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Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook's View, But at a Cost

    Outlook is a well-established presence on the business desktop, providing millions with their email, calendar, contacts, and tasks. It’s such an institution, in fact, that when Microsoft radically revamped the Office suite’s interface in 2007, it left Outlook largely unchanged.

    Although it’s big and sluggish, there’s no denying that Outlook does what it’s supposed to do. Not quickly or with style, but consistently and effectively nonetheless. The thing is, though, that we have moved beyond just email as our major form of business communication. In the increasingly real-time and social world, a big ol’ email client seems a little… old-fashioned.

    Xobni is an attempt to bring Outlook into sync with the socially-networked world. Available in a free and paid “Plus” versions (the paid version offers advanced search capabilities and calendar functions), Xobni adds a new pane to your Outlook window packed with information about the sender of whatever email you’re currently viewing or the contact you’ve selected.

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    Working with Xobni

    20091111-Xobni-screenshot

      The image to the right is what Xobni looks like on my system. I’ve selected one of my own emails from the “Sent Mail” folder and obscured some of my personal information, of course.

      At the top is a “business card” view with my phone numbers and email addresses, as well as my title and the company I work for. Below that is a graph of how many emails I’ve sent and received to and from this contact (which is me, which may be why the numbers are odd), but that’s just the default – the five buttons above that chart allow me to select different functions. If I click the orange button, I get actions I can perform relating to the contact – make an appointment or send an email, in this case. The other three buttons open the contact’s LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter profile. (You can pick and choose several social network functions – other options that I did not choose are buttons for Skype and Hoovers company search.)

      • LinkedIn gives you their location, current company and title, and number of connections, plus a link to their full profile.
      • Facebook gives you your contact’s “Wall” and a link to their profile.
      • Twitter gives you your contact’s status updates, plus buttons to view their profile and follow them – you an also post updates through Xobni, though it’s far from a replacement for a full-featured Twitter client.

      Basically, the top of the Xobni window is devoted to information about your contact. The next part is about your relationship with that contact.  The “Network” part is the most mysterious to me; according to their website, Xobni analyzes the “From:”, “To:”, and “CC:” fields of incoming emails to determine who among your contacts the sender also has some connection to. For instance, if I have the CEO and the CFO of a company in my address book, and I get an email from the CFO that’s CC’ed to the CEO, Xobni knows that the two are connected.

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      “Conversations” condenses all my previous exchanges with that contact into threaded discussions. Click on a discussion and you can read the messages in the thread, see who was involved in the conversation, and pull out any files exchanged. (You can also hover the pointer over a discussion and a pop-up will preview the first few messages in the thread.) A slider at the top allows you to move from the first line or two of each message to full messages. Click a message in the thread and the message itself opens in the Xobni bar, with buttons to reply or forward, or to open in an Outlook window.

      Finally, “Files Exchanged” is what it sounds like – a list of every attachment the contact has ever sent you or that you’ve sent to them.

      At the very top of the Xobni window is the search bar, allowing you to search both contacts and email messages. The results are broken into 5 categories: People (contacts with your search term in their name, company name, email address, etc.), Messages (any email with your search term in it), Files Exchanged (any attachment with your search term in the filename), Appointments (any appointment that includes your search term; this is technically a “Plus” feature – clicking an appointment returned in search in the free version will open an upgrade pitch), and Tasks (again, any task with your search term in it).

      Verdict: Is Xobni useful?

      Xobni helps uncover a great deal of information, most but not all of which is particularly useful. I can’t imagine what use it would be to know that a particular contact tends to email me in the afternoon more than the morning, but it’s kind of interesting to look at. The social networking features are the most useful part, I think – already I’ve discovered profiles for and added on LinkedIn and Twitter a client that I’ve just started working with.

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      Much of the usefulness of Xobni is hampered by the fact that, like Outlook itself, it’s fairly slow and resource-intensive. For example, it took nearly a minute hovering my mouse over a discussion with 24 messages in it for the pop-up to populate with message previews! Searching takes significantly longer than Google Desktop’s Outlook plugin – and even longer than searching the whole desktop from the Google Desktop sidebar.

      Now, that could have just been my PC – it’s a few years old, with a 2.4 GHz Athlon x64, a gigabyte of memory, and Windows XP with Office 2007. Hardly a speed demon! But a search for “Xobni” on Twitter reveals that I’m hardly alone in finding Xobni too slow. Here’s a sample of messages just from the last couple of hours:

      • “all xobni did for me was sloooooow down outlook. didn’t keep it long.”
      • “installed xobni… again… we will see if my laptop can handle it this time”
      • “I had xobni. it’s heavy, and not really effective or accurate. had many issues with that.”
      • “Xobni is a Really good product but occasionally it stalls outlook for a while.”
      • “my biggest problem comes when I try to read the conversation between some of my contacts with xobni.”

      To be fair, there are positive mentions, too, like this one from an obviously pleased user:

      • “I’ve been using Xobni since around Feb. 2009. Kind of hooked on it. “

      (Incidentally, the Xobni team is quite active on Twitter; comments about Xobni are often replied to by @xobni within minutes!)

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      Xobni creates its own index of your email, so it definitely needs a lot of resources. It is possible that it’s not Xobni’s fault that it tends to be slow – perhaps Outlook, as big and ponderous as it is, just isn’t a good platform for third-party applications – but it is Xobni’s problem. While it provides some useful information and functionality, especially related to social networking, none of the information it provides is worth waiting for, especially if I can get the same information quicker just by Googling it.

      People with older machines — or lower-end new machines — just aren’t going to get much out of Xobni. If you have a more powerful computer, though, Xobni might well be worthwhile. Fast searching, threaded discussions, and social networking interface all make Xobni a useful product, provided you don’t spend time waiting for it to respond.

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      Last Updated on September 18, 2019

      How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

      I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

      One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

      Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

      The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

      And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

      What to Write Down

      Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

      Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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      Dates of Events

      Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

      For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

      Names of People

      Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

      Theories or Frameworks

      Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

      Definitions

      Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

      Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

      Arguments and Debates

      Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

      This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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      Images

      Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

      Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

      Other Stuff

      Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

      I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

      Your Own Questions

      Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

      3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

      You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

      1. Outlining

      Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

      Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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      For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

      2. Mind-Mapping

      For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

      Here’s the idea:

      In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

      The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

      If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

      You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

      3. The Cornell System

      The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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      About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

      You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

      In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

      You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

      The Bottom Line

      I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

      I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

      More About Note-Taking

      Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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