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Tech Lab

E-mail add-ons can tame even the peskiest inbox

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 26, 2009
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I don't have the sharpest memory around, but my computer forgets nothing. That's why I prefer to communicate via e-mail; it provides a permanent record of the conversation.

But with thousands of messages rolling in every week, how do you keep track of it all? My favorite e-mail software, Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook, has a pretty good set of management tools, but there's lots of room for improvement.

There's the spam nightmare, of course, but I've made an uneasy peace with it. My Boston Globe e-mail box is awash in spam, but I prefer it that way. I don't want to lose a vital news tip to an overzealous spam filter. So I invest a couple of hours a week in skimming off the digital scum.

I'm far more aggressive about my personal messages, with help from a very effective service called Spam Arrest, available at www.spamarrest.com. The first time someone sends me an e-mail, Spam Arrest sends an automatic reply that requires him to type some randomly chosen words. Doing so proves the message came from a person, and not a spam-spewing computer. Messages that flunk the test are blocked, and I never see them. But if a sender passes the test, all future messages go straight to my Outlook inbox.

Spam Arrest is hardly ever wrong. A mere handful of spam messages have gotten past it, and nearly all legitimate messages get through. But even messages you want to keep can be a nuisance. I've got about a decade of old e-mails stuffed with names, addresses, valuable file attachments, and assorted facts about thousands of topics. No sense letting all that information go to waste; there are plenty of third-party programs for Outlook to help exploit it.

Serious e-mailers include a signa ture at the end of each message - a block of text with the sender's contact information. I often copy it, paste it into an Outlook contact form, then drag the chunks of text into the correct windows - name, address, phone numbers, and so on.

A new program called Gwabbit automates the process. It recognizes signatures and adds them to an address book with the touch of a mouse. Even if a message lacks a signature, the software can capture and preserve the sender's name and e-mail address. You can do the same things manually in half a minute. But Gwabbit grabs contact data almost instantly, making it a handy little time-saver and at $19.95, an inexpensive one. You can download a 14-day free trial at www.gwabbit.com.

Another $19.95 buys the powerful e-mail indexing tool NEO Find. This program runs alongside Outlook, constantly indexing inbound messages and sorting them by sender. NEO Find also indexes every word of your messages. Can't remember who sent you a message about the latest Tyler Perry movie? Just do a word search and up it comes. You can do the same thing with Outlook alone, but because Outlook doesn't pre-index its messages, it has to scan each message during a search. The process can last a few minutes, while NEO Find searches rarely require more than five seconds.

Then again, you can get much of the same performance at no charge by installing Google Desktop, offered by the popular search service. It runs inside a browser and lacks NEO Find's more powerful features, like instant tracking of all e-mails from a particular sender. But Google Desktop delivers fast, basic e-mail searching. Which one suits you best? Try both. Get Google Desktop at www.desktop.google.com, and download a 90-day free trial of NEO Find at www.emailorganizer.com.

For sheer versatility, my favorite e-mail helper is Xobni, an impressive program developed at Y Combinator, a technology incubator in Cambridge. Xobni's developers have abandoned the Boston area for San Francisco, but never mind - it's still a sharp piece of code.

Xobni - that's "inbox" spelled backwards - sits inside a copy of Outlook, analyzing incoming mail and pulling out all manner of gold. It has connections to the Hoover's corporate information database and the social networking services Facebook and LinkedIn. So if you get an e-mail from John Smith at Microsoft Corp., Xobni instantly gives you a quick backgrounder on Microsoft. And if Smith happens to have a Facebook or LinkedIn account, you'll get that information as well, including Smith's photo if he's posted it. If John sent carbon copies to colleagues, Xobni will also give you rundowns on them.

To make an appointment with Mr. Smith, click the mouse, and Xobni generates an e-mail invitation. Xobni knows when you're available because it's linked to Outlook's appointment book. So your outgoing e-mail will contain a list of suggested get-together times, generated automatically.

It's an impressive array of features for a program that costs nothing. Just visit www.xobni.com and help yourself. If your e-mail archive's as big as mine, you need all the help you can get.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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