Three killer Outlook add-ons for office workers

Good Outlook add-ons can save as much time for office workers who live and breathe by the in-box as a browser extension can enhance the power of your Internet experience. Here are three we can recommend for daily use.

It's too bad that add-ons for Microsoft Outlook haven't caught on with the intensity of Firefox extensions. The good ones can save as much time for office workers who live and breathe by the in-box as a browser extension can enhance the power of your Internet experience. I wouldn't recommend loading up on dozens of Outlook add-ons--they could slow Outlook's performance--but here are three I find useful (and light enough) for daily use.

The visual Xobni can help quickly find e-mail and contacts. Seeing a Facebook image can also help humanize a stranger. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

With its hint of bubble gum visuals, Xobni is a free Outlook add-on that quickly searches through your e-mail. Just as Xobni's name comes from spelling 'in-box' backwards, so does its search philosophy, which is all about contacts. Finding contacts and message subjects routinely takes a fraction of Outlook's chugging.

Without ever using up more than three-quarters of the reading pane (and often much less when you collapse it,) Xobni can reply, forward, or open a message, or even a file. Its ability to throw in public information scraped from Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn, and Hoovers can add extra context. Dataheads will be intrigued by the stats analyzing your e-mail relationship with the contact, including the rank assigned to your most frequent correspondents. The analytics haven't figured much into my usage, but the Facebook pictures and quick-find searching do. Every day.

Gwabbit ingests details from the signature block into Outlook's address book. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

I'll admit that I wasn't initially a huge fan of Gwabbit ($19.95), and it showed (I initially called it "weally wame.") Perhaps I was too harsh. This Outlook add-on scours the signature block in an e-mail and creates from it a full contact record in Outlook's address book, going far more in-depth that Outlook does when you attempt to perform the same function by right-clicking a contact's name. Business users who volley e-mail back and forth with unknown recipients will find Gwabbit to be a savvy way to fill in the digital Rolodex.

Yet while the concept is brilliant in its productivity payout and simplicity, it simply didn't live up to the hype generated from its Demo 2009 debut. Since Gwabbit's algorithm relies on a specific template in the signature block to populate its information, it's only as good as the contact is conventional. If a contact bunches information onto a single line, Gwabbit may populate a single data field with all the information. If you amend the record, Gwabbit may try to undo your changes the next time it senses a contradiction between your entry and the matching e-mail message.

Gwabbit has also had trouble ignoring the "all clear" message tacked to the bottom of each e-mail by AVG Antivirus Free. I realize it's a problem that will bypass most, but it's an imperfection nonetheless. Finally, Gwabbit's 5-second delay between a cursor hovering on a message and its new-contact pop-up note has more than once come at an inopportune moment, forcing me to close the pop-up to get back to the reading or e-mail management from which the (admittedly not very serious) interruption.

Yet for all my bellyaching on the points where it fails to work as smoothly as I'd like, it does remarkably well overall, and has unrealized potential. More importantly, it offers a simple, unique solution to contact management that you barely have to manage at all--and one that saves time and typing. The 14-day trial will only save 20 contacts total, but it's enough to give you a sense of the program. If your address book is essential to your business, Gwabbit could be a useful little sidekick.

Google Calendar Sync

Google Calendar Sync beta
It's in Google's best interest to sell office workers on the proposition of using Outlook's calendar and Google's, and it's in your best interest to let it. This free beta program has been relatively static for quite awhile, but that shouldn't stop you. Install it and you'll be able to sync events to or from one calendar or the other. Two-way syncing is also an option. You'll pick your time interval, and leave the rest up to Google. Be forewarned that you do gain the calendar icon in your task tray. The good news is, you'll be able to access the settings from here.

Other Outlook add-ons
Just to name a few more intriguing apps:

Google Apps Sync--If you use Google Apps Premier or EDU Edition, this application holds onto the familiar Outlook interface, even though you've abandoned Microsoft Exchange Server in favor of the Google Apps server.

Xiant Filer--An offering from a one-time Microsoft luminary, Xiant Filer is a one-click filing add-on that gives you a 60-day test of its new beta software.

Duplicate Killer--Another Outlook contact manager, Duplicate Killer can go through your extensive address book and pick off doppelgangers.

Neo Pro 4.0 and Neo Find--These free-to-try add-ons index your Outlook folder contents to rethink how you organize and find contacts and e-mails.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.