As earlier announced on our parent site, this week saw the beta release of ClearContext Personal, a free add-in for Microsoft Outlook that is designed to organize your email and make your inbox better.
A little while back I spent a week with Xobni and found it added some nice functionality to the Microsoft Outlook email client. I wondered how Clear Context would compete – or compliment, so I have been putting it through its paces for the last few days.
It’s unfortunate for both Xobni and ClearContext that they released so closely together. While each release is bringing attention to the other, comparisons between the two are a bit unfair as each caters to a different type of user. Xobni is a passive system that really relies on its outstanding search capability. On the other hand, ClearContext requires your attention to really make it work. It provides you with functionality to implement an organizational system that will help keep your inbox organized and provide context for your messages and conversations.
With ClearContext, it’s all about conversations. Assign a topic to a message and all future messages in that conversation will also be categorized and/or filed accordingly. Gmail users take this for granted with labeling, but it’s quite a handy function to bring to Outlook.
When a conversation has outlived its usefulness, an unsubscribe option lets all future messages in that conversation bypass your Inbox – very similar to the Gmail mute function.
Each folder and message gets it’s own context area. These serve to consolidate all related items along with any actions or alerts that are tied to it. The context areas add a lot of tabs and options that are easily understood but can overwhelm the interface at times, I was glad that they could be hidden when not needed.
For me, ClearContext’s most useful feature is the attachment explorer. It is really nice to get a quick preview of attached files and content without needing to load external programs. Batch processing of attachments is great including the ability to save things locally.
The Notification Manager is getting quite a bit of attention. Designed to move status emails like Facebook notifications and such out of your inbox so you can process at a later time in bulk, it’s an interesting idea but I don’t see much here that can’t be created with a standard Outlook rule.
During setup, ClearContext color coded my inbox to reflect important contacts and conversations. I’m not sure how what criteria it used nor do I know what the chosen colors mean. I imagine that red is critical or really important but I couldn’t really find the pattern.
The lack of clarity on how some features function is a bit problematic and overall I found the new user experience to be a bit lacking. Setup did place an introductory email in my inbox, and there are demo videos and such available on the website, but a bit more of a guided walkthrough or setup would have helped me feel more comfortable. Perhaps I’m too used to the ajaxy setup process of most new web apps.
I know I said comparing Xobni and ClearContext is unfair but I guess it is inevitable. Generally I would say if you are a filer and sorter who has a place for everything (and has everything in it’s place) and want the ability to find things quickly by topic, ClearContext is a great tool to have in your inbox arsenal. The ability to add the message threading functionality and labeling capabilities of Gmail to Outlook can indeed be powerful.
If on the other hand you’re like me and find that maintaining so many labels and folders requires too much time (I’m a big fan of Gina Trapani’s Trusted Trio), Xobni’s lightning fast search lets you just archive what you need and quickly extract it later. I had no issue with running both concurrently so perhaps there is a balance to be found between the two. Like anything else, it’s important to choose the tool that works best for you.
ClearContext is currently in private beta and requires Outlook 2007 (2003 support is coming soon). Note that it only supports POP or Exchange mail and isn’t compatible with an IMAP setup.
How do you maintain your email? Which tool would work best for you?