Cloud storage makes new computer setup simple and organized

Earlier this week, I set up a new computer and it wasn’t completely horrible, thanks to “cloud storage.” Nearly all of my important information — contacts, photos, music, and more — isn’t stored on my computer. Therefore, once I got the new laptop connected to the Internet, all I had to do was log into the various services I subscribe to and I was back in business.

Years ago, buying a new computer was a bittersweet process. It’s always exciting to get a shiny, new machine, but the process of transferring your data from the old one to the new one was painful. I can remember emailing stuff to myself, using a USB flash drive over and over and even connecting two computers with a cable. Not to mention the hours and hours of time spent waiting for huge collections of photos and music to transfer, and the stress of getting emails and contacts in place.

Today, things have changed.

Photos

For me, the answer is Flickr. I love that it has:

  1. A terabyte of storage for free. If you’re shooting 7 megapixel photos, that’s 499,000 individual, full-resolution shots.
  2. Privacy. It’s easy to determine who gets access to which photo.
  3. Browse and share photos in full resolution.
  4. Mobile apps. There’s a Flickr app for the iPhone and Google Play. I haven’t used the Google Play app, but the iPhone version features auto-upload, meaning every photo you shoot is sent to Flickr automatically (and set to private by default). It’s instant, hands-off backup.

Contacts

Who you stay in touch with is another extremely important set of data. I use Apple’s iCloud for storing all of my contact information. Whenever I add, update, or organize information for a person or business, it’s backed up to Apple’s servers. (And shares that information with all of my Apple iCloud-connected devices.) When I get a new computer, I simply log in and it’s downloaded instantly. If you don’t use Mac products, you can have similar functionality with Google’s Gmail, Yahoo mail, and others.

Calendars

Again, this is mission-critical data that can’t be lost. I can’t imagine the horror of having my calendar information deleted. Fortunately, I needn’t perform any data transfer dark magic because everything lives on Google Calendar. Google Calendar, or Gcal as I call it, works with my Mac and iPhone seamlessly. It’s super easy to share information with others and integrates with other apps that I love. Gcal works on all major operating systems.

Documents

There are several ways to keep almost every other kind of document off your computer and in the cloud. Dropbox is an obvious choice (this is what Erin uses). The company offers 2 GB of online storage for free, and more if you’re interested in paying for it. It works with Macs, Windows machines, iOS, Android and nearly any modern web browser.

Box.net is another popular choice, with much the same functionality. I rely heavily on iCloud again here. Most of my writing is done in a Mac app called Byword, which will automatically upload any document I write to iCloud. When I set up my new computer, all I had to do was install Byword, launch it, sign in, and all of my documents were ready to go.

Unclutter your tech with the Rule of One

From time-to-time, I’ll think about this post I read on Apartment Therapy back in 2010. For whatever reason, the post stuck with me. The advice in the post espouses The Rule of One, which breaks down like this:

Keep the things you own (especially technology) down to only one.

I like the idea, but am still trying to figure out if I can apply it to everything in my life. I certainly need to have more than one shirt, for instance. But, in other areas, could it make sense for me? I especially like this insight:

Listening to music? One iPod. One speaker set … Hold on to that one item for as long as possible.

Like I said, it’s impractical for me to apply the Rule of One to all aspects of my possessions. I have several baseball hats and I like to wear them all, so I don’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of all but one of them. But, a quick glance at my iPhone reveals a problem. I have seven weather applications. I’ve also got four note-taking apps and four camera apps. Yes, each does something unique, but honestly none of them is markedly different than the other. I don’t need all four camera apps, for instance, and should decide on one “keeper.” The rest are clutter in that they consume precious storage space on my iPhone and clutter my mind, as I must stop and choose one every time I want to take a picture.

I also like Nguyen’s advice to “hold on to that item for as long as possible.” My Internet buddy Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac has written about this topic several times. In an article called “The Season of Stuff,” he gives good, pre-emptive uncluttering advice for the holiday season:

You can pledge to get rid of an amount of stuff equal to the amount you receive. You can let those who love you know that you do not want more stuff but want something less tangible instead (breakfast in bed, money for a favorite charity, etc.). Ask for specific stuff you really truly need that will add years of value to your life on a daily basis.

Now, if you have superfluous tech that you’d like to get rid of, don’t just bring it to the dump. There are several ways to recycle it responsibly:

  • Donation. Is there a group, organization or school nearby that would love to have it? Give them a call.
  • Best Buy. This American big box store will accept three electronic items per household per day for responsible recycling. It’s free, and no-questions-asked. You didn’t have to buy the item there to recycle it there.
  • Seek a local alternative. For example, Free Geek is an Oregon-based service that takes your electronics, similar to Best Buy’s program. Search around to find something similar in your area.

Look at the tech you use every day and decide, is any of this superfluous? Can I follow the Rule of One in this area of my life? If so, unclutter the extraneous items and enjoy having fewer distractions.

What’s in your digital junk drawer?

Earlier this week, Jeri asked about the junk drawer that’s probably in your home (it’s okay, almost all of us have one). But junk drawers exist in places beyond your cabinets. There’s another one that’s even more covert, and it’s your computer. There’s all sorts of stuff in there, and much of it can be safely tossed away. I’ll reveal what junk is on mine and give you suggestions for how to deal with similar junk on your machine.

Junk

There’s a of stuff that is, in the strictest sense, junk on my computer. These items can be thrown away with no negative consequences.

What is it?

  • Old software installers
  • Links to web pages I’ve lost interest in
  • Notes on projects long past

Where is it?

For me, most of the junk is in my “Downloads” folder. That’s where my web browser places items I’ve downloaded. For many of you, the folder is probably on your desktop. For me, it’s a folder in my Home folder. To see where your browser is placing downloads, look at its settings or preferences. Then, get in there, go through what you find and delete anything that’s absolutely unnecessary.

I found some true junk in my email software, too. Now I know that many of you like or even have to keep archival email. Still, instructions to the restaurant you visited three years ago is probably safe to throw away (especially if it was a lousy restaurant). Use you own good judgment when making this decision.

Reference material

Here’s a very popular category for a junk-drawer. I’m talking about information that doesn’t require you to do anything, but might be useful in the future.

What is it?

Almost anything:

  • A summer schedule for the local community theatre
  • Operating instructions for that new radio
  • Information from Jr.’s school
  • Material for a meeting

Where is it?

For most people, this reference material is in your email. I know that a huge number of you use your email software as a filing cabinet. I think this is a bad idea, as I explained in my very first post for Unclutterer (was that really two years ago?). If that’s you and you’re happy – perhaps you’ve got a folder system or a method of archiving/search that works – great. For me, Evernote is my digital filing system. It’s where all of my reference material lives, including user manuals.

Memorabilia

Yes, memorabilia can be digital, too. I’ve got quite a bit stashed here and there.

What is it?

  • Photos
  • Pleasant emails
  • Quick videos
  • Scanned sketches from the kids

Where is it?

For me, almost all of the clutter in this category lives in my photo software. You’re probably thinking, “But Dave, that’s what it’s for!” You’re right, and bravo for not piling photos on the desktop or who knows where. But, if you take as many photos as I do, your library will grow unwieldy quickly.

You can keep on top of it by archiving your work. Most computers can burn discs or DVDs and it’s a nice idea to make an archive as the year ends, to be stored away. Just understand that data stored on a CD or DVD won’t last forever, so consider digital storage, too.

An external drive is a good idea, as is a service like Flickr, which gives customers one terabyte of storage. A terabyte can hold a lot of photos. Flickr also lets you tag, categorize, sort and organize to your heart’s content, so that one image you need is easily found.

… and the rest

There’s likely other stuff hanging out your computer that’s prime for more organized storage or outright disposal. Duplicates of files are certainly up for deletion. Occasionally, I’ll find a piece of software I haven’t used in ages, little notes I made while working on an article, images I no longer need and so on. It’s helpful to take an hour or so once in a while to identify and purge this temporary stuff.

Now that you’ve tackled the junk drawer in the kitchen, turn you attention to the one on you’re computer. You’ll be glad you did.

Improve your productivity by reading the manual

I recently saw a comment online that read something like, “All I use the iPhone’s Home button is for is taking screenshots. What else is it for?” Here at Unclutterer, we believe that knowing what your gear is capable of doing improves your productivity and helps to keep you organized. In short, we think you should always read the manual so you get the most of your technology and don’t waste your time and money. With that in mind, the following is a list of the things that simple little Home button can do for iPhone and iPad owners, as described in the products’ manuals.

  1. Go home. This is the most important feature. No matter where you are, you can get back to home screen with a tap. If he gets frustrated or lost, it’s comforting to know that a single tap of the Home button is the way out. He can start over.
  2. Take screenshots. Yes, it does this and it’s quite useful. Hold down to Home button and the power button (top of the device) for just a second to take a screenshot. You’ll hear a “camera shutter” noise and find the image in your Camera Roll
  3. Multi-Task Bar. A double-tap reveals the apps you’ve opened most recently, in order. Tap any one to jump right to it. Or, swipe the image of the app screen up and it will close the app.
  4. Wake. Tap the Home button to wake your iPhone’s display.
  5. Reset. Force a misbehaving iPhone to shut down by holding down the Home button and power button simultaneously until the screen goes dark. When you see an Apple logo, let go. Note that you only have to do this if your phone is seriously misbehaving.
  6. Siri. Press and hold the Home button to get the attention of Siri, Apple’s automated assistant.
  7. Accessibility functions. The Home button can perform one of five accessibility functions: toggle VoiceOver, switch the display to white-on-black, toggle zoom, toggle AssistiveTouch and ask which function should be performed. You can set this up in the Accessibility Settings.
  8. Exit “Jiggle Mode.” Jiggle Mode refers to the state your iPhone is in when you’re rearranging or removing app icons. To enter Jiggle Mode, tap and hold on any app icon. When you’re done, tap the Home button to resume normal functioning.

By reading the manual we discovered this one button can do eight separate things.

Think about all of the devices you own and all of the buttons on those devices. Do you know what every single one of those buttons does? Can it perform more than one function? If you have technology in your home or office and you don’t know all that it can do, take a few minutes now to read the manual to save you time and money in the future.

Tech to help keep those New Year’s resolutions

I don’t have a failsafe solution for meeting your 2014 resolutions, but I have a few suggestions for tech gadgets and online resources to help you stay organized while trying to achieve your goals.

The following is a list of common New Year’s resolutions and related gadgets or Internet tools to help you track and/or be organized in your pursuit to achieve each one:

  1. Get fit and/or lose weight. Gym managers around the world await January 1 with great anticipation, as that is when newly-determined customers show up to buy memberships. With or without a gym membership, you can track your day-to-day march toward better health with a Fitbit. It tracks your movement, records your stats, and helps to chart your progress toward fitness goals. Compared to wearing a pedometer and heart monitor and logging and charting your daily steps and constantly fluctuating heart rate by hand, the device is extremely convenient.
  2. Drink less alcohol. If you’re a social drinker who wants to cut down a bit, check out some of the tips at Drinkaware. In addition to helpful articles, the site offers a browser-based app to let you keep track your intake and notice trends.
  3. Learn something new. There are so many great options for this resolution. I love the site Instructables, which has tutorials on making everything from a hockey jersey to a garden bench to an outdoor fire pit. Monkeysee is a similar site with a focus on video tutorials. If you’re keen to learn a foreign language, consider the Rosetta Stone system (I used an extended trial of Japanese and loved it) or any of the tools from Innovative Language Learning (again, I used it with much success for Japanese).
  4. Improved work/life balance. As a person who works from home, I’m very familiar with this daily dance. Something I’ve used is FocusBooster. This browser-based tool lets you set timed, alternating work and break periods. Set it up and when the timer sounds, take a break. After the break period ends, get back to work. It’s similar to the Pomodoro Technique. But in my experience, the best thing to do is commit to work hours and that’s that.
  5. Volunteer. This is definitely a worthwhile resolution, but can be hard to find opportunities in your area. VolunteerMatch.org is a great place to start if you don’t already have a specific project or organization in mind. Enter your location and the type of volunteer work you like to do, and the service will present you the best matches it can find.
  6. Save money. How many times have you said, “That’s it, this year I’m going to increase my savings by [x]”? I’ve said it quite a bit. You Need A Budget has helped me. It’s more than software, though that is a big part of the product. “YNAB,” as it’s called, is a budget-focused software management application for your computer or mobile device. The company also has a very informative blog and hosts frequent webcasts, which I’ve found helpful.
  7. Get organized. My first instinct is to say, “Read Unclutterer,” but you knew that. Since the site is deep with archives, you can find help for organizing pretty much every area of your life. Specifically, one of my favorite data organizing tools is Evernote, which I use as an electronic filing cabinet; a filing cabinet that is almost always available, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. There are many gadgets that work with Evernote, extending its usefulness. To get the most out of the service, check out this ebook, Evernote Essentials.
  8. Read More. My first suggestion is to consider an electronic book reader to help keep book clutter at bay. The current Kindle Paperwhite is a fantastic little device that makes it easy to get books and carry them around. Also consider Scribd, which is described as “Netflix for books.” For less than nine bucks a month, you can read unlimited digital books on your computer or mobile device.

Good luck with whatever New Year’s resolutions you set for 2014.

2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Tech for organization

Do you have a tech-friendly organization devotee on your holiday shopping list? Then you are in luck because this is among the easiest, most fun groups to shop for. A tech geek — for lack of a better term — is always willing to try out a new gadget, system, or tool, just in case it’s an improvement over what she/he is already using. As a tech geek, I’m speaking from experience.

The following are several gift ideas that are likely to make the tech geek in your life happy:

  1. The Doxie Flip Scanner. The newest addition to the Doxie family of scanners (released just a couple of weeks ago), is a delightful little device. This portable (about 6.5 x 10 x 1 inches and 1 lb 7.3 oz.), battery-powered, flatbed scanner is perfect for scanning photos, books, sketches, manuals and so much more. It easily fits into almost any bag and saves scans to an SD card for easy transfer. Here’s a cool tip: If you have a wireless-capable Eye-Fi card, skip the middle man and scan directly to your computer over Wi-Fi.
  2. New Trent Travelpak. The Travelpak is a portable recharging device that can supply extra juice to anything that accepts a charge via USB. That means iPhones, iPods, iPads, tablets, cameras and smartphones of all kinds. It stores enough power to keep most smartphones going for a days under normal use. And, it’s barely bigger than a phone, so it fits into a bag or pocket easily. Useful and portable? That’s a winning combo to me.
  3. BookBook Travel Journal. This one is for the iPad-wielding traveler. The BookBook Travel Journal from Twelve South is a tidy, organized, and absolutely fantastic-looking carrying case for an iPad and myriad of accessories. You can store the tablet plus a charger (like the awesome PlugBug), set of headphones, keyboard case, stylus, notebook, and pen. Twelve South makes fantastic products (check out similar carriers for the iPhone, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air) and the Travel Journal is no exception. Tidy, attractive, and best of all, useful.
  4. CoverBot Dual USB High Output Car Charger. Here’s another wonderfully unobtrusive device that will keep all your favorite tech geek’s devices charged. The CoverBot Duo is a car charger with two USB-ready ports. Each is fully powered, so you can get two devices up and running at the same pace. As with the New Trent Travelpak, the CoverBot Duo works with any device that will accept a charge via USB.
  5. Philips HF3500/60 Wake-Up Light. Now this is just cool. The Wake-Up Light wakes you up by growing gradually brighter over a 30-minute period. This process, according to Phillips, stimulates your body to wake up naturally, as opposed to the jarring audio alert of most alarm clocks. Phillips sent us one to review and we’re glad they did. Additionally, once fully illuminated, it easily lights up a bedroom. Replace that lamp and save some space on your nightstand, too.
  6. BLaNKcraft Cable Manager. With two iPhones and an iPod in the house, I spend way too much time plugging, unplugging, replacing, or searching for cables. It’s worse when we’re traveling, as one pocket of my bag ends up holding a rat’s nest of white cable. The BLaNKcraft Cable Manager can rescue your tech geek from cable chaos. This handmade, leather strap is so simple and so clever that I just love it. Bind your cables with the snap, tuck it into a bag, pocket, or drawer and you’re good to go. As an alternative, the Cord Taco is another great choice.
  7. Tile. This clever little fob attaches to your valuables (up to 10) and lets you track their location with an iOS app. Lose the keys? Misplace a wallet? Don’t know where the kids’ backpacks have gone? You’re a tap away from solving the mystery.
  8. Automatic. This is among my top gadgets of the year. The Automatic is a little device that plugs into your car’s data port (check if your car is supported here) and shares a host of useful information. For example, if you car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, the Automatic will tell you what’s wrong via the companion smartphone app (iOS and Android). If it detects an accident has occurred, it notifies local authorities. It remembers where you parked and even helps you drive in a more economical manner. It even supports multiple drivers.
  9. The Quirky Plug Hub. Finally, here’s another great way to rid yourself of a rat’s nest of cables. Put a power strip inside and use the three holes in the top to thread six plugs through neatly. You don’t have to look at the ugly plug unit once it’s tucked inside. Take things a step further and add some labels to those plugs so you’ll know what’s going where.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Ten DIY gadget charging stations

“Where can I plug this in?” is a dilemma of the contemporary age.

As phones and tablets become more popular, two problems arise. First, most wall sockets only accommodate two items each. That’s easily remedied by connecting a power strip. One plug becomes five or six, and you’re good to go.

But the solution to the first problem begets problem number two: the jumble of cables and wires is just ugly. Plus, they get tangled, swapped, and misplaced. You could spend money on a decent-looking solution or whip up your own home charging station. The following are 10 great examples I found while poking around the Internet. Each charges several devices simultaneously and looks a lot better than a power strip and a rat’s nest of wires.

  1. Hidden in a drawer. I first saw this solution on Pinterest. It keeps everything out of sight completely by placing the whole lot inside a drawer. The setup is simple: drill a hole in the back of the drawer, thread the power strip cord through and plug it in. You might want to fasten the power strip to the bottom of the drawer to keep it from wobbling around with double-sided tape or velcro.
  2. Converted storage box. This rig was inspired by ribbon boxes that store the ribbon inside and feed it through a small hole. Here, holes were cut into a storage box that you can find at any craft store. The holes were reinforced with oval bookplates, held in place with small brad nails. From there, the power strip was placed inside and the device cables fed through the new holes. It looks great and there’s really no need to open it.
  3. Night Stand recharging station. This one wins the prize for most dramatic before-and-after photos, as an upturned cardboard box is replaced by a nice-looking end table. Holes will drilled in the rear of the unit and the charging cables fed through. Just don’t look behind it, though. I fear there’s an hidden rat’s nest against that wall.
  4. Super easy plastic bin. This one isn’t long on looks but it’s probably the least expensive solution here. Plus, it gets the job done. Small holes were cut into the rear and lid so that cables could be fed through. Sure, you can see inside but it’s still nice to not have to deal with what’s inside.
  5. Vintage case. Here’s a solution that is long on looks. Ryan at Weekly Geek, who put this together, describes his love of de-tangling electronic cables: “Jaws clenched and temples throbbing the world silently fades as my focus gets narrower and more fierce. That mess is broken, and I have to fix it. Why won’t they let me fix it?” His vintage-valise-as-charging-station is a thing to behold and not for he feint of heart. You can review what’s required here. The results, however, are very nice indeed.
  6. Converted IKEA storage unit. I’ll admit that I love IKEA. Even those little meatballs in the cafeteria are good. In this example, an enterprising soul at IKEA Hackers converted the company’s Estetisk storage unit into a nice-looking charging station. Holes were drilled into the back and the “cubbies” were outfitted with custom plywood inserts. Well done.
  7. Re-purposed plastic bottle. You got me, this only charges a single item. But look at how cute and convenient it is! By deftly cutting a plastic lotion bottle and applying some decoration, Ashley at Make It & Love It has a great-looking holder that hangs on the charger itself and corrals the phone and its cable. Very nice.
  8. Old books. Some of you will balk at the idea of chopping up an old book, but the rest should check this out. Yes, it’s a single-device solution again, but it’s very nice-looking. There are several available in this Etsy shop, but I’m sure you could figure it out for yourself with an X-Acto knife and some time.
  9. Converted shoe box. Here’s another quick-and-dirty solution that works well. This is similar to the storage box – you’re cutting holes in a shoe box, reinforcing them with grommets and feeding the cables through – but less expensive. Plus, since you’re starting with a shoe box, do some decorating to get it looking nice. Time to break out the Mod Podge.
  10. Vintage breadbox. Finally, a converted vintage bread box. This one requires the most work and some basic carpentry skills (and the right decor) but you’d never guess there’s a jumble of wires and charging electronics inside of there.

I hope you found this list inspirational. You do have to charge your gadgets but the process needn’t result in a jumbled mess. Go forth and make a great little charging station.

Give your smart phone and tablet a good uncluttering

A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.

That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.

  1. Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
  2. Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
  3. Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
  4. Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
  5. Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
  6. Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
  7. Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.

There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.

Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.

First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
  2. Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
  3. Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
  4. Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.

Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.

20130821_ipadscreen2

Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.

Free up computer disk space

My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?

If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.

To the cloud!

First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.

Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.

Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.

What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.

Cleaning house

While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:

  1. Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
  2. Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.

    It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.

  3. Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.

It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.

Add physical storage

You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.

Uncluttered ringtones for smartphones

20130710_cleartonesLike many of you, I enjoy the convenience and fun of owning a smartphone. However, I detest loud, obnoxious ring tones. It’s jarring to be in a room with someone whose phone suddenly begins blaring a Metallica riff. My iPhone shipped with several options for ring tones, and several are acceptable. But, there is still much to be desired.

I had an opportunity to review Cleartones, which are non-obnoxious and downright minimal ringtones and alert sounds for the iPhone and Android. (Thanks to Cleartones for letting me give these a try.) After a week of testing these sounds, I can safely say they’re the least annoying ringtones I’ve heard.

When I’m picking a ringtone, I’m looking for three things:

  1. It can’t be embarrassing in a professional or more formal setting. Something goofy might amuse my friends over the weekend, but that won’t cut it when with a client.
  2. It must be loud enough to be heard while in a pocket. This might be a function of my age, but I don’t always hear my iPhone ring when it’s in my pocket. I dislike the vibrate function, so the tone I choose must be loud enough for me to hear through clothing from a few feet away.
  3. It can’t be insistent. People think I’m crazy on this one, but hear me out. A ringtone’s job is to let me know when someone is calling. It rings, I hear it, and then I respond. There are many rings out there that repeat almost instantly, over and over. I want a good “five Mississippi” between rings. I know someone’s calling, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.

With these points in in mind, here’s what I found from Cleartones.

The company offers two sets of tones, each with three packaging options. The original set is Cleartones Classic. These are mostly electronic-sounding tones, each super brief. The one called “A Clear Tone” is literally a single, electronic “ping” that repeats every six seconds. It’s like the Cleartone developers were reading my mind when they designed this one. Others, like “Loud & Clear” sound like an old ’90’s portable phone, while “The Friendly Tone” fades in and out quickly. The “Classics” set contains 50 tones for $10. Likewise, the Classics Notifications set offers 50 sounds to use with sms, email, voicemail and other alerts. It also sells for $10. Or, you can buy the lot — 100 sounds — for $17.

The other set of sounds is called Cleartones Organic, which feature acoustic instruments exclusively, like metal bells, glass bowls, a vibraphone, and more. This is my favorite set. “Hello There Wood” is very nice, as it’s three sharp raps on a wooden block, but my favorite is “Gamelong:” two quick taps on a glass bowl that repeats every five seconds. It meets all my criteria.

Just like the Classic set, Cleartones Organics ringtones and notifications sets (50 each) are available for $10, or you can buy all 100 for $17.

I should mention another company that sells pleasant ringtones called iRingPro. Their site was recently hacked, unfortunately, but you can still access their web store. iRingPro focuses more heavily on nature sounds.

They’re all worth checking out and, in most cases, are more pleasant and uncluttered than whatever shipped with your phone. Also, if you have another favorite set of uncluttered ringtones, please share your finds with everyone in the comments.

Ten awesome Dropbox tricks

Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.

What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.

Save space with selective sync

My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.

To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at dropbox.com, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.

Access previous versions of files

Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.

Go to dropbox.com and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.

Backup your smartphone photos automatically

This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.

Mark files as favorites for offline access

I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.

To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.

Recover deleted files

“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to dropbox.com and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.

Back up your blog, two ways

I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.

If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.

Print a PDF right to Dropbox

Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.

When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.

Back up your Instagram photos

Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.

Publish a website (pancake)

Pancake.io is a free service that lets you publish a blog or website right from your Dropbox account. It’s quite simple to set up and you can find all the details on how to do it on the Pancake site.

Trello is a free, effective, family organizer

A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.

In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.

Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.

We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.

Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.

The need for quick capture of ideas and news

Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)

As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.

Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.