Although I normally use Eudora as my email client, I recently had a chance to spend quite some time in Microsoft's new Entourage 2004, because I just finished editing our latest Take Control ebook, Tom Negrino's "Take Control of What's New in Entourage 2004." Editing the book gave me the opportunity to experiment with the software and reflect on its new features, and, of course, I had the benefit of Tom's excellent advice for rapidly finding and learning about Entourage's new features. More on the ebook in a bit.
Entourage 2004 is at its heart email software, but unlike other email clients, it goes well beyond email with integrated organizational options such as a contacts database, calendar, to-do list, and project management capabilities. It ships with Office 2004 (but not separately), so you'd probably buy it only if you also need, as many Mac users do, one or more of its suite mates: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
I'm struck by how much more youthful Entourage seems compared to other Office programs. For example, Word, though chirpy on the surface with its new Office 2004 interface, seems grumpy underneath, with its complex mix of views, comments, revisions, field codes, and styles that comprise a typical document. Entourage feels like the happy-go-lucky younger brother who is not yet overwhelmed with feature requests from every profession on the planet.
We last looked at Entourage in depth a number of years ago, with Matt Neuburg's "Entourage: The Grand Tour" in TidBITS-550. In Entourage 2004, Microsoft has created a slightly more fluid interface and made an effort to respond to concerns about the never-ending struggle to stay organized, the growing importance of online collaboration, and Entourage's one-file-holds-all database. Let's look at some of the more interesting changes.
New View on Email -- Entourage offers a few optional interface changes for working with email: along with the old, vertical display with messages opening in a new window or previewing beneath the message list, you can now work horizontally with email messages showing in a third column at the right. Obviously, this approach works best on larger (and wider) screens, but given the dimensions of most of Apple's current monitors, it's worth trying.
Entourage also optionally provides a notification window that appears and fades away whenever you receive email while working in another program. These window-dressing type changes may or may not be handy to you, depending on your working style.
New Views on Data -- If you (like most of us) have trouble organizing your email or finding messages once they've arrived, you'll probably like Entourage's new grouping feature, which lets you view messages in a mailbox folder in about a dozen different default ways. And if that's not enough, you can customize the display by making your own groupings. So, for instance, you can quickly switch between viewing a date-sorted list of all messages with attachments from a particular sender and a priority-sorted list of older messages. Lots of email programs have similar features, but Entourage does an especially nice job by including an easy-to-use customization interface and offering a particularly clear presentation of the sorted groups.
Entourage's Calendar view also has new ways to view data, primarily through an easily understood filtering feature that lets you see only certain types of data on your calendar at any one time. Given the level to which many of us fill up our schedules, being able to limit the view to particular types of entries is a welcome addition.
The Project Center -- Initially, I thought the Office-wide Project Center looked extremely promising for lots of purposes, but upon closer examination, I worry that it falls short of what I was hoping it would do, leaving room for improvement. For personal use, Project Center is a useful way to manage not only Entourage items, such as email messages, tasks, contacts, and so on, but also files (any type of file, not just Office documents). The new Project view makes it possible to see an item on your to-do list and click an icon to open the file immediately and get to work. If I used Entourage as my primary email program, I would be excitedly making projects for the different books that I edit. I think it would be an elegant way to work, since it's easy to put items into a project, and so many of my projects combine calendar events and to-do-list items with email messages and files from Word, BBEdit, and miscellaneous graphics applications.
Where Project Center falls short is in its sharing feature, which lets you move a project to a shared server so that multiple people can work with it at once. When you share a project, external files physically move to the server; some Entourage items can be shared or kept private, other Entourage items, including email, cannot be shared.
Sounds good so far, but because a shared project offers no sophisticated features for collaboration and version control, I can't recommend it in situations that would routinely risk two people editing the same document at the same time. Even for situations that wouldn't routinely risk such a conflict, you must weigh the potential benefits against the potential loss of time if multiple people lose edits (or get confused) while trying to work on the same document at the same time. I'd like to see some sort of a check-in/check-out system added to the project-sharing feature.
Dealing with the Database -- Microsoft made an effort to improve working with the single-file database that holds Entourage data. The database, previously limited to 4 GB in size, wasn't capacious enough (or stable enough) for some people to consider using Entourage, and for others it proved a frequent source of concern and frustration. Entourage 2004 eliminates the file size limit, instead limiting the number of items that can be tracked in the database to one million. Microsoft believes this will help users store more data in Entourage than they could previously.
Equally as important, Microsoft has taken steps to help users keep their databases free of corruption. Because the Entourage database holds all your Entourage data - email, contact information, to-do list, and more - using it equates to putting all your eggs in the same basket, and a corrupted database can put serious brakes on your productivity until you restore from backup (you have backups, right?). The aptly named Database Utility scans databases for potential problems and (in theory, I didn't see any problems in my testing) repairs them. I haven't yet heard reports of any exciting successes or dismaying failures with the Database Utility.
Finally, Entourage has a new archiving feature that lets you copy or move items out of the database file into a separate archive file. Items can be archived based on various ways of sorting them, such as by date, type, or project. This handy feature should help users keep their database file size down and - should you not routinely do full backups - offers a helpful way to make an additional copy of important data. Archives can be imported when desired.
Slamming Spam -- Entourage X's spam filtering technology wasn't keeping pace with spammer tricks, so Entourage 2004 adopts the technology used by Outlook 2003 for Windows (which appears to be a form of probability-based filtering generated by Microsoft based on submitted spam). Instead of individual users training their individual filters (as people do in, say, Eudora or Apple Mail), the idea is that Microsoft updates the filter frequently, and users can run a new utility, Microsoft AutoUpdate, to download and install updates automatically in much the same manner as Apple's Software Update system.
Tom reports that the new filter works so well on his email that he no longer uses Matterform's rule-based Spamfire Pro to bolster Entourage's spam filtering. Other TidBITS and Take Control staffers have seen extremely good results from Michael Tsai's SpamSieve, which uses a statistical filtering method and works with Entourage 2004.
In the End -- Entourage 2004's new capabilities may inspire some people to switch to Entourage, and they certainly add up to a better user experience with the software. A remaining disappointment for some is the failure of Entourage to better integrate its contact and calendaring information with Apple's Address Book, although you can download an AppleScript-based solution for synchronizing your Entourage and Address Book contacts.
Whether you switch or upgrade to Entourage 2004 will probably relate more to your overall Office-related needs. Must you upgrade because your system administrator insists that you do, perhaps for reasons of project sharing or automatic updates? Are you considering an Office upgrade in order to access the new change tracking or Unicode features in Word? Do you just like to stay up to date? Those all might be important reasons to use Entourage 2004. Or, you might have wanted to use Entourage all along, but found the idea of the single-file database too scary until now.
On the other hand, if you are already happy with a different email program or system for managing contacts, calendaring, and to do lists, you likely won't find the features in Entourage so compelling that it merits the time and money necessary to switch.
The only way to purchase Entourage 2004 is as part of the full Microsoft Office suite, which lists for $400 or costs $150 for educational users; upgrades cost $240. You can also download a "test drive" version of Office 2004 (186 MB) that works for 30 days. Office 2004 requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 or higher.
Take Control of What's New in Entourage 2004 -- I've tried to give you an idea here of what's new in Entourage 2004, along with a sense of how successful these new features are. What I haven't done is tell you how to use Entourage's new capabilities; that's the topic that Tom Negrino has ably tackled in our latest Take Control ebook, "Take Control of What's New in Entourage 2004." Sure, you could wait another few months for the traditional books on Office 2004 to appear and hope that they provide the necessary coverage of Entourage's new features, but why wait? Tom looks at each of the features I've discussed here (and more), describing how they work and giving step-by-step usage instructions where appropriate, along with tips and strategies for making the most of each feature. And like all our Take Control ebooks, any minor changes we make as more information is learned about Entourage 2004 will be free to people who buy the ebook.
"Take Control of What's New in Entourage 2004" is 64 pages and costs $5. If you wish to use SpamSieve instead of Entourage's spam filtering capabilities, we've made Tom's ebook even more valuable with the inclusion of a coupon for $5 off SpamSieve at the back of the book, effectively reducing the price of the book to $0.