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Let it go! Time to de-clutter your life and ‘delete’ old technology

  • Many of us fill up valuable space at home by storing redundant mobile phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers ‘just in case’
  • Professional organiser Georgina Wong says the ‘golden rule’ for clearing out household items is to discard or donate things not used for six months
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 2:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 2:49pm

Leading up to that one day of the year, you can feel the excitement building.

Advertising pop-ups mark the countdown and calendar reminders are set. Some people even organise taking the day off work.

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Finally, it is here: the annual launch of the latest smartphone model.

And with it, last year’s shiny new handset, which had been unboxed with such reverence at the time, is suddenly yesterday’s “hero”.

Things have no value if they’re not used ... follow the golden rule of organising and dispose or donate if an item has not been used for six months
Georgina Wong, CEO, Asian Professional Organisers

Most people do nothing with their old smartphone, except relegate it to a stack of previous models, with which it is so easy now to find fault – and justify the latest purchase.

It’s the same with those old laptops and tablets gathering dust around the house … and, in many cases, drawers stuffed full of CDs, or even floppy disks (remember those?) that haven’t seen the light of day for years.

Why hang on to unused technology?

Yet in Hong Kong, living in homes where space is at such a premium, why do we hang on to this superseded technology?

Professional organiser Georgina Wong often hears the “just in case” argument when she is called in on one of her de-cluttering missions.

“Many people like the security of knowing there’s a backup – in case their new device gets dropped, lost, or breaks down,” Wong, CEO of Asian Professional Organisers, a business serving clients in Hong Kong and Singapore, says.

“However, we remind clients that things have no value if they’re not used – so just retain one and recycle the others to a charity.

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“Follow the golden rule of organising and dispose or donate if an item has not been used for six months.”

Even more ruthless advice for seasoned tech hoarders is the “one in, two out” theory championed on the blog Zen Habits: when you bring something new into your life, get rid of two other similar things.

Acquiring some data-wiping software makes the most sense for recycling a digital device
Michael Gazeley, managing director, Network Box Corp

Slowly, you’ll have fewer and fewer possessions, eventually progressing to the “one in, one out” rule.

Of course, any digital device may contain personal data, such as old emails you may want someday, photos or bank details, which is another reason some people are reluctant to let them go.

However, technology experts say there’s no need to keep this data on the device itself.

Back up old personal data – then wipe

First, make backups of any data you want to keep.

Store it at home in a removable hard drive, and/or in cloud-using services such as Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneDrive.

Before taking the next step, which is wiping the device clean, make sure your data is retrievable.

Simply deleting files, or even emptying the recycling bin is not enough.

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Even if you can’t see those files on your screen any more, they’re still there, lurking in the background, should anyone with the know-how feel inclined to take a peek.

“Acquiring some data-wiping software makes the most sense for recycling a digital device,” Michael Gazeley, managing director of Network Box Corp, a managed security service provider, says.

Darik’s Boot and Nuke, usually referred to as DBAN, is a popular and free utility that is up to the task as it overwrites each sector on a hard drive, making data unrecoverable.

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It runs outside the operating system, so you will need to download DBAN onto a CD, DVD or USB stick and then run the program.

The process might take a few hours, but remember that once you hit run, there’s no going back – so make sure your backup is solid.

Alternatives to DBAN include CBL Data Shredder, which can be run either from an inserted disk or directly from within Windows.

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Recycle unwanted devices

Your devices can then be recycled safely.

It’s not enough just to back up your files to another device – you should check them every six months. Flickering, slow uploading or booting up are signs of future failure
Georgina Wong

In Hong Kong, collection points are provided in numerous locations around the city under the government’s computer and communication products recycling programme, with details available on the Environmental Protection Department’s waste reduction website.

In partnership with the charity Caritas (Hong Kong), devices that are still in working condition are refurbished and donated to the needy. Other items are passed to a commercial recycler for dismantling and the recovery of useful parts and materials.

Copy special images as revolving screen saver

Transferring photographs and other precious items so that you can get rid of old CDs and floppy disks does take time, although Wong regards this not as a chore, but a trip down memory lane.

Gazeley says CD or floppy disk drives that can plug into your computer via a USB port are available from the city’s many computer arcades, but you are also racing against time: these old storage media may deteriorate in Hong Kong’s humidity and data stored in them might or might not be still intact.

Each old floppy disk stores only 1.44MB of information, so you’d need five floppies to store one photo from a modern digital camera, Gazeley says. But word-wise, there is enough space for “14 copies of the entire works of Shakespeare”.

CDs and DVDs are more likely to contain visual data of value – they are large enough to hold a lifetime of a child’s photos and videos, which no parent would want to lose.

Similarly, with other forms of external storage devices that have come and gone over the years, it’s best to transfer the data now before the technology becomes obsolete.

“Transferring files is no more complicated than just copying them, once you have the right drive,” Gazeley says.

He recommends backing them up twice on two separate external hard drives, keeping one at home, and the other at a separate location, such as the office, or on cloud.

Be aware though, he adds, that cloud service providers can also go out of business.

As for the choice of a backup hard drive, both speed and size should be considered. As a general rule, a 4TB device should be enough to give years of storage for most.

Transfer speed is important, too – when transferring data regularly, you don’t want it to be a chore.

“While the fastest storage drives now use SSD (Solid State Drive), as opposed to HDD (Hard Disk Drive) technology, for backup purposes, an inexpensive hard disk drive would be absolutely fine,” said Gazeley.

“Do, however, make sure to buy a USB 3 hard disk, which can provide higher transfer speeds of up to 10 times faster than older USB 2 technology. There’s no risk of incompatibility either, as the newer drives are backward compatible with older computers, allowing you to enjoy the speed boost when you upgrade.”

Once backed up, special photos can be digitally reproduced as a collage or canvas and hung as artwork, or set as a revolving desktop or mobile phone screen saver.

“It’s rare that someone will browse the files on a computer, so make your keepsakes fun and accessible,” Wong says.

You can use technology to make new memories, too.

Wong says: “You can store impromptu videos and greetings for a baby on social media, such as Facebook, and reveal the password to explore once they hit 13.”

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Time to throw out your old cables

Now, hands up who has bags of cables lying around – quite possibly with no idea what they belong to? (guilty!).

Wong’s solution is simple.

Label the different cables, instructions, keys and plugs as soon as you unpack your shiny new gadget ... throw out duplicates
Georgina Wong

“Label the different cables, instructions, keys and plugs as soon as you unpack your shiny new gadget,” she says.

“To minimise duplicates, store all cables in a drawer and, after checking that they are compatible, use a permanent marker to label what they can be used for.

“Throw out the duplicates. For example, my Garmin car GPS shares the same charging cable as my hard drive, while my Kindle cable works also for my rechargeable laser point and portable speaker.”

Whatever your choice of digital storage, Wong recommends you use a chronological filing system that puts the dates at the beginning of the file name.

“For example, files named as 201811, 201812 or 201901 are easier to track than the month preceding date format, used by most cloud platforms, which appears as Dec 2018, Jan 2019, Nov 2018 and so on,” she says.

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So, for all that unused technology lying around, do yourself a favour, declutter – and let it go.