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We explain what’s really going on with AutoArchive and why you might not want to use it at all.

Yesterday, Kara Monroe gave a great summary of Outlook’s AutoArchive feature, which is an automatic way to move older messages and items to a separate Outlook PST file.

Now it’s my duty to explain what’s really going on with AutoArchive and why you might not want to us it at all.

I don’t want you to think I’m cynical about Microsoft’s motives but AutoArchive was, in part, a response to complaints about the performance of Outlook once people started using it regularly. The program, combined with hardware and operating system, put a lot of strain on resources especially when you have a lot of information stored in your Outlook data file.

Anyone who adopted Outlook wholeheartedly found the program lumbering under the strain of all those emails, appointments, tasks and notes. At worst, Outlook would fail because the PST file had reached its, then, maximum size.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that faster computers, more memory and Windows XP has meant that Outlook can now cope better with larger amounts of data but that wasn’t obvious or much comfort a few years ago.

Enter AutoArchive, which was a workaround to try to reduce the load on Outlook by moving older data to a separate PST file. It was good for Microsoft since it improved the perceived performance of Outlook and good for the short-term needs of customers who noticed Outlook working faster.

But there is a downside to using AutoArchive. It’s hard to find messages or other items when they are in two different places. Until Outlook 2003 (which introduced Search Folders) you had to remember to look in two places. While most actions are done with recent items, sometimes you want to find older items and if they’ve been moved to another storage location that is harder.

Most desktop search programs don’t permit indexing and searching of extra folders (check your particular program for its configuration options) so AutoArchived items aren’t usually visible that way either.

Some people compound these problems by having multiple archive stores usually organized by year. I can understand that kind of caution but it may be more trouble than it’s worth. Office 2003 users, as we’ll explain below, can have enormous PST stores (primary or secondary/archive).

The name AutoArchive also gave some people the mistaken impression that it was some form of backup, which isn’t the case. AutoArchived items are moved (not copied) so there’s no redundancy involved.

AutoArchive has a place but keep in mind the above limitations. These limitations have become less important depending on the version of Outlook you have.

  • Outlook loves extra memory, in fact Office and Windows generally make good use of extra RAM. If you’re running Outlook on a machine with 512 Mb of RAM then you might want to consider adding some more memory.
  • In Outlook 2003 there are Search Folders which let you pre-define searches across multiple folders.
  • Outlook 2003 can store a far greater number of items than previous versions, though Microsoft hasn’t made it easy to migrate across.
  • Outlook 2007 will introduce a much faster search option that will place it on a par with desktop search programs, and about time too.

All that said, you might want to consider NOT using AutoArchive and putting all your data under one ‘roof’ or in this case one PST file.

STOPPING AUTOARCHIVE

To stop AutoArchive go to Tools | Options | Other | AutoArchive and uncheck the top box that says ‘Run AutoArchive every nn days’ and this will cause the options under that to be grayed out.

If you want to bring some or all the AutoArchived items back into the one Outlook storage location (so you can index and find them more easily) then all you have to do is move the items from the AutoArchive folder to the matching folder in daily use.

Outlook can stop responding if you try to move too many items at once. If there are a lot of items you might be better off moving them in groups of a few hundred at a time. There’s no hard number of items that will be too much for Outlook to cope with, it varies.

Before you do any of that you need to check whether your Outlook storage (PST or OST) file can cope with everything you want to put into it. And that leads us to the story of the two PST formats.

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