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You don’t always need expensive software to get where you want to go in business. Sometimes, inexpensive gems can be found in the shareware world.

Unless something newer, flashier, and better comes along soon, Plaxo seems poised to take over the world–or at least the address books of Windows users. Plaxo is an online contact database that is designed to sync with Outlook and Outlook Express, but which will also work with Netscape, Yahoo, or even your Palm Pilot address book. And even if you don’t use any of those, (I use Mozilla) you can still access and maintain an address book online.

If you do use Outlook or Outlook Express, you’ll need to download Plaxo, while other users need only access it online via its Web site. Once everything is installed, the software itself is very easy to use. You just add basic information about your contacts and then click a button to send them an update request. Plaxo automatically sends a simple e-mail message to your contacts and shows them the information you currently have on them and invites them to join the network and update their information.

The replies to these e-mails are processed by Plaxo and are automatically updated in your address book. And once someone is in your book, their entry will be updated every time they change their information without you having to worry (or even know) about it. You can, of course, list as many non-Plaxo users in your address book as you wish, but the system can’t update them for you.

Although you won’t find some of the fancier features (such as the ability to alter fields) that some of the commercially available contact managers have, Plaxo Contacts is easy to use and understand, fast, streamlined, and best of all, completely free.

The guru is in the house

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of programs on the Internet that allow you to access various dictionaries and encyclopedias, but none do it better than GuruNet. The program, available for download, is a sleek, easy-to-use reference tool that gives you access to more than 150 informational sources, including Houghton-Mifflin’s American Heritage Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, Columbia Press encyclopedias, MedicineNet, and Acronym Finder.

The program, which works best with an always-on broadband connection, is exceptionally easy to use: you just type a word or phrase into one of two windows, or click on a word on your screen–in Word, your browser, or wherever–and hold down the ALT key while clicking the left mouse button. The program will automatically open up to offer you information on your search. You can even hear how the word or phrase is pronounced, see images, or read current news stories related to the word or phrase in question.

The information is listed in tabs across the top of the screen and if, for example, you’re researching a medical term, a Medical tab will insert itself into the mix. In fact, which tabs present themselves depends entirely on your query. If you search for Russia, a Geography tab will appear, while a search for Spider-Man will show Cartoon and Toy tabs.

GuruNet is at its best when you keep things simple. One- or two-word phrases often return the best results, while longer queries can occasionally confuse the software and often lead only in links to search engine results. With that limitation in mind, GuruNet is still far and away the best program of its kind. If you do a lot of research and need answers waiting at your fingertips, you have to give this software a spin.

The full version of GuruNet is free to try for seven days. You can continue to use it after that, but the program defaults to accessing only a dictionary, thesaurus, and spell checker. The full cost ($30) gets you unfettered access to the network and all it has to offer for a full year, which is a very small price to pay in order to avoid trawling through pages of search engine links for the information you need. With GuruNet, the world is in your Windows.

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