentioned, I think I am better off now with Office 365 Home Premium than I had been with Office 2010 before. There are a couple of nice additions, although it did take some getting used to some of the other not so great changes. With a few macros, some fine-tuning of options and very minor changes to the way I organize my email, I don’t feel any desire to go back to Office 2010. In fact, I just uninstalled it, so when any other problems pop up (though I don’t anticipate), I will just have to fix them. Maybe I need to read up on VBA programming for Outlook, because it seems pretty powerful and I have only used VBA in Excel and Access (at work) so far.

Integrating various Microsoft Technologies

The other day I was watching Steve Ballmer’s Keynote Address at CES 2011. If you’re a fan of Microsoft technologies, it’s a nice wrap-up what Microsoft has been up to lately and how great their stuff is. In addition to talking about some of the new stuff (Surface version 2, Windows 8 on ARM SoCs; check out the video for details), it also reiterated the “Three Screens and a Cloud” mantra Microsoft has been preaching since PDC 2009 and basically saying how nicely various Microsoft technologies integrate with each other (Xbox and Zune were given as an example in the presentation).

Windows Live SkyDrive limitations (and workaround)

In reality, however, integration isn’t always that great. Take for instance SkyDrive: it’s 25GB of free online storage and you can view and edit your Office documents stored there via the Office Web Apps, which is nice. However, there is no easy way to access this content from Windows. And then there is Live Mesh, Microsoft’s file synchronization solution. It occupies a special 5GB area on your SkyDrive. Why it doesn’t just sync anything in SkyDrive, I don’t know. And because of this special treatment, the files synced to SkyDrive via Live Mesh cannot be access by the Office Web Apps. Bummer.

Even though not officially supported by Microsoft, there is way to access SkyDrive from Windows by mounting it as a network drive, as I wrote a while back in How to use SkyDrive for cloud backup. I hadn’t actually used it like that in a while, so it wasn’t until this morning that I noticed one can no longer copy certain file types to SkyDrive this way. For instance, I use WinRAR to create a password-protected archive of the files to back up. I have automated creating the rar-files and copying them to SkyDrive with a little batch file. However, when I ran it this morning the batch failed with an “Access Denied” copying the rar-file to SkyDrive.

First, I tried creating a new text file on SkyDrive in Windows Explorer and it worked as expected. Then I manually copied a (smaller) rar-file to SkyDrive via Explorer and that failed as well. I then changed the file extension on the RAR archive I wanted to upload from “rar” to “txt” and voilà, it was possible to upload the file. Here’s the interesting bit: once the rar-file disguised as a txt-file is on SkyDrive, one can rename it to change the extension back to “rar”, but only from Windows, as it’s not possible to change file extensions via the SkyDrive web page. Renaming can even be automated. So to make my backup script work again, I now have a rename command in there in addition to the copy command. Work’s just fine.

OneNote: from Windows Phone to SkyDrive to my PC

The reason I was fiddling with SkyDrive and found this out in the first place, was because I wanted to synchronize OneNote notes between my Windows Phone, SkyDrive (and thus the Office Web Apps) and OneNote running on my PC. Microsoft has a very good how-to article that explains everything one needs to know to make this happen and it actually works very easily.

At least at first, because once I had my notes synchronized, it bothered me that the notebook was called “Personal (Web)”. What a stupid name, I thought, and promptly renamed it. Big mistake. Had I continued reading the article I would have come a cross the following passage in the very next paragraph:

To ensure that this notebook syncs properly to Windows Live SkyDrive, do not change the default notebook name from Personal (Web), and don’t change the name of the Unfiled Notes section in the notebook.

To make matters worse, not only could I no longer sync the notebook, I also couldn’t delete it from my phone. Because it was the default notebook where all new notes created on the phone go, OneNote wouldn’t allow me to delete it, until I designated another notebook as the default one. Except, there is no way to create new notebooks on the phone. So I created one using the OneNote web app. I even used the original name and thought maybe I could trick my phone into thinking this was the same notebook. No such luck. Creating an entirely new notebook didn’t work either, because of the missing original notebook, synchronization always failed.

There is, however, a workaround as this thread on Microsoft Answers explains. The solution was to create a new notebook (which can have any name you want, by the way) and save it on SkyDrive. Then use Internet Explorer on the phone to go to http://office.live.com and download the file to the phone. This adds the notebook to OneNote, where one can set it as the new default notebook. Now it’s possible to delete the old notebook, and as a bonus, you now have a notebook with the name of your choice synced across your phone, the web and your PC.

Finally some good news for Windows Home Server

For the past 18 months or so I have had a version 1 Windows Home Server and love it (except when it let’s me down). When the beta version of its successor codenamed “Vail” was released last year, I checked it out, but was underwhelmed. Most changes were cosmetic or in areas that I didn’t use, so I decided I probably wouldn’t upgrade. Especially since there was no migration strategy for the data on my old WHS machine. After Microsoft’s announcement that Drive Extender was removed from the product, I was sure I wouldn’t upgrade. That was until Microsoft showed off a wonderful Windows Phone 7 app at CES the other day. This aps in conjunction with the new Windows Home Server streams content (music, videos and pictures) stored on the server to the phone: “Windows Home Server goes mobile… Phone!

Now I’m not so sure anymore whether I should upgrade. I guess if Microsoft present’s a viable alternative to Drive Extender (maybe some RAID-based thingy their hardware partners could pre-configure to make it almost as easy to use as Drive Extender), I would seriously consider the upgrade.

Conclusion

I think “Three Screens and a Cloud” is a great idea. If synchronization and integration between them actually work, that is, and as I said above, in many areas it doesn’t yet.

The most important element in this I think is cloud. I was skeptical about cloud computing at first, because it reminded me to much of the mainframes and terminals of way back when, but now that Windows Phone 7 has forced me to embrace it, I actually find it very useful to have data and certain applications in the cloud and/or my phone, while also having more powerful versions of the same applications on my computer (e.g. Microsoft Office) when I need the power and ease-of-use of rich-client software.

I think given it’s broad product portfolio, Microsoft is in a unique position to make an integrated and synchronized “Three Screens and a Cloud” computing set-up become reality for its customers. I’m very excited to see what’s going to come of it.

Getting Ready for Windows Phone 7

As announced on my Twitter feed, I just pre-ordered the HTC HD7 as my first Windows Phone 7 device. When I got my current Windows Mobile 6.0 phone and I connected it to my PC, Windows immediately suggested downloading the Windows Mobile Device Center. This allowed me to easily sync all my contacts, calendar entries and to-dos that I managed in Outlook to my phone.

Alas, Windows Phone does not synchronize directly with Outlook, but only with the cloud. It’s a could world now, I guess. So my options were to get an Exchange Online account or use a more consumer-oriented service such as Windows Live or GMail in conjunction with Google Calendar. I already have all my email stored on GMail, and I would rather not have them have all my other personal information as well. Hence, I decided to move my calendar and contacts to Windows Live. Also,there is the Microsoft Office Outlook Hotmail Connector, so I can continue using Outlook as my primary personal information manager, something Google doesn’t currently support (except for calendar syncing). After configuring Outlook to use the Windows Live account as its default data file, the experience in Outlook is now almost as it was before, except that in the background everything is synced to the cloud (and thus my phone).

I originally wanted this article to be a write-up of the things one would do to prepare for Windows Phone 7, but Paul Thurrott beat me to it, so check out his article on the WinSuperSite which is much more comprehensive than anything I would have written, anyway. There are a couple of things, though, that I experienced during my move to the cloud, that I would like to point out.

Moving contacts from Outlook to Windows Live not as easy as I thought

the first one is importing contacts from Outlook into Windows Live which did not work as I would have expected. Exporting contacts via a CSV file did not work for me, because my German Outlook seems to produce a format that Windows Live does not understand. I found a website describing the format Windows Live expects, but converting the data is not trivial, so I gave up on this.

Turns out, there is a much easier way: dragging and dropping the contacts in Outlook from my local to my Windows Live contacts folder. Unfortunately, this didn’t copy over all of my contacts (five got lost somewhere along the way) or even all of their data. Partly this is because Windows Live doesn’t support all of the fields Outlook has, but there are also fields like “job title” that didn’t simply make it over, although both Windows Live and Outlook have them. Don’t know why. Other fields seem to be limited in size, for instance some company names were cropped after 40 characters. Outlook warned me about this during the copy operation, though it didn’t tell me which contacts were affected. The same goes for all the other data fields that weren’t copied over. I still have no idea what wasn’t copied, I just have to hope that the most important data is there which seems to be the case, though.

Finally, after I had copied the contacts over in Outlook and it had synced with the cloud, the contacts didn’t immediately show up on the Windows Live website. only after I added a contact through the web interface, there they were all of a sudden. This may be an internal Windows Live synchronization issue that was kind of irritating at first but isn’t really a big deal.

Windows Media Player versus Zune

Until now I have been using Windows Media Player as my primary media organizer and player. It’s also my application of choice for syncing music to my Windows Mobile phone (and my iPod shuffle). With Windows Phone, the Zune software (just got the new 4.7 release) is used for this. The software certainly looks very stylish (its inspired by the Zune’s Metro UI), but there are couple of things it doesn’t do. Most importantly, it doesn’t play DVDs or the internet radio stations I listen to.

Since I would like to have all my media in one place, I will probably continue using Windows Media Player. Since both Zune and Windows Media Player are based on the Music and Video libraries built into Windows 7, the Zune software will hopefully pick up the changes I make to my collection in Windows Media Player. Since I don’t have a lot of music and the HD7 has 16 GB of internal storage (compared to a measly 2 GB on my current phone), I will no longer have to micro-manage what songs I sync to the phone but just sync everything  and there shouldn’t be a need for me to spend a lot of time with the Zune software.

Looking forward to Oct 21

Although Amazon hasn’t yet posted a date when my HD7 will ship, Oct 21 is said to be the date Windows Phone 7 launches here in Germany. This is one of the rare occasions that us Europeans get their hands on a new piece of technology before it is available in the United States. I really hope that my phone will by in the mail next Thursday. Since I have all my stuff on Windows Live now, I should just have to enter my Windows Live ID an the device should get everything from the cloud.

I actually haven’t been this excited about a new phone since I got my first one in the late 1990s (a Nokia 5110 in case you are interested). I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Windows Phone has made cellphones cool again, but it has certainly added excitement to the mobile space and I really hope they can position themselves as one of the top three platforms alongside iPhone and Android. The deep integration with Windows Live, Zune and Xbox Live certainly sets them apart form the other platforms. I’m not a big gamer myself, but I could see myself playing some casual games on the phone to pass time. I’ll have to see what Xbox Live can do for me.

Not so happy with Office 2010

My initial impression of Office 2010 was mixed. Unfortunately, I can’t say it has gotten any better since then. While there a couple of really nice improvements in the latest version of Office, several glitches I encounter on a day to day basis have made using it frustrating at times.

Outlook

Outlook is probably the one Office application I spent the most time in. I use it not just for email, but also to subscribe to RSS feeds, keep track of appointments and to-do lists and then sync all of that to my Windows Mobile phone. All of this works pretty well. However, Outlook 2010 seems to have serious problems with IMAP email accounts, which unfortunately, both my primary email accounts use.

First, I don’t get a new mail notification when new items arrive in my IMAP inbox anymore. In the previous version, I only did not get the pop-up notification, but my “You’ve got Mail” sound was still played. In Outlook 2010, I have to manually check my inbox to not miss incoming mail.

Second, I can’t seem make Outlook use my IMAP mail account as the default mail account. While I can check it as the default account in the account overview, whenever I create a new message, the first non-IMAP account on the accounts list is used for sending it.

Excel

Excel for me has always been the cornerstone of the Office suite. While there have always been stability issues with Word when working with complex documents, Excel has always been rock solid. Too bad, that changed with the 2010 release.

Microsoft Excel has stopped working

I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the fact that I run a German Excel on an English-language version of Windows 7, but Excel 2010 has been unable to properly apply custom formatting to numbers and dates, misinterpreting custom date formats that worked flawlessly in Excel 2007. I thought it might have to do with the fact that these were files that I created many years back (probably in Office 2000 or Office 97) and there might be some incompatibility there, but this also happens with newly created files that contain nothing but a few numbers.

While I’m usually hesitant to send debug information to software makers (for privacy concerns), I made an exception this time. Hopefully, this will help Microsoft find and fix the issue.

The only plus with Excel 2010 is that it loads much faster than the previous version. Other than that, I would probably be better off had I stayed with Excel 2007.

OneNote, PowerPoint and Word

Since graduating from college I haven’t seriously used any of these applications anymore. I must say though, that there are a couple of nice things in the 2010 release. I haven’t run into any issues with them, since I don’t use them on a regular basis

PowerPoint has some new slide transitions that look much more professional than what was there before. I’m sorry to say it, but when it comes to aesthetics, Apple’s Keynote used to kick PowerPoint’s butt. No more. If only Microsoft took out sound effects, so people could no longer include them in their presentations. It’s so annoying and so unnecessary.

The one feature in Word I find the most noteworthy is the new document outline. I tried this with my master’s thesis (100+ pages including pictures, charts, footnotes and a bunch of other advanced features) and I was presented with a nice overview of chapters, sections and sub-sections that made navigating a document of this size a snap.

There isn’t much to say about OneNote. I have been using the application since it’s very first version shipped as part of Office 2003 and must say that it has progressed nicely since then. While I used it extensively for taking notes for school, I now just use it for travel planning as a place to collect ideas, links to things to see and places to go, itineraries et cetera. Hence, I probably don’t use any features that weren’t already in the initial release.

Summary

Office 2010 is a nice upgrade from 2003, but not worth it, if you already have 2007, in my opinion. I used to think Office 2010 compared to Office 2007 was like Windows 7 compared to Windows Vista: The earlier release came out with some really groundbreaking stuff (such as the ribbon in Office 2007, major UI and under-the-hood improvements in Vista), but wasn’t well received by most. Consequently, many people stayed with Office 2003 and XP, respectively. Windows 7, while only a minor upgrade to Vista in terms of new features, was apparently much more well liked and has already sold more than 150 million copies as of last month. As with Vista, many users who had Office 2003 never upgraded to 2007, but might now upgrade to 2010. Considering the problem’s I have run into, I can only advise against that. Maybe it’s not like I though, but rather the other way around: Office 2007 is Windows 7 and 2010 is Vista in this story.

Office 2010 is here

I just downloaded and installed my copy of Office 2010 Home and Student and Outlook 2010. First impression: nice evolution of the previous release, although there are a couple of downers, so overall I would not call it a major improvement. I guess that if I didn’t feel the need to own and try every release of Office (and Windows for that matter), and I already had Office 2007, I would have probably stayed with that.

However, the upgrade from Office 2007 to Office 2010 wasn’t that expensive, thanks to Microsoft’s Office 2010 Technology Guarantee, so what the heck. Under this program I bought Office 2007 Home and Student and Outlook 2007 back in March. At the time, both where heavily discounted at Amazon, so I got them pretty cheaply. Interestingly enough, Outlook – which I had to buy separately from the main office suite – was much more expensive than the other applications. I guess they want to extract some consumer surplus from people that feel they really need Outlook and don’t already get it as part of a higher SKU.

Even though I already had Office and Outlook 2007, which I had bought in 2007 when they came out, installed, I had to install and activate these two copies again to be eligible for the free upgrade. So I did an uninstall and re-install, which was actually pretty quick and left all settings intact. Today, I just had to use my product IDs from the Office 2007 installation to download Office 2010 and Outlook 2010 from the Microsoft website free of charge.

The installation of these was completely painless. The installer removed all 2007 versions and while keeping their settings installed the 2010 versions of Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook (the latter was a separate install, however).

A few disappointments

There is one little thing, one has to watch out for, though, when installing Office Home and Student: On the main installation screen there is a little checkbox for installing trial-versions of Office Professional that is checked by default. I find this a bit sneaky and not something I would have expected of Microsoft. I don’t want an application that I paid for to install trial software without my express consent. In my opinion, installing anything other than the main software that I bought, should always be opt-in and never opt-out.

A more important problem with Excel 2010 is the fact that it seems to have trouble with some of my existing files, particularly the diagrams in one of them. Unfortunately, this file is the one I use every day for keeping track and planning all my expenses. For this purpose it has several sheets, a couple of macros and diagrams to give me a cockpit view my current financial situation. One of these diagrams gave Excel some trouble: When I first opened, the formatting of the displayed data was wrong. Trying to correct that, Excel froze repeatedly and eventually complained about not having enough memory; which is ridiculous, because my computer has some 2.5GB and more than 50% of that was unused.  While this particular diagram isn’t exactly a deal-breaker that would make me go back to Excel 2007, this a major snafu and I sure hope there will be a patch for this soon.

Next, I think the “backstage view”, which has replaced the old File menu, needs some work. I understand this is new to Office 2010 and but this piece of user interface to me looks a little uninspired. It feels a little like this is the place they put all the options that didn’t fit anywhere else in the normal ribbon. It uses a lot of non-standard UI components with commands and sub-menus mixed together that I don’t find very intuitive to use.

Finally, while not the fault of Office 2010 per se, it made me realize just how small my monitor is. Especially in Outlook 2010 that now has the ribbon in all windows, screen real-estate has become a scarce resource. There are so many panes now left, right and bottom that there is barely enough space to see my email. Maybe now is the time to get an external monitor. Apparently, the 1024 by 768 pixels on my laptop screen are so 2007.

On the plus side

In spite of the problems I experienced, I think I am going to be pretty happy with this release. The applications look a bit more polished than their predecessors, especially with the silver theme which was pretty ugly in 2007.

Also, the ribbon in Outlook is a huge improvement, because it makes a lot of options that had previously been buried several levels deep in the main menu accessible with one click. There are several other things throughout the suite that make it a nice upgrade, like the new search and navigation pane in Word, the fact that one can now easily make screenshots in all applications and many, many more. For a more exhaustive coverage, check out Paul Thurrott’s Office 2010 review.

Finally, there are also the Office Web Apps which upon first inspection appear to be pretty decent. I was kind of disappointed at first to find out that they offer only a subset of what is available in the desktop version of Office, but I guess one can’t expect a web application to replicate the full set of functionality of one of the most complex pieces of application software that’s out there. And to be fair, the feature set of the web apps is already much more attractive than what Google docs has to offer.