Archive | July, 2011

A cluttered desktop on your computer? Get some Fences!

I like a clean desk. Both physically and virtually. Many will be familiar with the above situation where all shortcuts, files and folders are basically just dumped on the left side of the screen. Sometimes we organise them but often they just stay where they fall.  Often the number of items growing until the complete screen gets filled up with icons making it hard to find anything. How nice would it be to be able to put some structure to this? Organise logically, illogically or any way you wished to group them? Would you like to be able to hide them when doing a presentation from your laptop or even just when someone is sitting beside you at your desk as you both work on something?

Well you can!  A little product called Fences.  In the shot above you can get a sense for what it offers.  You can create, size and name fenced areas of your desktop where your icons reside. You can resize the areas as you need and keep areas of your desktop clean as I have above.  You can control the opacity of the fenced area.  The icons stay within each area unless of course you move them back to your desktop or to another fence so the fences are not just an image they are actual containers where the icons reside.  Move a fence and the icons move with it!

With a double-click of the mouse anywhere on the desktop the fences and icons all disappear and you are left with a completely clean desktop as above!  Another double-click and they return.  I love this feature for doing presentations as it means I can have a clean desktop on display and not worried be about what is sitting out on top.  The same applies to situations when at my desk or sharing my desktop with a colleague in another office it’s just a double-click and everything is gone.

The basic version is free so this is not a sales pitch!  I just like clever solutions and smart tech.  Get yours here http://www.stardock.com/products/fences/

Side Note: I get the pic and the quote so please no corrections on how it is in fact incorrect.  I just like it.  It brings a smile to my face.  I can’t recall where I got it but a search on the web returns many sources.  So to whoever created it congrats and thanks. This hasn’t got old for me yet!

The iPad – what can make it a tool as opposed to a toy!

Just this past week I heard again on the radio that the iPad is still a ‘toy’ from a presenter who had spent all of 5 minutes with it.  I think it’s a real pity that some so quickly take that view and dismiss it.  Many of the same people admit its ‘cool’ but conclude that you could not really be productive on it.  This comment made me think about what I use and how I use it that helps me form such a different opinion.

I had a post already about my favourite apps which is somewhat out of date now but some still hold true such as Star Walk or the Formula 1 timing app.  However I can go weeks without being in them – months even as e.g. when there is no Formula 1 season there is very little reason to use the Formula 1 timing app.  Also these apps don’t help me be productive.  They are nice even great to have but they don’t help me do any work.  People talk about the thousands of apps available but realistically there are a small number that you will be using frequently and an even smaller number that you will be using daily.  So I am going to highlight the apps that help me to be productive.

Yes the list of daily used apps will be different for each person but its an effort to show the versatility of this tool for practical purposes as opposed to just passing time or ‘playing’ on it.  Just before I get into that I wanted to point out that I don’t sit in front of the iPad all day.  It doesn’t replace your laptop or PC or essentially your normal computer working environment.  However it does significantly improve your ability to be productive when not at your desk (that said I am finding myself reading documents, reports, articles more and more on it as opposed to on my computer even when at my desk – and reading in my job as many others can be considered productive as we research new tech or trouble shoot issues).  Yes you could use a laptop but in many cases the iPad suffices and is faster, less intrusive and just nicer to use in those mobile or non desk environment type situations.

  • Mail – I use the email app every day.  On the train to and from work, at home, in the office and at meetings.  Yes I could use a Blackberry or iPhone but with the large keyboard it is so much nicer and faster to type on especially for longer emails compared to those small devices.  Reading on with the large screen is also a lot nicer.  Of course a laptop has a proper keyboard and a large screen I hear you say but I still prefer the iPad for these short times and its significantly easier to carry around with a much greater battery life.  It’s the app that comes with the device so no extra cost.  I have five email accounts setup within it covering my work and personal life and its super easy to flick between them.  There are a few things that annoy me such as lack of Flags on emails as I normally use that feature to keep track of mail I need to follow-up on but that will be added in iOS 5 in a few months.  For now I mark as unread and then flag when back in the office.
  • Penultimate – As discussed in previous posts this is the app I use to take all handwritten notes and thus has enabled me to abandon my paper notebook in favour if it.  You can maintain multiple notebooks and easily change between them.
  • GoodReader – Used for reading pdfs/documents. I can add notes to these pdfs in this app and I can carry them ALL around with me and thus have access anywhere.  Gone are the large pile piles of paper that used to sit around my desk and generally never have near me when away from the office when I really had time to sit down and read them.
  • Sign and Send – I only have this app a short while but find I have used it almost every day.  I get quite a few invoices/contracts attached to emails that need a signature.  With this little app I can sign it directly on the iPad and send it back.  It means I can do it wherever I am.  I don’t have to wait until I get back to the office or home to print, sign and scan it in. (A stylus helps here but you can sign with your finger! And thanks to Andrea Altenburg who pointed me to this app in a comment on a previous post)
  • Safari – I like the Safari app for web browsing, the ability to keep up to nine different web pages ‘active’ and I like how easy it is to switch between them.  Yes there are other browsers but I haven’t felt the need to go looking for more features.  I also use Safari to access our work Sharepoint sites.  Either on the wireless network in our office or using the iPad VPN facility to access the Sharepoint sites when at home.  It means I can access our Helpdesk tickets and also our project lists and tasks and update and review as needed all from the iPad (for accessing internal websites, intranet, sharepoint you may need to contact your IT team for details as you possibly need specific information to be able to connect to it).
  • Winadmin – A remote desktop application.  I can access any of our servers globally to work on them.  Not as easy to use as a remote desktop session from a laptop or PC but definitely great to have and saves me carrying a laptop with me everywhere especially when heading off for a few nights.  I use it regularly when on the couch to jump in a check a system, restart a service or reset a password and saves pulling out the laptop.
  • Citrix App – Like many others our organisation delivers applications and access to corporate systems via citrix.  Through this app I can access ALL those apps which includes Dynamics, Word, Outlook, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. (it will depend on what your company delivers via citrix)
  • Flipboard – This is one of the nicest apps out there.  For many of us trying to stay up to date on latest news and developments in our area of work can at times be laborious. Flipboard offers a way to simplify this and build your own personal magazine with all your favourite internet sources.  It makes the aggregation and consumption of the information you want super easy, even effortless.  It has the added benefit of being very very cool in a Jean-Luc Picard type of way as you relax in your chair and flick through pages of information that you can easily mark and share.
  • Amazon Kindle – So paper books are a thing of the past.  I don’t buy a book anymore if it’s not on the Kindle (part of my effort to go paperless!) I wait until it is but I have to admit I have bought less of late as with all the material I get on the web I don’t find myself looking for books on particular topics as often.  The vast majority of my reading would be work related and on technology, project management, social media and the reason I have listed it here.
  • WordPress – Yes I use it most days now to keep an eye on the blog and often start or edit some posts (many of which never get published!)  And yes my blog is personal so it’s not really productivity for work but many use blogs in their work and business which is the point I am obviously trying to make.
  • Twitter – Yes I use the native Twitter app.  It’s not perfect but after trying a few I found myself going back to it each day.  Twitter I use for news, updates and more.  The amount of information relating to my job on new products, issues or solutions is hard to quantify but it really is a benefit and not a waste of time as some might have you believe.  Once you follow the right people and companies!

So it won’t cut down a tree, change the oil in the car and may not be best suited to typing up a 10,000 word report with embedded Excel charts and complex graphics that is collaborated on with 6 others.  Yes productivity is a relative thing.  However for many I think it can help find and communicate with someone to cut down the tree, help find out how or someone to change the oil in the car and provide a great tool for reviewing the final report and providing feedback on it.  And it can do all those things without the need to be chained at your desk or even in your place of work.  In my view it can do it easier and better via a design that is simply superior to anything else currently on the market.

I strongly believe that with some time invested in researching apps and becoming familiar with the devices strengths it could help many to see that this new tech can be just as good at being a tool as they say it is at being a toy.

Problems accessing internet in some corners of the home? Try plugging this in!

The question of extending the home network has come up a few times lately.  What are your options for extending your network if you don’t have a network point in every room?  Is wireless the answer? That all too often taken for granted ability to always be connected to wi-fi as you walk around your house with your laptop or mobile device?  Unfortunately sometimes there is a corner where you would like to work or need connectivity and for some reason the wi-fi is always poor or none existent.  That room at the end of the house, or top or bottom where coverage of your wireless network is just bad no matter where you place the wireless router.

When I converted my attic the new foil back slabbing and insulation that surrounded it basically meant wireless was none existent up there while perfect in the rest of the house. This was where I hoped to have a computer desk for doing some work from home. Moving the router wasn’t really an option from its current location besides it worked well for the rest of the house. I tried a repeater upstairs, a way of extending the wireless network but that also failed to get wireless into the attic. Trying to retrospectively include network cabling would be expensive and awkward (Yes if I ever build my own house I will have it cabled properly… if…).  I needed to get a network point into the converted attic but running a cable to the router on the ground floor was next to impossible. I had read a number of times about ethernet over power but had never seen it in action (basically where you use your home electrical wiring to extend your computer network).  I started researching and discussing with a few people and by chance a colleague was using it in his apartment. He loved it.

On to the web I went and found the Belkin Surf Powerline 200Mbs with passthrough as in the pictures(You can get a 1Gb if you wish). Passthrough is a simple but nice feature as I don’t lose the socket and I can I plug any device into the front of this piece of equipment for power.  I am not sure if you can buy as a single device but anyhow at the start you need at minimum two.  One is plugged into your internet router, this basically makes your home electrical wiring one large network.  The other device can then be plugged in anywhere around the house into a power point to provide a network connection.  No setup required. They just worked from the moment I plugged them in. I now had an excellent network connection right into the attic and all I had to do was plug them in. Yes it was that simple.  I connected the network cable from the Belkin to my laptop in the attic and I had a perfect connection to the internet.  You could obviously add a little hub for more ports or another wireless router which would really extend the reach of your network. It worked so well that I bought two more a couple of months later and connected up my Sky TV and a network drive(I connected up the Sky TV as it streams video so I wanted a better connection than wireless).  As I already had one plugged into the router it meant these two new ones could be plugged in anywhere around the house giving me in total three ‘floating’ network points.

 As from the pic the units are a little big and if like me you plug an adapter into the passthrough on the Belkin then it does make it a little bulky.  It’s not exactly something that can sit in your hallway and probably best for a corner.  However I do really like the solution.  The cost was only about €100 euro and a supremely easy piece of tech to use and set up.  You just plug it in!  When you consider the alternative of trying to run a cable around the house and how messy or unsightly the end result might be this wins hands down.

There is one small condition (well possibly pretty large depending on where you want to use it!) but this will only work across a single fuse board.  As in if you want to use them in any part of your house or garage that has a different fuse board to where your unit and router is plugged in it wont work as that is essentially a different circuit.  They must be on the same circuit!

That aside I love it and it is a clever piece of tech that allow us to expand our connections without needing a degree in ‘Unnecessarily Complex Setup Manuals’ and spending hours in trying configure it.  It provides a smart solution for an everyday problem.  I am using it now for quite a few months and they just always work.  Top marks!

Monitors. Two are better than one. Yes they are!

I have taken a little abuse over the years for having a dual-screen setup on my computer.  Especially when I first did it about 10 years ago.  Over the years there have been debates to justify it but it has come up again a few times recently when some saw my setup.  At home I have 2 x 17″ standard Dell monitors and yes the work office is a little nicer with 2 x 21.5 Dell HD monitors – see pic below.  Comments over the years are its unnecessary, silly, trying to look important, waste of money, for techies and geeks only and the best one – a ploy by manufacturers to sell more.  This all despite the fact that there are plenty of trials and reviews that show it both helps in productivity and reduces errors (There are a few studies with some claiming 10%-50% productivity increases. The 50% is pushing it more than a little in my view but even if its only an 8%-10% increase over the course of the life of the monitor that is a lot of extra work completed without any extra hours in front of the computer!).  Yes there is a cost and yes you use more electricity but I would argue against both of those apparent negatives with the increased productivity it offers and say that over time it actually saves\makes money.

I have had dual screens for a long time, both in work and at home.  Monitoring helpdesks, system dashboards, remote sites, multiple spreadsheets, documents and systems in general it just always worked so much better.  Over the years I have asked colleagues in different companies and areas of the organization to give them a try.  People who are not generally in IT, people who spend large hours of the day in front of a computer and looking to improve their productivity and computer experience.  Gradually many have come on board.  The fact that once they start they wont give them up only speaks volumes to the fact that it works.  It’s not a novelty or a ‘look important’ gimmick.  It’s a real value add that they appreciate.  I would also say that two smaller would be better than one larger even though the newer operating systems can auto split your screen and auto size applications to the left or right side.  There is still something about the physical monitor border that just works better.  The average office worker should get at least 2 x 19″ wide-screen as opposed to say 1 x 21″ or 1 x 24″ wide-screen.  Yes of course there may be cases when a 24″ is better for video editing, graphics, etc. I am not talking about specialised cases.  I am talking about the office worker that lives in general applications and versions of materials.  The average office worker in IT, Finance, Investments, HR, Architecture, Engineering and the list goes on.  I have to admit I am surprised at how slow this is to become standard in the modern office where we appear to value high productivity and efficiency.  The old problems of space with the big CRTs and the cost in both monitor and upgrading the PC are essentially gone.  Most PCs and laptops can deal with dual monitors already with possibly only the need of an extra cable required. That combined with very cheap flat screens now easily available and flat screens taking up a smaller space on the desktop there is no excuse for most not to at least look at this change.

Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday two screens are better than one. Yes they are!

Some other reading on this… (these are old links which only adds to my point as to why dual monitors are not standard everywhere at this stage)

Justifying Dual Monitors – Blog

Dual Monitors Increase Productivity – Lifehacker

The virtues of a second screen – NY Times

An update to going paperless with the iPad

I wrote in a previous post about going paperless.  I wanted to give an update.  On the writing side I tried the Pogo stylus but after some time decided I didn’t like it.  It’s too thin to hold and thus there is not a pen feel to it and the top feels like a piece of sponge cut off and glued on.  Also I didn’t like how it felt to write on the screen, it didn’t really glide across the screen as I had imagined and it was more forced across the screen.  It worked fine but if I wanted to stay using the iPad as my notepad I wanted to find a nicer writing experience.  I did a little research and found the Bamboo.

I have been using the Bamboo a few weeks now and really like it.  It is the same size as a pen with some weight so the feel of it is much better.  Excellent build quality for a simple tool and the silicon type top means it very nicely glides across the screen and much easier than the Pogo stylus.  I really am enjoying using it.  I have a number of notepads for different projects open within the app Penultimate and its working really well.  Referring back is easy.  Not carrying paper is great and the only thing I am very careful about is ensuring my iPad always has plenty of battery.

The other thing that has changed is the newspaper app.  I started with the Wall Street Journal, moved to the Financial Times and am now with The Telegraph.  The Telegraph is the cheapest of the three, I prefer it in its usability and content.  It’s a pity you can’t share articles easily but other than that I really like.  Other papers and magazines need to catch-up and have their content properly formated for these iPad type of devices and not just the scanned in type replication of the physical format that most seem to do.

GoodReader is another app I am using more also.  Especially with the stylus GoodReader allows me to write straight onto the PDFs I am reading or add typed comments.  Great for reading reports and white papers and no more printing.  In the past I would print these items to bring with me especially when travelling but now its all on the iPad.

I am still struggling with a couple of things like keeping and marking up links.  Yes there are plenty of apps out there that do this but so far havent settled on anything….looking at investing some time in Evernote again to see if it works as lots of good feedback on it but still trying to perfect the apps list.

I have now got in the habit of bringing the iPad everywhere.  It’s so much easier to carry around than a laptop to meetings, easier to use and less invasive.  There has actually been a somewhat unforeseen side effect.  The last paper magazine I submit to is the F1 mag which I have blogged about before.  Its delivered every month to my door.  I don’t pick it up.  I am so used to everything in the iPad and using it I seem to have abandoned paper.  I have just become completely at home with using the iPad for everything where it once was paper.

Multi-tasking now on the iPad is just second nature.  Hand written notes, typing an email, researching a piece on the web, updating our office sharepoint, reading the newspaper, reading a book, watching a video, listening to the radio, watching a movie, remote desktop to a server, updating Twitter or Facebook, writing a blog… the list goes on and on.  I think if I can find a couple of more apps to help me on a couple of points where I am poor and for me it might become the perfect tool.  After many false starts in the past with tech from Palm Pilots to tablets I think I might just become completely paperless thanks to the iPad.