Friday, April 26, 2013

The Google Chromebook: The ultimate traveling companion

When Google announced the new generation of Chromebooks, I was pretty sure that I wanted to try one. And at $199, it's a pretty low barrier to entry. Before they were available in Canada, I had a friend who was traveling in California pick up an Acer C7 for me. I'm very glad I did. I chose the C7 over the slightly more expensive Samsung because I wanted the higher resolution webcam for video conferences and the wired Ethernet port (for hotels with dodgy WiFi). Also, you can upgrade the memory in the C7.

For the first time in my working life, my work-issued laptop stays put when I travel and at home it has reduced the squabbles among my kids about available computer time for homework and other stuff.

The device is ultra-portable. The C7 weighs in 3lbs and is very compact. Despite the size, the screen is great (1366x768), the keyboard is very comfortable and the track-pad is better than my work-issue HP EliteBook 8460.

Before you run out and buy one, you'll need to know what a Chromebook is and what it isn't. It doesn't run Windows or Apple's operating system, nor does it run apps designed for those systems. It runs ChromeOS, which is based on Google's Chrome browser. It runs most plugins and Chrome add-ons, which significantly extend its utility beyond "just a browser". What it does, it does very well. And when I'm traveling, it does everything I need. I have Google Drive, Google Apps, Evernote and everything else I do through the browser.

My firm is on Windows and we use Outlook, Word and a document management system, none of which run natively on ChromeOS. When I do need more than access to my e-mail via the webmail interface, I use ChromeRDP for remote access to my firm's system and it's just like I'm using the firm's windows system. (Tip: This is the best RDP system, which is an almost perfect emulation of Window's Remote Desktop Connection client. No additional software is required on the server side. There are other RDP plug-ins, but I've found they are hit and miss.)

One feature that it important to me is that everything is stored remotely, so there's nothing on the device if it is lost or stolen. Or searched at the border. I'm from Nova Scotia and I do work for public bodies that are subject to the silly Personal Information International Disclosure Protection Act, which prohibits public bodies and their service providers from allowing personal information to be stored outside of Canada or accessed from outside of Canada. My normal work laptop contains locally-stored and synchronized information that can't be taken out of the country. That is not an issue with my Chromebook. All I store locally are movies that I want to watch on the plane. I can easily wipe the entire device without hesitation because the next time I log in, it reinstalls all my settings within a minute. I can hand the device to anyone who can use it in "guest mode" or they can log in with their Google account and all their preferences are right there.

Don't just take my word on it. If you're looking for another lawyer's opinion on the device, check out Why a Chromebook Might be a Better Option for Your Law Practice than a Tablet | The Droid Lawyer™

Thursday, April 18, 2013

An extra layer of security for your Android device: Perfect App Protector Pro

Your smart phone is likely the portal to a lot of your personal and professional life.

If you can get into my phone, you may get access to my e-mail, my Google Drive, Evernote and more. You'd also have access to Google Authenticator, which generates one time passwords for use with two factor authentication.

My firm has a very sensible policy that dictates all mobile devices attached to the network have to be password protected. But when it comes to information security, I'm a bit of a belt and suspenders kind of guy. I heard about an app called Perfect App Protector Pro in the Google Play Store which allows you to add an additional layer of security for selected applications. You can tell it to require a PIN before a user can access any apps you select. So, for example, you can't get into my Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Authenticator, Gallery or my phone settings without entering a PIN that's different from the one used to get into the phone in the first place. You can also set it to require a PIN to make a phone call or to connect to an external device by USB.

I'm sure it's not foolproof, but it's better than nothing.

If you like your belt and your suspenders, and want to keep your mobile data locked down, check it out.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Be prepared: Everyday carry (EDC) for the mobile lawyer

Maybe it's the only thing that stuck with me from my brief stint as a boy scout, but I have the need to have the right tools with me at all times. I almost always have my backpack with me and I make sure it contains the stuff I need on a regular basis or may urgently need from time to time.

This assortment works for me, and may provide some inspiration for others.

My compact kit contains these essentials:

This compact pack is always with me when I'm working or traveling and so far it has served me well. I have had to use every item in it and was glad that I lug it about.

I also have a travel kit (which is red, to easily distinguish at the bottom of my bag) that isn't always with me but has the essentials to keep presentable on the road. A separate Altoids tin contains band-aids, ibuprofen, vitamins and earplugs.

Out of the Office: Call (and time) tracking app for Android

Among the few sucky things about being a lawyer (but this may apply to all kinds of consultants) is having to keep track of the time you spend on billable matters. When I'm out of the office, this is a big pain so I'm always on the lookout for technologies that will automagically keep track of things I do that I may have to bill for or otherwise account for my time.

I spend a lot of time on my phone and when I'm focused on a call, I'm not focused on making a note somewhere about being on the call. To automate the process, I tried a number of apps that will keep track of time spent on phone calls and with whom. The app I've settled on for some time is CallTrack. It just works. You can set it to note either or all of incoming calls, outgoing calls and missed calls. And, even better, it saves them all in Google Calendar. If the number is in my contacts, the person's name appears in the "appointment". To avoid cluttering up my main calendar, I've created one called "Call Logs", which -- you guessed it -- is nothing but my call logs. I just regularly dip into that calendar and note those that need to be billed.

Call from Joe Blow

11/4/2013 08:51 to 11/4/2013 09:00
Call From Joe Blow (Mobile)
Number: +1902XXXXXXX
Duration: 9 minutes

It's automatic and makes my life easier. What more could you ask for?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Going paperless: The Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner

Until late last year, I was drowning in paper. At least my desk was. I review a lot of documents. If it's more than a page and it needs a thorough review, I have to print it out, grab my highlighter and red pen and mark it up. I've tried annotating PDFs, the big screen monitor and other tricks but -- at least for me -- I need to flip pages and mark things up manually. My usual workflow, when I've finished with a document, is to leave it on my desk in case I need it later. Later doesn't always come and the paper accumulates. I also take most of my notes longhand, which results in a load of papers to add to the mess.

When I moved offices over the holidays, I decided I needed to do something about this. Paper files suck and, afterall, this is 2013.

My office is on the same floor as my firm's property group and I noticed that all of the property paralegals have scanners on their desks so they can e-file to the registry. Though we have enormous copiers on each floor that can scan, it's inconvenient to get up, scan, retrieve it from your e-mail and then do something with the document. I prevailed upon our IT manager to hook me up with one as an experiment with paperlessness and it has made a huge difference.

I now have a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 Scanner on my desk with MUCH less paper. Trees do die on a regular basis, but as soon as I've finished with a piece of paper it goes into the sheet feeder. One push of the button and it's scanned and ready to deal with. If it's a contract with markup or notes on a current matter, the PDF gets filed into the firm's document management system. If it's personal, it's almost instantly flung into Google Drive. The paper goes into the shredding bin and my desk is actually a work surface again.

I am not surprised that this is the personal scanner of choice in the legal industry. It has a very small footprint on my desk and can fold up into itself to look a like a silvery shoebox. The sheet feeder can take up to fifty sheets and it can scan both sides in one scan. It OCRs the text without a hiccup. The included software is smart enough to know when the back page is blank, so you can set it to scan duplex by default and forget about it. It can do colour, high rez, fax rez and it also scans odd sized documents (like business cards and receipts). The scanner even does a decent job on photos. And running it is as easy as putting the paper in the feeder and pushing the button. It starts scanning and the software appears on my screen once the job is done, asking where the document should go. If you're an Evernote user, it'll even scan directly to Evernote. If someone had asked me what I wanted in a desktop scanner to reduce the paper on my desk in a way that's so easy that I'd actually use it, this is what I would have designed.

The thing ain't cheap, but I'm sure it has paid for itself since I haven't spent even a billable minute this year looking for a piece of paper on my desk.

On the road, going paperless: Camscanner for Android

I travel a lot and I accumulate scads of receipts that make my wallet bulge or collect in my backpack. One of the things I have tried to do over the last year, to make my mobile life easier, is to reduce my reliance on paper and moving as much of that stuff to the cloud.

I managed to convince the accounting folks at my firm that electronic receipts are good enough for expense claims, so the next step was finding a good way of creating, managing and submitting digital copies of receipts. I've tried taking photos of them and e-mailing them to my assistant, but that hasn't been great. While the camera on my Galaxy Nexus is very good, it's not well-suited for photos of paper. I've also tried the page camera feature in Evernote, but that has been glitchy for me. At ABA Techshow, one of the Android sessions I attended mentioned Camscanner. During the session, I downloaded the app and I'm very happy with it.

So what does it do? The app is designed to take quality photos of paper, whiteboards, signs and the like. Unlike the usual camera, it includes a bunch of very useful, semi-automated adjustments. For example, it will adjust the contrast so that text stands out. It will help you crop out all the extraneous cruft, so the image is just the receipt. It will also adjust for skew since it's pretty hard to get the camera exactly parallel to the paper. And, perhaps most importantly, has very easy sharing of the adjusted image to Evernote, e-mail, DropBox and other services you'd expect.

In addition to receipts, it does a very good job of moving my handwritten notes to the cloud. (I keep those in Evernote or Google Drive, instead of Camscanner's depository, principally so that all of that info is in one place.)

Here is the company's demo that gives a good overview of what it's all about:

If you want to move paper from your pockets and bags to the cloud in a way that ensures it's still legible and useful, give Camscanner a try.

Friday, February 1, 2013

5.11 Tactical Rush 12 Backpack

Since getting a scooter last year, I've been looking for good backpack for lugging all my stuff around. I did a load of research and was particularly impressed with all of the reviews of the 5.11 Tactical line of Rush backpacks. The bags come in three sizes, the 12, the 24 and the 72, with each size referring to the number of hours in the field the bag is designed for.

I chose the 5.11 Tactical Rush 12 Backpack, and I haven't been disappointed. Of the colour options, I chose black since it looked the least conspicuous and 'tacticool'.

The bag is made from very tough water-resistant 1050D nylon and has a whole bunch of great features. The main compartment is very roomy (18"x11"x6") with ample space for my work laptop, my chromebook, papers and other stuff. There's an "admin pouch" on the front, with zippered sub-compartments, pockets and pen holders. The top of the bag front has a pocket with room for dozens of pens, flashlight, etc. On the very top, near the carrying handle, is a zippered fleece-lined pocket designed for sunglasses.

The pack is also expandable with MOLLE/PALS webbing on the front and sides.

It's just under $100 on Amazon or C$120 on the 5.11 Tactical website.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant - GT-i9000m

I've had my Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant on the Bell Canada network for a few months now and I have to say that I adore it. It's my first Android device and I switched from a Blackberry Bold that was on the Rogers network.

I'm the only person at my firm, other than some IT guys who pilot different devices from time to time, who is not using a Blackberry. One of the conditions of getting it was that I would be "self supporting," which is not a big problem for a geek like me. But the degree of self-support hasn't been that high, though it's difficult to say where the supporting ends and the tinkering/tweaking starts.

In order to get the OK to hook the device up to the firm's network, the device had to use a password/PIN to login, had to securely link to our infrastructure via SSL (at least) and I had to be able to be remotely wiped if I lost it. Check, check and check.

For me, the most important considerations was that it had to work with my firm's existing Microsoft-exchange based e-mail infrastructure. I didn't wan to have to use a Blackberry for e-mail/calendar and my Android for everything else. That was a bit of a challenge, but easily overcome.

I installed Android 2.2 Froyo, which has better exchange support. It wasn't perfect, though. The device came with two different e-mail applications, the stock one and one that's part of Samsung's Social Hub. The stock one wasn't updating my contacts from the Exchange Server and the Social Hub one wasn't updating my calendar. So I had to have them both running to make sure all my bases were covered. And though they purported to have push functionality, mail was delayed a bit. Not by much, but I wanted instant.

So I did some looking around and found Nitrodesk's Touchdown. I installed the 30-day trial two weeks ago and within a week forked out the US$20 to get the license (the only difference between the 30-day trial and the licensed version is you can't change your signature in the trial version). The Exchange integration with Touchdown is head and shoulders above the programs that came with the device. Now, my mail is instant, my contacts are always synched and changes to my calendar are updated almost instantly.

I've also downloaded a program called Office Talk, which gives me access to my firm's Microsoft OCS instant messaging platform and presence notifications. (None of my Blackberry-toting colleagues have access to the firm's IM away from their desks.)

One of the cool features that comes stock on the Galaxy S Vibrant is the Swype keyboard. Since there's no built-in keyboard, users can choose from dozens out there. The Swype keyboard allows you to just drag your finger from letter to letter on the keyboard image, and it knows what you're typing. You don't even need to be very accurate, since it knows when you drag your finger dear the "D" to the "A", then close to "V" and back around near the "E", you're probably typing "Dave." Much easier, at least to me, than trying to poke at small keys. Another keyboard layout that's included allows for voice input that is shockingly accurate.

Once I got my messaging/calendar/contacts arrangement perfectly sorted out, my Android phone is head and shoulders above my old Blackberry. Comparing the screens and the web-browsers is not a fair fight. I can watch a full movie on it without eye strain. The web-browser is a real browser that runs flash. I can stream content without a hiccup. The Google Maps app is awesome and I use the turn-by-turn navigation regularly. (No need for an in-car GPS, particularly since the navigation app now caches mapping info so it works without a wireless signal.)

Some of my clients use Skype to connect far-flung employees, and it works great on the device (no video support yet, but it's coming). There are other really useful apps in the Android market, like Tasker which allows you to customize all of the phone's settings. I've used it to automatically set it to silent mode when when the phone is face-down in meetings. Similarly, it detects when it's in my car-dock and changes to "car mode", which can read incoming e-mails and redirects all calls to the speaker phone. It can even be programmed to change settings when you're in a particular place, like shutting off e-mail downloading when you're at home.

Another great feature for mobile lawyers is that you can turn the device into a mobile WiFi hot-spot. I've found myself in meetings where I needed a document from our document management system, but had no WiFi. Within seconds, I can turn my phone into a WiFi router so I can connect my laptop to my office network and get the document. Piece o' cake.

My kids, of course, love the games. I never had my kids ask if they could use my Blackberry, but they're constantly asking to use my phone to play Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Fruit Ninja and Raging Thunder 2. (While I'm writing this, my eight-year-old just walked up and asked "Can I play on your phone?")

So, overall, I'd say that RIM no longer has a stranglehold on the enterprise. I could go back to a Blackberry, but I sure don't want to. The only downside is that there's so much innovation and iteration going on that I'm envious of newer Nexus S. And the just-announced Galaxy S II. And the Xoom tablet with Honeycomb.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

GIMP - The GNU Image Manipulation Program

Since even before I got back into photography in a serious way, I still had a need from time to time to edit images or make graphics from scratch. Being somewhat cheap, I did some looking around to see what the open source and freeware community had come up with as an alternative to Adobe's Photoshop. That's when I found GIMP - The GNU Image Manipulation Program, a program I continue to use.

It is sometimes called the poor person's photoshop, but to me it really is a good alternative. And it's free. You can use layers, manipulate tone curves, saturation, do all the sharpening you want, decompose to RGB and LAB, and the list goes on. Thanks to its open design, there are scads of plugins available, many of which offer pretty advanced features. I often use:

If you're a photographer shooting RAW (in my case, Nikon NEF), GIMP integrates with UFRAW. UFRAW is, I guess, the poor person's equivalent of Adobe Camera Raw.

Like many advanced software products (and I guess imaging products in particular), it has a pretty steep learning curve but there are many tutorials and resources out there to get you going.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nikon SU-4 Wireless Slave Flash Controller

I've lately been doing a lot of messing around with off-camera flash in my photography.

I have bought and used the Nikon SC-28 TTL Remote Cord to take the flash off the camera, but you're limited by the length of the cable. Since my Nikon D60 will not act as a commander for the Nikon Creative Lighting System, I was looking for some other way to get some distance from my camera to the flash.

After a visit to Henry's, I picked up a Wein Hot Shoe Slave. It has a slave sensor and is supposed to fire the flash when it detects another flash (in my case, the on-camera flash set to low power). Well, that's the theory. The damn thing didn't work. It would fire an old (60s era) Sunpak from the PC cord, but nothing would fire from the hot shoe. Thinking it was perhaps a bum unit, back to Henry's I went. We tried another Wein unit but with no luck at all. We tried a "peanut" slave unit and a PC to hot shoe converter, but also no luck. The things generally look like a piece of junk and seem to perform that way as well. Thinking that was the end of the line until I get a Nikon D90 (which can control my Nikon SB-600 flash remotely), the sales guy mentioned he had a Nikon SU-4 Wireless Slave Flash Controller in their used gear section. We tried it and it worked. It worked well. And was less expensive than the silly Wein hot shoe slave.

I've had it for just over a week now and I'm pretty happy with it. It's hard to find out a lot of info about them on the internet, since they've generally been used with pre-digital flashes. Most hits in a Google search or a Flickr search lead to discussions of the Nikon SB-800's "SU-4 Mode", which fires that high-end flash as though it's on an SU-4 unit.

So to help anyone who is looking for info on this unit, here is what I've found out:

  • It is not a dumb slave, in that it just sends a fire signal to the slaved flash when it sees another flash. On Auto mode, it tells the slave flash when to start firing and when to stop. If you put the included diffuser over your built-in flash, it does a reasonable facsimile of TTL.
  • In Manual mode, it will just send the fire signal so you can use full manual controls on the slaved flash. I expect you can use this as a slave for any other brand of flash.
  • It is very small and easy to lug around. The feel of the thing is pretty solid.
  • It is very adjustable: since you need to have the sensor point in the direction of the master flash, the hot shoe rotates and the sensor rotates.
If you're looking for more info on the SU-4, check out Nikon SU-4 Notes and you can get a copy of the manual here: Nikon SU-4 Manual.