Best alternatives to Microsoft Outlook, part I

Scott spanbauer By Scott Spanbauer

If you’re longing to leave Outlook, alternative e-mail and calendar programs could lighten the load on your wallet — and on your PC.

At least one free personal information manager replicates most of Outlook’s features and adds some handy tricks users ofMicrosoft’s PIM can only dream of.

Is your Outlook starting to look bleak?

When Microsoft Outlook debuted just over ten years ago, e-mail was still just one of those applications that we used occasionally throughout the day. Kind of like that newfangled Web thing. Today, e-mail is most PC users’ #1 application.

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Outlook was one of the first programs to integrate mail with a calendar, contacts, to-do lists, and notes into a personal information manager. Microsoft’s approach to the art of the PIM is now so finely tuned that many of us would gasp like fish stranded at high tide were it suddenly taken away.

For that very reason, I gave up using Outlook as my daily PIM last year. For one thing, I didn’t want my mail, calendar, and contacts trapped in a proprietary data file (the notoriously huge .pst file). For another, I wanted the always-available online storage that Gmail provides and the ability to see my mail, calendar, and contacts on any network-connected PC.

Dropping Outlook was actually quite painless. While it’s not always easy to get your data in and out of the program, Outlook supports standard mail-server protocols and calendaring systems. This allows you to use it with Gmail and other e-mail and Web-hosted services.

In this column and a forthcoming follow-up, I’ll look at several Outlook alternatives, starting with Mozilla Messaging’s well-known Thunderbird 2, and MemeCode Software’s less-well-known InScribe and its free sibling i.Scribe. You may not opt to leave Outlook entirely, but you might find that an alternative program serves your needs well at home and on any other PC you use.

Many e-mail readers and PIMs replicate some of Outlook’s features, but none can truly replace Outlook in every situation. Although Outlook and its competitors all support the Post Office Protocol (POP3) and Internet Message Access Procotol (IMAP) for sending mail through and retrieving messages from Internet-hosted servers, Outlook also functions as a client to Microsoft’s Exchange and Sharepoint servers. If your company relies on Exchange or Sharepoint, Outlook is the only practical solution on the client end.

Nevertheless, if you or your firm don’t rely on those Microsoft servers, nothing prevents you from switching to a different mail client. Like Outlook, competing mail clients offer such advanced features as message filtering to act on incoming messages based on addressing, content, and other criteria. They also let you sort, delete, or otherwise process messages. Most also filter spam, provide stationery, and download messages from mutiple e-mail server accounts.

Free version
More info
The best free e-mail and calendar program

Just because Mozilla makes the best Web browser, that doesn’t necessarily mean that its mail program is automatically top-notch. However, Thunderbird’s community-driven design philosophy has resulted in a mail reader that outpaces Outlook in many ways.

The most recent version (and counting) includes a bevy of features that make it a worthy competitor to Outlook. Thunderbird checks multiple POP3 and IMAP servers for new messages, filters out junk mail using Bayesian logic, sorts incoming messages using rules, and spellchecks your outgoing missives.

You can also subscribe to RSS feeds (which are not supported in Outlook prior to the most recent Outlook 2007) and newsgroups (which are not supported in any version of Outlook).

On first installing Thunderbird, potential Outlook switchers may immediately wonder, “Where’s the calendar?” Although it will not be fully integrated into Thunderbird until version 3 arrives later this year, the Lightning calendar add-in is fully functional, allowing you to view and create multiple calendars either locally, or on the Web using the iCalendar and CalDAV protocols (see Figure 1).

Mozilla's lightning calendar app integrates with the thunderbird e-mail client
Figure 1. Mozilla’s Lightning calendar app integrates with the Thunderbird e-mail client.

Another Thunderbird add-on, the Provider for Google Calendar, lets you view your Google Calendar within Lightning, and even cache a copy locally. For me, this means that wherever I go, whether or not I’m connected to the Internet, I have my appointments handy.

This extensibility via an online library of free add-ins — a concept pioneered in the Firefox browser — is precisely what makes Thunderbird unbeatable as an all-purpose PIM. Even if you don’t need the extensions that let you connect to Gmail or Google Calendar, others let you customize Thunderbird’s user interface, synchronize contacts, block ads, spell-check in foreign languages, and perform many other tasks.

$20 version
Free version
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A small, feature-rich replacement for Outlook

I have an older notebook PC (like, ten years old) running Windows XP and maxed out with a whole 192MB of memory. As you can imagine, it’s not the fastest computer around, and launching a memory-hungry application causes a noticeable performance hit. I need a mail program that’s small, but still includes key 21st century e-mail capabilities.

MemeCode’s i.Scribe fits that description nearly perfectly. The program includes a calendar and supports POP3 and IMAP e-mail protocols, mail sorting rules, and Bayesian spam filtering. The few plugins available through the company’s Web site include a spell-checker and LDAP directory support.

The program is less than a megabyte to download and doesn’t require installation into the Windows Registry, so you can just copy its folder to a removeable drive when it’s time to migrate to another PC. Best of all, on my ancient notebook i.Scribe consumes only about 11MB of memory while running. Compare this to the 60MB Thunderbird consumes. (Outlook 2003 uses almost as much memory as Thunderbird does.)

Unfortunately, i.Scribe comes with a few limitations that could make it a no-go for you: The program lets you create only one e-mail server account and only five mail-sorting filters. The U.S. $20 version of i.Scribe, called InScribe, supports an unlimited number of send and receive accounts and message filters and adds shared calendars and other groupware features.

Part II of this review will appear on Aug. 14, 2008. See you then!

Scott Spanbauer writes frequently for PC World, Business 2.0, CIO, Forbes ASAP, and Fortune Small Business. He has contributed to several books and was technical reviewer of Jim Aspinwall’s PC Hacks. Scott alternates the Best Software column each week with senior editor Ian “Gizmo” Richards.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-07-31: