Snazzy looking Web e-mail options like Gmail and Yahoo Mail have made Microsoft's Outlook appear bland and dreary. Enter Xobni (inbox spelled backwards), which like its name implies, turns your inbox on its head. This useful add-on addresses Outlook's biggest drawbacks: e-mail search and contact management. On top of that, this small plug-in integrates with Outlook 2003 and 2007 and incorporates some quirky e-mail tools you never knew you needed.
Easy Installation, Sleek UI
Downloading and installing the 3.12MB file from Xobni.com was a cinch. But while the installation process took less than 30 seconds (after which Xobni appeared on the right side of our Outlook 2003 client), the plug-in had to synchronize with Outlook; on a desktop with 10,000 messages, the process took 10 minutes.
The Xobni sidebar takes up little real estate to the right of your inbox and adds some much-needed spice to the Outlook interface. We appreciated the purple search bar and the orange shading of the information boxes below. We were happy to see that the sidebar is collapsible by clicking the double arrow button on the shortcut pane.
Speedy, Advanced Search
Xobni touts "lightning" fast search results of Outlook data, including people, conversations, and e-mail attachments, and it's no hyperbole. When you begin typing in the search bar, a results frame instantly slides open and displays messages with the words that start with the letters you initially type.
A search for "ASUS" in Xobni instantly returned organized results. Conversely, we had to wait two minutes for a similar operation to complete using the integrated Microsoft inbox search. Both searches returned similar results, but since Xobni searches the most recent messages first, we were able to find and grab the message we were looking for way before the standard Outlook search was done.
Xobni divides results into two sections: People and All Mail. The People section returns contacts that have the search word in the e-mail address. The All Mail section displays the search results for that word in the e-mail subject or body text. It's very useful, but we would have liked to see an advanced search function that allows for searching for terms within a certain date range.
Extracted Information, Threaded Conversations
When you select an e-mail within Outlook's main Mail view, the Person Profile panel appears, giving users a quick overview of some essential facts about the sender of that message, including how many e-mails you've sent or received from them, and what time correspondence takes place with them. This feature reminds you that you have corresponded with a particular contact. Xobni displays the number of messages you have sent to the contact and the number they have sent to you in a bar graph.
Xobni will also extract contacts' phone number from e-mails. If you have Skype installed on your computer, clicking on a phone number will place a voice call to that person through Skype. It's quite convenient; within seconds of receiving an e-mail we were chatting with the sender to set up a meeting. We just wish it was easier to save that number and contact to your Outlook contacts list.
The "Schedule time with . . ." button is useful and extracts data from your Outlook Calendar and auto-fills an e-mail with available times for meetings. Fans of Gmail will be happy to see Xobni's threaded-conversations feature: When a message is selected, Xobni will group e-mails into conversations that share the subject and the same set of people in the To and CC fields. Each entry in the Conversations panel will show the subject line of the e-mail thread and a count of the messages in the thread.
Those who have spent hours digging for an attachment in their inbox will appreciate the Files Exchanged panel. It displays all attached files that an individual has sent you and vice versa.
Social Networking Starts with E-mail
According to Xobni, the next version will include a LinkedIn plug-in that will pull a contact's picture and title from the professional networking site. But currently, Xobni includes its own social networking tool; when a person's profile is displayed, it shows individuals that are within your e-mail network. In the Network panel, people are ranked by how often they are included in conversations with you and the person whose profile is loaded. We like that you then have easy access to these individuals' profiles and contact information.
You can also find your own top contacts within the Xobni Analytics window. This is where Xobni treats your e-mail inbox and outbox like the stock market: tracking the ups and downs over the day, week, month, and year as well as your top picks (or contacts). Though knowing which individuals you e-mail the most and at what time of day is interesting, this tool is more for kicks than productivity.
With all the functionality and useful tools rolled into Xobni, it's hard to believe this program is free. Its speedy search results and ability to extract useful contact information and attachments makes this time-saving application a must-have for any Outlook user.