Entourage 2004: E-mail Enhancements and Project Organization Tool Make for a Worthy Upgrade
by Tom Negrino
If dealing with a flood of e-mail messages and the many details of your life seem to be getting harder every day, you may be craving a powerful tool to help you keep your head above water. Entourage 2004 tries to fulfill that role by becoming the center of all your informational needs, from e-mail, to your contacts and calendar, to tracking your projects. With its improved message views, better junk-mail filtering, and practical project-management tools, it mostly succeeds.
The marquee addition to Entourage is Project Center, which allows you to create and organize projects that can include information from inside and outside Entourage. In Project Center, there are seven tabs along the top of the main window that cover the project's calendar and tasks; associated e-mail messages; files (of any type -- you're not limited to Office files); contacts from Entourage's Address Book; clippings from the Office Scrapbook; Entourage Notes; and an Overview tab that shows you the current week, upcoming tasks, and recent project messages and files (see "View from a Height"). Project Center allows you to jump to any information associated with a project in a single click, whether it resides in Entourage, elsewhere on your hard drive, or on networked file servers.
The New Project Wizard steps you through creating a project, first letting you set the project name, due date (a countdown then appears in the Overview tab), and color (which makes it easier to identify project items). The wizard next creates (or you can select from existing folders) Project Watch Folders, which are Finder folders that Entourage monitors, automatically adding their files to the project. Similarly, any e-mail messages from contacts you've added to the project are automatically flagged as part of the project (or you can turn off the automation and flag items manually). You can also choose to share your project with colleagues by placing the project information on a file server or on iDisk. Entourage updates and synchronizes all participants' files every 5 minutes.
Setting up projects is easy, and Entourage makes it simple to associate files and information with projects, either automatically or by using the new Projects pop-up menu in the toolbar. But you'll only get the full use of projects if you use Entourage for all of your PIM needs; there's no integration with other PIM software such as Apple's Address Book or iCal. Even with that limitation, the new Project Center is very useful. In fact, you may find that the ability to open any document quickly from the Overview tab, instead of searching for it in the Finder, will be the part of Project Center you use the most.
Reading e-mail is easier in Entourage 2004, thanks to the new three-column view, which gives the message list its own column and puts the preview pane on the right side of the window. This often lets you see an entire message at once without needing to scroll through it.
When you're working in other applications and mail arrives, Entourage pops up a small window that shows you the mail's subject and sender and then smoothly fades away after a few seconds. If you click on the subject while the window is present, Entourage becomes active and opens the message.
You can now use Word to write your message, taking advantage of its superior formatting abilities. In Word, choosing File: Send To: Mail Recipient (As HTML) converts the Word document to HTML and creates a new message in Entourage that you can address and send. If you're not an HTML e-mail fan, however, you won't like the mail Word creates -- its extra HTML and CSS tags bloat the code.
Entourage 2004 e-mail is not without its share of minor bugs, one of which remains unfixed from Entourage X (a Mailing List Manager option to not receive copies of messages you've sent to a list still doesn't work). Another problem is that the mail list in some folders always appears scrolled to the bottom; it doesn't remember where you last left it.
Protection from Online Evil
Modern e-mail programs need robust abilities to identify and block junk e-mail, and Entourage 2004's Junk E-mail Protection feature is greatly improved over the previous version's. The Folder List has a new Junk E-mail folder, to which it routes suspected junk. As before, you can set increasingly restrictive levels of protection. The algorithms that identify junk mail are far better than those of Entourage X, whose junk-mail blocking was so weak that I needed to use a third-party spam-filtering program, which I no longer required after upgrading to Entourage 2004. Microsoft can upgrade the junk-mail filtering separately from the rest of Entourage using Office 2004's new AutoUpdate feature, so as spammers become more diabolical, Entourage should be able to keep up.
A favorite trick of spammers (and some legitimate businesses) is the Web bug, hidden within images in e-mail messages and Web pages. Simply displaying the image triggers the bug. Then the culprits can use the information it sends them to find out if and when you read a particular e-mail message; they can even discover your IP address. To protect you, Entourage 2004 no longer downloads pictures in e-mail messages immediately; instead, you click on a link in the message to display pictures if you think they're innocuous. For senders you know are safe, you can set a preference in your Address Book to always allow pictures from them.
Archive Outdated Information
When a project is over, you probably don't need to keep the folders, messages, and other items in Entourage, yet you may not want to simply delete these items in case you need them later. Entourage now allows you to export messages, tasks, contacts, notes, calendar events, and project files to a single file in a new format called an Entourage Archive. You have the option to remove the archived items from Entourage, or you can leave them there, which allows for ongoing project backups. Annoyingly, you can't archive a group of selected items (such as messages returned by a search); you're restricted to exporting items that either are part of a specific project or share a particular category.
Data Crunching and Repair
Entourage keeps its information in a database, and longtime users know that an Entourage database needs maintenance. Occasionally it becomes corrupt, requiring repair, but it's more likely to need compacting, because the database grows as you add messages, but doesn't automatically shrink when you delete information. Microsoft now supplies Database Utility, a separate application for rebuilding and compacting Entourage data. It's also easier to use than the similar facility in previous versions, and it clearly identifies database backups with the date and time.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The introduction of project organization is a natural evolution for Entourage, consolidating its data to put all the pieces of your projects within easy reach. The e-mail improvements, especially the spam filtering, make it easier than ever to handle your e-mail load. Despite a few minor bugs, Entourage 2004 will help you work more efficiently and be better organized.View from a Height In Project Center's Overview area, you can easily see how many days you have before your deadlne, upcoming events and tasks, and the latest project messages and files, which you can open with just a click.