Tips and Tricks
by Richard O.
Revised July 21,
Microsoft Outlook Express, which came bundled
with Internet Explorer version 4 through 6, is except for its feeble spam
filtering an excellent email client. (Although sharing many features and
sometimes confused with Microsoft Outlook, it's an entirely different
program.) The purpose of this article is to help you get the very most
out of Outlook Express. The suggestions are directed at Windows users of
OE 6, although most will apply to other versions, or even other
email clients (like Outlook).
While "point and click" has an intuitive appeal,
power users will when possible eschew the mouse in favor of the keyboard. Using
the keyboard not only saves time, but it will allow you to clean up
your display and enjoy more work space.
Nearly everything for which you use your mouse
can be done more efficiently with the keyboard. Chances are you're already using
this first group of shortcuts, whose applicability extends well beyond Outlook
Express. See http://snipurl.com/bs3j for a more complete
- Use Ctrl-C to
copy selected text to the Windows
- Use Ctrl-X to "cut" a selection
to the Windows clipboard. (This is a
combination of copy and delete.)
- Use Ctrl-V to paste a selection
from the Windows clipboard. (Think of V
as an insert carat.)
- Use Ctrl-Right or Ctrl-Left to highlight
- Hold down Shift to make your actions cumulative.
Shift-Home and Shift-End will respectively highlight text to the start and to
the end of the line of text.
- Use Ctrl-A to select
- Use Ctrl-Z to undo an
- Use Ctrl-Y to reverse the
- Use Ctrl-S to save.
- To emphasize text in formatted messages, use
Ctrl-B for boldface and
Ctrl-I for italics.
- Use Alt-space followed by
X to expand any window to full size.
This can be particularly useful for email messages. See
"Other" Tip #2.
Following are my favorite OE keyboard shortcuts.
For more, see OE Help (press F1).
- Use Ctrl-M to receive incoming
mail (and send any mail in the Outbox).
- Use Ctrl-N to compose a new
- Use Ctrl-I to return to the
- Use the Delete
key to delete a message.
- Use Ctrl-R to
reply to a message.
- Use Ctrl-F to
forward a message.
- Use Alt-S to
send a message.
- Use Enter to open a message,
after moving to it with the up or down key.
- Use Esc to close a
- Use F3 to find a word or phrase
within a message.
- Use Ctrl-Y to open another
folder. (Think of Y as a tree with two branches as
folders.) Press the letter-key of the folder name's initial -- as, b for
Business Items, f for family, etc. If necessary, press again.
- Use Shift-Ctrl-F to open the
Advanced Find menu, with which you can locate any message with ease.
(Then use Alt-B to browse to the
folder of your choice. ) See "Other" Tip
Users who save messages in the Inbox
are asking for trouble. Filing them in folders you create not only
markedly eases message retrieval, but it minimizes the risk
of corruption of the Inbox (which could result in your losing access to
all those messages).
Like a politician with flexible opinions,
your Inbox is highly corruptible, since it changes so much. Try to keep no
more messages there than you can view without scrolling. Doing this will not
only be safer but will help considerably with message handling.
To create a new folder you'll have to open the
Folder List, and then right-click on the folder that's the parent of the new
Tip: Creating a hierarchical
folder structure (with sub-folders) will ease the task of finding a
message later, since (unless you uncheck the relevant box) a search will apply
to the designated folder and its sub-folders. Drag and drop sub-folders within the folder list, as
If you regularly
receive predictable messages that don't require your immediate attention, you
may wish to use OE's Message Rules to force those messages to
bypass the Inbox entirely. In the OE toolbar, go to Tools and then
Options. You can also use Message Rules as an easy way to move en masse
messages already received, with the "Apply Now" instruction.
The corruption danger to the Sent Items
folder stems from
its size. Exceeding about 2,000 messages in any folder is hazardous. A good plan
is to set up (as a sub-folder under Sent Items) a separate folder for each
previous year's sent messages, to hold messages you've moved from Sent Items. Or
you might be able to speed up OE by archiving older messages in a different
location; for instructions on doing that, go to http://snipurl.com/fule
You customize the Outlook Express interface via the Layout
dialog box under View in the OE toolbar. Proceeding
from top to bottom, here are my suggestions:
- Contacts. You'll probably want this checked.
This will permit you to have a narrow column on the side listing your
address book contacts, and to initiate an outgoing message to any of them by
double-clicking the name.
- Folder Bar. This should be unchecked. A
pure waste of space, it serves only to duplicate in larger type the current
- Folder List. If you frequently add, rename, or remove
folders, and you don't have your Contacts List displayed by default, you might
want to check this option. Otherwise, leave it unchecked.
(You can always toggle it on by clicking the folder
Tip: If you do leave it unchecked, open it now (by
clicking on the icon), and drag your Contacts down to the very bottom. (Then
close the Folder List.) That way, when you have occasion to open your Folder
List, your Contacts won't get in the way.
- Outlook Bar. This enables point-and-click navigation to
folders. If you have the Folder List enabled, the Outlook Bar is superfluous.
If you don't have the Folder List enabled, it's still superfluous,
since you can more easily switch folders with Ctrl-Y. Leave it
- Status Bar. Useful. Check it.
- Toolbar. Can be useful. Check
- Views Bar. Rarely useful. Leave it
- Preview Pane. It's really important to leave this
unchecked. Enabling the preview pane invites computer
infections that may accompany HTML messages. Displaying a message "preview"
has the same security implications as opening the message. (If you've
configured OE to receive all messages unformatted, the preview pane may be
enabled without a problem.)
Tip: When you're uncertain about
opening a message, you can read it safely via its source code, by
pressing Alt-Enter while highlighting the message.
The Layout dialog box will also invite you to customize the OE
toolbar. To save space you'll want to choose "No text labels," and
display no more icons on your toolbar than will fit on the same line
with the text links like File, Edit, View, etc. (which can't be
hidden). On my system I've hidden all the icons except those for Address Book
and Folders. You can eliminate the Address Book icon if you use the
Just as you maintain your car to keep it performing well, you
need to properly maintain your email client.
To keep OE working as efficiently as possible and to prevent folder
corruption, compact your folders every two or three weeks. But
you should not be compacting while you're online or doing other work, or
(ironically) the compacting process itself may cause corruption!
Windows operating system predates XP, Windows will by default, unfortunately,
enable just that. That is, it will schedule compacting to be performed in the
background. So the first thing for you to do is reverse that setting, which you
can get to via the OE toolbar [Tools>Options>Maintenance].
To compact safely and efficiently, follow these steps in
- Clear Deleted Items [toolbar Edit menu].
- Go offline [File menu].
- Move to the OE mother folder ("Outlook Express") with Ctrl-Y.
- Make sure your Folder List is not displayed.
- Start compacting [File>Folder>Compact All Folders].
- During the compaction, refrain from using your computer.
Out of the box, OE's spam filtering depends entirely on your creation of
Message Rules. (OE toolbar-->Tools-->Options) Your rules will tell OE when
to divert an incoming message from your Inbox, generally on the basis of
of which a good starter list is here
. You can also create rules that will not divert
messages but color-code
them. This is handy when you think an incoming
be spam, but you still want to see it before deleting it.
See "Other" Tip #6.
If some of your rules might conflict with each other, bear in mind
these two points:
- OE processes the rules according to the order in which they appear. The
last rule triggered is the one OE uses.
- Each rule will give you the option to "stop processing more rules" upon
Whitelist selected senders. It's a simple matter to override all
other rules and route selected senders' messages to your Inbox. Create a rule
specifying the senders, with the action, "Stop processing more rules." Then use
the "Move Up" button (just above the Rule Description). Your whitelist rule
should be ahead of all rules diverting messages, but
behind any rules color-coding
Don't bother with the Block Sender
instruction, as it cannot be overridden by your whitelist, and these
instructions are generally ineffective against spammers anyway.
Hint 1: If you're going to create a rule on the basis of an
objectionable message, don't delete the message first, but use the Apply Now
option, and then note whether the message is gone. Following this procedure will
weed out typos that could defeat your rule.
Hint 2: Although OE's message rules as spam filters are fine as
far as they go, they're effective only against a small portion of spam. For
more sophisticated spam filtering, consider either of the following:
- Gizmo Richards recommends SPAMfighter,
specifically designed for Outlook Express and Outlook. Richards tested
SPAMfighter on 1100 emails, of which 69% were spam, and found a detection rate
of 93.9%. Even better, he found zero emails falsely classified as
spam. The program will work on Windows ME and later.
- An entirely free solution is to open a Gmail account, have your incoming mail sent
to that account, and instruct Gmail to forward a copy of such mail to your
primary account (for which you use Outlook Express). Gmail's spam filtering is
first-rate. This method has the additional advantage of giving you an
automatic backup of all your sent and received messages. More about Gmail here.
Other Tips and
- Take full advantage of the Signature option
[Tools>Options>Signatures]. Along with your phone number and
the URL of your website (if you have one), it's a good idea to include your
email address, since it's not always appropriate for correspondents to use the
You can save emailing time by including in your
Signature your salutation! Just start the closing 4 lines below the
salutation, and for each message, fill in the message body (after skipping a
line) in the blank space. For example, your salutation might be "Hello xxx,"
with the name of the recipient to be filled in later. The signature
proper or closing (perhaps starting with "Best wishes," or whatever you
choose) should begin 4 lines down.
makes it easy to alter your signature depending on the time of year. For
example, you could change "Best wishes" to "Best holiday wishes" by copying
and pasting your original signature as your "Signature #2," inserting the
word, "holiday," and selecting the altered signature to be your new default
(until the holiday season passes).
- Use a good width for your messages. If you leave your
messages at full screen or anything close to it, reading them will be
difficult. On the other hand, many HTML messages will be partially
hidden if your message window is too narrow. A good compromise is to
use about 60% to 65% of your screen width, which you can
implement by dragging the side borders. (Windows will adjust to your
preference.*) Expect to have to maximize the message screen on occasion; use
Alt-Space + x for that purpose.
*To lock in your
new borders at once, open a blank new message and immediately close it after
dragging the borders to your preference.
- Use the Advanced Find dialog [Shift-Ctrl-F] to locate
messages quickly, but don't be confused by OE's quirky terminology. Microsoft
uses "before" to mean "on or before," and "after" to mean "on or after." Thus,
a message received "before" 12/5 and also "after" 12/5 will have been received
If you don't know in which folder to look, choose the
"Outlook Express" folder using your Home key. All other folders will then be
included in your search, since by default sub-folders are
- Use the message subject line as it was intended. Few
things are more annoying than a subject line that reads "From Joe," or is
otherwise unhelpful. Properly crafted subject lines will
moreover increase the likelihood that your messages will (a) pass
through spam filters and (b) be opened by the
Liberally change the default subject line in your reply
messages, when appropriate, to a completely new subject line. This will be
useful to the perhaps clueless recipient, and especially to you, both in
getting your message the proper attention and in enabling you to locate it
easily in the future.
Use pre-tags like REQ, FYI, or URGENT. Use a
subject followed by [eom] as the entire message, to save the
recipient from opening a message only to find just a few words from you in the
body. (This technique is especially handy for thank-yous.)
If you reply
twice to the same message, some email programs will proliferate the Re:
(as Re: Re: xxx). If that's not the case, add
(2) to the more recent subject line, so the recipient won't discard
it as a duplicate.
- You're no doubt familiar with the use of the Bcc: field
to send mail to multiple recipients without revealing their identities to each
other. But what do you enter in the To: field? Just
add to your address book a suitably named new contact with your own email
address. For example, if you want to send a message to certain members of
the ABC club, the contact name (with your email address) could be
"Certain ABC club members," and you'd fill the To: field
accordingly. A side benefit is that you'd get an immediate confirmation that
the message was properly sent, usually in your Inbox (depending on your ISP)
and always in your Sent Items.
- Use OE as a simple reminder system. Create a message with
the subject, "To Do" (or any other subject you choose), and type each entry on
a separate line, with a blank line in between. Leave the "To" field empty.
Then save the message, and move it from Drafts to your Inbox with right
click + V.
The list will then stay in your Inbox even after
you've made and saved changes. It may move up or down depending on what other
messages appear, but you can if you like use OE's flag function to set it
apart. Or instead of flagging, you can apply a color for that purpose
with OE's Message Rules (under Tools>Options), using "Apply
(Re-saving the message will necessitate reapplying the flag or
the color. On the upside, re-saving will move the message to the bottom,
unless you've enabled a different sort order.)
To be reminded
later, use a free Web app like Time Cave [www.timecave.com], which will send you a message
you compose on the date you specify.
- With the current aggressiveness of spam filters, it's a good idea to
send your messages in plain text in most cases. Spam filters
will rarely block plain-text (unformatted) mail. In OE, go to
Tools>Options>Send>Mail Sending Format, and check "Plain
Text." To format the text in a particular message, click "Format" or press
Alt-O, and choose Rich Text.
- If by default you send formatted (HTML or "rich text") messages, you'll
want to allow for those few recipients who cannot easily read
formatted text. These may include users of very old AOL versions
(before v. 6), and users of MSN TV or Web TV. In OE it's very easy to remove
such recipients from the default, if your access to them is via the Windows
Address Book. Just right-click the contact name to go to Properties, and then
go to Edit. A check box on the Edit screen can force plain-text emails to that
- Don't risk sending a message before you're ready. It might not be polished
to your satisfaction, or you might not be sure you want to send it at all!
It's all too easy to press Alt-S (or click Send) too soon.
To minimize the risk, fill in the subject line last. OE
will require confirmation before sending a message without a subject
- Use OE drafts as templates (boilerplates), for messages
you need to send repeatedly with only slight variation. Once they're saved, OE
will store these in the Drafts folder, but you can move them to folders you
create (right click + V), optionally as sub-folders of
Hint 1: Assign each boilerplate message two
subjects. Type the normal subject--what the recipient will see--in the
subject filed as usual. The other subject will be what you'll use to
distinguish one boilerplate from another, and you'd type that in the To:
field (to be later replaced, of course, by the recipient's email
address). If you need to associate notes with a particular template, post
those notes in the Cc: or Bcc: field. (OE won't let you forget to erase them
Hint 2: In place of the recipient's name in a
boilerplate, instead of a real word like NAME, use a made-up
word like firstname or xxx. Then, before sending, your
spellcheck program will remind you to substitute the name. (Be sure to use
lower-case, in case your spellcheck program ignores uppercase.) If
you don't have a spellcheck program installed, a good free one is available at
- Don't open attachments, unless you're expecting the
attachment and need to view it. Attachments from well-meaning friends and
associates can carry computer infections. And attachments are by far the most
common means of spreading those infections. You can't rely on your anti-virus
program, which cannot catch newer viruses not yet analyzed. In most cases
attachments are entirely unnecessary, as the information can be included in
the body of the message.
(If you feel you must open attachments even
occasionally, I recommend you instead use a viewer program that will allow you
to view attachments without opening
Don't send attachments, unless you
absolutely have to, for the reasons outlined above, and also because opening
an attachment unnecessarily is simply annoying. In nearly all cases an
attachment's contents can instead be included in, or appended to, the body of
the email. If an attachment is truly necessary, it's a good practice to first
get the recipient's okay.
Violating this rule by sending your
resume as an attachment (when not so requested) will almost guarantee
that it won't be seen.
Richard Johnson is a writer and editor, and
founder/administrator of NotBarter.com,
The Los Angeles Skills Pool.
The author provides Outlook Express support at no charge to NotBarter.com members.