REVIEW: Xobni Plus Helps Make Sense of Cluttered Microsoft Outlook Inboxes

Xobni Plus--the paid service upgrade to the free Xobni--provides advanced search, indexing and filtering capabilities that allow users to work more efficiently in Microsoft Outlook.

Imagine being away from your Microsoft Outlook account for four months. Sounds peaceful, right? Now imagine coming back to it, only to find more than 8,500 messages. That's the situation I faced last month after returning to eWEEK after a four-month-plus hiatus.

When I loaded Outlook 2007 on the new laptop IT gave me, more than 2 hours passed while all of the backloaded e-mail from February through mid-June filtered into my account. I was horrified. How was I going to wade through this e-mail swamp to find important stories to link to or contacts that I needed to connect with for my reporting?

For a look at advanced search in Xobni Plus, click here.

I was a prime candidate for Xobni (inbox spelled backward), a free plug-in that indexes Outlook e-mail and makes it easier for users to search conversations and threads. It also let users connect with contacts through Facebook and LinkedIn, which I thought was pretty nifty when I first saw a demonstration of it last year. But I wasn't sold on the value of the tool specifically for me because I had never let my e-mail run wild.

I thought Xobni was just for lazy slackers who didn't want to be bothered with deleting their e-mail when it came in but chose to just search through it occasionally. Two million downloads later, Xobni rolled out a "freemium" offering July 15, charging $29.95 for a perpetual license. Xobni Plus is tailored for individual knowledge workers and small to midsize businesses that may buy licenses in bulk.

When I went to install the tool for the first time, I panicked because I thought it would take forever for Xobni to index my e-mail glut. It took 5 minutes of finger-tapping-not too shabby.

Xobni Plus appeared as a collapsible sidebar to the right of my Outlook inbox, showing me profiles of the people I work with along with associated conversations I've had with them via Outlook.

The first new feature I looked at was Xobni's advanced search. Xobni always let users do a word query search for people or keywords in e-mail. But finding e-mails that contain a single word or name leaves users with a lot of e-mail to sift through.

The Advanced button in Xobni Plus appears under the search bar when users begin typing in a query. Clicking Advanced immediately gave me the options to search From, To and Has Attachments. Clicking the + button next to the Has Attachments option added search filters for CC'd, All, With, Date, Body, Subject, Type and Folder fields. Narrowing the search to find e-mails with the word "Google" using these filters is a big leap in efficiency, which is what the tool is all about.

For this test, I searched for the term "Google," and typed my colleague "Scott" in the From header. Without hitting Enter, the 54 e-mails from Scott that reference Google appeared, narrowing down the search experience. Then, I wanted to find an e-mail with a Google-related document that I'd sent to Scott awhile back. So, I tweaked the search, taking Scott's name out of the From box and moving it to the To filter, and clicked "yes" for Has Attachments. Voila! The e-mail popped up.

Xobni Plus also indexes appointments, indexing e-mails from users' Outlook calendars. The idea is to do searches on top of searches to find that proverbial e-mail needle in the inbox haystack.

In addition, Xobni Plus includes filters for the conversations bar, letting users pare down their e-mail search to only users they've had direct conversations with or to search the full message bodies. This is handy for corporate workers and journalists like me who need to weed out those pitch lists that have hundreds of recipients. I clicked on an e-mail from Scott in my inbox, and Xobni Plus let me search keywords from within those conversations with Scott. Essentially, Xobni Plus compartmentalized my inbox, letting me shut out the less useful messages that can clutter search sessions.

The last Xobni Plus feature I delved into was autosuggest. To see this in action, I left the Xobni toolbar to create a new e-mail message in Outlook. As soon as I started typing in the first letter of a contact-say, the letter "N" for Nick-Xobni Plus presented me with a slew of e-mail contacts to click on, using the Xobni Rank system to provide contact options based on the frequency with which e-mails had been exchanged.

The autosuggest feature in Xobni Plus gives users options for every contact that has ever appeared in any e-mail in the entire inbox and makes them accessible in the compose window, right below the original contacts Outlook suggests. This is a marked departure from Outlook's autocomplete feature, which surfaces only contacts a user directly e-mails.