April 6, 2000

Outpost for Outlook:
Managing Messages

-- Tom Henderson

From its onset '97 version to the present 2000 release, Outlook has always had promise, but it suffers the problem of a product built by committee: It's featured to death. It's an email package, a contact manager, a forms system, a front-end to Windows, a calendaring system, and when connected to MS Exchange, a rudimentary workgroup package that tries to be many other things. The number of checkboxes alone that are required to configure Outlook are reason enough to take a product manager out back for a healthy spanking.

It's a customizing world out there, and the permutations are blistering. My confession is that I use it, over many different packages, and because of its inclusion within Microsoft Office (and its smaller cousin Outlook Express being part of the Windows operating system), Outlook is used by millions.

Nelson Organizer is designed to re-arrange and augment Outlook. It's the result of one person's idea that there had to be a better way to organize Outlook. Although I don't know this for a fact, I'll bet that he had some of the same disgust that I do: While a feature-rich, do-everything tool, Outlook can be profoundly frustrating and wickedly slow to perform what ought to be simple tasks. No matter that I'm a packrat and have at least 16,000 messages in storage.

Installing The Nelson Organizer is simple, but installation is a task undertaken when you've got time to let a machine alone for a while. The program indexes the Personal STorage (.PST) file(s) used with Outlook, and these files can run into very high storage-and therefore long indexing times. My personal Outlook PST files approach 400MB. My slower machine (a Sony VAIO Picturebook with a 266MHz MMX CPU) took about twenty minutes to chomp through the 350MB PST file. On Howitzer, my white-box 650MHz Athlon clone, the same process took half the time, but with twice the memory (128MB vs. the Sony's 64MB). Used with a skeletal PST file ingestion of 15MB, The Nelson Organizer can take as little as a couple of moments. Afterwards, synchronization always re-starts from the beginning as the program uses PST data rather than creating a separate index of its own.

This design-using PST data instead of the creation of a separate indexing system-seems on the surface to be a good idea. There are fewer system resources used when two apps (Outlook and TNO) work together. After the installation process synchronizes its file with the PST file, The Nelson Organizer runs in conjunction with or in lieu of Outlook. I could switch back between the two at any time.

Outlook Redone

The Nelson Organizer arranges the contents of Outlook and its personal store into several views: Hot, Correspondence, Bulk Mail, Date, Attachment, and Search. The Hot View reorganizes messages into time categories that expose aggregate message activity called Hot sorted by progressive time starting with Today. Then like the IE4/5 History file, messages are grouped into today, yesterday, then by choice of weeks or specific date ranges. Folders are accessible in this view, and a preview pane exists for each message. Folders and other Outlook objects such as appointments are made hot by simply pressing Ctrl-H as a mark on the item.

The Correspondent view lists all of the senders and recipients of mail in alphabetical order by email or caption name. This is something that Outlook is incapable of doing without writing extensive VB script. Correspondents with unread or acted-upon messages are highlighted in bold with the number of items outstanding. It's particularly useful when searching for obtuse or strangely spelled correspondent information to act upon within the message base.

Bulk Mail view is more curious.

OK, I'll admit it-I'm an email packrat like many others who live with their notebook PCs as the repository for most all of their work activities. Like many people, I receive about 60 business and 40 personal emails per day. This doesn't cover the spam that arrives from not one, but seven email boxes (at last count).

The Nelson Organizer does a respectable job of trying to identify what's bulk mail. You can fiddle with the rules, but you may not need to do so-just check the folder once in a while to see what's new. The biggest filter that dumps mail into the Bulk Mail folder is when you aren't the designated recipient of the message. It's lovely. My nascent regret is that it doesn't take the spam, wad it up, and throw it in the Recycle Bin.

Why To Buy

If there's a single feature that would make me want to buy this product, it is that the message search engine is near instantaneous-when The Nelson Organizer is correctly synchronized to the Outlook PST file. This means that if you run them together, or use Nelson as your "front-end" application, it's simple to completely and forever abandon the miscreant Find function of Outlook. If you have gnashed your teeth and wailed over doing a Find or Advanced Find inside of Outlook (and that's likely everyone), imagine keyword searches that are as fast as you can click or hit the key. It's that good. It's so impressively fast over the internal Outlook search engine as to make a laughingstock of Outlook.

There are two other reasons that it's handy: The Nelson Organizer has a tab with attachments and another tab with messages sorted into date folders. I used the attachment tab to look at the incredible bulk of my attachments and the messages that they're attached to, then to sort them by size. Ridding the messages that were no longer needed and were fattening up my PST file was incredibly simple. Using the date tab was another way of allowing me to tidy up my voluminous message base-and get rid of trash quickly. Note that the messages aren't deleted-just the attachments. This doesn't necessarily shrink the size of the PST file.

The Bugs and Strange Behavior

The user interface is easy to use, but is mouse-driven. If you want to select a message that you've found in one of the sorts, you can't use the key to open it; it must be opened with the mouse or pointing device, or a CTRL-O. This is slightly different than the way the UI works on Outlook 9X/2000.

The Nelson Organizer uses a lot of resources and can't easily be substituted for some of the other personal information manager (PIM) features of Outlook. This is a mail front-end and manager. Heavy Outlook non-email feature users will be dismayed, although flipping back and forth between the two apps (Outlook and Nelson) is a simple mouse click. The program also uses your hard drive a lot when messages arrive, and when I used Nelson on slower hardware, I could tell when a message was arriving just by the amount of hard disk clunking sounds. When a spate of messages arrives, there were moments when either Outlook or The Nelson Organizer both were unavailable until the sort activity ended when I used the larger of the two PST files.

Running The Nelson Organizer under Windows 2000 exhibited other bugs, including one that caused a runtime error to be spawned upon exit, when I used the larger of the two PST files. A new version is arriving, perhaps by the time you read this, that the vendor says cures a lot of the bugs. It was important for me to remember that this is a dot-zero release (actually 1.0.046), and therefore a bug-magnet. I never lost any data with any bugs, but ended up scratching my head a few times. I have high hopes for the next release; I don't recommend the current one on Windows 2000 Professional.

The Bottom Line

I stopped using The Nelson Organizer for a week to see if I could live without it. Because I used other features in Outlook, I can't use Nelson alone-it doesn't replace Outlook. The Nelson Organizer is somewhat slow in retaining synchronization on huge personal stores, but its access is lightning fast, and an embarrassment to Microsoft. There is no Inbox in The Nelson Organizer; it isn't necessary and therefore isn't part of the product philosophy. I started using it again, and am glad I did; I eagerly await the new version.


Article appeared in the reviews section of WinMag.com on April 6, 2000.