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Digital Clutter-Killers

Clear off your dusty shelves and make a host of old-school media compact and accessible by converting them into convenient digital files
| By Steve Morgenstern | From Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013
Digital Clutter-Killers
Illustration/Gary Hovland

My home is full of shelves that are packed with… stuff. Dusty stuff. Messy stuff. Stuff I can’t find when I actually need it. Caught up in the spring cleaning spirit (and following a not-so-gentle nudge from my long-suffering wife), I decided to try paring down the piles and stacks, transforming documents, photos, books and DVDs into easily stored and accessed digital files. A few years back, hard-drive storage costs would have made this a pricey proposition, but with huge hard drives now incredibly cheap, I can fit thousands of photos and hundreds of movies on a drive that costs about $100 at my local office supply store.

Frankly, at the end of the day, the major benefit was turning disorganized junk into useful, searchable information, but I did manage to clear away some shelf and drawer space in the process. Here are some of the tools and techniques I brought to the task.

Banishing Paper

Admittedly, as someone who works from home, I may have more accumulated paperwork than most folks, but much of it has nothing to do with business. Like the three bags full of recipes clipped from newspapers over the course of years—never used any of them, of course, since there’s no rhyme or reason to a bag full of recipes, but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to part with them. And as a long-form tax filer, there are enough receipts in my home office to create a very respectable bonfire.

The answer is clearly a document scanner that connects to my computer and lets me transform paper to digital files. And there are lots of options to consider.

One increasingly popular choice is the multifunction printer, which incorporates printing, scanning and copying in a single product, often adding faxing to the list (yes, despite the fact that faxing is a 150-year-old technology, it refuses to die). You’ll see extraordinarily inexpensive versions on store shelves today, but on the low end you get what you pay for, both in print quality and scanning performance. On the other hand, I had an excellent experience with the HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus, now available for $230. Printing is fast and good-looking for both documents and photos, and the Pro 8600 Plus supports automated two-sided document printing to save on paper. You also get built-in networking capability, both wired and wireless, which means you can both print and scan using any computer on your home network. In fact, you can even scan a document using the touch-screen LCD on the Officejet and have it sent directly to your computer, a huge convenience.

You can place a single sheet directly onto the glass, but when you have lots of documents to digitize, you’ll be grateful for the automatic document feeder that can hold up to 50 sheets and scan either one or both sides.

Downsides to the HP? It’s large, at 19.4 x 18.1 x 12.4 inches and nearly 30 pounds. And while it delivers handsome scans, it does take a while to do the job, particularly when tackling double-sided originals, since it feeds the document through twice. If you want to turn a filing cabinet full of documents into computer files, a preferable alternative is the new lightning-fast Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500, which scans both sides of a document at the same time at up to 25 pages per minute. Unlike the HP, this is a scanner-only device, and requires you to use the motorized feeder, which holds up to 50 pages, to input documents rather than lay them down on a flat surface (there’s a plastic sleeve to protect delicate originals). The ScanSnap is a compact 11.5 x 6.2 x 6.6 inches, so it doesn’t require extensive tabletop real estate like the HP Officejet. And, at a little over six pounds, the Fujitsu can be put away when not in use.

The provided software is terrific. You can save your documents as Microsoft Word documents or searchable PDF files or load up a stack of business cards and let the CardMinder program automatically place the name, address, phone number and other information into appropriate fields in your contact management software. An available app even allows you to scan wirelessly to mobile phones and tablets. Retailing at $495, the ScanSnap iX500 is pricier than the HP, but if you want industrial-strength scanning capabilities in a compact package, this is the tool of choice.

Picture Perfect

I suspect that, like me, most of you started taking pictures long before the age of digital cameras, and have prints, negatives and possibly slides both from your own efforts and those of relatives from previous generations. It’s tough to enjoy these images when they’re stashed away in shoeboxes, though, and your Facebook friends certainly can’t see them. It’s scanning time.

The HP Officejet described above does a nice job scanning photographic prints, but you’ll get even better results with the Epson Perfection V500 Photo scanner ($150), which handles not only paper prints but slides and negatives as well. And yes, it can also scan documents, albeit without an automatic document feeder.

One feature that sets the Epson apart from the competition is a built-in technology called Digital ICE. A key challenge when scanning slides and negatives is dealing with dust on the original—you’re enlarging them far more than you would with a printed image, and even minor flaws become very noticeable. Digital ICE analyzes your scan and automatically removes most of these specks and imperfections. It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge help. Another useful function, found in the included software, is a color restoration process that brings faded photos back to life.

The Perfection V500 also speeds up the scanning process by handling multiple photos at once. Place several pictures on the 8.5 x 11.7 inch glass and the scanning software will detect that there are a number of separate shots, processing them as individual images during a single scanning pass. You can also scan two strips of negatives (up to six photos each) or four 35mm slides at once.

A key part of my scanning routine is Adobe Photoshop Elements 11, a $100 photo-editing program available for both PCs and Macs. While the full Photoshop program sells for $700, Photoshop Elements draws on the same sophisticated technology, strips out some pro-level features and lets the rest of us improve our photos tremendously with minimum effort. While the Elements feature set is both wide and deep, there are two distinctive functions that make it indispensable for me. The first is the Healing Brush. If there’s a speck on your scan, this tool intelligently analyzes the area around the flaw and eliminates it. It’s fast, easy, and nearly miraculous.

The other standout Elements feature is the Elements Organizer, a powerful system for bringing order to your photo collection. Organizer lets you tag pictures with relevant labels, then quickly search for photos based on that information. You can use a single tag—say, my daughter’s name. But you can also combine tags—I can look for a photo of my daughter with our dog or my daughter on Thanksgiving, and have all relevant images instantly appear. What’s more, Elements Organizer can streamline the tagging process by searching for a face you’ve identified throughout your photo collection. Yes, you’ll want to review the results before accepting them, but I’ve found this face recognition process very accurate and tremendously helpful.

There’s one additional consideration that must be noted when it comes to photo scanning—it’s a time-consuming task, particularly when it comes to slides and negatives. You’ll need to insert individual filmstrips or slides into a plastic carrier, and the scanning process itself is much slower than a relatively low-resolution document scan. I’m happy to fiddle with photos while watching sitcoms in the evening, but if you have a large number of photos you want digitized quickly, an outside service is probably your best bet. I sent a selection of prints, negatives and slides to and they returned clean, handsome high-resolution scans on DVD. You can have individual pictures scanned (prices vary by quantity, starting at 12 cents per print, 39 cents per negative frame, and 74 cents per slide). If you have a substantial collection of prints or slides to digitize, though, take a look at their $245 prepaid box offers. They’ll send you an empty box that you can fill up with photos.

The box for prints holds about 1,800 4x6’s (though you can mix and match print sizes) and the slide box holds about 540 35mm slides. For that one-time investment, you get an instant family archive to share with family and friends, with no muss, fuss or bother.

Book ’em

Ink on paper is terrific technology—inexpensive, highly portable, widely available, easy to share—but even this former book editor and longtime magazine writer has come to appreciate the advantages of digital e-book readers. You can fit an entire library in a device that weighs half a pound. Order a book online and have it delivered in seconds. Change the size of text to suit your preferences. Good stuff.

For the past few years, when looking for a good read, I’ve grabbed an e-book reader device and headed for the Internet. For new and recent books, the savings can be substantial over printed copies, and the convenience can’t be beat. And, truth be told, the classic volumes that have remained dusty and untouched on my overcrowded bookshelf for ages are starting to migrate out of the house. No, I wouldn’t dream of tossing a perfectly good book in the trash—that’s heresy. But the local public library is happy to receive donations of volumes in good condition, and if I’m seized with the urge to reread my Chaucer, Dickens, Jules Verne or Arthur Conan Doyle, I can download them freely, either from Project Gutenberg (, Google Books (, or the sites of e-book reader creators Amazon and Barnes & Noble (all sorts of goodies pop up if you enter “free” in their search engines).

You can read e-books on a tablet, or even your cell phone, but when it comes to size, shape, screen quality, portability and battery life, it’s tough to beat a dedicated e-book reader. And recently introduced models have made them more appealing than ever.

In a major shift from first-generation e-readers, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble now offer black-and-white devices with built-in lights.  They still use the electronic ink (e-ink) technology that makes them perfectly legible even in direct sunlight (try that trick with your iPad) and delivers exceptional battery life.

But Barnes & Noble’s Simple Touch with GlowLight and Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite will now illuminate with a soft, comforting glow, making them perfect bedtime reading companions. Both the Barnes & Noble and Amazon models feature 6-inch touch-sensitive screens and sell for $119 with Wi-Fi networking to download purchases. There’s also a Kindle Paperwhite model with built-in 3G cellular connectivity for downloading when you don’t have access to a Wi-Fi network. It sells at a $60 premium up front, but there are no additional per-download connection charges.

The $119 price quoted for the Amazon Kindle includes so-called “special offers”—what you and I would call ads—while the Nook is entirely ad-free. At first blush this sounds like a big deal, but those ads are only shown on the lock screen (the image that comes up automatically when the device goes unused for an extended period) and along a slim band on the main menu—there’s no intrusion while you’re actually reading. For an additional $20, you can purchase a Kindle with no advertising. I’d say keep the $20 in your own pocket, or invest it in more book downloads.

Besides, if you find that this peripheral whiff of commercialism interferes with your Kindle satisfaction, you can pony up the $20 after purchase to banish the offending ads.

Both the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight and the Kindle Paperwhite, despite their conflicting and confusing methods for calculating battery life in their advertising, will run long enough to read several novels between charges. And they each boast about the same very light weight—6.95 ounces for the Nook versus 7.5 for the Kindle—and dramatically thin profile (the Nook is 0.47 inches thick, the Kindle 0.36 inches). Want to read that thick-as-your-arm historical novel that would make your briefcase feel like you’re hauling anvils? Less than 8 ounces.  Want to add a bookshelf’s worth of reference material, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and everything Tolkien ever wrote? Less than 8 ounces. It’s enough to bring a satisfied smile to any bibliophile.

The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight has four advantages to consider. It doesn’t show ads. It comes with a wall charger, a $10 extra-cost accessory with the Kindle (though you can simply plug the USB cable into your computer and charge the Kindle that way). The Nook weighs about half an ounce less than the Kindle Paperwhite. And while both models ship with 2 gigabytes of internal memory, the Nook is expandable, with a slot for add-on microSD cards, a feature lacking on the Kindle.

Bottom line, though, the Kindle has enough room for roughly 1,000 books even without add-on memory, and wins out in what many will consider the most important head-to-head comparison category—it has a superior screen. The higher-resolution display (212 pixels per inch versus 167) is sharper and has higher contrast. The screen color is slightly whiter, another plus.  And most important, the Kindle’s built-in lighting casts brighter and more even illumination across the screen than the Nook provides.

For reading straight-text books, the lighted-screen monochrome e-book readers deliver a winning combination of low price, high capacity and portability. If you’re interested in reading illustrated magazines or children’s books on your electronic device, though, you might want to step up to a full-color e-book reader—essentially a small-scale tablet with a $200 price.

Here again, it’s hard to argue with the Barnes & Noble and Amazon offerings if reading is your primary objective. A case can be made for the Google’s $200 Nexus 7 tablet or Apple’s $330 iPad Mini if games, movies, business productivity and so forth are high on your priority list, but the color-screen Barnes & Noble Nook HD and Amazon Kindle Fire HD, each priced at $199, offer respectable selections in these content categories as well, and the reading experience is unsurpassed.

This time out, I’d give a modest advantage to the Barnes & Noble product, based on its superior, higher-resolution color screen, lighter weight (11.1 ounces versus 13.9 ounces) and expandable memory.  Color book and magazine files are larger than straight text, and while the Kindle starts out with 16 gigabytes of memory versus the Nook’s 8 gigabytes, the Nook’s memory expansion slot lets you add up to 64 gigabytes more—you might want that extra space to store video files when you see how good they look on these devices. For the color models, the included AC adapter represents a $20 advantage over the Kindle accessory route.

When it comes to my electronic reading devices I’m really not the sharing type, but if I were interested in allowing my family to fiddle with a shared color e-reader, the Nook offers a personal profile system that lets you assign different content to different password-protected users (no, my darling daughter, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a coloring book).

There are significant factors that might tip your hand toward the Kindle HD, though. First is membership in Amazon Prime, the service that provides not only two-day shipping on all Amazon purchases at no additional charge (beyond the annual $79 fee, that is), but also movie streaming from a substantial library, and the option to borrow a book a month from a respectable collection (Harry Potter, anyone?).  And even without a Prime membership, if watching movies and TV shows or running apps on your e-reader are significant considerations, Amazon offers a much wider selection at this writing.

DVD Disc to Disk Drive

The DVDs I’ve accumulated over the years now take up five shelves in my living room. Worse yet, many are packed two deep, so I can’t even see what’s in the back row. While I’m a firm believer in the power of alphabetical order, that doesn’t mean I scrupulously adhere to it—where the heck is that copy of Pulp Fiction anyway?  And more often than not, when I want to watch one of the movies in my collection, I’m not sitting comfy on the couch in the living room, but on a commuter train or a plane with a laptop or tablet in hand. No doubt about it—time to digitize.

First, a quick word about the legalities of “ripping’ a DVD disc to create a digital version. Officially, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits circumventing copyright protection on a DVD disc, and most commercial DVDs are copy-protected. However, if you purchased a disc legally, you have the right to enjoy that fragile, scratchable, breakable media in the ways you see fit. Rip a movie and post it on a website for others to download? Maybe not. Rip a movie so you can combat boredom at 30,000 feet? Nobody’s going to arrest you.

Many software tools are available to convert a silver disc to a digital format on your hard drive. Being primarily a PC kind of guy, I’ve relied on two free programs for this purpose for years. DVD Shrink (downloadable from works on most DVDs, offering the option to compress the roughly eight-gigabyte contents of a DVD down to about half the size with little loss of quality. If DVD Shrink runs into copy protection problems, there’s DVD Decrypter, another free program (downloadable at, which will make a same-size copy of any DVD I’ve encountered to a hard drive. You can then run DVD Shrink on the resulting files if you’d prefer a more portable version.

How do you play the ripped files? The DVD player software that came with your computer may or may not allow you to open a hard-drive folder and play it as if it were a physical disc. If not, there’s a simple solution: a program called VLC, available free from for both Windows and Macs. VLC will play just about any video or audio file you throw at it, from ripped discs to downloaded files from the Internet.

Finally, how about taking your ripped discs on the road? My free software tool of choice here is Handbrake (available from for PCs and Macs). Handbrake can convert video files to the MPEG4 format, which will play with basically any laptop, tablet, cell phone, smart TV and portable game console. There are also preset file compression options for Apple and Android products, making a potentially complex conversion process point-and-click simple.

Steve Morgenstern writes often for Cigar Aficionado on technology topics.