The new Outlook search bar might leave you feeling adrift without a paddle

If you use the Outlook desktop program for Windows, the search bar is going to change and move around and grow and grow and grow like a mutant chicken heart from an old horror movie. And just like the monster, you can’t stop it. (Cue spooky soundtrack music.)

Microsoft is changing the position of the search bar as part of a grand vision that expands Microsoft Search into a universal tool that encompasses web and enterprise data in addition to our own stuff, and uses AI to make our searches so smart that we get over our initial feelings of annoyance.

Not yet for me. I’m still pretty annoyed.

What is changing about the Outlook search bar?

Outlook search bar at the top, on the title bar

If you’re a long-time Outlook user, then click in the screenshot above to search for a message in my mailbox. Don’t think about it, just use muscle memory, you’ve done it a million times.

Yeah, see, that’s the problem. The search box isn’t there. See it up at the top? Above the ribbon, on the title bar. That’s the new home for the search bar.

Outlook search bar - initial dropdown box

When you click on it, a box drops down with a selection of options – “suggested searches,” searches for a few people that you’ve dreamed about recently, and “Suggested Actions” in Outlook. There is also a section of “Recent Searches,” which amuses me tonight because I can’t actually click on anything listed there. Apparently, they’re only listed to inspire nostalgic memories.

Several things come to mind about that box, that very large box.

But let’s start with the Suggested Actions. In the above screenshot, my Suggested Actions are Search Tools, Address Book, and Filter Email. I don’t recall clicking on any of those things in the last decade. What are those doing there?

You might not have realized it but Outlook has had two search boxes for a while now. In addition to the familiar box to search your mail, there is a second search box labeled “Tell me what you want to do.” When you type what you’re trying to accomplish in plain English, the programs do a very smart search and lead you right to the answer. It’s a friendly and well-designed help system.

My guess is that no one used it, so it’s been combined with the other search box so that all searches are done in one place. Keep it in mind when you need help with an Outlook feature. Why, here’s an example from the new search bar.

I typed in “how do I boldface a word,” and a pane opened on the right to point me to an explanation of “Linear format equations using Unicode Math and LaTeX.”

Okay, maybe that’s not a very good example.

When will you see the new Outlook search bar?

Lord, beats the hell out of me. It began rolling out in October 2019 to people in the Office Insiders preview program. If you have a Coming Soon switch in the upper right corner, you might be able to toggle back and forth between old and new search bars, at least for a while.

The new search bar is a permanent part of the most recent Office release, but I don’t know when you’ll get that. I had reason to reinstall Office from scratch a few days ago and I got the new search bar.

Expect to see the new search bar at some point between last month and next November. Possibly earlier and definitely maybe later. Or never. Tomorrow. It’s Microsoft update roulette!

What are the advantages of the new Outlook search bar?

Consistency. The biggest reason for this change is to make the search box in desktop Outlook consistent with Outlook online ( and Office 365 webmail), and with the other Office programs.

Faster searches. Microsoft says the search engine has been improved. I don’t have any evidence or feedback about this yet. There was room for improvement in the integration between searches of content on your computer and content stored online in Office 365 mailboxes and archives.

Outlook searches - better access to field searches

Better access to field searches. This is a big deal. The dropdown arrow by “Current Mailbox” on the right side of the search bar opens a window to search different fields. This kind of search was possible with the old search bar, but it was not easy to discover. You can search TO: or FROM: names, or search only for words in the subject or body of messages. There’s a particularly useful option to search only for words contained within attachments to messages, rather than in the messages themselves.

What are the problems with the new Outlook search bar?

It’s very large. The box that started dropping down from the old search bar was already so large that it covered the first few messages in the list underneath it. That’s been a problem for a while. Drives my wife crazy.

Some of you, though, have gotten used to clicking in the old search bar and then using buttons on the Search ribbon above it.

When you click in the new search bar, the box that comes down covers most of the ribbon. The buttons are still there but you can’t see them.

My guess is that Microsoft believes we don’t need the ribbon any more because everything we need is in the dropdown box. And all it takes is a tap on the Esc key to make the dropdown box disappear, so what are we whining about, anyway?

We’re whining because (1) we’re used to the ribbon and we hate change, and (2) shut up.

Extra clicks With the old familiar search bar, it takes two clicks to switch between searching Current Mailbox and Current Folder. With the new search bar, it takes five clicks. (Click on the search bar / click on the down arrow by Current Mailbox / click on the next down arrow by Current Mailbox / click on Current Folder / hit Enter to run the search and dismiss the box.)

I’m not alone in wriggling with irritation about little things like that.

Search as you type no longer works You’d see results immediately as you typed in the old search bar. The new search bar doesn’t start a search until you hit the Enter key.

It doesn’t matter because the dropdown box would cover the search results anyway because it’s a freaking big box.

Limited options to paste into search box This one is a bit weird. If you copy some text, you can’t right-click and hit Paste with the next search box. You have to use Ctrl-V to paste the text. Similarly, you can’t drag and drop text from messages into the new search box.

Inconsistency There’s some history for this one, but it’s still weird.

If you don’t want to reach for the top bar, you can get the cursor in the search bar if you use the keyboard shortcut to start a search.

Do you know what the keyboard shortcut is? Let’s build the suspense.

If you’re in Word or Excel or Chrome or every other Windows program since the beginning of time, you start a search by hitting Ctrl-F, right? F stands for Find. It’s holy writ. It’s passed down by genetic memory. It’s in cave paintings.

If you hit Ctrl-F in Outlook, it forwards a message. Seriously. I didn’t know that. It’s the weirdest thing. I kept thinking I was making a mistake.

The shortcut to start a search in Outlook is Ctrl-E, because Microsoft.

Keep an eye on the search bar so you’re not frightened when it starts moving around. We’ll get used to it. It’s just a search box. At this point, we’re used to arbitrary changes to familiar programs, right?

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