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Outlook for iOS is now the best email client for the iPhone

For a platform that has a decent built in email app, the iPhone has a surprisingly large array of third party contenders vying for your attention. It's an interesting situation, as any casual users never really feel the need to use anything beyond the default app that Apple includes with the iPhone. But for heavy email addicts, there's an embarrassment of riches, with a number of alternative apps, each delivering their own small improvements to the email experience.

Recently, Microsoft introduced its own email client for iOS and called it Outlook to capitalize on its long history with email on the desktop. The surprising thing is that Outlook hits a home run. It's one of the best -- if not the best -- email app for iOS.

Outlook starts strong with broad support for pretty much every kind of email. Most email clients for iOS have clever features, but only support a few kinds of email. Outlook, on the other hand, gives you a universal inbox for POP, IMAP, Exchange mail, Gmail, and other common webmail services, and pushes all of it so you get notifications for all inbound email, not just Exchange mail. It's a much welcomed agnostic approach that is uncharacteristic of Microsoft.

The app has a few handy ways to filter your mail to reduce email overload. Outlook uses the concept of a "focused" inbox. For example, by default, it only displays email that it thinks is important to you (mainly messages addressed directly to you). Anything else -- newsletters, distribution lists, and notifications, for example -- are hidden unless you switch to the "Other" view. You can toggle the two views with a single tap from the inbox, so Outlook doesn't fall into the trap of other email clients that make you work hard to see email it has decided you don't need to see. There's also a Quick Filter. Again, available directly from the inbox, Quick Filter can reduce the view to just unread or flagged messages, or ones with attachments. Set to Unread and Focused, your inbox can be more streamlined than a jet aircraft. But you can revert to seeing everything with a couple of taps, and never leave the main inbox view in the process.

Microsoft gives you some handy ways to interact with your messages which noticeably improve on the default Apple experience. You can swipe any message to archive or schedule it. Swipe left and the email goes away; swipe right to essentially press the snooze button on the message. It'll reappear in your inbox a few hours later, the next day, or on any calendar day that you specify. It's nice to be able to defer messages this way, since this feature was generally only available for Gmail.

And Outlook integrates nicely with the rest of the Office suite. If you have apps like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iOS installed on your phone, email attachments can be opened directly into those programs from email messages. Outlook even helpfully indicates what program will open with some hint text under the attachment.

Microsoft has also thought through how you're likely to use this feature. Suppose you open an email message and then tap the attachment, which drops the file into Word. If you make any changes to the file and then tap to return to Outlook, the app automatically adds your edited message to a reply.

Then there are all the ways to add files to email messages. Anyone who has suffered through years of abysmal file attachments within the default iPhone mail app understands why Outlook is such a huge step forward. Outlook has a collection of "insert attachment" buttons at the bottom of the message window, and from there you can link to cloud storage (including Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox), add photos, drop a map snippet with your current location, calendar invites, and more. Inserting a file? Outlook shows you a preview before it gets attached, so you're sure you're choosing the right one. This is the way email should work all the time.

Honestly, Outlook only drops the ball in a few places, like its clumsy handling of signatures (you can create a different one for each account, but it'll add the signature to every email, including replies).

Outlook for iOS is a genuine surprise. It's a superb email client for the iPhone and iPad, packed with so many useful features that you will almost certainly want to use it as a replacement for the default mail client. Who would have thought that a Microsoft app would have such a privileged place on the iPhone?

Photo courtesy Microsoft

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