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Making Contact with Contacts

Apple’s Contacts, formerly known as Address Book, receives a fair amount of criticism for being too simplistic. At first glance, this is true, but as you delve into the program, it has a surprising level of depth and integration into your Mac’s ecosystem.

Templates — The first modification all users should make to Contacts is to customize the available fields. By default, only a handful show in the card while in Edit mode. To add a field to just one card, click the Card menu and point at the Add Field option. Select any item on the list, and it will appear on that one person’s card.

To modify field list on all the cards, go into Contacts > Preferences and click the Template button.

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Click the Add Field drop-down and select any options in black that would be helpful for your workflow. Then, click each field name to specify the default label. If you’d always like to see more than one email address, instead of having to add Home or Work each time, click the green plus button to add an additional field occurrence, then set your most frequently used labels.

All of the field labels have the option to create a custom label. So, for example, if you keep your employees in Contacts, you can customize their Date fields to say “Start Date.” If you do this while in the Template preference pane, the change will appear on all cards; if you make this change while in a contact card, it only affects the single card you’re on.

Some of Contacts’ fields integrate with other Mac applications. The Birthday and Anniversary fields add corresponding calendars in the Calendar app. When creating a Calendar project in iPhoto, you’re offered the option for these events to appear on their dates.

Actions — Did you know you can search your computer, open web pages, and send text messages right from Contacts? Try right-clicking on different field labels. For example, if you right-click on an email label, you’ll see actions including Send Email, Facetime, and Search with Spotlight. The latter will search your entire computer, not just your email, for all documents including that address.

Social Media Integration — In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, new fields are available to store a variety of your contacts’ social media Web site handles. When you set up Facebook and Twitter accounts in the Mail, Contacts, and Calendar pane of System Preferences, Contacts will display your friends’ Facebook profile pictures. If you check the Contacts option, you can even import all your Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers, complete with profile information.

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Sometimes, though, not even this level of social media integration is enough. Cobook (free) incorporates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Xing by importing your Friends and Followers lists as Tags. On the Cobook iPhone app, you can even view each contact’s recent posts.

Tagging in Cobook provides additional flexibility to Contacts’s Groups. You can create tags marking people for Christmas lists, invitations, and other times when you want to filter without creating a permanent group.

One of my favorite features of Cobook is the ability to access your contacts from an icon in the menu bar. I also like that on the iPhone, each contact displays her or her local time. No more waking Mom & Dad in the middle of the night!

Smart Groups — One underutilized feature of Contacts is Smart Groups. In addition to creating Groups and manually adding names, you can create Group lists that update dynamically. Smart Groups can be based on the contents of a field, or on the status of the card itself, including when it was updated.

To create a Smart Group, hover your pointer over the Smart Groups heading in the sidebar, and a small plus button appears on its right. When you click it, a dialog box appears. Name the group, choose the label from the first drop-down, then set the criterion. Click on the plus button on the right to build multiple criteria.

Any time a contact card fulfills these parameters, it will appear in the Smart Group. When it no longer fulfills the requirements, it will disappear.

Bento — Another way to expand Contacts’ usability is use it as the foundation for a database, to collect and manage further information about any or all of your associates. Bento ($49), the consumer database application from FileMaker, synchronizes seamlessly with Contacts. Its built-in templates feature text fields, checkboxes, multimedia, lists, and more, in a lovely graphical interface. Bento’s iPhone and iPad apps give you access to your data while out and about.

Up until recently, Bento integrated your Contacts, Calendar, and iPhoto, allowing you to use it as a CRM. Unfortunately, they are phasing out the live links to Calendar and iPhoto, but you can still manually add Calendar appointments and iPhoto pictures.

Printing Mailing Labels — Most people are surprised to learn that Contacts can print mailing labels and envelopes in standard formats from Avery and Dymo, and you can even create your own layouts.

To do this, highlight the contacts to include in the print job. Then, in the Print dialog, click the Show Details button at the bottom. Choose a style: Envelopes, Mailing Labels, Lists, or Pocket Address Book. Use the Layout and Label buttons to refine the layout and content of the mailing labels or envelopes. You can even include a logo or other image, and format the text.

What Contacts won’t allow you to do, though, is to add bar codes or intricate graphics. Labels & Addresses ($49.95) from Belight Software gives you more flexibility, including personal and corporate templates, creative fonts, hundreds of images, and the ability to print postcards and a variety of label shapes. As an added bonus, the software can start printing mailing labels in the middle of the page.

If you’re specifically interested in printing directly on envelopes, it’s also worth taking a look at Ambrosia Software’s Easy Envelopes ($9.99), which also integrates with Contacts.

If you have a Dymo labeler, Dymo Label (free) uses their vast array of label sizes as templates to print your addresses.

Mail Merge — You can also create mailing labels, envelopes, and directories inside your favorite word processor. Both Pages and Microsoft Word recognize Contacts as a data source for mail merge. Any fields on a contact card can be included in form letters and phone list directories as well.

Dealing with Duplicates — Occasionally you may find duplicate cards in Contacts. To clean them up, start with the Card menu and choose Look for Duplicates. Contacts will tell you how many duplicates it found, and ask if you want to merge them. However, you have no control over the process, and any contacts with the same name, even if they are different people, may be combined.

An alternative is to merge the cards yourself. Command-click the names you want to combine, then choose Card > Merge Selected Cards. To make sure your data merges cleanly, be sure Home and Work labels are correctly assigned to your data. If two different phone numbers are both marked “Work,” Contacts may drop one of the numbers.

If you have a lot of duplicate names, cards with missing information, or entry errors, like Company names in the First Name field, take a look at Contacts Cleaner ($4.99). This app can resolve dozens of formatting errors and complex duplication issues.

Cloud Computing — iCloud makes synchronizing Contacts with your iPhone and iPad easy, but what if you have an Android-based smartphone or tablet? Take advantage of Fruux.com. This free Web-based service uploads your contacts and makes them available to non-Apple devices including Android, Nokia, Thunderbird, and any other CardDav services. It works with CalDav, too.

Invite anyone you want to your Fruux address book, including friends, family, and co-workers. You can even choose to give them read-only or read-write access.

Plaxo ($5/mo or $59.99/yr) is a popular entry in the cloud-based synchronization field. It will sync your contacts between Outlook, Gmail, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile.

Exporting your address book — If you need to move your Contacts list to other computers or applications, sometimes it’s easy: the destination program will just ask your permission, and the import happens seamlessly. Other times, you’ll need to export the data first. Contacts limits export formats to vCards, or a Contacts Archive that only transfers to Contacts on other computers.

To import your contacts list into Excel, FileMaker, Outlook, Sales Force, or other programs using .csv, turn to TKTK’s Export Address Book ($3.99). This little utility even includes hidden fields like Creation and Modification Date.

Other programs — There are a handful of other apps on the market that expand on Contacts’ abilities. TKTK’s Contact Book ($5) provides an enhanced interface with color coding, a drop-down to switch between Groups, and three ways to search, including a slideshow.

If you store sensitive information in your Contacts, take a look at TKTK’s Private Contact ($6.99). It’s a separate encrypted contacts manager that doesn’t integrate with the rest of your Mac, keeping your data secure.

Conclusion — While Contacts is geared for the home user, it has more going on under the hood than most people realize. Its deep integration with Apple apps and third party software provides a foundation to work with your contact cards in a variety of ways, and all your changes will still sync to your iPhone and iPad.

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