2 apps and 5 helpful tips for corralling your out-of-control contacts lists on iOS, OS X

Over the years I have tried several solutions for syncing my contacts between different accounts. Even back in the days of Palm Pilot Desktop for Mac, ActiveSync, Intellisync, and my personal favorite, The Missing Sync. In the long run, they never ended up working for me. Each of them usually ends up creating duplicate records. So I have made quite a mess of my contacts many times over. But as a result, I have become quite good at cleaning up the messes I’ve made.

I’m not going to tell you how to sync your contacts across multiple accounts — that is, keeping exact copies of your contact list in sync across multiple accounts like Yahoo, Google, iCloud and Exchange.  This technique will also not help with proprietary information formats that you may have on various online services like LinkedIn,(s LNKD) Twitter or Facebook(s FB) even though you may think of your friends, buddies and followers as a sort of contacts list. Rather, this is a list of helpful techniques for cleaning up the contact lists associated with your traditional mail accounts.

Multiple Accounts

Managing multiple accounts

A lot of us have multiple email accounts that each have their own list of unique contacts. For instance, you probably have one account for personal use and a separate account for business.  I like having one dedicated to online purchases as well (that way I can keep my spam and promotional email separate from my personal and private email). On both OS X and iOS you can set up multiple accounts and view an aggregated version of your contact information across all of your Apple devices. The challenge comes when you have contacts that are represented as individual records in multiple accounts.

Linking similar contacts

Don’t think of these necessarily as duplicate accounts. You may have a very good reason for keeping a copy of a particular contact on each one of your accounts. One such reason would be when accessing your account’s email from a web browser: browser-based mail clients aren’t optimized to access other accounts contact lists.   For such situations when you do have two records for the same contact in two different accounts, there is a feature within the Contacts app that allows you to treat all the records as one account. The process is referred to as linking the accounts.

On iOS you accomplish this by first editing the account in question.  Then scroll down to the bottom of the record and tap on the button labeled “Link and unlink Contacts with.”  Here you will be able to associate records with other accounts.  That way the contact will only show up once rather than multiple times.

Linking Contact Records

Merging duplicates

There are times when you do end up with multiple contacts within a single account.  Finding such duplicates and resolving merge issues manually can be very time consuming. There really is no utility that comes with iOS and the one that does come with OS X is not very powerful. I have found two apps that do a much better job.

The first is a Mac OS X app called Contacts Cleaner ($4.99 Mac). Contacts Cleaner will scan the contact accounts you have set up on your Mac and produce a report of all of the erroneous information contained in the list. Cards with only one name, spaces in the first name, duplicate addresses, bad phone numbers will all be categorized and displayed for you to review. Sometimes the app proposes a resolution and you can have it fix the record for you automatically. Or if you like, it will open the contact in the native Contacts app so you can resolve the conflict yourself.

Merging Duplicates on OS X

The second is an iOS app called Multi Edit – Contacts Manager ($1.99 Universal). This app does a great job at finding duplicates and merging contact information into one record. It quickly identifies contacts with duplicate phone numbers, emails and similar names. It can even filter your contacts by birthday, company, job title and email account type. Once a duplicate is found, you have options as to what information you want to merge and you can edit the contact directly from within the app. It will even show you a preview of the new contact before it performs the merge.

Merging Duplicates on iOS

Depending on how much missing information, data conflicts and duplicate records you have, just spending a little time each day may be all you need to clean up your contacts.

Creating backups

Backing up your contacts separately from the rest of your system is important in case all you manage to just lose your contacts.  You never know when an app, device or online service may really screw up your contact list, requiring you to restore it from a recent backup.

For Mac, the native Contacts app that comes with OS X can do a pretty decent job of backing up your contacts. In fact, I relied on this as the sole menas of backing up my contacts for years before iOS and iCloud ever existed. From within Contacts (formerly called Address Book), choose Export from the File menu and click on Contacts Archive. You will be asked to choose the destination of the archive file that will be created.

Making Backups

On iOS it is not as simple. You do not want to rely on a full backup of the device as your sole menas to keep an archive of your contacts. Instead, the aforementioned Multi Edit – Contacts Manager has a great backup utility built in. When you first run the app, you will be prompted to back up your contacts right away.  You can then maintain regular backups as time goes on.  Once the backup is complete, you have the option of emailing yourself a copy of the backup file.

Adding new contacts

This, of course, is how you got into this mess in the first place: meeting new and interesting people all the time. If you insist on expanding your contact list, be mindful of which account you are adding the contact to. As in, don’t accidentally add a customer or client’s information to your personal address book. Where new accounts go on iOS depends on what account you have set up as your default account for Contacts.  You can change this by going into your Settings for Mail, Contacts, Calendars, scrolling down to the section labeled Contacts, and set the Default Account setting to the account you want to add new contacts to.  On the Mac, this same setting is configured in the general preferences for the Contacts app.

Adding New Contacts to the Default Account

I tend to use Contacts more and more often.  I like to share contacts with others — sometimes these are people’s information, and sometimes these contacts are places, like from pins on the Maps app.  Knowing that I can quickly and easily clean up the messes that I make is comforting. Hopefully you too will be able to look upon your contacts as a valuable, well managed resource, rather than just another mess that you keep putting off cleaning up.