How to finally organize your contact list | Popular Science
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How to finally organize your contact list

Tips and tricks for the Apple, Google, and Microsoft contact apps.

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Bring order to the chaos of your contacts.

Every time you send an email or text, or even look up a friend's address on Google Maps, you rely on a digital list of your contacts. But just because you use it all the time doesn't mean you treat it very well. Many of us let old numbers, needless duplicates, and unlabeled mystery addresses pile up in whatever contacts app we prefer. This makes it harder to find the information we need when we need it.

Luckily, the apps that store contact lists—we're focusing on those from Google, Apple, and Microsoft—can help you clean up duplicates, delete contacts with missing or outdated information, and sync these changes between apps and devices. In general, to avoid having your contacts list sprawl across too many accounts, we'd recommend that you pick one of these contacts services to serve as your primary account, based on the apps and devices you rely on the most (heavy iPhone users should go through Apple, Android devotees should pick Google, and so on). Once you've selected a platform, use the native tools we're about to discuss to whip your contacts in shape. Then head to the final section of this guide to make sure those cleaned-up contacts will appear across all the platforms you use.

For Apple

Have you invested in an iOS phone and a macOS computer? Then you should be using Apple's built-in Contacts app, which will sync your information across both platforms. When you're on another type of device, you can still access your contacts through your web browser by visiting the iCloud site. If you're looking for advanced organization options, unfortunately, you won't find them in this app. However, it does include basic management tools.

On iOS, you can edit an entry by selecting it and choosing Edit. The next screen lets you add, remove, and change your contact's information, or remove that person entirely by tapping Delete Contact. To change how this information is sorted and displayed, head to the iOS Settings app and choose Contacts from the list. For example, you can toggle on the Prefer Nicknames switch to make iOS show nicknames rather than more formal monikers.

The macOS version has similar options, but it does include a clever groups feature that makes it easier to organize people. Open Contacts and select File > New Smart Group. Then pick your criteria: You might group people from the same city together, or if you use the Note field, you could pool anyone with, say, a "book club" tag. To email everyone in a smart group at once, look at the left-hand navigation menu to find the group's entry and then right-click on it. On macOS, unlike on iOS, you can also find duplicated contacts. Select Card > Look for Duplicates to scour your contacts list for overlapping entries. If the app finds any, it asks whether you want to merge them. You can also do this manually: Click on one contact, hold down Cmd and click on another, and then choose Card > Merge Selected Cards.

Because the macOS version has more options, we recommend that you manage your contacts on your computer rather than your phone, and then let these changes sync to the iOS app. However, if you'd prefer a more comprehensive iPhone option, then you can turn to third-party apps, which offer more advanced tools for removing duplicates. We recommend Simpler, which has a free trial but costs $10 per year to unlock most of its features, such as contact backups. This app lets you merge duplicate entries with a tap, remove partial contacts (like those missing phone numbers), organize contacts into groups, and more. We also like Delete Contacts+, which lets you quickly erase batches of people at once, backs up your contacts, and identifies cards with missing information. Again, you can enjoy a free trial, but to use the contact merge feature, you'll need to pay a one-time fee of $4.

For Google

If you opt to store your contacts with Google, you can access them online or through an official Android app. Alternately, you can import your Google contacts into iOS: Go to iOS Settings > Accounts & Passwords > Add Account > Google. In the final section of this guide, we'll talk more about how to combine all your contacts in one place.

Of Google Contacts' features, the duplicates finder is probably the most useful. To use it, visit the web interface, click Duplicates on the left side of the page, and then choose which duplicated contacts you'd like to combine and click the Merge button next to them. If the duplicate you're considering doesn't show up, then find any two or more contacts, tick the boxes next to them, and click the Merge button (icon of two arrows meeting) in the top right corner.

The Android app is even smarter at managing your contacts. Hit the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top left, choose Suggestions, and Google will suggest duplicates to merge and out-of-date information you might want to update. It will also look at people you're often in touch with via phone and recommend that you add them as new contacts. If you'd prefer to deal with duplicates on your own, you can merge them manually. Long-press on one contact in the main list, tap on one or more others, hit the three vertical dots in the top right corner, and choose Merge from the menu that pops up. In addition, the Android app lets you organize your contacts more efficiently. Open Menu > Settings to sort contacts by first name or last name, or to show or hide phonetic names.

On both the app and the website, you can organize your contacts through labeled groups. Edit a contact by selecting the pen icon. Then, while you're in editing mode, click the three vertical dots on the top right (on the web) or the Labels drop-down menu in the middle of the screen (on Android). Through these labels, you can sort your contacts for easier access or send group emails in Gmail.

Speaking of which, Gmail is tightly tied up with Google's contacts management. People that you have emailed but haven't added to your contacts appear online under the Other heading. To avoid having all those addresses pile up, you can change this default. Go to the Gmail website and click the cog icon on the right, followed by Settings > I'll add contacts myself (you can find the latter option under Create contacts for auto-complete).

If you'd like more help, you can also find third-party apps for managing your Google contacts. On Android, Simpler (also, as mentioned earlier, available on iOS) makes the process of merging contacts and spotting duplicates a little easier, and throws in contact backups as well. The pricing is the same as on iOS (free to try but $10 a year for most features). We also like Contacts Optimizer, which can erase duplicate entries, spot entries with missing information, and more. It's free to try and costs $2 for some of the more advanced features, like merging multiple contacts.

For Microsoft

Unlike Apple and Google, Microsoft doesn't have a popular mobile operating system, so the changes you make to your Microsoft contacts will not affect your phone. However, contacts will sync between Windows and Outlook, whether you use the latter online or as a computer app. Like Apple, Microsoft gives you few automated clean up options, but its basic editing interface is easy to manipulate.

Start with the People interface. On Outlook.com, you can select it from the master menu on the left-hand side of the page. For any existing entry, the Edit contact button will give you access to all the fields on each card. To add or delete new contacts, use the options on the toolbar on top. The Outlook app, available for Windows and macOS, has a similar set of options. Right-click and choose Edit Contact to make changes to an individual card, or use the New Contact, New Contact Group, and Delete buttons, located on the ribbon menu at the top, to tidy your contacts list.

As far as automated clean up options, Microsoft can detect potential duplicates for you to merge. On Outlook's web interface, click Manage > Clean up contacts. On the next screen, select the contacts you want to merge from the list and then click Clean up to confirm your choice. Through the app, you don't have automatic tools to merge or delete duplicate contacts, so you have to do this manually. First, select the contacts you want to merge from the master list. Then click the menu button (three horizontal dots) under whichever contacts appears on the display and pick Link Contacts.

In addition, Windows 10 has a built-in People app, which is another place where you can edit your Microsoft contacts list. Select any of the entries, then Edit to make changes or Find contacts to combine to merge the contact with any other item in the list.

The best aspect of the People app is the way it lets you tidy the contacts interface. First, open the app and head to the settings page by clicking the cog icon in the lower left-hand corner. Here, you can sort contacts by first versus last name, and hide those that are cluttering up the interface. To change which contacts get to show up on screen, select Filter contact list. This doesn't edit your contacts, but it can hide, say, contacts that lack an attached phone number, or those that Microsoft pulled in from Skype. In fact, Windows automatically adds new contacts with whom you've chatted or emailed, which can add too many contacts entries to your list. To disable this setting, toggle off the Automatically add contacts that you have communicated with recently switch.

The other organizational tool in Microsoft's arsenal is the groups feature. The main benefit to doing this is that you can email everyone in a list at once. To make a new group of contacts, click New > Contact list, and a dialog box will pop up. This lets you give your list a name and add contacts to it.

Using multiple contacts apps

The problem is, few of us are locked into an Apple-only, Google-only, or Microsoft-only ecosystem. It's hard to keep your contacts list tidy when it's spread across multiple accounts. However, the platforms try to help by letting you display contacts from multiple accounts on one screen.

For example, Apple lets you display your Google and Microsoft accounts on its contacts apps. On iOS, go to Settings > Accounts & Passwords > Add Account, and then hit either Google or Outlook.com. On macOS, open the Contacts app and choose Contacts > Add Account, followed by Google or Outlook.com. This lets you access and edit your Google or Microsoft contacts from Apple devices, and have the changes sync to the original accounts. However, it doesn't merge these contacts with your Apple account, so you might end up with duplicates that you cannot merge. Plus, if you try to access your contacts through the iCloud website, only Apple contacts will show up.

Through Microsoft, the People app for Windows 10 also supports multiple accounts. Click the cog icon on the lower left, then Add an account, and choose either Google or iCloud. Like with Apple, the newly imported contacts appear alongside your existing ones, but they won't get added to your official Microsoft contact list.

Google, on the other hand, doesn't let you manage and sync your Apple or Microsoft contacts. However, you can import these contacts to turn them into Google ones—but any changes you make after that will not sync to the original accounts. For example, to add Apple contacts to your Google account, visit the iCloud Contacts website, click the cog icon on the lower left, and hit Select All. Click the cog icon again, followed Export vCard. This creates a file that Google can import: In either the app or the website, head to the main menu and choose Import, then pick the vCard file. After importing a lot of contacts, we recommend that you find and merge duplicates, in case you had information for the same person on multiple accounts.

While we're on the topic of multiple accounts, one of the reasons so many contacts show up on your phone is that some of these platforms automatically display contacts from third-party apps like WhatsApp and Twitter. If you want to cut down on the number of people filling your phone, then you can hide contacts from other apps. On iOS, go to Settings > Privacy > Contacts. In the Google Contacts app for Android, tap the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top left and choose Settings > Accounts.

Keeping your contacts organized is difficult enough, but syncing them across multiple platforms can be even more frustrating. If you want to offload this chore, then try a third-party app like FullContact. Through its central hub, it will sync up to 25,000 of your contacts across up to five platforms, including the Apple, Google, and Microsoft services. However, to get this help, you'll have to pay $100 per year.

There's no way to instantly organize your contacts across every app and gadget—you'll have to invest some time and effort. However, knowing how these contacts platforms work will give you a smoother experience as you clean up your contacts lists.

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