The best apps to track holiday packages

’Tis the season to track packages.

When I was young, making a purchase via what we called “mail order” went something like this:

  • Find the perfect gift in a catalog
  • Make your purchase by either sending in your billing information or talking on the phone
  • Two to six weeks of crossing your fingers in hopes that your gift actually arrives

It was an act of faith, plain and simple. Today, we can monitor every twist and turn in a package’s journey from distributor to doorstop. I’ve found two apps that do just that very well. Here are my favorite smartphone apps for tracking a package.

The criteria

Before I name my picks, let me share my criteria. First, any app worth considering must support multiple carriers. Sure, UPS, FedEx and others have their own dedicated solutions. I’m sure they’re great too, but unitaskers aren’t allowed, even when it comes to apps.

Next, and this goes without saying, it must be easy to add package info. Those numbers are typically long and complex, and the smarter an app is about managing them, the better.

I also want push notifications. That is, a little alert to pop up, triggered by criteria I define: change in status, arrival in a new state, scanned at a certain facility, etc.

Finally beautiful presentation is essential. While not crucial to functioning, I do have to look at the thing, and it should look nice. With that said, let’s get to my picks.

For iPhone: Deliveries

For me, Deliveries ($4.99) is the package-tracking app I want on my iPhone. I used it for years across many iterations and iPhones. While I’ve tried others, I’ve always come back to Deliveries. It meets all of my criteria and more.

Adding package information to Deliveries is so easy it’s ridiculous. The app automatically notices when a tracking number is on your phone’s clipboard and offers to create a new entry for it. So all you have to do is copy it from the confirmation email and then launch Deliveries. It notices the number as well as the correct carrier all on its own. Just hit the confirmation when it asks if you’d like to create a new entry and that’s it!

One thing to be aware of is that Deliveries won’t always pull the name of the item that’s being delivered. As far as I can tell, that depends on the site of origin. If it can’t see it, you can easily tap the edit button and fill it in yourself. Still, the app does the bulk of the work for you.

Deliveries also supports many carriers, and color-codes entries for easy, at-a-glance reference. For example, packages being delivered by UPS are brown, those from FedEx are purple and so on.

And yes, there is support for push notifications. You can set these up however you like. If you’re a real “Type A,” you can get an alert whenever the package status changes. Otherwise, you can simply get a ping when it leaves the distributor and another when it’s waiting at home.

Lastly, this app looks pretty. Not just pretty, but useful. The color-coding is very helpful and the built-in map support lets you track the journey. In short, Deliveries is absolutely worth every penny of its $4.99 price tag.

Android – ParcelTrack

If you’re on the Android side of things, go and pick up ParcelTrack (free with optional in-app purchases). While it’s not as pretty as Deliveries, it is just as useful, easy-to-use, and reliable. Just like its iOS counterpart, it meets all of my criteria.

As for carrier support, ParcelTrack covers over 20 across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., including UPS, USPS, DHL (Express), FedEx, TNT and more.

As for entering package info, ParcelTrack takes a different approach. When you install the app you’ll receive a special, private email address. Then, when you receive shipping confirmation via email, simply forward it to that special address. ParcelTrack extracts all of the information it needs and creates an entry for you. It works quite well and takes very little time. Also, much like Deliveries, ParcelTrack offers automatic carrier detection.

As your package travels from Point A to Point B, C, D….you get the idea, ParcelTrack sends free push notifications on a schedule that you define. And here’s what else is cool — scan the bar code of a package that you’re shipping and stay informed as it meets your intended recipient.

There you have two great apps for tracking your holiday packages. Whether they’re headed your way our if they’re out to family and friends, you’ll be right there with them.

Being productive with Nextdoor, for uncluttering and more

About a year ago I joined my local Nextdoor community. For those who aren’t aware of Nextdoor, it’s a “private social network for your neighborhood.” Nextdoor is currently available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

As a locally focused network, Nextdoor won’t have messages about national politics. The following are the kinds of messages I usually see:

  • Lost and found pets: dogs, cats, and chickens
  • Other lost and found items, including keys, phones, and jewelry
  • Items for sale (or items being given away for free)
  • Items people are looking for (usually free or inexpensive)
  • Requests for a good painter, plumber, handyperson, house cleaner, etc.
  • Notices about local events
  • Notices about local road closures

As with any such network, taking time to use it effectively will pay off. If you’re using Nextdoor (or considering such use in the future), please keep the following suggestions in mind.

Choose your notification options carefully

Nextdoor lets you choose to get emails about every post from your neighborhood (and top posts from nearby neighborhoods), no emails at all, or something in between. You can also choose to get a daily digest, and the contents of that digest can be customized a bit. You can also select which “nearby neighborhoods” you want to see messages from, whether that’s via email or on the Nextdoor website or mobile app.

You can also choose to get mobile alerts about urgent items: missing children, natural disasters, etc.

You may not be sure which messages you want to get at first, so just make your best guess and then adjust as necessary after you’ve been in the network for a while.

Use good subject lines

Just as with email, you will make everyone’s life a bit easier if the subject line makes it obvious what your message is about. I get a lot of Nextdoor emails every day, and I want to be able to quickly scan to see which ones may be of interest.

I saw a message this week with the subject line “Hi all” — which wound up being someone who was looking for a vacuum cleaner. A subject line saying “Wanted: vacuum cleaner” or “Need a vacuum cleaner” would have been a whole lot better.

Similarly, a lost and found message entitled “Lost bracelet at or around Farmers Market” is much better than one that just says “bracelet.”

Include good photos when relevant

Just as you would with Craigslist, be sure to include good photos if you’re offering something for sale (or even for free). Even if it’s something where the looks don’t matter (such as tickets to an event) or something pretty standard (like a Kindle), a photo can help because the message will look better in the online listings.

This is one area where I want to commend my neighbors, who have generally done a good job of this. One person even included a picture of the “free clean dirt” being offered — which got taken pretty quickly!

Also consider photos when posting about lost or found items or pets.

I haven’t yet used Nextdoor to give things away, since my local freecycle group usually works fine for that. But I have some china to get rid of, and I just might try selling it on Nextdoor.

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Buying a laptop for school

2016 gift giving guideWhen I was a high school and college student, computers only existed in the school’s library or in the computer lab. Today, they’re as ubiquitous as group projects and starchy cafeteria meals. Elementary school students will be introduced to computers, and by the time they’re in junior high, kids will receive, complete and turn in homework assignments digitally. As such, a laptop makes a great gift for many students. In this article, I’ll go over how to approach this shopping task. The first thing to determine is what type of computer they’re going to need. The best source for an answer is the school itself.

Ask the school

My first bit of advice applies to buying any school supplies: check with the school. The IT department at your student’s school — junior high, high school or university — has probably published minimum requirement guidelines. For example, something like these recommendations from my alma mater. They’ll include the preferred operating system, hardware requirements, security concerns and so on.

You’ll notice that the guidelines I linked above are for architecture students. Those studying different disciplines will have their own requirements. Again, checking with the IT department is the best way to start. For example, my kids’ school uses Google Classroom extensively, and therefore suggests that students use Chromebooks.

The specifics

The school’s guidelines are a good starting point, but there is always a little leeway. If the school is suggesting a Chromebook but you would prefer to buy a Windows machine or a Mac, you may be able to do so.

Consider how your student will use his or her machine. For instance, should you buy a bigger/heavier or smaller/lighter machine? Will it be carried from class to class or sit in a cart between assignments? Perhaps it will stay home and not travel to school at all.

Next, look at internal storage. A solid state drive (SSD) will perform much better than a traditional, mechanical hard drive because it is fast with super snappy search and retrieval. But if the student will mostly do word processing, a less expensive hard drive is just fine.

Lastly, look at peripherals that you’ll need. A sturdy, ergonomic mouse is a good idea, as is a good laptop stand. A simple bag is useful as well, especially if the computer will be traveling to and from class.

What to buy

With all that said, here are my picks — one of each operating system.

Chromebook

11282016_delll13chromebook

 

The Dell Chromebook 13 is a fantastic little computer. At $430, it feels like a laptop that cost hundreds more. It’s got a fantastic keyboard, a solid, quality trackpad and enough “oomph” to get kids through their assignments with ease. The eleven-hour battery life is a bonus, as is the 16 GB solid state drive and 4 GB of RAM. This is the Chromebook I would buy if I were in the market.

PC

11282016_dellwindowslaptop

If you prefer a Windows operating system, consider the DELL XPS 13.3″ Ultrabook. It offers a great-looking display and has small, portable body. It’s perfect for any coursework assignment. The aluminum body will take minor bumps and scrapes (let’s face it, kids aren’t always kind to their things).

Mac

11282016_macbookair

For most students, a MacBook Air will serve their needs. I recommend an Apple-certified refurbished model like this one. The Air is ultra portable, features startup times that are incredibly fast and has access to Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services. Plus, Apple laptops retain their resale value very well.

A laptop makes a very nice gift indeed, and hopefully this guide helps you choose the very right one. Happy shopping.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Unclutterer’s 2016 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Convenient tech

2016 gift giving guideTechnology offers the promise of convenience and ease. These awesome tech gift ideas deliver on that promise. From taking notes to the ultimate bedside charging cable, we’ve collected the best tech gifts that add convenience to your day – or night. Let’s get started with those who work in both the digital and analog world.

The Wacom Bamboo Folio Smartpad is a clever and useful device that marries hand-written and digital note taking. On the right, it’s pen and paper. Take notes, write text, plan world domination. When the planning is complete, simply hit a button and the information is transferred to your iPad, iPhone or Android device where you can share, enhance or continue your work digitally. The final product can be shared as JPG, PNG, PDF or WILL file formats. As for the Cloud, you can export directly to Dropbox, Evernote, and OneNote.wacom smartpad

The Tile Slim is a treasure for the wanna-be organizer who is prone to misplacing certain items (I’m raising my hand here). Once attached to smartphone, keys or whatever else you’re likely to lose, simply pair it with the mobile app and you’re a tap away from finding that pesky wallet. It’s not flashy but it is very useful.

The Amazon Echo Dot is a tiny device that takes online shopping to a very convenient and handy place. When connected to external speakers, the Dot listens for your voice to issue commands. It can play music, make purchases, control smart home devices and so much more. What’s even better is how easily it can be tucked away. Since it doesn’t need to “see” a remote of any kind, you can put it neatly on a shelf, behind a house plant or a stack of books. At $50, it’s affordable convenience that geeks and non-geeks will enjoy.

night cableThe Night Cable. I use my smartphone as an alarm clock, which means it spends the night charging up on my night stand. Unfortunately, the wall socket is kind of far away, so I needed a charging cable longer than what’s in the box. The Night Cable is a full 10 feet long, made of very durable material and, best of all, features a weighted knot just a few inches from the end. That way, I never have to silently shake my fist as it falls – once again – behind the table.

All of these gifts will please the convenience-loving techie on your list. Here’s hoping you find something great, and enjoy your holiday.

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Being organized about computer security

Decision fatigue is always a potential problem when you’re uncluttering. You can get to the point where you’ve made so many decisions that making any more seems like more than you can handle. When you find yourself at that point, it’s time to take a break.

While I’ve often read about (and had experiences with) decision fatigue over the years, I recently read about a somewhat related concept: security fatigue, defined as “a weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security.”

After updating your password for the umpteenth time, have you resorted to using one you know you’ll remember because you’ve used it before? Have you ever given up on an online purchase because you just didn’t feel like creating a new account?

If you have done any of those things, it might be the result of “security fatigue.” …

A new study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that a majority of the typical computer users they interviewed experienced security fatigue that often leads users to risky computing behavior at work and in their personal lives.

If you give into security fatigue, you really do put your information at risk. The following are some ways to make it a bit easier to use good security:

Prioritize your important accounts

You may have heard the advice that you should never reuse passwords. But in a 2010 interview with Ben Rooney of Tech Europe, security expert Bruce Schneier indicated that might be going a bit overboard:

“I have some very secure passwords for things that matter — like online banking”, he says. “But then I use the same password for all sorts of sites that don’t matter. People say you shouldn’t use the same password. That is wrong.”

Don’t try to remember all your passwords

There are two ways to avoid relying on your memory. The first is to use a password management program. I use 1Password, but other people like LastPass, KeePass, or one of the other available choices. A password manager can store your passwords (and your answers to security questions) so you don’t need to remember them all.

If you don’t want to use a password manager, writing your passwords down can be okay, too — Schneier has actually recommended that. I’ve had my wallet stolen, so I wouldn’t feel good about keeping my list of passwords there (as he recommends) unless I did something to obscure the password, as suggested by Paul Theodoropoulos in a blog post.

But keeping a list of passwords in a file folder with an innocuous name might be fine. Or you could write them inside a random book, as another blogger suggested.

Find an easy way to choose secure passwords

There’s no total agreement on the best formula for secure passwords, but two common approaches are:

  • A long string of random characters including letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols
  • A set of randomly chosen unrelated words

The first type of password is easily created using a password manager. LastPass even has a random password generator anyone can use.

The second type is created using an approach known as Diceware, which is fairly tedious. But there’s at least one website that provides a Diceware app, making it extremely simple to generate these passwords. A Diceware password like doodle-aroma-equinox-spouse-unbolted might be odd, but it’s easier to remember than something like 831M5L17vY*F. (Of course, you can just cut and paste your passwords in many cases, but sometimes you really do want one you can remember.) However, Diceware won’t work on sites that set character limits that are too short.

Treat security questions just like additional passwords

Do you provide your pet’s name as an answer to a security question? On a banking site, you might want that name to be something like Z8#3!dP47#Hx or grill-anthem-tinderbox-baguette-cosmetics. On a less important site you don’t need to be as cautious, but using your pet’s real name is still a poor idea.

Organize your Google Drive

1610_google_drive_logoFor online document editing and collaboration, Google Drive is still king. Last month, Bradley Chambers said the following while writing for The Sweet Setup:

“When it comes to needing an easy way to share a document with someone, Google is still the standard choice for me and most people I work with. The fact that they were always a web-first platform has given them a head start in the interface and syncing technology.”

That’s exactly why I continue to use it: free, web-based (which means nearly ubiquitous access to your files), easy and accessible.

But just like any tool, your Google Drive can become disorganized.

Here, I’ll describe some best practices you can adopt to organize the files you’ve got stored in Google Drive. Let’s begin with something simple: sorting.

Get sorted

Once you’ve got a lot of files on your Drive, it can be tricky to find the one you’re looking for. Fortunately, you can quickly sort the list. First, click the button on the top right to toggle between List View and Grid View. Both sort folders from files, and list view lets your further sort by title or creation date.

Powerful search tools

Google is synonymous with “search” (how many times have you heard someone say, “Google it”?), and as such you’d expect robust search options in its products, like Drive. A simple click reveals that they are in place.

To begin, simply click the search field to perform a search by type: PDF, text, spreadsheet, presentations, photos & images and videos. That’s helpful, but it’s just the start. Click “More search tools” (or the disclosure triangle at the right of the search field) to access a slew of useful features. From there, you can search by:

  1. File type
  2. Date
  3. Title
  4. Words found in the body of the document
  5. The owner (if you’re sharing files with a collaborator)
  6. Who it’s shared with
  7. What folder it’s in
  8. Any “follow up” actions — again, if you’re collaborating

All of this makes it very easy to find the file you need.

Select many files at once

Occasionally you’ll want to move, share or otherwise interact with several files at once. You could click them one at a time, or hold down Shift as you click to select in bulk. This tiny tip can be a huge time-saver.

Look to the stars

You can add a star to any file or folder in Google Drive by right-clicking on it and then selecting the star from the resulting contextual menu. All starred items are immediately accessible from the star menu in the left toolbar. Just don’t go too crazy with this feature, or you’ll have a list of starred items that just as unwieldy as the “un-starred” masses!

Quick preview

You can quickly preview a document without opening it to save a lot of time. Simply click once to select it, and then hit the “eye” icon that appears in the toolbar above to get a peek at what that document contains.

Add-ons

Finally, consider the huge library of add-ons that are constantly being released and refined for Google Drive users. These easily-installed tidbits address all aspects of using the service, with the focus on making it more efficient. PC World recently published a nice round-up of great Google Drive add-ons, including Consistency Checker, which scans your docs for incorrect hyphens and other such errors, as well as Data Everywhere, which makes it easy to share across platforms (Google, Excel, etc.).

I hope this was helpful. As I said, Google Drive is a fantastic collaboration tool. With a little effort, you can make it an efficient, organized experience as well.

Every day carry: weekend getaway

phone watch wipesI’m packing for a weekend getaway as I type this, which has inspired me to write an “Every Day Carry” (EDC) tech guide for weekend getaways. You don’t need to carry a lot in order to be prepared for a weekend away. In fact, pocket clutter is real and should be avoided. My “getaway” EDC varies a little from what’s typically on me, but not by much. Let’s take a look.

Mophie Juice Pack

I use my phone frequently when I’m away, particularly to find directions and taking pictures. That puts a hit on the battery, especially when a map app is receiving GPS data. For that matter, I always have a Mophie Juice Pack charged and ready to go. The Juice Pack is an iPhone case with a built-in battery. When my phone’s battery hits 20%, I flick on the Juice Pack and it’s back at 100% in no time.

iPhone

This goes with out saying, but the pocket computer called “iPhone” is completely essential. From finding directions and taking photos to calling hotels, restaurants and family, it’s my go-to gadget.

Apple Watch

My Apple Watch isn’t as essential as my iPhone, but it’s maturing into the useful accessory that Apple wants it to be (the same can be said of most smart watches). My favorite feature, however, really shines when I’m in a new place: walking directions. The first step, of course, is to get your destination’s address onto the Apple Watch. There are several ways to do this, and the fastest are these:

  1. Ask Siri for directions. The virtual personal assistant will automatically open Apple Maps with the directions ready to go.
  2. Start on Apple Maps on your iPhone. The app will automatically sync with Apple Watch.
  3. After you’ve entered the information on the iPhone app, open the watch app to view the directions.

Following a route Once you’re ready to get moving, just tap Start. The Watch will guide you along, via clever use of Apple’s Taptic Engine:

  1. A series of 12 taps means turn right at the next intersection.
  2. Three pairs of two taps mean turn left.
  3. A steady vibration means you’re at the last direction change.
  4. A more urgent vibration (which I call “the freakout”) indicates your arrival at your destination.

Imagine walking from, say, the train station to a hotel in a city you aren’t familiar with. You’ve got a bag in your hand and a million things on your mind, like check-in, getting settled and whatever brought you there in the first place. Now you can walk with your eyes front and your head up. Perhaps you’ll even note a few landmarks along the way, to make the return stroll easier.

Ursa Major face wipes

I used a face wipe from Ursa Major for the first time a few years ago. I was in NYC visiting family. After a sweaty day of walking through Manhattan, I was given one of these to use.

It was amazing.

The wipe is cool, smells great and not greasy at all. It evaporates quickly and let’s me “wash my face,” if you will, when I can’t do so properly. It seems like a small thing but I really like these things.

That’s the gear I carry when I’m away. It’s a short list, but all very useful. Do you have a special EDC for certain situations? Let me know.

Tech for winter storm preparedness

As September gives way to October, we enter the heart of hurricane season. We’ve written about organizing your storm supplies before, and today I’ll focus on tech to help you weather a storm. If you haven’t organized your preparedness kit yet, there’s still time.

Stay informed

When a storm hits, it’s important to receive information from authorities. The American Cross ZoneGuard Weather Radio is great for this. It finds and delivers alerts for your area, flashes color-coded warnings and tunes into AM, FM and NOAA digital radio stations. It runs off of AC power or AA batteries.

A good hand-crank radio is also great to have, like this one from Esky. Just 60 seconds of cranking 20 minutes of use. There’s a solar charing option as well, but stormy days aren’t usually very sunny.

Your smartphone

If you own a smartphone, you’ve got a tiny computer that can be tremendously useful in an emergency. When your home’s power goes out, Wi-Fi goes with it. So grab your phone and rely on cell connectivity.

There are several great apps available, including The Red Cross, which offers apps specific to certain disasters, text alerts and first aid information. Of course, none of that matters when your phone’s battery dies. Keep it going with an Eton Boost Turbine. As you may have guessed, it’s a hand-crank charger for your phone and other USB devices. Just plug it in and get cranking.

Of course, don’t forget a good old corded phone. When cell/internet service goes down, or when your your power goes out, a corded landline phone will let you call out.

Shine some light

Finally, I have to identify my favorite flashlight of all time, the Coast HP1 Focusing 190 Lumen LED Flashlight. LED flashlights are brighter than those with traditional bulbs, and the HP1 shines a powerful beam indeed. It takes rechargeable batteries, is water resistant, impact resistant, compact and feels great.

There’s a lot more you should do to prepare for a storm. Today we’ve pointed out a few bits of tech that you can rely on. We hope this was helpful. Be careful out there.

An organized way to bring a new gadget into use

Whenever you receive a new goodie, like a new phone or tablet, it’s an exciting time. But don’t just tear into the box! There’s an organized way to bring a new gadget into your life, and the following is advice for making that transition as smooth as possible.

Carefully open the packaging

This might sound ridiculously obvious to you or it might seem just ridiculous. “Dave, it’s the box. Who cares?” There are several reasons to care, and the first is the gadget’s future resale value. I upgrade my iPhone every two years. I always sell my current model to help pay for the new one. Having the pristine original box helps with shipping and final asking price. Also, if you aggressively tear into a box, you could affect the contents. You don’t want to scratch a screen or case before you even turn on the device. Finally, think of returns. There’s always the possibility that your new doo-dad won’t work as advertised. A UPC code, the security tags, and intact contents are essential when trying to make a return.

Take your time, keep things neat and store that box in a safe place if you might return or resell the item.

Read the manual

If you’re not going to read it, at least skim the manual. Some gadgets come with a “quick start” guide. I always review those. Yes, you probably know how this works, but maybe not. Read/skim the manual and then store it in a safe place for future reference. I also recommend making a digital copy after some time has passed and if you’re not planning to return or resell the item.

Register the item

This is the step that nearly everyone skips. I always spend a few minutes registering my products, especially pricey electronics. It will make service easier should you need it someday. Additionally, if there’s an update or other notification that owners need, like a recall, you’re more likely to receive that information if your product has been registered.

Buy an extra power cord

If your device charges up with a cable, buy an extra one. I keep one in my laptop bag at all times. You might bring an extra to work or simply keep it around for when the first one gets frayed or otherwise stops working. You might want to somehow identify it as your own. My kids love to steal iPhone cables, so I make sure we all know which is mine.

Scan the receipt

Finally, scan the receipt and store it digitally in a place you can easily retrieve it if necessary.

Dig into the product

Now that all this preparation work has been handled, take the product out of the box and use it. Transfer data from your previous gadget and set up preferences.

New software to help you adopt good habits

Following up to Jeri’s post on Thursday, I want to point out a new Kickstarter project by Leo Babauta, the author of the popular website Zen Habits and one-time contributor to Unclutterer. It’s a piece of software he’s calling Habit Zen, and it’s all about adopting positive, life-changing habits once and for all.

We’ve written about the challenge of making habits stick several times. Leo’s project addresses the two issues that hinder progress most often: overcoming resistance and making new habits stick. How? Experiments.

Leo describes what he calls “massive habit experiments,” including things like how many habits you can work on at once and the effectiveness of things like reminders and public accountability. As you discover the results of each experiment, you generate the “habit formula” that will help you adopt — and keep — those great new behaviors.

It’s a clever, hands-on approach that I find compelling. For me, resistance is the biggest obstacle. I always find a reason to not get up a half-our earlier, make the kids’ lunches the night before, gas up the car, etc. I’m hoping Leo is on to something here.

Consider backing Habit Zen, or at least taking a look at what he’s got going.

The internet of things and home organization

Last week, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the world wide web (launched August 23, 1991). The phenomenal convenience — and distraction — we know today has evolved tremendously since then, from massive computers to the gadgets in our pockets. So what’s next? Engineers and computer scientists think it’s the “internet of things.”

What is the internet of things, or “IoT”? For our purposes, a working definition is:

“Every day objects with internet connectivity that are able to send and receive data.”

In other words, objects in your home that can grab information from the internet. It’s a compelling idea that has already spawned several interesting devices. But, will it help or hinder home organization? I looked at a few of the more popular IoT products to find an answer.

The Amazon Echo

Amazon’s voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker is part music box, part storefront, and a Siri-like personal assistant. Once plugged in and set up, the Amazon Echo cylinder knows when you’re talking to it and can provide, among other things, streaming music, weather, news, and the opportunity to buy from Amazon.com. How does it fare as an organizational device?

The benefit is the growing collection of services that are available in one place. You’ll get the news stories and streaming music that I mentioned before, but the Echo can also check your Google calendar, read audio books from Audible, even order you a pizza from Dominos. Mostly, it’s about efficiency and convenience. If you like using Amazon.com and want to talk to a device instead of type, it could save you time and be of assistance. If not, the phone in your pocket most likely already does similar things.

Key Finder Tags

Bluetooth-powered key finder tags like the Tile, the Chipolo and the Duet are cute, unobtrusive little doodads (not a technical term) that you connect to items you’re likely to misplace: keys, purses, backpacks, etc. Once paired with our smartphone via the accompanying app, it helps you find where your times have gone.

These get a ringing endorsement from me for their time-saving capabilities. I include “misplacing things I need” among my hobbies. It’s an annoying hobby, but also all too real. Key finder tags greatly reduce the time I spend stomping around the house in frustration.

Smart Lights

There are many Wi-Fi ready, “smart” lighting systems to choose from, each with varying degrees of functioning. The Switchmate, for example, is a tiny piece of hardware that fits over your existing light switch. Installation is as simple as taking the Switchmate out of the box and placing it over a switch. Install the app and it’s ready to use. From there, you can turn lights on and off with the tap of an app.

Meanwhile, the Philips Hue adds more functionality. These smart bulbs can be controlled by a mobile app to turn on and off when you like, notice when you’re home, and so on. They’ll also change the very hue of the light they put out and let you save the various combinations of reds, blues, etc. to meet your mood.

Perhaps I’m a crotchety old man, but my first impulse is, “Can’t I just hit a switch?” In part this seems like a solution looking for a problem. But I see how it could be handy to have your house illuminate as you approach, or turn lights on and off while you’re out, to make would-be intruders think there’s someone at home. In short, I think smart lighting systems are a fun convenience, but not a massive help. At this point, they seem like one more thing to break or go wrong, especially if your home WiFi is out.

Digital notes to manage kids’ activities

Digital note apps are fantastic for easily taking information with you. I use Evernote as my cold storage for reference material. (That is, information that doesn’t require action, but might be useful in the future.) This has been my primary use for digital tools for years … until I had kids.

Today, I’m constantly recording information into Evernote to help me manage everything related to my kids. For example, I need to remember the address for Jane’s mom’s/dad’s house, or the dance studio, all the soccer fields, and so on, and this recorded information helps me do it. If it weren’t for a digital notes app, I’d end up texting my wife for that information or asking the kids to text their friends and then share the answers with me — a total waste of time.

To keep things organized and to save me time, I use text documents in Evernote for each new piece of information. I’ve designed what I refer to as a “Kid Info Database.” Any text note I create includes all of the following relevant tags:

  • Daughter’s name
  • Son’s name
  • Friends
  • Address
  • Activity

That’s it. I can search any of those tags and bring up all the relevant notes. For example, “Jane Address Grace Friends” brings up the driving directions to Jane’s house as well as a live link to Google Maps. The same goes for dance, scouts, and sports. It’s easy to set up and is very useful.

I can add to the list at any time simply by adding one of the tags to the notes I create. The link to Google Maps is excellent too, as I can get turn-by-turn directions from any starting point. Leaving Jane’s mom’s house and heading to the dance studio? No problem.

Using Evernote in this way has been a real shift for me as, like I said, I’ve always considered apps like Evernote to be a digital filing cabinet. Now, it’s a dynamic database that I use daily. If you’re like me, give this a try. It’s better than constantly texting people, “What is Jane’s address again?”