10 must-have tech tools for an organized family

Say farewell to chaos and hello to a smooth school year with these online tools that will keep your family on track, on schedule, and on the same page.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Farewell to family chaos

The marked-up kitchen calendar. The cluster of kid-related schedules held by so many magnets on the fridge. The school forms languishing at the bottom of your purse. These stabs at “family organization” had their place... in the old days. Lucky you — to be living in the digital age that boasts a wealth of organizational tools to ensure that every form to sign, schedule to coordinate, and activity to attend doesn’t fall through the cracks. Our tech expert serves up 10 online products that could transform your home from a certifiable disaster area to an oasis of order – just in time for the new school year.

Evernote

Just ask any Evernote user: it can be life-changing. Here’s a tool that helps you remember anything and everything: What did I sign up to bring for the back-to-school class picnic? What’s the room number of my son’s AP Physics class? Which brand of energy bars were you supposed to pick up for the soccer team? So many things to remember. If you use Evernote on every device you have, you'll remember it all. Snap a pic of the picnic sign-up, room number, or energy bars. Then access the information just when you need it. Found your daughter’s math homework on the floor? Scan it and drag it into Evernote. She’ll be able to pull it up when she desperately needs it at school. Wish the kids would put the dishes in the right cupboards? Take a photo, annotate it — by drawing right on the image with your finger or a stylus using the Skitch add-in — and share it with them. They can use it as a reference even if you aren’t there to help. Get the entire family to add what they need to an Evernote shopping list and you’ll no longer have to take multiple trips to the grocery store. It doesn’t matter what device you or the kids use — there is an app for all of them. Or, if all you have handy is a borrowed computer, you can access everything from the Web.

Evernote, free to start. Premium is $45 a year. Apps for Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Windows 8, Mac, Web

Bottom line: Make yourself smarter. This tool will remember everything — photo, voice note, videos, jotted notes — and find it fast with its super search skills. It can even find text in a photo.

Microsoft OneNote

OneNote leaves the three-ring binder — once the king of school organization — in the dust. If you use a Microsoft Windows phone or Microsoft Office with OneNote, you already have one of the most powerful organization tools going. But OneNote works well on any device. Touring colleges with your teen? This is an opportunity to teach him — by example — the organization skills he’ll need as a college student. Create a “College Tour” notebook and share it with him. Then create a section for each college you plan to tour. Drop in Web clippings of programs or school highlights simply by tapping an icon, selecting the part of the screen you want, and telling OneNote which notebook to put it in. Add a to-do list, packing list, and travel schedule. Then bring your smartphones on the tour and add video of the tour guide, photos of the campus, voice notes, and jotted thoughts. It’s easier than writing with a pencil: just tap an on-screen icon in the app and point the camera or phone at your subject to snap a photo, record sound, or capture video. If you find yourself enthralled with the science building while he is wowed by the sports complex, use OneNote to keep each other informed. When he takes a picture of the stadium, you’ll see it on your tablet. If you record a tour of the natural science lab, he’ll see it on his phone. And when it’s all a blur later, you’ll both have detailed notes on the Web or your computer.

Included in Microsoft Office 365 ($100 a year; has the most features). Apps are free for iOS, Android, Windows Phone (with many features), Windows 8, and the Web.

Bottom line: The three-ring binder of the future is now. Works like the paper kind but fits in your phone and keeps any project super organized.

Google Calendar

Trying to manage the time demands of a busy family using a paper calendar — or even an evolved kitchen message center — is like trying to see microbes with a pair of reading glasses. The online calendar is the tool that will bring it all into focus. One example: your son’s tennis lesson. It happens at the same time every week, unless it doesn’t. Yet you have to remind him repeatedly. And if the lesson is cancelled, you have to scramble to track him down. Instead, go digital. Add the lesson to your calendar once and tell it to repeat every Thursday. Then ask Google to remind your son by text at 8 AM so he’ll pack his gear, at 12 PM so he eats enough lunch to carry him through, and at 3 PM so he doesn’t take the bus home instead of going to his lesson. If the teacher cancels, change it on your calendar and Google will let your son know on his phone. And forget forgetting to write something down. Just pull out your phone (or whatever device you have) and speak your appointment. Whether you use an app or the Web, your calendar will always be up to date. You can even tick a few boxes to overlay your husband’s, teen’s, and school calendar (if it uses Google Calendar, many do) over yours to see them all at once when you’re planning a vacation. Tip: when using Google Calendar, store your address book with Google Contacts. That way, if you lose your phone or computer you won’t lose touch with your peeps; it will also make inviting people to events on your calendar super easy.

Google Calendar, free, syncs with your phone’s calendar.

Bottom line: The solution to keeping track of a busy family’s schedule is free, and works on every tablet or computer there is.

Springpad

Organization does not have to be strictly utilitarian. Springpad makes your online organization as visually engaging as a big bulletin board in the family room. And that’s a great way to get your people engaged and excited about a vacation or college tour. For a trip to Boston with my family, I grabbed links from the Web of colleges we planned to tour, restaurants, attractions, plays, our hotels, and more (you can install a browser button so this is a one-click affair). Springpad creates a display — using images from the websites or from photos I upload — out of my pre-trip Web research so my fellow travelers can browse, add comments, follow my links, and add their own. Not only do we all know the plans, but we won’t forget our dinner reservations: I can add a reminder to the restaurant note and it will alert us. The entire trip looks beautiful on my tablet and I can add notes and photos as we tour — using my smartphone. As I do this, I’m turning the planner into a scrapbook, so if my son ends up going to college in Boston, he’ll be able to remember that taco place he loved and bargain shoe store we found. Tip: this is a great place to keep your online shopping/wish list, too: it will let you know when an item you covet goes on sale.

Springpad, free; apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, the Web

Bottom line: A beautiful bulletin board for your phone, tablet, or computer. Because information — especially about travel — can be art, too.

Outlook

Organize your email, people, calendar, and photos all in one fell swoop at Outlook.com. It’s clean and uncluttered. It also contains Microsoft’s SkyDrive so you can sync important files on your computer with the cloud and there they'll be when you check email. Send your photos here, too, and you won’t lose track of them. And if you need to send someone one of those files or photos, share it instead. It will send them a link directly to the file so you can avoid huge file attachment hassles. But the best part is how it organizes your communications. Some friends want to chat with you on Facebook. Your kids use Google chat. Your work colleagues have all embraced Twitter. Do it all from here and spare your brain from the chaos while avoiding the “Why didn’t you respond?” accusations.

Outlook, free; app for Android, syncs with iPad and iPhone

Bottom line: Get your email, calendar, files, photos, and social media all in one pretty spot in the cloud.

iCloud

In a word, iCloud is a lifesaver. If you sport an Apple device, this is your online calendar, file storage, and address book. Simply agree to your iPad or Mac’s request to store your files in the cloud and you will never have to worry about losing your data if your gear takes a bath. You can also access your information from any Web browser at iCloud.com. So if you find yourself without your phone, find a computer, log on, and you'll see an image of your data. Whew! Back on track!

iCloud, free

Bottom line: Got an iPad or iPhone? Back it up to the cloud to avoid disaster and keep yourself organized.

Google Drive

Remember thumb drives? So five years ago. Sign him up for Google Drive and download the app to his computer. It’s like handing him a 15 GB flash drive he can’t lose. (Or destroy with the super magnet in science class moments before turning in his science project, as my son did.)  Everything he stores in his computer’s Google Drive folder will be stored in the cloud where he can access it from any device with a Web connection. Even if a Zombie dog eats his entire backpack, he can log on from a school computer and get to his homework. He can also create documents, spreadsheets, or presentations here, making it a bare-bones office suite in the cloud. In fact, get him to write his papers here and share with you and the teacher. You can log on and offer editing suggestions. And the teacher can do the same. It’s a great way to coach a budding writer.

Google Drive, free

Bottom line: A huge, free flash drive you can’t destroy, lose, or mangle in the wash. What’s not to like?

Dropbox

Dropbox makes it possible to share any and every kind of document. Thinking of emailing the photos from your vacation to your extended family? Don’t push the send button! For one thing, it’s inconsiderate. What if your niece is traipsing around Europe checking email using an expensive roaming plan? Downloading your photos could cost her the price of her rail pass. Instead, upload your photos from your computer or an app on your phone or tablet — to a neatly labeled folder on Dropbox. Share it with your family and your niece can access the folder when she’s using a free Wi-Fi connection, and download only the photos she wants. She won’t have to hunt through email to find them again — since they are still in Dropbox. And you can send them from here to other online tools that work with Dropbox, making it easy to share, print, and preserve for posterity. Dropbox has saved my tween son on many occasions, like the time he wrote his final English paper, printed it out, and then got to school and realized he didn’t include a heading — which would lower his grade by a point. Dropbox to the rescue. He went to the school library and accessed the paper he’d saved there, added the missing heading, printed it out, and got the A he deserved.

Dropbox, 2 GB free, apps for Android, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Kindle Fire

Bottom line: A cloud storage service that organizes your photos – or any file – so you can conveniently back up and share them with friends or printer services.

Nitro Pro 8

The clutter that collects on the counter. The filing cabinets that take up too much space. The endless search for documents you can’t find. Pestering a kid to turn in the permission slip you put in her backpack weeks ago. Chuck the mess and confusion once and for all: get a scanner and install Nitro Pro 8 on your computer. Scan in all the clutter and the permission forms and chuck the originals (or store them if it makes you feel better). Don’t print paper; print PDFs to here. That permission slip? Open it in Nitro Pro, drop in your signature (the one you already scanned or wrote on your smartphone and stored here securely), type in any information the form asks for, and email it directly to the teacher. (Don’t worry about your aspiring Ferris Bueller using this as a high-tech way to forge your signature. It’s password protected.) Then stamp it “Done!” and file it on your hard drive. All the paper clutter from the counter? Run it through the scanner, use the digital stamp collection to stamp the bills paid and store them on your hard drive (or use Skydrive Dropbox, or another cloud service if you want to access them from anywhere). Look at that! You cleaned up the kitchen and freed up an entire room by dumping the filing cabinets and the printer. And you did it all while you were waiting for the pasta water to boil. Better still, you will be able to find that permission slip again even if a not-as-organized-as-you teacher insists you never turned it in — moments before the field trip. Just call it up on your phone and send it to her. Who knows? Maybe she will ask you for help getting organized.

Nitro Pro 8, $120 (but the free Nitro Reader does most everything you’ll need.)

Bottom line: To go paperless, you need a program that lets you make digital printouts, sign them, and mark them up. This one is awesome.

DocuSign Ink

You know that permission slip scenario from the previous slide? Here’s the mobile solution. Download this app to your smartphone. Create your digital signature by signing on the screen with a stylus or your finger. When the teacher, soccer coach, or school secretary requests your signature on a permission slip, snap a photo of the form with your phone’s camera (or grab it from email) while you are waiting for your student to get ready for school. Then open the image in this app. Drag your (password protected) signature to the signature line in the form and email it right back to the teacher. You could conceivably get that form turned in while your tween is still tying her shoes. Now toss the original and don’t let this sort of trivia clutter up your life — or your tween’s backpack.

DocuSign Ink, free for personal use; Apps for Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows 8

Bottom line: A smartphone app that solves the signed permission slip hassle in two seconds flat.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.