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.