Organize your web bookmarks

As a person who writes online for a living, I’m constantly finding articles and other insights I want to read. I don’t, however, always have time to read what I find when I find it. So, I must save those articles and websites for later viewing.

Unfortunately, I’m really bad at it.

I’m a Mac user, and the Mac’s operating system will let you drag web addresses into the “Dock” at the bottom of the screen. The good news is that sites and pages saved this way are a click away once saved. The bad news is that if you’ve saved many (as I have), the result are a row of identical icons. The only way to determine where one is pointing is to mouse over it. It’s a cluttered mess. With this in mind, I went searching for alternatives and found the following.

Instapaper: This solution seems to have been made with me in mind. With a single click, I can save an article, site or page to the Instapaper service, which is accessible via a browser, iPhone, iPad, Android, or Kindle. I can leave notes on the articles I’ve saved and even read them when offline.

Historious: This is a searchable history of web pages you’ve marked. To get started, create an account and then drag the Historious bookmark to your browser bar. Then, when you’re on a site or page you want to read later, simply click the bookmark. When you want to find a page again, go to the Historious website and search for a term that was on that site, and it’ll find it for you.

Pinboard: Pinboard isn’t free at $11/year, but there are no ads and no frills. Just bookmark your favorite addresses and refer to them later. Since it works in a browser, it’s compatible with nearly anything you can throw at it. It will even sync with Instapaper if that’s something you want to use.

Ember: This Mac-only software lets you collect URLs but goes way beyond that. You can take snapshots of a web page, too, and annotate it. Everything you save to Ember can be gathered into collections, making it easy to organize by project, work vs. home, interests, what have you. It’s quite useful.

There you have several options for getting you web bookmarks organized. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my reading and organizing work cut out for me.

Google Photos offers convenient storage and search option

Google has offered a new photo management service and set of apps simply named Google Photos. It looks like it could be a good solution for the confounding issue of digital photo management.

I’ve written about my struggles with digital photos several times here on Unclutterer. The ease with which we can take hundreds of photos creates a modern issue: managing mountains of photos. There are several solutions available and now Google is pushing its latest, Google Photos.

Google Photos was once a part of its Google+ service, which has failed to catch on as the company hoped it would. Now free to exist as an independent product, Google Photos is ready for mainstream use if you’re willing to accept a trade-off.

First, it stores all images in the cloud (read: a remote server). Many people are comfortable with cloud-based services in 2015, but people are also protective of their family photos. If it’s any consolation, I store my photos this way. Also, images uploaded to Goole Photos are private by default.

Using a cloud-based storage solution frees up oodles of space on your device (Google Photos supports iPhone, Android, and the Web). Also, you can enjoy unlimited storage … as long as you’re okay with a photo resolution of 16 megapixels and video at 1080p (I am). Otherwise, you have options. You can get 15 GB of Google Drive storage for free, and you can purchase 100 GB for $1.99 per month, or 1 TB a month for $9.99, which isn’t awful.

But it’s not the storage that I find amazing, it’s the search functionality that makes this so cool.

Google is synonymous with searching, so having a strong search function should be no surprise. If you’re looking for a photo of you dog, for instance, you can simply type “dog” into the search field. There’s no need to remember dates or locations. Just “dog” will bring up every image you have of a dog. You can even search for color, like “green,” and Google Photos will bring up your images of grass, leaves, green t-shirts and so on. I’ve been playing with it and it’s impressive. No tagging was involved.

Another cool trick is it will find images that were taken on the same day or at the same location, and group them into “stories” or collages for you. You can opt to browse these once or save them to your camera roll if you want to alter the “stories” it creates.

If you’re someone who finds himself searching for that one photo you have in mind that you took that one time, well Google Photos will likely be able to help you with that. Google Photos isn’t the perfect answer, but it’s a very good one.

Organize your smartphone for summer travel

For people who own smartphones, one of your phone’s benefits is that it can serve as your mobile computer when you’re traveling. To help facilitate this change in purpose, you may also wish to switch things up on your phone. You can make adjustments to the the apps on your home screen, the alerts your smartphone delivers, and more before departing for a trip. The following suggestions are what I recommend making to your smartphone while preparing to travel.

Re-organize applications

Depending on the model of smartphone you have, you likely have a limited number of apps you can store on your phone’s main screen. With this in mind, consider which apps you’ll want to access most often during a trip, and move them to the main screen. You can move all your other apps to subsequent screens, reducing visual clutter and saving yourself from playing “hide and seek” on your phone when your connectivity may not be as consistent as it is at home. I typically have these apps on my home screen during a trip (I have an iPhone):

  • Mail
  • Phone
  • Safari
  • Maps
  • Messages
  • Camera
  • Evernote
  • Kayak
  • Motion-X GPS Drive
  • Path
  • Rdio
  • Any destination-specific apps

Most of these apps have obvious functions: phone calling, web browsing, navigating, texting, listening to music, and shooting photos and video. The others have specific duties.

Evernote is my database for everything digital. It lets me create and browse a fast, lightweight, and searchable repository of all the specifics I’ll need for my trip: hotel reservations, airport details, parking locations, confirmation numbers, and so much more are all a tap away. In fact, my “everything database” has all but eliminated paper from my travel materials.

Motion-X GPS Drive (iOS only) is my preferred turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPhone. It’s reliable, inexpensive, and easy to use. Advanced features, like saved searches and synthetic voices that are genuinely easy to understand, make it a winner. (Erin would like to note that she’s addicted to Waze, which is available for Mac and Windows phones.)

Path is a social networking application with an interesting premise: unlike Facebook and Twitter, which invite users to broadcast their comings and goings to whoever will listen, Path asks you to invite a handful of family and friends to share your favorite moments. I often use it with my family, most of whom also do a fair amount of traveling.

Finally, I’ll add any destination-specific apps I find. For instance, there are several great apps available for navigating Walt Disney World. In 2011, Macy’s released an official Thanksgiving Day Parade app. Search your favorite App Store for apps related to your destination.

ID your equipment for instant recognition

Not every trip is a vacation. I often travel for work and when I do, my smartphone is in tow, as is a pile of other tech goodies, like wall chargers, cables, keyboards and so on. What’s more, I meet colleagues who also travel with gadgets, often identical to my own. To avoid confusion, I mark my own stuff for easy organizing.

The easiest and least permanent way to label cables and equipment is with a small sticker. I prefer the colorful circles people often use in retail to identify sale items, etc. You’ll find them at most big-box office supply stores. I’ll put a red circle, for instance, on all of my chargers, cables, iPhone and iPad case, keyboards, and so on. That way if there’s a question about who owns what, I can ask, “Is there a red sticker?”

Stickers are impermanent, too, and I like that. Someday I might want to sell or give away some of my gear and no one will want it if it’s got “Dave Caolo” written on it in black permanent marker. The stickers are easy to remove and don’t leave any residue.

While stickers work, they’re not always the most elegant solution. For something a little better-looking, consider Buoy Tags (or similar). These customizable plastic tags clip onto USB cables. You can add your own initials, name, phone number, etc. Tags like this are very handy.

Disable alerts

I’ll admit, I check email during trips with my family. However, I reduce the temptation to spend too much time on this app by making it less attractive. First, I disable the alert sound/vibration completely. Next, I disable the alert icon that appears whenever there is a new message. And finally, I move the app into a folder so it is more difficult to access and see. When I get on my phone to pull up a hotel reservation, I’m not lured into email–on, off, and back to my relaxing trip.

Evaluating your computer backup strategy

World Backup Day is March 31 — a good reminder to take a moment to think about how you’re doing your backups, and whether or not there’s something you’d like to adjust. Consider the following points:

Are you backing up all your critical files?

Some backup tools will back up everything on your computer. Others won’t backup your software programs (Microsoft Office, Evernote, TurboTax, etc.), assuming you can simply reinstall those. Some may depend on you to list exactly which files you want to back up. And you may use an entirely manual process rather than a program, which also means you need to determine the files you include in your backup.

In the final two cases, especially, be sure you’re thinking about all your important files. I’ve seen people lose extensive collections of bookmarks/favorites from their favorite browser because the relevant files weren’t backed up. (They aren’t stored in the same place as documents and photos.)

Do your backup programs fit your needs?

You may choose to run one backup program or multiple ones for added protection (one local backup and one in the cloud, for example). In either case, consider the following guidelines:

  • Make sure at least one backup program runs automatically. Everyone’s busy, and almost everyone is a bit lazy about backups. Having a program that runs automatically can save you from yourself.
  • Make sure at least one program creates an offsite backup. That usually means using a cloud backup service, but it could also involve taking a backup drive and putting it in a safe deposit box. This will protect you if there’s a theft, a fire, or some other tragedy that could affect everything in your home.
  • Make sure at least one program saves files you’ve deleted from your computer as well as older versions of files you still have. If your only backup is one that mirrors your computer as it is at the time of the last backup, you’ll be in trouble if you delete a file by mistake, make an update you didn’t want to make, or wind up with a corrupted file because of a hardware problem.
  • If having a new or repaired computer fully functional as quickly as possible is critical to you, look for a program that will create a bootable external backup drive. This means you can start your computer using an external hard drive as the data source, rather than your computer’s internal hard drive. SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are two alternatives for those using Macs, and I’ve been very happy with SuperDuper. I’m not as familiar with what’s available for those using PCs.

Do you check your backup status messages?

Programs will handle this differently, but all will provide some status indicator. For my cloud backup service, for example, I get daily emails. It’s easy to overlook these repetitive messages, but don’t do that. Take the time to make sure they aren’t alerting you to a problem.

Have you tested your backups?

As Gabe Weatherhead of MacDrifter tweeted, “A backup doesn’t count until you’ve done a restore from it at least once.”

While restoring all files for testing purposes is usually not practical, you can certainly try restoring a file or two and making sure things look okay. I knew someone who had to restore a great many files, and had never tested her backups until that time. Sadly, she found that while that files got restored, the date stamp on the files was not correct, which caused her numerous problems.

If you’re creating a bootable external backup drive, try booting from that drive and making sure everything seems to work okay.

Do you have the license keys and/or serial numbers for all your software?

In order to get your software programs reinstalled or to get them running again after you’ve restored them from a backup, you’re likely to need your license information. Do you have that information readily available? If not, gather it up now so you don’t need to scramble around for it when there’s a problem.

Eliminate unwanted email subscriptions

One of the things I love to do in January is to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists, newsletters, digital sales fliers, and so on. After spending 11 months ignoring them whenever they show up, it’s time to get rid of them entirely. In this post I’ll explain a few ways to purge electronic mail lists from your email inbox, from one-at-a-time to bulk action.

It’s my fault for subscribing in the first place, of course. Often when I do, my intentions are good. I’ll find a new site or service that I’m interested in and think, “Yes, I do want to keep up to date with this company’s stuff.” Once I’ve done that a dozen times, I’m in trouble. Digital clutter is just as insidious as its real-world counterpart, so it’s time to make a change.

Identify likely candidates

I’m not opposed to email subscriptions. There are many that are quite useful (like the Unclutterer email subscriptions, obviously). Therefore, the first step in this process is to identify the ones you’ll get rid of in your purge versus the ones you wish to keep. I do this via a week of mindful email reading. Each day, I’ll make a mental note of the subscriptions I simply delete without reading. If you like, create a folder for these, mark them with a flag or otherwise tag them for future reference. When I did it, I just wrote a list on a piece of paper.

Let the culling begin!

There are a few ways to unsubscribe from unwanted email. If you’ve only got a few to jettison, you could go the manual route. If you look closely in the footer of the email you receive, you’ll see something along the lines of “click to unsubscribe” or simply “unsubscribe.” You might have to look closely, as it’s sometimes hard to find. The message’s sender wants to keep your attention, after all. Clicking this link will bring you to a webpage that likely has further instructions. Many will unsubscribe you then and there, while others will have you jump through additional hoops. It’s kind of a hassle, but worth it when the result is less junk mail. Of course, this method is too time-consuming if you’ve got a long list of unwanted subscriptions. In that case, consider one of the following:

Unroll.me. Not only does Unroll.me help you kill unwanted subscriptions, it makes the keepers more manageable by presenting them in a single, daily digest email. You can even roll things like messages from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube into that single message. Tidy!

Mailstrom. This is another service that lets you cull hundreds or thousands of messages at once and send them all to the big, virtual trash bin in the sky, while keeping the messages you want to see intact. Plus, it works with the email solution you’re probably already using, as it’s compatible with Gmail, Google Apps Email, Outlook, Apple, Aol, and Exchange IMAP.

A tip for Gmail users. If you’re using Gmail, take a close look at the top of a message. You’ll likely see an “Unsubscribe” link. Google has made this a uniform location for this link, which is great, as it saves you from scouring a message’s footer for the hard-to-find default link.

Unlistr. Finally, this is a service that does the dirty work for you. Simply identify the email senders you don’t want to hear from anymore, and Unlistr does the rest, unsubscribing for you. Thanks, Jeeves!

Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Protect your home business computer

Home-based businesses may be small, but they are (hopefully) a significant source of income for their owners and they provide a valuable service to their customers. For this and numerous other reasons, it is essential for these businesses to be able to quickly return to normal operations after a disaster.

One of the more frequent “disasters” in small business is data loss. This often happens when a virus infects the business computer or if the computer’s hard drive fails. The easiest way to protect your business from data loss is by ensuring you have up-to-date anti-virus software and to do regular backups of your computer’s hard drive. Daily backups to an external hard drive is an inexpensive way to ensure you can access your data and continue business operations should your computer crash. However, if your office were destroyed by fire or flood you would also lose your external hard drive, so I strongly recommend a cloud-based data storage solution, too. There are many inexpensive, secure online backup services available.

Protecting your computer system itself is important. Small business owners should purchase a surge protector and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery for each computer. A UPS will prevent electrical power surges from “blowing up” the computer system, and, should there be a loss of power, the battery will provide enough power for the user to back up data and shut the computer down safely.

Fire, flooding and theft are disasters that unfortunately occur all too often in small businesses. Having a detailed inventory of business assets (electronics, furniture, etc.) is essential in order to restore operations as quickly as possible and ensure the insurance company can process the claim promptly. Record the make, model and serial numbers along with receipts of purchase of all your business equipment. Copies of important paper-based records should be available after a disaster. Scan items such as insurance policies, cheques, and signed contracts. If you’ve stored this information on your computer and backed it up to your online storage area, you can access it easily and provide this information to your insurance company.

Disasters do strike, but if you’re organized and prepared your small business will be protected.

Declutter your email subject lines

Long ago in a town far, far away, I was an undergraduate student. I had one teacher, professor O’Brien, who insisted that his students communicate with him via email. Back then, I sent and received at most two messages per week.

Today, you can put a pair of zeros behind that number.

I’m sure I’m not alone. For many, reading emails is more of a chore than a convenience. One thing you can do to make things easier on your recipients is to write clear, uncluttered subject lines. It’s not very difficult, but can go a long way to making this often irksome task more pleasant and efficient.

First and foremost, keep your subject lines short. According to Business Insider, most computer-based email applications only show around 60 characters in email subject lines. On smart phones, mail apps show maybe half that number. Full sentences won’t really work to meet those restrictions, so consider key words or ideas. Focus on the heart of what you’re going to say. And, to be clear, “Hey!” is not a worthwhile subject.

Since mobile phones give you so little to work with, get the most important words out first (often it’s a verb). “Cancel lunch Friday,” for example, is just 19 characters, the crux of the message, and “cancel” is featured first.

With that point made, it’s time for some decluttering. We aren’t shooting for a diagrammable sentence here, so implied words may be sacrificed. This isn’t always a good idea, of course, but if you’re pushing the limit, feel free to jettison an “although” or even an “after,” if you can without changing the meaning.

There are a few people I communicate with regularly who have a habit of indicating whether or I not I need to respond in the subject itself. For example, “no response needed” or “please respond.” I don’t like this practice, though I know many do. I think it’s just extra words for me to process, but I also understand that if you’re skimming your inbox, it can help identify which messages need attention and which can be set aside. I’ll leave this one up to you.

If your recipient understands the meaning, a message that is completely conveyed in a subject line can be ended with an EOM (end of message). This is good for simple status messages like “Finished (EOM)” and “Meet me in lobby in 5 (EOM).” It saves your reader time by knowing they don’t even have to open the email. If you have more than 25 characters, however, it’s best to keep the subject line brief and put a longer message in the body of an email. Anything longer than that and your reader might have to open the email anyway to see the whole subject line.

Finally, I have two pet peeves I want to share with you. Unless you’re aiming to be funny, don’t start a sentence in the subject and then finish it in the body. Typically I din’t know that’s what’s going on, and I read the body as a fragment sentence, which is confusing for a few seconds until I interpret your setup. I’ve seen this work where the subject is the setup and the body is the punchline, but that’s rare.

And, this should go without saying, don’t use all caps. Slogging through email is annoying enough; yelling doesn’t help.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was sitting in the library at Marywood University, that orange cursor blinking at me while I banged out a simple, three-sentence message to Dr. O’Brien. Two messages per week? I could live with that.

Cleaning up your email inbox

Even the most organized among us get behind on basic maintenance tasks at times. One place I’ve recently fallen behind was in clearing out my email inbox. I had been glancing at everything, and dealing with all the most important emails, but was leaving the less-important items to clutter up my email inbox.

On Tuesday, I finally processed and deleted over 800 messages in about six hours, and the following is an explanation of how I did it.

Sort by date

Sorting my emails by date helped me find the obvious items to delete: messages about events that happened months ago, or sales that have long been over.

Sort by sender

Sorting by sender grouped together a few sets of newsletters that I had procrastinated reading, as well as some notifications from a LinkedIn group where people post links to interesting stuff. (I know many people set up rules to move these kinds of messages out of the inbox, but if I did that I’d neglect them forever. At least in my inbox, I kept being reminded they needed my attention.)

Once I started skimming through the newsletters and reviewing the LinkedIn updates, I got into decision-making mode: Was there anything in all this material that I wanted to save for reference or act upon it now? In my case, yes, there was — but not that much.

In the act-upon now category, I found reviews of two books that I might want to read; I downloaded their ebook samples. In another case, a book I wanted was only available in paper format, and I ordered it from the author’s website. Note that these were all quick actions. If an email had triggered a more time-consuming action, I would have just added it to my to-do list.

In the save-for-reference category, Brooks Duncan’s DocumentSnap newsletter provided me with three useful articles about going paperless, and I bookmarked those articles. All three are things I anticipate using with clients or referring to in future writings.

I also watched two short videos that the members of my LinkedIn group highly recommended, and both were well worth my time. One of them was a lovely piece from The New York Times called Love and Stuff, about a daughter dealing with her mother’s possessions after her mother’s death. I also bookmarked the article so I can readily find it again.

Sort by subject

I’m a member of a few email discussion groups, and sorting by the subject line allowed me to quickly see all the messages related to each discussion topic. Some entire conversations could be quickly deleted: those dealing with software tools I don’t use, for example. Others dealt with topics I do care about — for example, there was a discussion about the many ways people use cameras as note-taking tools — and I filed those away for future reference.

Sort by size

Sorting emails by size led me to messages with large attachments. In many cases, I could save the attachment (outside of email) and get rid of the message; in some cases, I didn’t need either the email or the attachment.

Commit to making decisions

Organizers often say that clutter represents deferred decisions, and that was certainly true with my email. All these messages had piled up because I hadn’t taken the time to make decisions about them. I was finally able to get through them because I committed to making decisions about each message in my inbox.

Final note

Based on your employer, you may not be able to delete emails except for obvious spam. If this is the case for your company’s policies, where I mention deleting above you may just archive the messages. Be sure to follow your company’s regulations and best practices.

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Organize podcasts with easy-to-use mobile apps

Several years ago, I described a podcast as a radio show that’s delivered to your iPod. That is still an acceptable definition, only the number of devices that can receive the show has grown. Computers, smartphones, some car stereos, Internet radios, and more all grab podcasts for you.

As the format’s popularity has increased, the technology behind it became simpler to use. Today, people around the world produce and share podcasts on all manner of styles and topics. The more shows you subscribe to, the greater the need for good software to keep it all organized. In this post, I’ll discuss two solutions for mobile devices: one for the iPhone and one for Android. There are several others, of course, but these are two standouts to help you get started.

Apple — Podcasts (Free)

I use Apple’s own Podcasts app on my iPhone. It ships with the iPhone, is free, and is easy to use. When Podcasts was introduced in June of 2012, it was divisive to say the least. Apple was in a playful design phase back then, which manifested itself in the Podcasts app with an animated reel-to-reel tape player that was supposedly inspired by a real unit from Braun. (Sure.) Many fans liked it, and many did not. About a year later, Apple nixed the design, and today we have a nice, clean presentation.

The aesthetic shift was accompanied by additional features that are still in place today.

Finding and subscribing to shows

Apple provides three ways to find shows you’ll like — they are Features, Top Charts and Search.

Features. Tap the star icon at the bottom of the screen to browse the podcasts that Apple has deemed worth showing off. Purple buttons at the top of the screen let you view just audio shows, just video shows, or the whole lot at once.

A “New and Noteworthy” section is a grab-bag of shows that are performing well in iTunes. Beyond that, you’ll find shows that fit in rotating themes. As of this writing, Apple is highlighting the great outdoors and the financial markets, as well as featured providers like Slate, Nerdist and Revision3. Finally, you can tap Categories in the upper left to fine-tune your search.

Top Charts. Here you’ll find the most downloaded shows in each category. Again, you can opt to see audio video podcasts.

Search Finally, you can cut to the chase and search for the name of the show you’re seeking. Podcasts lists show titles and episodes that mention your search term.

Once you’ve found a show you’re interested in, tap the Subscribe button. Podcasts will download the latest episode for you. Note that you’ll see two buttons once you tap on a show’s image: My Episodes and Feed. My Episodes lists the episode(s) that have been downloaded to your device. Feed lists the show’s archive of older episodes, which are not on your device. You can download any of these older shows by tapping the cloud icon to the right of its title.

Organization

Apple makes it easy to keep things organized. To begin with, you can choose between a list view, which shows a small thumbnail of each show’s art, its title, the date of the most recent download, and the number of episodes available. Meanwhile, the album view eschews all that information and instead shows big, bold cover art and a number representing the episodes you haven’t heard.

By default, Podcasts lists shows in the order that you subscribed to them. Fortunately, you can change that. Here’s how:

  1. Tap the Edit button in the upper right.
  2. A three-lined “handle” appears next to each show’s title.
  3. Tap and hold on that handle, then drag the shows into your preferred order.
  4. When you’re finished, tap Done.

Finally, you can create what the app calls Stations. Essentially this is like a playlist in a music app. Simply start a new station by tapping Stations at the bottom of the screen and add any shows you like. I have a sci-fi station and an audio drama station. As each episode is played through, it disappears from the station. New ones are added automatically. This saves a lot of scrolling if you have a many subscriptions.

Pocket Casts by ShiftyJelly ($3.99)

On the Android side, I recommend Pocket Casts. This great-looking app is easy to use and, like Apple’s Podcasts, offers nice options for keeping things organized.

Finding and subscribing to shows

ShiftyJelly recently released version 4.0 with a great-looking new user interface. Unlike Apple’s offering, which puts buttons at the bottom of the screen, Pocket Casts has all controls “behind” the main screen, so your shows are front-and-center. It’s a clean look that I appreciate.

To find shows, swipe finger to the right to move the main screen and reveal the controls. Again, Shifty Jelly’s developers did a good job here because the controls are clear and legible. At the top of the screen you’ll see the Discover button. Tap it to view featured shows. Tap any title to get a description and the option to subscribe.

The search works great, too. Just enter a keyword or name of a show and you’re presented with several options.

Organization

Downloaded episodes are presented in a list with the title and description. There’s a playlist option, too, similar to Podcasts. You can view a list of just unplayed episodes across all of your shows, audio podcasts, or video podcasts.

It’s true that you can obtain, listen to, and organize podcasts with a computer. I happen to listen to podcasts almost exclusively while I’m in the car, and that means I’m using my smartphone. Many developers recognize this trend and build strong organization features into their mobile apps. The fact that I can arrange things to my liking on my phone without having to sync or otherwise communicate with my laptop is a huge benefit.

Picking a podcasting app is a personal thing. As I said, there are many worthy options out there. If you have a favorite, let me know. I’m always willing to try something new if it might be better than what I’m already using.

A simple solution to digital photo management

I recently had a bit of a meltdown regarding the state of my digital photo management. Fortunately, a photographer friend set me straight with advice so obvious I never saw it. First, let me describe my meltdown.

I became unhappy when a photo management service that I loved, that I went all-in on, shut its doors. When I retrieved the 14,000 photos I had uploaded to it, I found that all of the EXIF data had been stripped (EXIF data includes metadata and tags that make images searchable), and I had been left with the digital equivalent of a box full of 14,000 photos in random order.

Like I said, I was not happy.

But really, the problem wasn’t with someone’s failed business. The issue was (and continues to be) the sheer number of photos we take. When I was younger, we had up to 32 opportunities to get a decent picture with a single roll of film. I emphasize decent because that dictated the care with which we shot photos. We didn’t want to waste a single frame.

Today, I’ll take the kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours.

This behavior spawns two problems. The first problem is digital clutter. How many of those 150 photos are worth keeping? Maybe a dozen, if I’m lucky. The second problem is backups. What is the best way to preserve the photographs worth keeping? These are modern problems with, I’ve learned, an old-school solution.

My friend CJ Chilvers is a very talented photographer and, I must say, an insightful guy. He responded to my rant (warning: there’s one mildly not-safe-for-work word in my rant) with a brilliant solution: books.

“The best solution I’ve found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it’s just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems,” he said. He went on to list the benefits of the good old photo book:

It’s archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some … It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what’s going on in the picture … A book doesn’t care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you’d like it printed in the book.

Photo books also solve our problem of backing up the keepers, as they’re the ones that make the cut into the photo book.

There are several companies that let you make great-looking, inexpensive photo books. A handful:

Also, books aren’t going to crash, go out of business, run out of battery life, or otherwise be inaccessible. CJ’s final point is probably my favorite: “Fun. It’s more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.”

Printing books isn’t for everyone, but it’s the organized and archival solution that we have found works for us. I also like handing someone a book of pictures instead of seating them in front of my computer to share in our experiences.