Email Insights, First Take: A handy email search utility

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Email search in Outlook has certainly improved over the years, but even with options like searching for messages that are flagged or have attachments, finding exactly the message you want in a large inbox can be tricky. And it's easy to get distracted by all the other information in Outlook and lose track of what you're searching for. Windows 10 no longer searches email from the Start menu, and Cortana lost that option at some point too.

Email Insights is an experimental tool from the Microsoft Garage intended as a simple tool just for searching your email -- either Gmail or whatever email account you use with Outlook. It's Windows only (and only Windows 10 at that), and has a simple setup and minimal interface. When you install it, it asks you to pick between Outlook and Gmail, and then spends about five minutes indexing your mail and building a list of people you exchange emails with, so it can suggest names and search terms as you start to type a query.

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The Email Insights interface lets you pick which mail source to search when you launch it.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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Email Insights warns you that the full sync takes time; you can right-click in the system tray and set the app to close when syncing is finished.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The fuzzy search also handles spelling mistakes in both keywords and names; it suggests the correct spellings instead -- and even if you search for a misspelled word, it searches for the correct spelling. Outlook also suggests the correct spelling, but if you leave the wrong spelling it will look just for that. Often, the correct spelling is the one you want to look for, but on the rare occasions that you know the message you want contains a particular spelling mistake, there isn't a way to force Email Insights to search for that.

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Email Insights handles spelling mistakes -- in fact, you can't search for commonly misspelled words.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Start typing 'del' and Email Insights suggests matches from your inbox -- in my case that was a media service called Deltare and Delta Airlines, along with a couple of email contacts and several keywords. Annoyingly, double-clicking one of the search suggestions doesn't actually run the search; you still have to click the search button.

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As you type, Email Insights suggests people and keywords that match.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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We got fewer results in Email Insights than Outlook, but they were more relevant.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Picking Delta Airlines to search didn't find as many results as the same search in Outlook: it only gave me the last three messages, rather than several years of statements and offers that are less likely to be useful. And instead of putting the most recent mails at the top, the way Outlook does, it picked the message that was actually from Delta, even though it was older. If there are a lot of results, the first few will be the ones Email Insights thinks is the most relevant, colour-coded in blue, with more recent messages below.

You can narrow down results by clicking the Filter button to pick specific folders to look in. And while Email Insights doesn't have the visual search tools of Outlook, you can limit the search to sender names, or look for specific attachment names, or link details using a simple query syntax (from:<person_name>, attach:<attachment_name> and link:<link_keyword>). Searching for a URL is particularly handy when you know someone sent you a link and you have a rough idea of what website it was but can't remember who sent the message.

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Multiple tabs let you have several searches open at once, and you can read and reply to messages.

Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

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You can read the emails found by the search in the same interface, including opening a conversation thread. Expand a mail by clicking it and you can reply, forward or open Outlook to deal with the message (if you need to see attachments, for example). You can also mark messages as relevant or irrelevant, to improve future searches.

Handily, you can open multiple tabs and search in each of them, instead of losing your results if you tweak the search. This is particularly useful -- as is simply having a search that you can leave open, instead of having to close it to check what's in your inbox and not being able to get it back quickly.

You can also use Email Insights as an utterly minimal mail client; if you hit Enter without typing any search terms, you get a list of the last 25 messages, and there's a Compose email button on-screen (the other two buttons sync your mail -- handy if if you're looking for a recent message and not finding it -- and send feedback). You can also type #compose @address followed by your message to send an email and #meeting @address followed by the time to create a meeting invitation.

Email Insights also gets good marks for accessibility: there are keyboard shortcuts for pretty much all of the commands and an accessibility mode to have the results read to you.

Conclusions

As a Garage project, Email Insights has some rough edges. It crashed a number of times on one of our test systems and had to resync email briefly each time (which might be why older mails didn't show up in searches). Despite the minimalist approach, it's a handy tool, especially if you need to run multiple searches and keep the results around while you work through them. But in the long run, this isn't likely to become a product itself: Microsoft's Garage projects are about experimenting and prototyping and then moving on. The features from Email Insights might move into Office 365's web email, Outlook, Windows Mail, or even Cortana -- the ability to send a short email by typing a quick command into the Start menu could be quite handy. In the meantime, it's well worth installing as an extra utility.

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