Three online contact managers compared

The two free services — LinkedIn and Vision Pipeline Assistant — can't match the accuracy and versatility of the $60-a-year Plaxo Premium.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read
In a perfect world, the addresses, telephone numbers, and other contact information of your family members, friends, and associates would be entered in your various address books automatically. I'll settle for an online service that lets me transfer the information from my phone and e-mail contact lists simply and accurately.

Last July, I described how to sync calendars and contacts between an iPhone, Gmail, and Outlook. The contact info on my iPhone is always the more current than my Gmail and Outlook contacts, but I access the three contact lists about equally.

Neither the iPhone nor Gmail contacts can match Outlook's ability to sort contacts by field. Still, I can access information in my iPhone and Gmail contacts from any location with a network link. What I'd like is a contact manager with Outlook's sortability and the easy access of the iPhone and Gmail. I tried three different online contact managers, but none fit the bill exactly, though the commercial product outshone the two free offerings.

In LinkedIn, contact management is an afterthought
At LinkedIn, it's all about professional connections. The service offers to expand your LinkedIn network by importing contact information from your Web or desktop e-mail account and then sending invitations to the people whose addresses are already registered.

To import contact information, click Add Connections in the top right of the Contacts page. Adding data from a Web mail system is as simple as entering your address, signing into the mail account, and granting the LinkedIn importer permission to access your contacts.

Google permission page
Importing contact information from Web mail services requires granting LinkedIn permission to access your contact list. Google

When I imported 62 contacts from Hotmail, for example, LinkedIn added 34 of the entries, updated 28 others, and offered to send invitations to 37 of the addresses. Unfortunately, after importing the addresses (and declining the offer to send the invitations), I was left with several duplicates that I had to delete, but doing so was as easy as checking the dupes and pressing the "Delete selected contacts" button.

LinkedIn lets you group your connections by assigning them tags. You can also view contacts by company, location, industry, and recent activity. The contacts are listed by last name, which is a refreshing change after having to live with Gmail sorting entries only by their first names. You can jump through your LinkedIn contact list by selecting an initial along the left side of the window.

Contact information imported from Outlook relatively completely, including multiple phone numbers and e-mail addresses properly labeled as "mobile," "work," and "home." But imports from Web mail services sometimes created dozens of name-only entries. At least cleaning up the empty items took only a few seconds.

Rough edges abound in Vision Pipeline Assistant beta
We've become accustomed to relatively stable beta products and services, but Vision Pipeline Assistant is a free trial that lives down to the beta tag. The service bills itself as a customer relationship management (CRM) system, and as such it's much more than a contact manager.

Most of the action in Vision Pipeline Assistant is based on activities that let you track past contacts with the person and plan future ones in the hunt for those ever-elusive sales. I'm not a sales person and don't need to track when I communicate with the people on my contact list. I just want an easy way to access and manage the contacts. For that purpose, Vision Pipeline Assistant is not the best choice.

It took several attempts to import Outlook contacts into Vision Pipeline Assistant from a CSV file exported from the program, and the process was anything but intuitive. Ultimately, only a handful of e-mail addresses and telephone numbers were imported, and most imported entries were nothing but names. When you select one or more contacts, a window appears on the left side of the entry list allowing you to schedule or log an activity, send an e-mail, delete the contact, apply a tag, or export or archive the entry.

Vision Pipeline Assistant contact-management service
The Vision Pipeline Assistant service lets you track activities related to your contacts. Vision Pipeline Assistant

One salesman I know swears by Vision Pipeline Assistant's intuitiveness for tracking and planning sales calls and meetings. The service is certainly much simpler to use than ACT! or other industrial-strength CRM systems. But importing information to Vision Pipeline Assistant from your current contact manager is anything but simple.

Plaxo Premium's time savings may be worth $60 a year
Many people were seriously ticked off when Plaxo starting charging for some contact-management features several years ago. But Plaxo's import options outshine those of the other two online contact managers I tried. Whether they're worth $60 a year depends on how many contacts you have to manage, and how much time you spend managing them. (If you're not sure you need the premium services, you can try them for 30 days for free.)

Plaxo lets you import contacts from Outlook, AOL, Yahoo, Gmail, or Hotmail. When you sign up for Plaxo Premium, you're given the option to sync with your Outlook contacts, remove duplicate entries automatically, back up your contacts, and sync with Windows Mobile smartphones.

The service lists your contacts in alphabetical order by last name. You can't jump from letter to letter as you can in LinkedIn's contact list, but you can switch between pages listing about 50 entries at a time. Data imports accurately from Outlook and Web mail systems (I tested Plaxo's import function with my Gmail contacts). E-mail addresses and phone numbers were appropriately labeled "work," "home," "mobile," and other categories, and information in the notes fields in Outlook and Gmail appeared in the corresponding Plaxo entries.

Plaxo Premium contact-management service
Plaxo Premium services include Outlook syncs, contact backups, and duplicate-entry removal. Plaxo

I'm not sure I can justify spending $60 a year for the convenience offered by Plaxo's premium contact-management tools, but there's no beating the service for accurate, fast, and straightforward contact imports. Until Gmail picks up some of Plaxo's contact-management talents, there's really no competition.