The Office Letter
Blink Section - Product Reviews
From Volume 6, Number 27
(January 1, 2007)
Review: ClearContext IMS Pro 3.0
Microsoft made many useful changes to Outlook 2007, but none of them comes close to the benefits you'll get from ClearContext IMS Professional 3.0 ($79.95, http://www.clearcontext.com). From automated handling of incoming and outgoing messages to creating follow-up tasks, ClearContext will help you get more out of Outlook. You don't need to own the latest version of Outlook, either; ClearContext works with Outlook 2002 (aka XP) and later.
Add-ins should work seamlessly -- almost as though the feature is native to Outlook. We tested ClearContext with Outlook 2003 and 2007. From installation and setting options to creating rules and switching between custom views, everything worked smoothly, just as you'd want it to.
Working as an add-in to Outlook, each incoming e-mail message can be assigned a topic of your choice (you can create topics on the fly or pick from a list of those you've already created). The topic is included as a column in a new view of your inbox (see the figure below). Future messages in the same thread can be assigned the same topic (as can outgoing messages) so all messages on the same topic can be sorted together.
Later, when you want to archive messages (and remove them from your inbox), you can store the messages (individually, by thread, or all messages with the same topic) in a separate folder; you can also drag and drop a message to the archive folder. You can see the list of ClearContext folders in the navigation panel to the left of your messages (see figure). The program supports multiple levels (you can create an "Excel Tips" subfolder of an "Office 2007" folder, for example).
Topics can also be assigned to tasks and appointments. In fact, ClearContext lets you create a task or appointment while you're viewing a message, then consolidates all these elements together in a single "RelatedView" window -- shown at the bottom panel of the Outlook screen in the figure. This view is integrated into the inbox message preview pane in Outlook 2007.
In addition to organizing mail by topics, ClearContext can assign priorities to messages and use colors to help you quickly spot the most important ones. The program will scan your mail folders (during setup or anytime thereafter) and identify contacts that are most important to you by analyzing such factors as which users you write to, which send you the most mail, the frequency of interaction, plus any e-mail addresses and domain names you specify as important. The program assigns a priority (junk, low, normal, high, or very high), uses colors (for example, red for very high, light gray for junk) to indicate a message's priority, and sorts the higher priority items to the top of your inbox when you use a ClearContext custom view.
Each contact in your personal address book is assigned a priority level, which you can manually adjust. If a sender doesn't have a contact record, you can create one, and you can always override the priority of a message, which is then applied to other messages (including future messages) within a thread. The program even lets you use slider bars to adjust the importance of factors used by its scoring algorithm when setting priorities.
Like native Outlook, you can also specify ClearContext rules to prioritize messages, assign a topic, or file a message in a ClearContext folder based user-specified sender e-mail address or domain name as well as key word in the subject line or message body. You can create the rule from scratch; alternatively, highlight a message and the program fills in rule parameters extracted from the message itself.
In the past I've used flags to try and help me remember to follow-up on an e-mail I've sent. It's a clumsy approach -- those messages tend to scroll off the main window and I forget to check them. In ClearContext, I can now easily set a follow-up task or an appointment that will remind me to double-check with the recipient of the e-mail or follow-up at a specific time; the task or appointment will appear in Outlook along with other tasks and appointments -- right where it belongs. The task or appointment is automatically populated with the subject of the e-mail message, and the message contents are pasted into the body of the task/appointment (for long messages ClearContext attaches a copy of the message instead). Unfortunately, the program isn't smart enough to interpret your outgoing message and discern the date and time of the appointment.
You can also delegate a message to someone else, which sends that recipient a task (with the e-mail message attached) and add a follow-up task for yourself, or you can simply forward the message and (at your option) add a task to your to-do list.
There are other features that help you deal with your inbox: you can defer a message (the equivalent of hitting the snooze button for a message); this moves the message to a "deferred" folder until the time you specify, then re-appears as an unread message in your inbox at the designated time.
If you use SharePoint lists in Outlook 2007, ClearContext also allows you to create an extra copy of your e-mail to a list by setting a simple configuration option. That allows you to automatically add a message to a list, such as a team project page in SharePoint. (The same feature can also send a message to a public folder.)
The program comes in two flavors. We tested the Pro version, but you can get started with the free Personal version which omits some of the Pro features we've described. For a complete list of the differences, visit http://www.clearcontext.com/products/index.html#features. The Personal version will give you a sense of how much better mailbox management can be; Pro's RelatedView, task/follow-up tools, and delegation features may be just what you need to make the most of your e-mail.
-- James E. Powell
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