An organized approach to passwords for World Password Day

I’m not usually a big fan of business-sponsored special days, but World Password Day is an exception. The four recommendations provided on the website are all good ones, and they are presented clearly and succinctly.

Step 1. Create strong passwords.

Rich Shay of MIT, who was involved in Carnegie Mellon’s research into passwords, told The Washington Post, “There is no perfect password.” And while there are some guidelines that many experts recommend, some of Shay’s research (PDF) indicated that “participants generally wished to create strong passwords, at least for some accounts; they just did not always know how to do so.” In some cases, “weak passwords resulted from misconceptions, such as the belief that adding ‘!’ to the end of a password instantly makes it secure.”

The World Password Day guidance places an emphasis on password length, although other strategies are also noted. Many experts are now recommending long passwords, which can be based on a phrase (as long as it’s not something like a published poem or song lyric). The Washington Post gives the following example:

  • Bad password: [email protected]
  • Better password: boughtthejackalopeatwalldrugstoreinsouthdakota

Step 2. Use a different password for each account.

As I’ve noted before on Unclutterer, different passwords might not be necessary for accounts where you aren’t concerned about the security — if you happen to have any like that. But any website that has your medical or financial information or provides access to critical services such as your email should certainly have a unique password. That way if the passwords at one site get compromised your other accounts will still be secure.

Step 3: Get a password manager.

It’s a lot easier to comply with steps 1 and 2 if you’re using a password manager. Tools such as 1Password, LastPass, and KeePass are what people usually think of when it comes to a password manager, and they are the type of password manager that World Password Day has in mind. Besides storing your passwords, many of these tools can also generate random passwords for you — and some can do auto logins for you, too.

However, a piece of paper can also serve as a password manager, as explained on the Crash Override Network website:

You’ve likely read advice telling you to “never write down your passwords.” This is because we, as human beings, have a bad habit of leaving the password to a secure computer sitting on the desk next to the computer that is being secured. Physical copies of passwords can be kept secure just like any small, valuable item you own. Treat passwords in paper form the same as money, passports, legal documents, your great grandmother’s antique pearl earrings, the deed to old man Withers’ silver mine, and of course, the keys to your house. Don’t leave passwords on the desk at work or taped to your monitor.

The piece-of-paper approach doesn’t have the added features a digital password manager might have, and it’s something that could be lost in a disaster like a fire. Still, it might be the best solution for those who are uncomfortable with other tools.

Step 4: Turn on multi-factor authentication.

The World Password Day site states: “In 2017, our call to action … is to #LayerUp Your Login by enabling multifactor authentication. A password alone is no longer enough to protect online accounts.” You’ve probably seen news stories about people whose passwords were discovered, sometimes because they were tricked by a fake email message. With multi-factor authentication, your account stays secure even if your password becomes known.

What exactly is multi-factor authentication? Parker Higgins, writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website, explained that there are three factors that can be used to authenticate your access to an account:

  • A knowledge factor, like a password or PIN. Something you know.
  • A possession factor, like a key or a hardware dongle. Something you have.
  • An inherence factor, like a fingerprint or an iris. Something you are.

The way this often works on a computer is that you enter your login and password (something you know) and then a code gets sent to your smartphone (something you own) in a text message. You enter that code into the computer, and you’re set.

Alternatively, for even safer verification, you could use authentication apps such as Google Authenticator or physical tokens such as Yubikeys if either of those options are available.

Not all sites allow for multi-factor (or two-factor) authentication — but many do, although it might go by a different name. As Gennie Gebhart wrote on the EFF website: “Different platforms sometimes call 2FA different things, making it hard to find: Facebook calls it ‘login approvals,’ Twitter ‘login verification,’ Bank of America ‘SafePass,’ and Google and others ‘2-step verification.'”

So if you want to be fully security-conscious, search for this option on the websites that provide it.

Managing kids’ screen time

When I was a kid in the 1980s, “screen time” wasn’t really a thing. Personal computers were rare, expensive things that few people had and were mainly for business. Telephones were “dumb” and tethered to the wall, and television offered 13 channels, many of which were snow.

What a difference 40 years makes!

Today, my kids have a staggering amount of media and entertainment available to them at all times. As a parent, I struggle with raising the first generation of kids to never know a day without the internet, pocket-sized computers, and on-demand entertainment. It’s not easy to manage but oh, so important to do so.

Research has demonstrated the dangers of unbridled screen time. A study recently conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “…children [between the ages of] 8 to 18 spend, on average, close to 45 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, and listening to music online.” That’s more time — far more — than they spend in a classroom.

What’s the result of all this time spent staring at a glowing rectangle? As of this writing, it’s hard to say. Since this issue is so new, there haven’t been a lot of longitudinal studies conducted. But research is being done. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that sixth graders who abstained from screen time for a period of time were better able to read human emotions than those who did not.

So how can we stay on top of it? Organize a healthy “media diet” with the kids. Here are a few ideas.

First, be aware of what’s age-appropriate. Know what they’re watching, playing, and listening to. I know it sounds obvious, but new entertainment comes out so often, we as parents must actively stay up to date.

This doesn’t just go for content. While digital entertainment is being made for two-year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or computer screens (including phones and tablets) for that age group at all.

Next, set family rules and stick to them. Our rule is this: two hours of screen time after dinner and that’s it. Of course, this is considering that all homework is done, lunches and snacks are prepared, and bags are packed up for the next morning. Both parents must be consistent with rule enforcement here. This leads me to the next tip.

No media in bedrooms. You can’t monitor your children when they’re in bed. If a phone or tablet is at hand, the temptation may be too great to pass up.

So far I’ve put all of the focus on the kids. That’s important, but phone-addicted parents need a reminder to put their devices down, too. A recent study noted that kids can feel unimportant when their parents spend so-called “quality time” looking at a phone . Face-to-face interaction is the way children learn.

I guess we could all do with a little less screen time. Manage the amount of time your kids — and you yourself — spend looking at a phone, tablet or computer screen.

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

How to organize your Facebook backups

For better or worse, many of us share a lot of information via Facebook. Everything from weekend plans to photos of lunch get posted, shared, tagged, and shared again. After a year of use, that’s a whole lot of memories and data uploaded to Mark Zuckerberg’s little creation. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a local backup, safe and sound? You can even organize regular Facebook backups and keep them stored nice and tidy on a drive of your own. It’s easy to do. Just follow these steps:

  1. Log into Facebook and go to the Settings page. You can find it by clicking the disclosure triangle on the far right of the page. A menu appears. You may have to scroll a bit to find Settings.
  2. On the left-hand side of the Settings page, make sure General Settings is selected. There’s a list on the right. At the very bottom, you’ll see “Download a copy of Facebook data.” Click that link.
  3. You’ll be taken to the download overview screen. Simply click “Start My Archive.”

What exactly is backed up? As Facebook explains it:

“Timeline info, posts you have shared, messages, photos and more. Additionally, it includes information that is not available simply by logging into your account, like the ads you have clicked on, data like the IP addresses that are logged when you log into or out of Facebook, and more.”

Like me, you might not want or need all of that information. Unfortunately, there is no way to pick and choose what is backed up, at least as of this writing. Also, there is potentially a lot of sensitive information in the resulting archive. Keep it in a safe location.

Once you click Start My Archive, Facebook will get busy creating your backup. Soon you’ll get an email with a link. Click it, and you’re taken back to Facebook one more time. At last you’ll have the opportunity to share the zipped (compressed) file to your computer. Navigate to that folder and explore the archive.

You’ll find a file labeled “index”. Open that file for a HTML page linking to all of the files you downloaded. Photos, for example, are in a folder called Photos, and sorted by album.

If you’d like to have an app take care of this for you – and grab data from several other social media services at the same time – consider digi.me. It offers free software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS that will back up posts from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and several other social media networks to your local drive.

The thought of a compromised or hacked social account sends shivers down my spine. If you feel the same way, take the time to back up these services. You’ll be glad you did.

Apps to easily organize storage bins

Three years ago, I mentioned a fun trick in a post about digitizing user manuals. Basically, it works like this:

  1. Save the manual in an Evernote note.
  2. Use that note’s unique URL to create a QR Code.
  3. Print that code on adhesive-backed printer paper.
  4. Affix the code sticker to the washer, drill, etc., for instant access to its manual.

Bella Storage does a similar thing for storage totes but it reduces the number of steps and apps, and greatly enhances the result. The app, available for iPhones and Android, is the heart of the solution. When you’re putting items into a Bella storage bin, use it to note the contents, give the bin a name (“Halloween decorations,” “Summer clothes”, etc.) and give it a category, like “holiday” or “sports.” Lastly, add a location.

Later, when you’re looking for that one swimsuit, the jack-o-lantern carving tools, or the bike helmets, Bella tells you what bin it’s in and where it is located. It works in the other direction, too. Simply walk up to a bin, scan the code on the side and “see” exactly what’s inside. You don’t need to pull it down and lift the lid.

Of course, there are other solutions that offer something similar. Box Me Up works much the same, and has both a mobile-friendly, browser-based interface as well as an Android app. Another option is I.M Organized, which lets you inventory all of your stuff by simply scanning a bar code, and also generates QR Codes for you to affix to boxes or bins.

Finally, there’s the DIY method I mentioned earlier.

Good luck! Try out any of these apps for quick retrieval of your stuff. Happy storing!

Expand Evernote’s usefulness with the Web Clipper

Here at Unclutterer, we love Evernote. I’ve often called it “my external brain,” and consider it just that. I’ve used it to create a digital journal, manage recipes, and Erin has used it to organize her busy family life. Today I’ll talk about an oft-overlooked feature: the web clipper.

Evernote’s web clipper can be added on to your web browser to act as a useful go-between from the internet and Evernote. That is to say, it lets you quickly move information — links, articles, quotes, etc. — from a web browser to Evernote without requiring you to open the software. It’s fast and saves a lot of time. Today, I’ll show you the basics of using the Evernote web clipper.

Installation

Go to evernote.com/webclipper to download the version your browser needs. You’ll be guided through the simple process. From there you’re ready to go. To do what, exactly? Let me explain.

Use

I’m using Safari for Mac in this article. While there will be slight variations across browsers and operating systems, everything will be largely the same.

I often use Evernote to save online articles I’d like to read later. I can save the URL, open Evernote, find the appropriate notebook, create a new note and paste in the URL, but that’s too many steps. The web clipper makes it much easier.

Once installed, just click the little elephant icon that launches the web clipper (the installation process will put the icon front-and-center on your browser for you). When you do that, a new window appears (right) with five options:

  1. Article – Save the entire article as you see it.
  2. Simplified Article – Save just the text, stripping out ads and other non-essential images.
  3. Full Page – Grabs everything you see on that web page.
  4. Bookmark – Only grabs the URL.
  5. Screenshot – Takes a screenshot of the web page (or a portion thereof).

Below that you’ll find the “Organize” section. From the drop-down menu, select the notebook you’d like to use as a destination. You can add tags and even “remarks” (brief notes to yourself) for future reference and context. It all takes a fraction of the time you’d spend by launching the software itself.

Grab only the text you want

This is a super cool feature. As soon as you click the little elephant, you may notice a little yellow square next to your cursor. This is the highlighter, and it lets you grab just a portion of the the text on a page. Simply click and drag to highlight it in yellow, then click Save on the Web Clipper.

Share your clips

Once you’ve grabbed a clip, you might want to share it. After clicking Save as described above, you’ll be presented with a new window that offers to share what you’ve just saved. Click the drop-down menu for several options, including email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and more. This is useful if you’re coordinating information for a family trip, group work project, and so on.

This was just a brief overview and I hope it prompts you to check out this often-forgotten feature. It saves me a lot of time and lets me save a lot of great info I might otherwise forget.

Reduce key chain clutter with Key Ring

In the world of retail, customer loyalty programs are designed to keep shoppers going back to the same store over and over. They often employ those little plastic “loyalty cards” that many of us have dangling from our key chains and cluttering up our wallets and purses. While the rewards can be nice, the cards are just one more thing to keep track of, carry around, or simply lose — unless you make them digital.

Key Ring is an app for iPhone and Android devices that lets you store all of your loyalty cards on your phone. I’ve been using it on my Pixel and I have to say, it’s pretty darn handy. Plus, it let me seriously reduce the amount of clutter on my key chain and in my wallet, which I appreciate very much. Here’s a look at this clever little app.

I’ve been using Key Ring on an Android device. The iPhone version, while generally the same, might have slight variations in functioning that are unique to iOS.

Setup

Setup is simple. After installing the app, you’ll be prompted to create an account by adding your email address and a password. That’s it. From there, you can start adding loyalty card information.

Adding a new card is just as easy. You’ll find a “+” at the top of the screen. Tap it, give the app permission to access your phone’s camera and take a picture of the bar code on your card. The app will recognize it right away and it’s ready to go.

My hesitation with solutions like this is always the same. I’m always afraid that when asked for a loyalty card and I present my phone, I’ll get a confused look from the cashier. Or, the equipment the cashier has access to won’t accept a bar code that’s on my phone’s display. Fortunately, that has not been the case. I’ve had success at the grocery store, electronics store and elsewhere.

More than loyalty cards

Key Ring offers even more benefits than just storing cards and reducing key chain/wallet/purse clutter. If you allow the app to have access to your location, it can find sales in the area, let you identify favorite sales for later reference, and even create shopping lists. You can browse store coupons and even have the cashier scan them, right from your phone. There’s no need to fumble with flyers and slips of paper.

In the weeks that I’ve been using Key Ring, I’ve grown to love it. It’s well laid-out, simple and effective. Plus, it does exactly what it says on the label. My key chain can attest to that.

Can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

There comes a point in your life when you think, “I could really use an assistant.” School, work, kids, and a myriad of other things demand more and more of your attention. I don’t know about you, but the luxury of a personal assistant is not in my budget. With that in mind (and my wallet firmly in my pocket), I turn to artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant .

These technologies, and others, are the so-called “digital assistants” that their respective creators hope will become the hub of our future lives. Today they’re good at streaming music, setting kitchen timers, and performing a few other mediocre tricks, but can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

For me, the answer is a qualified “no.” Before I explain that qualifier, let’s look at the “big three” of digital assistants.

Siri

Apple purchased the digital assistant “Siri” in 2010, and has since integrated the service with its iPhones, Apple TVs, and Macintosh computers. As for productivity and organization, Siri is great at setting calendar events, creating to-dos, and reading and composing texts and emails. When connected to smart home devices like Wemo Switch wall sockets and Hue lights, Siri offers a bit of control over household products as well.

Google Assistant

Google’s Assistant, made a splash last year as the marquee feature on the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones. Today, Assistant can be found on Google Home and elsewhere. It’s helpful for many of the same tasks that Siri handles.

Alexa

Amazon’s Alexa currently resides on the Amazon Echo and Dot. While very useful, it is restricted to your home. Alexa can play music, play games, set timers, read off your calendar, provide news updates, control “smart” devices like Hue lights and so on. Unfortunately, Alexa can’t find you a hotel or help you drive to your Aunt Tilley’s house. She can — and this should not be a surprise — buy products from Amazon.

It’s not as fun as the computer on Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s still fun.

And brings me to the qualified “no.” All of these technologies have nailed one aspect of artificial intelligence in our daily lives: fun. It’s cool to talk to a gadget in your home or your phone and have it follow your commands. My kids are delighted every time they use our Echo to add an item to a shopping list or to turn the kitchen lights on.

Fun yes, but “helpful” is pushing it.

I can usually complete the same task with my computer or smartphone, and often faster. But that’s not the real hang-up here. When you look at these three, really look, you see them for what they are – middle-men.

Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant don’t really get things done for you, they provide information that helps you get things done. That’s helpful in its own way, but it is also what prevents me from recommending these technologies as true organizers. Siri can locate a hotel on a map, for example, but it won’t make reservations. Alexa can read my calendar, but it won’t tell people attending my 2:00 meeting that I’m going to be late.

Speaking of calendars, here’s my next point.

To use digital assistants effectively, you’ve got to hand over a lot of information including your calendar, contacts, and certain preferences. Some people may be uncomfortable sharing all of that. All of this leads me to my favorite digital assistant, and it doesn’t even talk!

Google Now

Google Now (or “Google” as the iPhone app is called) doesn’t have a personality like the others. It offers no jokes or quips like its companions. However, backed by the power of Google, it excels at providing information.

On my phone, Google Now notices where I am (I’ve enabled location services) and it lets me know when to start driving to appointments, what local traffic is like, where to find good restaurants, where the car is parked, and so much more. It has me saying, “Wow,” much more often than the others do.

None of these are truly “assistants,” but they’re on the right track. In a few years voice-controlled assistants will be true organizers. For for the time being, stick with Google Now.

Get your email organized in 2017

We closed last week with a post about how to get a jump-start on uncluttering and organizing. Today, I’m going to look at how to get email sorted out in 2017. From cleaning out your inbox to setting up best practices, this is how to tame the email dragon for the new year.

Clean out your inbox

I’ll never forget an experience I had several years ago when a co-worker wanted to show me a certain email message and I stood by her desk while she scrolled through literally 5,000 messages. The experience was a time-wasting exercise in frustration. If you’ve been using your email inbox as a filing cabinet (a practice I rallied against in my first post for Unclutterer in 2012), follow these steps.

First, create a new folder called “2016,” and then sort your existing messages by date. Place any emails from 2016 into this new folder. You aren’t deleting or archiving anything yet, just getting them out of the way. You can then sort them later, when it is more convenient for you.

With that done, take control of what actually arrives in your inbox with SaneBox. I wrote about SaneBox before and in 2017 I will gladly renew my membership. SaneBox learns what you consider high-priority messages and automatically moves the rest to a folder called SaneLater. Once a week you can review those results, and correct any instances of important email being moved to SaneLater (Sanebox remembers this correction for the future). I save literally hours per month thanks to SaneBox and sing its praises at every turn.

Deal with unwanted newsletters

While you’re sorting through email, take the time to unsubscribe from all of those unwanted newsletters, digital catalogs and other mailings that sounded good at the time. As they come in over the next month or so, look for the “Unsubscribe” link. It’s usually at the bottom of the message and deliberately hard to find, so take a minute to scroll through and click on that unsubscribe link.

If you’re using SaneBox, you can train it to move certain messages to a folder called “SaneBlackHole,” never to be seen again. Goodbye, persistent spam!

Best practices for 2017

Now, let’s adopt a new practice to prevent a cluttered accumulation of email in 2017. When a new message arrives, ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do with this?”

There are three possible answers:

  • It requires action. Put the action items on your to-do list. I use Todoist but there are a number of good project management tools available.
  • It is reference material. No action is necessary, but it is useful information. I keep these emails in what I call, “cold storage.” Evernote works for me but you may wish to save it on your hard drive.
  • It is trash. Unsubscribe (if necessary) and delete the email.

If you can, you may delete original emails but be aware that your job, and/or legal requirements may prevent you from doing so.

With these practices in place, you’ll have a tidy, clutter-free inbox for 2017.

Family tech support

Happy holidays! Everyone at Unclutterer hopes you’re enjoying some time off work, to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends – and for many of you, helping them figure out how to use a new gadget. Nothing says “holiday” like family tech support. With a little planning and organization, it can be a pleasure to help family members and friends enjoy their new electronic devices or answer questions they’ve compiled since the last get together. Here’s how to prepare for family holiday tech support.

The list

password notebookMaintain a list of pertinent information regarding your family’s devices. You can create a simple text document, enter the information in a spreadsheet, or use a notebook dedicated for this purpose.

Information about the devices should include make, model and year of release. For example, if dad owns an iPhone 5, you will know where to look for troubleshooting tips, help with updates, etc.

You should also include details about any services they’re using such as iCloud, Office 365, Dropbox and so on. You should also be aware of their backup systems. This makes it easy to retrieve something if you need to do a restoration.

When you assist your family members, you will most likely need them to enter their passwords to authorize software installations or on certain websites. You should encourage people to keep track of their own passwords and ensure they have access to the passwords during their “tech support visit.” To help my parents, I gave them a notebook designed for recording their passwords. It is easy to use and lets us avoid the frustrating experience of trying to remember usernames and passwords before we can start to solve a problem.

The sit-down

When mom and dad visit, we find a few hours of quiet time to sit down with their iPhones, iPads or computers and go through questions they’ve noted over the past year. Some require a quick fix while others take some time to figure out. The list I compiled earlier makes this a lot easier, as do the following tools I always have with me:

  • A notebook and a pen. Sure, we troubleshooting tech gadgets but you can’t beat a notebook and a pen for jotting things down. I use it as my short-term memory when I need to quickly store a password, setting or URL.
  • An internet-connected device of my own. When I come across a problem that I can’t solve on my own. I rely on an internet search for answers.

With these tools in place, I’m ready to tackle almost any problem. It’s satisfying and I’m happy to do it. With the list of questions complete, I move on to my own to-check list, which follows.

Updates

One thing I always do is make sure their devices are running the most recent version of the appropriate operating system. I’ll also check to make sure that apps and software are up-to-date or at least running the most appropriate version for their device. For example, an iPhone 4 probably shouldn’t run the latest version of iOS. This is why creating a list of hardware make, model, and year is so important. Many devices “max out” at a certain version of an operating system and function best with that version.

Backing up

It is crucial is to ensure that the software, apps, and documents on their devices are being backed up regularly and successfully. I recommend a “set-it-and-forget-it” system such as Backblaze. For just a few dollars per month, you get everything on your computer backed up without having to lift a finger. If you need to retrieve something, it’s there.

I also recommend people keep certain documents in a Cloud storage service such as a Dropbox folder or Google Docs. Photos can be stored via Apple’s iCloud or Google Photos. iPhones and many Android phones have built-in backup solutions that, once set up, do their job without any prompting.

It’s easy to bemoan the responsibility of family tech-support manager, but taking the time to prepare and organize information ahead of time will remove much if not all of the headache. And remember, when you finally resolve that one annoying problem, you’re the hero of the holiday!

Last second holiday shopping: software

Many people love to receive tech-related gifts during the holidays. Phones, computers and tablets are sure to make the gadget-friendly name on your shopping list very happy, myself included. The neat thing is that in 2016, software is a valid gift option for techies and unclutterers alike. Here’s how to gift apps and software this holiday season.

Apple App Store

Gift cards

Apple’s App Store has been providing software to iPad and iPhone owners since July, 2008. Since then, it has delivered apps to customers more than 130 billion times. That’s a lot of software on a lot of devices.

If you’d like to give that perfect app as a gift, it’s easy to do. You’ve got two choices. The easiest is to simply buy a gift card that is redeemed by the recipient. You can send buy a physical card like the one linked above from Amazon or from your local grocery store.

The other method is to buy a digital gift card. It’s a little more involved, but still not difficult. Here’s what to do.

  1. Open the App Store either on your iOS device or Mac.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.
  3. Tap Send Gift.
  4. Enter your lucky recipient’s email address.
  5. Enter the amount you’d like to give.

By default, your gift is delivered immediately. However, you can opt to have it show up on a certain date. To make that happen, tap Today and then select your custom delivery date.

Gift specific apps

If you know the exact app you’d like to give as a gift, you can do that, too. Once you’ve found the app you’re after, tap the Share button (it looks like an arrow jumping out of a box) and then follow these steps:

  1. Tap Gift.
  2. Enter the recipient’s email address and if you’d like, a custom message.

Again, the app will be delivered by default. You can change that by tapping Today, and then selecting your own date.

Google Play Store

Let’s say the techie on your list uses an Android device. You can easily buy a Google Play gift card just about anywhere (grocery stores, shopping malls, etc.). You can also buy a digital gift card by following these simple steps.

First, visit the Google Play Store in any web browser, select the amount you’d like to gift, enter the details and off it goes. Unfortunately, as of this writing, you cannot gift individual apps from the Google Play store. It’s a bit disappointing but the recipient can use the gift cards to buy his/her favorite apps.

Some would argue that a gift card isn’t the most personal gift in the world, but because it lets someone choose precisely what he/she loves, gift cards are fine with me. Happy digital shopping.

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.