Microsoft's latest update to its free Internet email client for the Macintosh, Outlook Express (OE) 5 Macintosh Edition, has bestowed Macintosh users with a collection of usability, productivity, and management features that are much improved over those of Version 4.5. With the exception of a few bugs, the beta version I reviewed is fairly solid. The final version will be available for download later this Autumn.

OE 5 still lags slightly behind Netscape Messenger with respect to creating and sending HTML documents with graphics and tables; however, OE 5 does improve on many features that both its Windows counterpart and Messenger lack. Notable improvements include a redesigned Address Book; an enhanced Address AutoComplete function; and simplified setup and configuration of multiple accounts. The new release also introduces brand-new features unique to Mac OS, such as an advanced search feature that outshines Messenger's version, a Junk Mail Filter to control spam, a Mailing List Manager, and integration with Palm OS devices.

As with Version 4.5, installation of OE 5 is a snap. After you've dragged the folder to the hard disk and launched the application, OE 5 will import all your data from Version 4.5, as well as that from Messenger or Qualcomm's Eudora program. Setting up accounts is simplified, thanks to the new Setup Assistants. Similar to its Windows counterpart, OE 5 supports Post Office Protocol (POP), Internet Message Access Protocol, and Microsoft MSN Hotmail accounts.

OE 5 now supports One Key Read, a feature available in both Messenger and Outlook Express for Windows, which enables users to skim quickly through an inbox without having to use a mouse. Another noticeable improvement is an enhanced QuickFind field that automatically filters messages in your inbox on the basis of text strings. This feature works on both email and newsgroups. The beta version I tested didn't have the advanced search feature working, but when the product ships, you should be able to enter multiple criteria to locate email or newsgroup messages.

Another handy feature taken from the Windows version is the capability to flag a message. This provides a way to quickly mark messages that you don't want to see within a potentially long inbox. Another useful feature unique to the Macintosh Edition is a new icon that displays the server status. In preferences, you can choose to have mail remain on your POP server and this new icon appears if a message is sitting on the server.

While reading mail within the inbox, you can now increase the message size with a click of a button as well as apply automatic text rewrap. This feature can save you time by not having to open messages in separate windows. Drag-&-drop features still abound: You can easily move messages from one account folder to another, select single or multiple messages and drag them to a subfolder, or drag and drop message header information into the Address Book. Other enhancements include full contextual mouse operations while working within an inbox. For example, it is simple to add a sender's email address to your Address Book.

Another helpful feature when sending documents to Windows users is the capability for OE 5 to append a DOS extension. This way, when the message is received, a Windows user can immediately open the attachment from within his or her email application.

Using the beta version, I could not get Outlook Express to integrate with my PalmPilot, but by the time OE 5 ships, you should have the option of setting preferences that will let you synchronize contacts from the Address Book to a Palm device. You will not, however, be able to synchronize your messages. The synchronization will achieve conflict resolution allowing you to maintain the most current information on both Outlook Express and your Palm device. You will also have the option of having Outlook Express overwrite your Palm database, or vice versa.

Some of the best enhancements by far are the message-composing features. With the new Address AutoComplete feature, when you choose to create a new message, a new tabbed dialog box pops up requesting you to enter a recipient's name. The AutoComplete feature is integrated with the Address Book and automatically completes addresses as you begin to type characters. These can be nicknames, email addresses, or first or last names. When a recipient has multiple email addresses, a cascading menu displaying choices appears. When sending email to groups, double-clicking the icon displays a window listing each recipient - particularly helpful when you don't remember who's in a specific group.

Although you can toggle between plain text and HTML formatting, OE 5 lacks the capability of creating a message with graphics and HTML tables; nor can you insert a Web page into your message. Still, if you're using the latest version of QuickTime, when dragging an image into your message, the new Smart Attachment feature now expands, showing the attached graphic, which you can view prior to sending. By default, the application is configured to use AppleDouble encoding, which is preferable for most cross-platform users.

Despite improved text formatting via the new icon that toggles between plain text and HTML formatting, Outlook Express still falls short compared to Netscape Messenger's excellent formatting capabilities. Unlike Messenger, OE 5 still lacks the capability to send and receive encrypted messages.

It's clear that Microsoft needs to work out some bugs before finalizing this version. On occasion, the application crashed; drag-and-drop functions need polish; AppleScript support isn't fully operational, and it doesn't fully coexist with Microsoft Office 98. Still, I found that the majority of the new features worked as expected, at least well enough to evaluate how the new update will work. I welcome the improvements and appreciate Microsoft's dedication to keeping the memory footprint small, while evolving the application to work like a Mac application should.

This latest upgrade to Microsoft's free Mac OS-based Internet e-mail client is mostly on par with its Windows counterpart. Mac users will appreciate the productivity enhancements. Once bugs are ironed out, this version will outperform Version 4.5 and will be well worth the update.