Mac OS X’s Contacts application, formerly known as Address Book, receives a fair amount of criticism for being too simplistic. At first glance, this criticism seems true, but as you delve into the program, you discover it has a surprising level of depth, as well as tight integration into the Apple ecosystem.
Let’s take a look at how to modify the Contacts interface to your liking, manage your contacts, work with contact information, and examine utilities that make up for its shortcomings.
Customize the Template -- The first thing you should do is customize the available fields that Contacts offers on its contact cards. By default, only a handful of fields show when you edit a contact, and while you can easily add fields to any individual card, you might want to add the fields you use most often to Contacts’ template so these fields are available on all your contact cards.
To modify the fields available on all contact cards, open the Template preference pane by choosing Contacts > Preferences and clicking Templates. You’ll see the fields that currently appear by default on new contact cards. Choose the fields from the Add Field drop-down that would be helpful for your workflow.
Also, some of the fields let you choose from among a selection of labels. For example, Contacts provides a Related Names field with a default label of “mother.” Click that label and you’ll see a long list of family, acquaintance, and job titles that you can use as the label for a Related Names field. I add Related Names fields for “spouse” and “child” to all my contact cards, so I can remember a contact’s family.
Almost all of the fields give you the option to create a custom label. For example, when I edit a card for a company, I like to specify which phone number is for Billing and which is for Support, and I use custom labels for that purpose. Here’s how to do it: click the field name for a phone number to see a menu of alternate labels. From the bottom of the menu, choose Custom and enter the name of your own label. When you change a field’s label in the template, the change appears on all of your cards; if you change the label when you are editing an individual contact card, the change affects only that card.
For even more flexibility, you can add additional instances of a field by default. Since most of my contacts have multiple phone numbers, I modified the template to provide several phone number fields. To add another instance of a field, click the green plus button beside the field, then click the new field’s label to choose the label you want.
Some of Contacts’ additional fields integrate with other Mac applications. The Birthday and Date fields add corresponding calendar entries to the Calendar app. What’s more, when you create a Calendar project in iPhoto, you can display contact birthdays and dates on your calendar. Note that in OS X 10.7 Lion and earlier, you needed to specify a year for a Birthday or Date field, otherwise it defaulted to 2000 on the calendar, leading to ridiculous claims that your contacts are 13 years old. In 10.8 Mountain Lion and 10.9 Mavericks, you don’t need to specify the year at all, and you can delete the year from incorrect birthdays.
Contacts data is also used by Siri in iOS. By adding the Nickname field to your template, you can use the contents of that field to help you voice-dial your iPhone. For example, under my uncle’s full name I have “Uncle Bob,” and under my brother I wrote “Brother.” That lets me tell Siri to “call Uncle Bob” or “call my brother” instead of specifying their full names.
Issue Commands with Contacts -- You’re undoubtedly used to looking up contact information in Contacts, but did you know you can search your Mac, access mapping services, and send text messages right from Contacts? You can find and issue various commands by clicking the different field labels on a contact card.
For example, when you click an email label, you see a menu of actions including Send Email, FaceTime, Send Message, Send My Card, and Search with Spotlight. This last command searches your entire Mac, not just your email, for all documents containing that address.
You can click a street address label to open it in the new Maps app in Mavericks (Google Maps in earlier versions of Mac OS X), to put that address on your clipboard, or to copy a URL for that location in Maps (again, in Google Maps for earlier versions).
Clicking a phone number gives you the opportunity to show the number in very large type across your screen, start a FaceTime call, send a text message to that number via Messages, or even make a phone call with compatible apps, such as Skype.
Deal with Duplicates -- Occasionally you may find duplicate cards in Contacts, which can arise for a variety of reasons. For example, if all of your contacts are doubled or tripled, it’s likely because you have synced your contacts from multiple sources, such as with iCloud and iTunes (possible only in Mountain Lion since Mavericks eliminated Sync Services). If you’re using iCloud in Lion or Mountain Lion, turn off contact syncing in iTunes and the multiple instances should disappear.
It’s also easy to end up with multiple cards for a person, some with outdated information, or have email addresses on one card and phone numbers on another. These duplicates can occur, for example, when you have added contacts from different sources over time, such as by transferring contacts from an old phone or importing from another Mac.
To resolve this problem, you’ll want to merge the cards. You can do this on a case-by-case basis: Command-click the cards you want to combine, and then choose Card > Merge Selected Cards. To make sure the data merges cleanly, be sure Home and Work labels are correctly assigned in the separate cards. If two different phone numbers are both marked Work, Contacts may drop one of the numbers.
If you have a lot of such duplicates you can merge them all at once: choose Cards > Look for Duplicates. Contacts tells you how many duplicates it has found, and asks if you want to merge them. However, you have no control over the process, and any contact cards that have the same name, even if they are actually for different people, may be combined (sorry, John Smith!). Make a backup with File > Export > Contacts Archive first, if you are going to use this technique.
You aren’t limited to Contacts when fixing up a messy contact database: if you have a lot of duplicate names, cards with missing information, or entry errors (such as having company names in the first name field), take a look at Spanning Sync’s Contacts Cleaner ($4.99). It can resolve dozens of formatting errors and complex duplication issues.
Make Smart Groups -- One underutilized feature of Contacts is smart groups. In addition to the contact groups you can create manually (choose File > New Group and then drag contacts to the group), you can create smart groups: lists of contacts that update dynamically, just like smart playlists in iTunes and smart albums in iPhoto. Smart groups can be based on the contents of a field, or on the status of the card itself, including when it was updated.
I use a smart group to gather all the employees of one of the businesses I work with. I have a dozen contacts employed in different departments of the company, and I keep their cards sorted by first and last name, not company name. By making a smart group, I can see the entire list of that company’s employees in one place, without having to search for the company name or add new contacts to a group manually.
To create your first smart group, choose File > New Smart Group (Command-Option-N); subsequently you can also hover the pointer over the Smart Groups heading in the sidebar and then click the small plus button that appears. Either way, a dialog appears in which you can name the smart group and specify the conditions that must be met for a card to be included in that group. To make my company name smart list as in the earlier example, choose Company from the first menu, “is” from the second menu, and then enter the company name. If you need multiple criteria, click the plus button to the right to add an additional criterion.
Whenever a contact card meets the conditions you specify, it appears in that smart group. When it no longer meets those conditions, it automatically disappears from the smart group.
Use Social Media -- In Mavericks, Contacts provides fields for you to store a variety of your contacts’ social media handles. When you add Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (new in Mavericks) accounts using the Internet Accounts pane of System Preferences, each person’s social media account handle is added to the matching card in Contacts.
For Facebook and LinkedIn, you can click Get Profile Photos in the Internet Accounts preference pane to display your friends’ profile pictures right on their cards.
You can even go a step further by checking the Contacts option in the Internet Accounts pane, which imports all your Facebook and LinkedIn connections into a new group, complete with profile information. Better yet, that information remains up to date as your connections add and change their contact information. But…
Given the promiscuous “friending” that most people have engaged in on these services, adding hundreds of entries of people you barely know to Contacts may be a truly terrible idea. If you do add Facebook and LinkedIn information, and later decide against it by deselecting the Contacts checkbox for each in the Internet Accounts preference pane, you have the option to remove that information from your Mac, or keep it and simply break the connection so it doesn’t update. Neither is entirely satisfactory: ideal behavior for many of us would be to get updating information, but only for those people who were already in Contacts.
Sometimes, though, even this level of social media integration is not enough. Cobook ($9.99 for the Mac, free for iOS) incorporates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Xing by importing your Friends and Followers lists as Tags. In the Cobook iPhone app, you can even view each contact’s recent social media posts.
Tagging in Cobook provides additional flexibility to Contacts’ groups. You can create tags to mark people for Christmas lists, invitations, and other times when you want to filter your contacts without creating a permanent group.
One of my favorite features of Cobook is that you can access your contacts quickly from an icon in your Mac’s menu bar. I also like that, in Cobook’s iOS app, each contact displays that person’s local time. No more accidentally waking up your daughter spending a semester abroad, or calling a company across the country before or after business hours!
Print Mailing Labels and Use Mail Merge -- Most people are surprised to learn that Contacts can print mailing labels and envelopes using standard formats from Avery and Dymo, and that you can even create your own layouts for custom labels. Apple doesn’t trumpet the functionality, but instead buries it in the Print dialog.
To print labels or envelopes, first highlight the contacts to include in the print job. Then, choose File > Print, and click Show Details. Next, from the Style dropdown, choose a style: the choices include Envelopes, Mailing Labels, Lists, and Pocket Address Book. Once you have chosen a style, use the Layout and Label panes in the Print dialog to refine the layout and content of the mailing labels or envelopes. In the Layout pane you can set label dimensions, choosing from various standard sizes. In the Label pane you can specify a logo or other image to use, and choose a font.
If, however, you need to add barcodes or intricate graphics to your labels, look to other applications. For example, Labels & Addresses ($49.95) from BeLight Software gives you much more printing flexibility, including personal and corporate templates, creative fonts, hundreds of images, and the capability to print postcards and a variety of label shapes. As an added bonus, the software can begin printing mailing labels in the middle of the page, so you can make use of partially used label sheets.
Labels & Addresses also solves the problem of how to create a single address label for multiple contacts who share an address, such as married couples, a need that often arises when printing labels for holiday cards. For more information about that, read Jeff Carlson’s “Labels & Addresses Restores Holiday Card Sanity” (12 December 2008).
Dedicated label printers, such as the LabelWriter printers from Dymo and Smart Label Printers from Seiko, print your labels in long strips, so that you don’t wind up wasting unused labels at the bottom of the sheet. They support a vast array of label sizes, and while they come with their own software, it’s often better to rely on Labels & Addresses.
If, instead of using labels, you frequently need to print directly on envelopes, I suggest you take a look at Ambrosia Software’s EasyEnvelopes ($9.99), which also integrates with Contacts.
You can also create mailing labels, envelopes, and directories inside your favorite word processor. Both Pages ’09 and Microsoft Word recognize Contacts as a data source for mail merge — unfortunately, the just-released Pages 5 no longer supports mail merge. Any fields on a contact card can be included in form letters and phone list directories as well.
Contacts in the Cloud -- iCloud makes synchronizing Contacts with your iPhone and iPad easy, but what if you have an Android-based smartphone or tablet?
The most common cross-platform solution is to use Google Contacts. Because your Mac, iPhone, and iPad can automatically connect to a Google account (just add it in the Internet Accounts preference pane, and select the Contacts checkbox inside), any contacts you have in Google Contacts can be pulled into the Contacts apps on your Apple devices. Any other service listed in the Internet Accounts pane that supports contacts can be brought into Contacts the same way.
Another way to share contacts across platforms is to use a Web-based service like Fruux, which stores your contacts and makes them available to any app, operating system, or device that understands the CardDAV protocol, such as Thunderbird, Android, and Nokia smartphones. (Fruux also supports calendar sharing via the CalDAV protocol.) Such services allow you to share contact information with others, as well: you can invite anyone you want to your Fruux address book, including friends, family, and co-workers, and you can choose to give them read-only or read-write access. Fruux is free for use with up to two shares and two devices; to increase that to unlimited shares and up to 10 devices, you’ll need a Pro account (€4/month or €40/year).
Plaxo is another popular cloud-based synchronization service. The Plaxo Platinum Sync service ($5/month or $59.99/year) syncs your contacts between Contacts, Outlook, Gmail, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile — it can also do calendar event sharing across those platforms.
Exporting Your Address Book -- Sometimes it’s easy to provide your contacts to other applications: a program may simply ask permission, and the transport happens seamlessly. At other times, though, you must export your contact data before you can import it elsewhere.
Contacts provides two export formats: vCard or a Contacts Archive. vCard is useful for importing into many programs on a variety of platforms. A Contacts Archive, on the other hand, is only used to transfer your contacts to another Mac that is also running Contacts.
What if your destination app doesn’t understand vCard and wants a text file? Unfortunately, Contacts lacks a simple text export option that puts your contacts into the common tab-delimited or comma-separated text formats. Luckily, there are utilities that can read your contacts list and export it as a comma-separated or tab-separated text file, suitable for import into such programs as Excel, FileMaker, Outlook, and Salesforce.com. One such app is Subclassed’s Export Address Book ($3.99). This little gem even includes hidden fields like Creation and Modification Date in the exported text file.
Going Beyond Contacts -- There are a handful of other apps on the market that expand on Contacts’ capabilities.
For an alternative interface with color coding for groups, take a look at iLifeTouch’s Contact Book ($5). It provides an easy way to switch between groups; adds social media information to your contacts; and offers three ways to search, including a slideshow.
If you want to store sensitive information in Contacts but are concerned about it falling into the wrong hands, take a look at Tension Software’s Private Contact ($7). It’s a separate contact manager that encrypts its data and doesn’t integrate with the rest of your Mac, keeping your confidential details secure. It imports from Contacts, offers color coding of categories, and is otherwise intended to work essentially like Contacts.
If you’re looking for significantly more power in general, check out SOHO Organizer from Chronos ($99.99), which offers hierarchical smart groups, iCloud syncing, offline support, file attachments to contacts, smarter duplicate handling, and more. For those looking towards a full-fledged customer relationship management tool, investigate Marketcircle’s Daylite ($279.95), which records everything you do with a contact, lets you define relationships between people, pulls out people you haven’t spoken with in a while, automates follow-ups, and much more.
Final Contact -- While Contacts is geared for the home user, its customizability makes it more practical for serious use than most people realize. With its deep integration with other Apple apps and independent software, it also provides a foundation for working with your contact data in a variety of ways. And of course, whatever your opinions of the actual Contacts app are, it’s core to having contact information sync seamlessly with your iOS devices.
However, if you have more robust contact and relationship management needs than Contacts provides, you may be able to use one or more of the utilities described above to make Contacts into a tool that works for you or, if all else fails, replace it entirely.