Microsoft Outlook for iOS surprisingly effective

Who would have thought that one of the best email programs for your iPhone and Android phone would come from Microsoft?

I’ve been trying Outlook for iOS on an iPhone 6, iPhone 6+ and iPad mini for about a month, and rarely do I now use anything else. Outlook for Android is available on Android phones and tablets, but is still in beta, and I did not test it.

The program is free and does a terrific job of managing your email and calendar in a single app, much the way Outlook works on computers. It’s almost as if the developers looked at the weaknesses of other email programs and found ways to make this stand apart with clever new capabilities.

The product is the result of Microsoft’s purchase of Accompli, a popular iOS email program.

Compared to Mail, the standard email app on iOS devices, the presentation of email on Outlook is clearer and easier to read, and displays more content on each page, due to the font, layout and use of white space.

Outlook has one feature that I found particularly useful. It does an uncanny job of separating your email into two groups: those that are more important (Focused) and are generally from individuals, and those that are mass mailings, ads, newsletters, confirmations, etc. (Other). You can easily switch between Focused and Other with a single click.

I’ve found this feature alone to make managing my email much easier, as it removes the distraction of useful and less useful email being intermingled and raised to the same level of importance.

If it makes a mistake (for example, group emails from an organization you want to hear from), you can permanently change the emails from this group into the Focused group. Another feature of Outlook is its ability to view just the email attachments of recent email, making it easy to locate a specific document.

Swiping your email, either left or right, will perform your choice of two of these options, i Archive, Delete, Schedule, Move, Mark as Read/Unread, and Flag. I prefer Delete and Schedule, the latter removing the email and bringing it back at a future time and date of your choice.

With Outlook, you can include multiple email accounts in your single Outlook inbox or view them by their specific account, something Gmail still doesn’t do.

For example, I use the account for two Gmail accounts and my iOS cloud account. Outlook can sync mail, contacts, calendar and files from Office 365, Exchange Online, Exchange Server, (including Hotmail, Live and MSN), Gmail, iCloud and Yahoo! Mail.

You can also add attachments from Dropbox, OneDrive, Box and Google Drive, but not Apple iCloud’s drive.

The Outlook calendar is not quite as good as iCal, but comes close, and unlike iCal, it’s part of the same app. It allows views by the day, agenda and a three-day view when rotated to landscape mode. There’s a slide-down month view useful for navigation.

The integration makes it easy to switch back and forth between mail and calendar modes, and allows you to attach available meeting times while writing an email to let others, a feature called Send Availability.

At the bottom of the page are tabs for Mail, Calendar, Files, People and Settings.

The People tab provides a list of recent contacts that lets you view emails received and appointments with that contact. It’s useful, but not a substitute for the iOS Contacts app.

I reviewed Inbox from Google several months back and liked it a lot as well. It offered similar swiping features and the ability to separate the attachments to view as a list. But its big limitation was that it worked only with Gmail and not with Apple’s iCloud mail.

Most email programs that come on phones are generally good enough, but nothing exceptional. Apple, in particular, has failed to make significant improvements over the past five years; it’s less glamorous to improve products than to work on new ones.

But Microsoft has shown just how much better an email program can be, and I recommend you try it, especially because it’s free.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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