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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Are digital Everything Buckets a good filing system?

Services like Evernote and Pocket make a compelling case in favor of the Everything Bucket: capturing information is easy (simply save information and don’t spend time filing it into a topic-related folder) and finding what you need when you need it is easy with a powerful search engine (search with keywords instead of drilling through folders).

Meanwhile, the idea of all your stuff in a pile, be it digital or physical, makes some people itch. Everything is together! In one place! There is no order!

The choice to use an Everything Bucket versus filing data into subfolders is a personal one and there are advantages and disadvantages to the Bucket system when considering it. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses can help you make a decision for what filing system is right for YOU.

As mentioned above, adding new items to an Everything Bucket is a breeze. Evernote’s web clipper, for example, lets you quickly stash any page you like. You can even grab a specific snippet from a website, if a paragraph is all you need. Meanwhile, desktop shortcuts make it just as easy to add items as you work.

Tagging helps you find items later. Simply attaching a tag like “recipe” or “receipts” to an item, you can make it easy to find information later when you do your search. Speaking of search, that really is the marquee feature of programs like Evernote and Pocket. Simply open the “bucket app” of your choice, enter a word or phrase into its search bar and up pops what you need.

You also can go paperless and have access to your stuff virtually wherever you are, even on a mobile device. It sounds like a good deal, right? But there are downsides.

First up in the strikes against the Everything Bucket: they discourage the use of a structured file system. In exchange for ease and speed, you let the computer make sense of your collection. It will do just that, as computers are more effective with organized data. The program will build an index to make sense of that pile, which takes time and effort. If you’re a Mac owner and you have a slow machine pretty much immediately after updating the operating system, it’s likely because Spotlight is making a new index of your disorganized data.

In the case of an Everything Bucket, you’re inviting an application into your daily workflow that could possibly go out of business in the next couple years. If it does, hopefully you’ll be given notice so you can export your data or, at the very least, operate the existing app but not be able to add more information to it.

There is a middle ground, should these Everything Bucket concepts only partially make your skin crawl.

One thing you can do is use what I think of as dedicated or specialty buckets:

  • Evernote is for reference material I will one-day want but have no immediate need for. (I call this “cold storage.”)
  • Recipes I want to try are handled by Paprika.
  • Web links for things I want to go back and read are saved to Pocket.

Instead of filing into subfolders, it’s as if I’m filing into apps. Within those apps, however, there are no subfolders, only an Everything Bucket.