Hands On with the New Plaxo

Plaxo has finally lifted the veil on Plaxo 3, opening their new interface and strategy to the world for public beta testing.

If nothing else, Plaxo is one of the biggest from-evil-to-useful stories around. As Plaxo VP of Marketing John McCrea says in an interview with Robert Scoble, they’ve moved away from their “overly viral” focus to a model focused on sync and sharing.

Have they accomplished their goal? Let’s take a deeper look.

When Plaxo was all about the contacts, they aggressively tried to get their users to get other folks to sign up. Too aggressively, many said. But now, the much-hated “Update” feature is downplayed, instead giving users the benefit of instant updates with other members, but not by spamming entire contact lists. Much better.

I have to say I’m not aesthetically in love with the new interface. I have been privately testing Plaxo 3 for months now and I kept waiting for the interface to be updated to a “real” final version. But alas, it looks like this is it. Feels a little clunky and unfinished to me. What do you think?

I do like the “next event in xx minutes” on the Upcoming screen, along with the weather icons. What I don’t like is the calendar itself which feels too cramped.

If Plaxo were only a website, this review would end here. But it’s so much more. The idea behind the new Plaxo is that it can serve as the “hub” of your calendar and contact data. If you have your contact and calendar data in multiple locations this is welcome relief. As web workers who deal with many different people using many different systems, it’s not uncommon for us to have calendar and contact data in bits & pieces everywhere. Plaxo helps bring it all together.

The old Plaxo offered a handful of desktop-based sync options…Outlook, Mac OS X, Thunderbird, etc. The new Plaxo adds in web-based tools. Hello Google Calendar! This is a rather painless method for syncing Google Calendar data with Outlook, iCal and even Yahoo using Plaxo as a center point, without needing 3rd party tools.

If you add an event in iCal or Outlook, it will be added to Plaxo. But if you modify an event in both Plaxo and a sync endpoint, the Plaxo modification will likely dominate. For best results, get your Plaxo calendar exactly the way you want, then sync to endpoints. Also keep in mind that not all end points sync all kinds of data. What’s going to trip you up is how you name your calendars/folders. Make sure the names match perfectly across sync points, otherwise you’ll have duplicates in two separate folders.

Remember, this is technically still beta software. So please, backup or duplicate your contacts/calendars before establishing a connection to Plaxo. Although the new Plaxo is very stable overall, there are still some bugs here and there.

Outlook: Calendar, tasks, notes and contacts (requires a plug-in download). The integration with Outlook 2003 has always been outstanding.

Yahoo: Contacts and calendar (you need to provide your username/password)

AOL/AIM: Contacts (username/password)

Windows Mail: Contacts (requires a download)

Outlook Express: Contacts (requires a download)

Google: Calendar only. The developers say they are working on the ability to sync with Gmail contacts. You provide your username/password and Plaxo does a very nice job of linking all of your Google Calendars, including external ones, to your Plaxo account. It even attempts to match the calendar coloring.

Highrise: Even though syncing contacts with 37Signals’ Highrise appears to be coming based on the screen shot above, I don’t have the option in my account. I presume it will be contact syncing once you provide your username/password.

Thunderbird: Contacts (requires a download). Unfortunately, this sync point is not nearly as full-featured or as seamless as its Outlook counterpart. For example, when it syncs data, the window pops to the front. If you’re in the middle of composing an email message, you have to wait for a few seconds until Plaxo has done its thing. The toolbar sits under the Thunderbird main toolbar and can not be relocated. In the Outlook plug-in, you can look at an email message and instantly see if that person is in your address book and/or is a Plaxo member. Not so with the Thunderbird version. It’s also limited to 3000 contacts.

Mac OS X: Address Book and iCal (requires a download). You configure this sync point through System Preferences, with an option to show an icon on the OS X menu bar. iCal is the weak link here. Most problems that I’ve encountered with Plaxo, from duplicate entries to events with the wrong end time can be traced back to issues with iCal. Thankfully, you can turn iCal syncing off if your calendar data is located elsewhere. Growl is supported for notification of syncs and errors.

MSN Hotmail/Windows Live: Contacts (username/password)

LinkedIn: For Premium Subscribers only. One-way sync of contacts, with only the ability to add LinkedIn contacts to Plaxo, not the other way around. The sync is also manual, which means you have to remember to initiate a sync. There’s some competition between these two services, so limitations shouldn’t be surprising.

Mobile Access: Finally! Plaxo has downplayed its stand-alone application that only worked on a handful of phones and they’ve fully enabled the mobile version for all users. Go to m.plaxo.com, log in and it’s all there.

Premium access is $50 per year. In addition to the LinkedIn sync point, you also have access to extra support options and the ability to sync more than 1,000 contacts.

A Premium account also offers de-duping features for both contacts and calendar data. The DeDuper is good, but not outstanding. It does an excellent job of eliminating exact-match duplicates, but only within the same folder. So if you have the same contact or event in two different folders as a result of a sync, you can’t do anything about it. The de-duper identifies cases where the contacts are similar, but does a poor job of suggesting correction. For example, if you have John Smith, john@smith.com and John Smith, johns@gmail.com Plaxo will suggest one of those email addresses in the merged view. Ideally, both email addresses should be retained (Email 1, Email 2). The only option is to manually edit the suggested match which is time consuming.

Plaxo touts eCards as a premium option, but for the few times I’ve used them they’re not that interesting.

That’s the sync part of the story…the share part is called Pulse, and is accessed through a separate tab:

It’s like a mega feed of what your contacts are up to, in a chronological order stream. Right now, Pulse includes your profile changes, blog entries (RSS feed), Amazon wish lists and Flickr. You have control over exactly what data you want to share, and with whom. It’s a nice touch, but I don’t see this feature competing with Facebook or 30Boxes any time soon.

You do have to trust Plaxo with a lot of your personal information, giving them access to your username/password on other sites. Understandably, this will make some nervous. Another drawback: in general, the site is on the slow side. It’s near-painful at times in Firefox 2 on Mac OS X, and just a bit pokey in Firefox 2 on Windows XP. Hopefully that will improve over the days and weeks to come.

I’ve found Plaxo to be essential to my workflow, as I can finally keep Google Calendar and Mac OS X Address Book data in sync with my other on and offline tools. What’s your take?

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