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Optimizing and troubleshooting Outlook for Mac OS X

Update Feb 2015: Are you using Outlook 2015 for OS X? Read the note at the bottom.

I’m a Mac user. And Outlook for Mac makes me sad. That’s because, when compared to its Windows counterpart, Outlook for OS X (aka Outlook 2011) is an underperformer.

Maybe it’s because the Windows version was built in the same shop as the Exchange service. Or maybe Microsoft has an understandable bias to Windows. Regardless, us Apple lovers pay the price. In fact, Microsoft’s own knowledge base says that Mac users may see performance issues if they receive as few as 30 emails per day.

Some of the difference can be attributed to how each client connects to the Exchange server. I’m going to explain this. And, if you’re having Outlook OS X performance issues (if it freezes, crashes, or forces you to rebuild your Microsoft User identity), I’m going to offer some tips for getting Outlook 2011 performing at a higher level.

Outlook connection methods: Windows vs. OS X

Most Windows users connect to Exchange via RPC/HTTP(s), aka Outlook Anywhere. This proprietary protocol was made specifically for Outlook for Windows and the Exchange server.  Its main advantage is that the complexity of the connection is a lot lower. Fewer moving parts means sturdier and faster connection.

There’s another protocol for connecting to Exchange servers: EWS (Exchange Web Services). This one is built around Web Services, which allows most platforms to build clients to utilize it. OS X cannot use RPC/HTTP(s), so Outlook for OS X uses EWS, which is the best available method.

EWS is more complex than RPC/HTTP(s). There are more moving parts required to make the connection smooth. It requires more overhead. And it’s slower.

If you’re a Mac user, you probably know this all too well.

How to optimize Outlook for OS X

Once you have a sense of the underlying protocol differences, you might think the situation is dire. But as a Mac user, there are things you can do to make things easier for you.

There are two categories I am going to concentrate on: mailbox size and disk health.

Mailbox size: Outlook optimization category #1

With Outlook for OS X, we’ve seen a direct relationship between mailbox size and client performance: the larger the mailbox grows, the more Outlook’s performance will suffer. It often comes to the point where your data gets corrupted and needs to be entirely rebuilt.

So, of the two optimization categories, mailbox size is far more impactful. It’s especially valuable if you’re a power user or you have a fairly large mailbox.

  1. Set a shorter mail retention policy. Outlook for OS X doesn’t like big mailboxes. So set a policy to delete messages that are, say, 90 or 180 or 360 days old. This will keep Outlook lighter and, thus, speedier. (The downside, of course, is that you lose all your old messages). If you’re an Intermedia customer, here’s guidance on setting a retention policy using HostPilot.

  1. Archive your mail without deleting it. EWS clients such as Outlook for Mac tend to communicate a lot more with the server because the connection type is not as efficient as their Window’s kin. The smaller the mailbox, the easier the communication. If you set up an email archiving policy on your sent or deleted items, you can remove your mail from the Exchange server, but keep it accessible on your local hard drive. This improves Outlook performance because it has fewer items to sync with the server. Here’s how to set up client-side archiving.

Please note: this is not the same thing as compliant email archiving.

If neither of these options work for you, we have a few more tips in our Outlook for OS X best practices in our Knowledge Base. But the two tips above are by far the most effective for reducing mailbox size and thus making Outlook more stable.

Disk Health: Outlook optimization category #2

Outlook for OS X loves to use your hard drive. Not only does it store all your mailbox data on your computer, but it also relies heavily on hard drive operations to review all the objects in your mailbox and confirm that they match the server. In addition, it reads your disk and verifies with the Exchange server every time you touch an object in your mailbox.

Because of this, your Mac’s disk health has a big impact on Outlook performance. So here are a few tips.

  1. Free up some space. Your hard drive will perform better when it has fewer items to sort through. In fact, disk performance tends to degrade significantly around 80% capacity. Here’s some guidance from Apple on increasing your disk space. If you want to see how much space you have, use the Disk Utility (located in Applications > Utilities).

  1. Upgrade to flash memory. Newer Macs use flash memory, which offers the latest and greatest in disk performance. If your hard drive is the cause of hardware performance problems, consider upgrading to a new machine with flash memory.
  2. Switch to OWA. If all else fails, give up on Outlook and start using the Outlook Web App (OWA). If you’re running Exchange 2013, OWA contains all of the features as the desktop version of Outlook—but, because it’s web-based, doesn’t have any performance issues. It even has an offline mode! If you’re an Intermedia customer, log into OWA here.

Update for Outlook 2015 (Added February, 2015)

So the version of Outlook for Mac—Outlook 2015— is here. The big question: will it perform better than Outlook 2011?

The jury is still out. However, I can tell you this: Outlook 2015 is still using the Exchange Web Services (EWS) protocol. This means it is still not as robust as Outlook  for Windows.

Microsoft does claim there is a performance improvement, mainly based off database improvements that they’ve made. Instead of their old proprietary format, Outlook 2015 is using SQLite, which is a quicker and more compact database engine. Its source code is public domain, which means Microsoft has the rights to tweak in ways that optimize it for Outlook.

Another exciting update is that Microsoft claims to have removed the latency between e-mail delivery caused by EWS. This is in part due to the fact that Outlook 2015 will have push e-mail delivery, which allows it deliver emails instantly, similar to how Facebook message notifications appear the moment the message is received.

Here’s the good news: you can try it for yourself. Outlook 2015 can run side-by-side with Outlook 2011, so you can give it a test drive without fully committing to it.

Want to talk to us about Outlook for OS X?

If you’re an Intermedia customer, we’d be happy to talk to you about any Outlook performance issues you might be having. Call us at (800) 379-7729.

If you’re not an Intermedia customer, learn more about Intermedia’s Hosted Exchange—which, by the way, is extremely Mac-friendly. Ask us about free expert migration and a 30-day risk-free trial.

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About Ryan Chau

Ryan Chau oversees the technical support team at Intermedia. He has nearly ten years of support experience.