An Outlook plug-in that costs $29 may not sound compelling but, against all expectation, Xobni Plus is an organisational aid that rocks.
After an install and index process that took us around five minutes, Xobni adds a fourth pane into Outlook. This immediately makes your Outlook windows look more crowded, and the Xobni colours of purple and orange aren't the neatest match to the Office livery of pale blue. You can minimize or hide the Xobni sidebar, but what would be the point of that?
At this point you're encouraged to upgrade to Xobni Plus - even if you purchased that product. The install .exe is merely the free version of Xobni, and to get at the full product you need to go via the Xobni options menu that should have now appeared in Outlook. Uneccessarily complicated.
But you'll be glad you persevered. Xobni claims to offer 'lightning-fast' email search, and it certainly feels noticeably quicker than Outlook's native search client. It's also fiendishly accurate and, crucially, the results are presented in a much more useful manner.
Xobni uses the data in emails to search the web and collate information on all email contacts. It automatically gathers profile pictures, company information and job titles.
As well as bringing a welcome element of social networking to email, this puts phone numbers, companies and job titles front and centre. So if you need a contact from a certain organisation, search by that company's name and you'll have details of everyone related to it, from anyone who's ever messaged you.
It's a fantastically useful way to use email - when it works correctly. It does, however, rely on LinkedIn and Facebook data being up to date, and your contacts having up-to-date email signatures. We experienced a couple of wrong numbers and more than a few incorrect job titles.
Having a profile picture helps to jog your memory before you start a conversation. Another bonus: links and attachments from contacts are presented in search results, so if you know your boss sent you a report, you can find it in a flash.
Another benefit on Xobni is that when you highlight an email, it shows you the entire conversation as a thread, a la Gmail. For anyone who has used threaded email from a provider such as Google, Outlook's resolutely linear approach has long seemed limited, so the ability to follow conversations in this way is a boon.
Perhaps less useful but morbidly fascinating none the less is Xobni's email analytics. Frankly, we're not sure how ever we survived without knowing who emailed us the most, who responds the quickest and at what point of the day we should expect the most messages to arrive.
So Xobni has been a more than useful addition to our email arsenal, and in our tests it was perfectly stable. However, we've heard several reports of Xobni causing Outlook and other Office programs such as Excel and Word to crash.
In response to this, Xobni told us: "In the early days of Xobni, some users did have issues with performance and stability (typically people on older machines with a bunch of add-ins that they didn’t even know about that we conflicted with). We spent a lot of time and energy on improving performance and have been very pleased with the response from users."
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