Google Contacts aims to merge Gmail and Google+

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NEW YORK — Google is previewing a vastly improved contacts feature that will eventually become part of Gmail.

The new contacts tool is elegantly designed. Instead of a simple alphabetical list, Google’s new contacts tool sorts people according to importance: First, “starred” (favorite) contacts appear, followed by frequently contacted and then “all contacts.”

You can easily drill down into your groups of contacts with a navigation tool on the left.

When you click on a contact, his or her details appear in an easy-to-understand card. Below the contact card is a list of recent conversations.

Unlike Gmail’s current contacts tool, which separates the information you enter about a contact from the information in her Google profile, the new contact tool merges all that data into one unified contact.

The best new feature is a “find duplicates” tool, which scans through your contact list to determine whether you have multiple entries for a single person. If you do, Google’s new contacts tool will display the entries next to one another, letting you merge individual entries or your entire list with the click of a button.

Gmail’s existing contacts tool also has a “find and merge duplicates” feature, but it’s much more difficult to use. Curiously, when I tried the de-duplication feature on both the preview version and the current version, the current Gmail found far more duplicates than the new version.

In a blog post, Google said it rebuilt the feature “from the ground up,” so it’s possible that it’s looking for different things. Still, it missed some obvious duplicates — likely because the tool is still a little buggy and not yet ready for prime time.

A spokesman from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gmail’s current Excel-like list of contacts was in dire need of a makeover. It hasn’t changed much since the free email service debuted 11 years ago. The bare-bones approach gets the job done, but there’s nothing elegant about it, and it doesn’t scream “easy to use.”

Interestingly, the new contact tool relies heavily on Google+, Google’s soon-to-be-broken-up social network. The search said this week that it is going to reorganize Google+ around its two standout products — Photos and Hangouts — as well as a newly named social feed called “Streams.”

But Google insists that the features of Google+ aren’t going away — they’re just going to take on different forms. Gmail’s new contacts feature is likely the first example of Google’s new social strategy.

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