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Personal Info Managers – Still Effective, After All This Time

AS YOU PROBABLY KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE, HARDLY anyone works from 9 to 5 anymore. The business day begins earlier, ends later, and runs into weekends, holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. And during the course of a typical business day, you’re bombarded with information: names, dates, phone numbers, appointments, deadlines to beat, projects to start, and proposals to finish.

Now, think of how you handle all this critical information. Do you jot down lines on Post-it notes and stick them all over your office? Or do you fill the pages of a date book with hastily written scrawl and pray you’ll be able to decipher your own notes come crunch time? Well, there is a better way.

Whether you call them organizers, personal information managers (PIMs), or contact managers, there is a mature and diverse category of available software that falls under the umbrella of “information managers.” Information managers provide a digital alternative to the traditional business quartet of the notepad, to-do list, appointment book, and Rolodex. Such programs can also take the place of a filing cabinet, an alarm clock, and that executive assistant you never got around to hiring. In fact, if you use them to their fullest extent, a majority of these programs have the potential to become the ultimate assistant–one who thinks the way you do.

Reality Bytes

Just as no spreadsheet can balance the books unless it has the numbers to work with, no software can reschedule your meetings, remind you to make phone calls, or give you a client’s mailing address unless you make the commitment to enter data regularly. Once you’ve made the leap of faith, you’re ready to reap the rewards. Fortunately, information managers offer several points of entry.

At the most basic level, you’ll find several programs designed to fulfill the essential needs of storing notes, lists, and names and keeping appointments on a calendar. At the high end, you’ll see the same core features but with the addition of sophisticated search engines and complex contact fields that allow you to wade through thousands of records and zero in on that one vital name. You’ll also find such capabilities as automatic carryover of unfinished tasks, notification of appointment conflicts, advance notice of a meeting scheduled months ago and long forgotten, and gentle reminders that you really should make an effort to catch up with an old client.

The range of software in this roundup covers the full spectrum of information managers, from inexpensive organizers listing for less than $50, to full-fledged contact management programs running just under $400 (unless otherwise noted, list prices are given here). We considered any program that offered integrated address book, calendar, and notepad modules. Therefore, several products that are called PIMs but don’t fulfill our criteria were excluded from this review. Also, one popular PIM–NetManage’s Ecco–that meets the criteria is not included here because the company was preparing a new version at the time of our testing. Look for a standalone review of Ecco in an upcoming issue.

Act! 2.0 for Windows

Rating: ***1/2

(WIN)

Symantec’s Act! 2.0 for Windows is simply one of the best contact management programs around. In many ways, it’s the standard by which all other programs are measured. Far more than a computerized date book, Act! can track all your interactions with people throughout the business day.

Act! records information on clients, maintains histories of your phone calls, and prompts you to make follow-up calls. It also lets you manage your schedule via an appointment calendar, write business letters with an integrated word processor, and maintain e-mail contact without leaving the program.

You spend most of your time in Act! moving between the contact and calendar views. The program’s drag-and-drop support makes it a snap to move a name onto the calendar to schedule an appointment.

Individual fields on contact screens are highly customizable, and you can even define groups of contacts–a plus for scheduling and performing mail merges. This level of customization makes searching for and retrieving contact records exceptionally easy because you’re essentially telling the program to think the way you do–something all applications should aspire to do.

Perhaps Act!’s strongest suit is that almost anyone can get up to speed and use it in far less time than you’d expect for such a powerful program. $279; Symantec, 408-253-9600, 800-441-7234.

AnyTime for Windows 3.0

Rating: ***

(WIN)

AnyTime focuses on linking the most often used features with a familiar interface. The bottom line on this program: It’s easy to use and inexpensive.

AnyTime offers an appointment calendar, to-do lists, a notepad, and an address book for tracking contacts–all of which can be printed out in a variety of popular date book formats.

For selective printing and viewing, you can assign records to a predefined group such as Business or Personal, or you can create your own groups. You can also search the entire address book, to-do list, or scheduler for individual records.

Like familiar paper-based organizers, appointments and a to-do list are displayed on facing pages of an onscreen date book. To add a new item, click on the appropriate area and fill in the corresponding fields in dialog boxes. You can set starting and ending times, add a short description, attach notes or set an alarm, and categorize by group. The program also checks for scheduling conflicts when you go overboard in making appointments.

If you’re among the many who still jot down notes and addresses on the backs of envelopes, or you think you’re too busy to learn yet another program, you can’t go wrong with AnyTime. Its accessible interface, ease of use, and low price all combine to make AnyTime one of the least foreboding ways to get organized. $25 (street).

Ascend 4.0

Rating: ** 1/2

(WIN)

For those of you addicted to the popular Franklin Day Planner system, Franklin Quest’s Ascend is the PIM for you. But if you’re looking for something more than a digital version of a paper organizer, then you’ll quickly notice this program’s shortcomings.

Ascend offers one of the most inviting interfaces on the market. It helps you navigate by making good use of color in the various module windows. It also offers more ways to store disconnected bits of information than most PIMs: a daily journal, a flat-file database called Turbo File, and notepads–all of which can be scanned with a fast global search feature. Other nice touches in Ascend include hierarchical to-do lists and a sophisticated prioritization feature that automates task forwarding and rescheduling.

On the downside, many will be disappointed with Ascend’s appointment book. Following the Franklin system philosophy of time management, it measures time in strict 15-minute intervals and requires quite a bit of scrolling to view your workday. And although the program warns of appointment conflicts, it doesn’t automatically help you resolve them.

Ascend is the obvious choice for Franklin time-management fans, and it’s also a good choice if you’re looking for an attractive PIM with a short learning curve. But those with more sophisticated contact management requirements should look elsewhere. Some of those needs are likely to be addressed, however, in version 5.0, which should be available by the time you read this. $150.

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