Time tracking and task management for academics

I have been tracking my time for almost 9 years now and I have changed systems several times. I have also used various task management (or project management) tools in the past years and since about a year or so I have managed to integrate the two.  In this post, I wan to share my experience and perhaps make your choice of tools a bit easier.

I will mention the tools I have used in the past only briefly and the suggest three scenarios which I think are the best solutions you can find these days, depending on your needs. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole story, here is the gist of it (or tl;dr):

Scenario 1: If comprehensive time tracking is not so important for you and you are mainly looking for an easy way to keep track of your task, KanbanFlow is for you. The free version is perfectly sufficient for scholars but when I used it I actually signed up for the paid plan (5 USD per month) because I liked the swimlane feature.

Scenario 2: If you want to track your time throughout your workday, get a visual idea of how you spent your day (or week) and integrate that with your task management tool, then your best solution is using Asana for your task management in combination with TimeCamp for time tracking. Asana is free for up to 15 people, so you can even use it to coordinate work in a team but you’ll need to pay 6 USD per month for TimeCamp if you want to integrate it with Asana.

Scenario 3: If you are just looking for a time tracking tool and keep your task management entirely independent from that, I suggest you go for Yast. As an academic (student/teacher) the developer will – upon request – give you a free premium account (which normally costs 6 9 USD per month) but you may not even need that if the free account works fine for you.

So much for the quick summary and recommendations. Now comes the whole story.

Timepanic

tipenscreenshot01
Sample Screenshot from the developer’s website

I started using TimePanic back in 2007 simply as a means of finding out where all my time was disappearing to. At the end of the workday I often found that although I was certainly busy the whole day, it felt like I hadn’t really achieved as much as I wanted and wondered what I had used my time for. TimePanic is an offline Windows program that allows you to define certain keyboard shortcuts for switching to a specific task,

(For example, I had one of the F-keys set to “Chat with colleague” because when a colleague walks into your office to ask you something, you don’t want to start clicking all over the place to set your time-tracker to “Chat with colleague” before you actually react to him or her. So a simple key press would achieve that. And if you want to track who you actually spoke to or about what, you can fill that in afterwards)

and which shows allows you to produce detailed reports about how much time you spent on which task or project or how you spent your day or week or whatever. You can also define a day as a holiday or sich-leave or vacation etc so that you don’t end up wondering why you worked so little in August 2009 or so. (This feature is actually something I miss on all other time tracking tools I have used and tried so far!) Timepanic’s price is not cheap at 39 EUR but I have never regretted spending that money, even on my tight PhD student budget at the time. The developer was very responsive when I had questions or suggestions and the software was very user-friendly.

The most interesting (and somewhat ironic) effect of starting to track my using TimePanic was that I became much more aware of what I was doing already while I was doing it, simply because I had to log it. And perhaps more importantly, I became very aware of distractions (self-distractions and distractions by others) as well as any change of task, again: because I had to log it. It’s a nice example of how the measurement changes what it measures. (They observed the so called Hawthorne effect already decades ago with industrial workers, but it’s something else to actually experience it in yourself!)

So for anyone wondering whether time tracking is really worth the effort when you can’t use it to bill anyone, consider this self-disciplining and consciousness raising effect. Indeed, I rarely actually run any big analysis on my time-tracking data (although I do intend to do a little longitudinal study over the years one day. When I have time 😉  I just look at the day and the week and 80 percent of the time I’m only interested in the total time worked. Not even the project, let alone the task break down. But I do look, for example, at how much time I spend to peer review a paper – 8 hours! And I can’t seem to be able to do it much faster 😦   – or on publishing a paper (170 hours), but checking these things remains the exception. It’s just too frustrating to see how much time stuff actually takes!

Another reason to track your time as a scholar is to get rid of that bad conscience of not working enough. Or you might even be able to use your figures in negotiations with colleagues about how much time should be allowed for what kind of task. This may not be relevant in many parts of the world, but at Swedish Universities, your employer actually keeps track of your workload (and hence how many more tasks you should take on in a certain time period) and they use certain standard rates to estimate your workload. For example, at my department, correcting an exam gives you 20 minutes (sic!) and for giving a 1 hour lecture, you get paid 4 hours etc. When such rates are negotiated, being able to say “I have been tracking my time over the past X years and based on that this kind of committee usually takes X hours or work” might actually have a certain weight.

I left TimePanic because I wanted a graphical representation of my daily timeline. I wanted something like this:

yast-timeline
Yast’s visualization  displays of how you spent your day is quite unique in the diverse world of time-trackers

I asked the developer and since it wasn’t on his roadmap at all, I decided to go online, even though I would have preferred to be independent of the internet when it comes to time tracking (yeah, I know. But, hey, this was in 2011/12 when people still had a life outside the internet!).

Criteria for an online time tracking tool (choosing Yast)

I tried out a whole pile of online time tracking tools (and the number has multiplied since!) and thanks to Evernote, I still have my list of features that I used when comparing various options. Here it is (with some quick comments added):

  1. many projects, tasks and sub-tasks (and sub-sub-tasks…)
    • All tools offer that, but the question is whether and how much you have to pay for it. Sometimes the free plan is limited to one or two projects (like Harvest or Freckle) or don’t allow sub-projects/ tasks (like Toggle).
  2. logging of time of day (not just duration)
    • Many online tools (including KanbanFlow or Freckle) allow you to aggregate the time you have spent on a specific task, but they will not remember when you spent that time. Which implies: there is no time-line like the one shown above. At best, you get pie charts of how much of your time went to which project etc.
  3. easy switching between tasks/activities
    • after all, I’m gonna do that multiple times a day and ideally it should take zero seconds to so it. With it’s shortcuts-feature, TimePanic is probably still best at that. Because it is running on your computer, you can use global shortcuts to control it even when it is running in the background. With web-based applications, you have to at least bring your browser to the foreground and click some button. But the point with this criterion is basically that there should be a list of recently used or favourite tasks that I can start by clicking on them and starting one will automatically end the previous one.
  4. graphic display of projects over time (stacked)
    • I think what I meant by that was that I would like to be able to see, say, over the course of a year, which projects I was mainly working on each week or so. I don’t think I found this in any tool I looked at.
  5. android app or at least good mobile browser interface
    • If I’m going online, I at least want the benefit of being able to log my time also when I’m not at my desk but, for example, doing field work. Also good when you leave the office in the evening and notice you didn’t turn off the timer…
  6. note or comment field for each logged activity
    • This helps you to better understand afterwards what you were actually doing. I use it especially for big chunks of work (several hours), also to indicate that this record is correct on not a mistake of a forgotten timer. Having a comments field also prevents you from breaking down your tasks into too many small tasks. For example, if you have a task “write review for article XYZ” you might be inclined to have sub-tasks like “read the manuscript” and “write comments to authors” and “write comments to editor and submit”, but with comments, you can just write that into your comments field (unless you really want a formally exact break down of how much time you spent in each)
  7. defining the activity before it ends
    • This may sound strange, but I have seen tools where you just start a timer and only when you stop it will you be asked to say what you actually did during the tracked time. I don’t like that, not only because it defeats the disciplining effect mentioned earlier, but also because when I move on to the next task, I don’t want to thinking and writing about what I did but about what I’m about to do.
  8. offline use possible (cache or whatever)
    • I you’re tracking online, an internet or server outage just 30 minutes will interrupt your workflow and create extra work to fill on the gaps when the connection is back. Unfortunately, Yast had quite a few server outages and does not have an option for offline use.
  9. Not too business oriented
    • The thing is, most time trackers are designed either for freelancers working for clients or companies tracking the time of their employees (or a combination thereof). Since this is not what we do as scholars, we need to adapt these systems for our purposes and I’m fine with that, especially as long as I’m on a free plan. But there are limits to what I’m willing to use. For example, it’s fine to have an option to track time not only against projects but also against clients, but if the user-interface is designed in such a way that I am constantly asked to enter the client details or I even have to make up mock clients so that it works, then that tool is not for me. And then there are many tools that are more focussed on facilitating billing rather than tracking and analyzing time use (e.g.  MakeSomeTime)
  10. Low cost
    • Since I won’t make more money because I track my time, I don’t really want to pay a lot for this, perhaps I can even get it for free?

I will spare you all the details of my notes (which are four years old now). Suffice it to say that I eventually chose Yast because it fulfilled criteria 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. I can still recommend it if you don’t want to integrate your time tracking  with your task management too (scenario #3 above). So here it is. This is what it looks like:

yast
The Yast user interface (At the top, I chose the weekly timeline view for this screenshot, as opposed to the single day view shown above)

 

KanbanFlow

Now, lets leave time-tracking aside for a moment and look at task-management. Until a couple of years ago, I was not using a particular task management system or tool but some combination of Outlook tasks, Outlook Calendar and some kind of lists (even on paper, yes!) But then I learned about the kanban method which apparently originated from lean manufacturing in the automobile industry, was then adopted in software development less than a decade ago. Although the original idea was to coordinate tasks and workflows in teams by visualizing them on a whiteboard, the Kanban was soon adopted to the personal level: the personal kanban. And while you can do this with paper notes on a pinboard, the digital version obviously bears a lot more potential.

So I looked around and tested quite a number of online kanban tools (such as: Kanbanery, Pivotal Tracker, Agile Zen, LeanKit Kanban, Kanban tool, kanbana, targetprocess, and, well, Kanbanflow). I will not go into any comparison here because I think for scholars the best choice is by far KanbanFlow and if you do a bit of comparing yourself, I am quite confident, that in the end, you will agree with me (please leave a comment below if you don’t – or if you do!)

The fact that KanbanFlow is the only Kanban tool with an integrated Pomodoro timer is already a fantastic advantage over other tools (find out more about the pomodoro method here). In addition, it allows you to track how much time you spent on each task, simply by clicking a button on the task-card (which you obviously are looking at anyway, when you are working on that task). I already mentioned the (paid) feature of Swimlanes which I used to separate teaching, administration, and various research projects from each other.

So I used KanbanFlow as a task-management tool for quite a while in combination with Yast as a time-tracker and it works fine. But at some point I noticed that I am not really using KanbanFlow for all my tasks. Sometimes I wouldn’t open it for days because I knew exactly what I had to do during those days anyway. But that also meant that I wouldn’t rely on it as my main task list, as the place to write that important thing that must not be forgotten, because I could not be sure that I would look at it when that thing needed looking at.

At first, I considered using the then new time-tracking feature in KanbanFlow instead of Yast so that I would open KanbanFlow first thing in the morning in order to start tracking my time. In order to do that, I would need to put all my tasks into KanbanFlow, and that’s where the problem started. The hierarchy of projects, sub-projects, tasks and sub-tasks that I had built in TimePanic and Yast over the years was quite complex and KanbanFlow wasn’t built to accommodate that kind of complexity in one Kanban board. The idea in KanbanFlow is to have one board per project. Technically, this is not a problem because you can easily create as many boards as you want. But I did not want to switch between boards, for example, when I finished preparing a lecture (in the “teaching” project) and start to prepare the interviews for a research project. And imagine the hassle when I student (teaching project!) comes in while I’m working on those interviews).

Besides, Kanbanflow’s time tracking is still rudimentary and since the developer said that this isn’t going to change in the near future, I decided to look for another solution. I still like Kanbanflow very much and may well change back to it once it’s time-tracking is a bit more sophisticated. So if time tracking is not a priority for you – perhaps you only want to know the time you spent on certain tasks but not on others? – then I suggest you should give KanbanFlow a try.

For me, abandoning KanbanFlow unfortunately meant that I would also leave Yast due to its lack of integration with any other online tools which made it impossible to find a task manager that would link to it.

The solution I came up with after some comprehensive testing and which I am still using today is Asana in combination with TimeCamp. I hope to write about this setup in more detail in a separate post (please comment below if you’re interested in reading it), so I will keep it short here.

Asana and TimeCamp

The beauty with this combination is that TimeCamp offers a browser plugin (Chrome only!) that puts a time tracking button on each and every Asana task and when you click it, it starts/stops tracking time against that task in TimeCamp. Like this:

asana
The (very customizable) Asana user-interface with the TimeCamp tracking button. On the left is the task list and on the right are the details of whichever task you select from the list.

This means that I don’t even need to open TimeCamp any more except for reporting purposes, i.e. if I want to know how much I worked on that day or whatever. Most of the time, I am only looking at Asana and tasks or projects I create there are automatically transferred to Timecamp and when I move them around in Asana they are also moved around in Timecamp so that my Time-Tracking and my task hierarchy are always in sync.

If you want to give it a try, please use this referral link to sign up. And let me know if you want to know more about this setup. It might encourage me to actually sit down and write it.

I just realize that with this referral link at the end, this looks like I wrote this whole thing only to get you to sign up for TimeCamp. But believe me, I have long planned to write about this and I only recently discovered that Timecamp have a referral program, so rest assured that my review here has not been biased in any way by the prospect of getting a reward for referrals. In fact, I still have some critical remarks to make about TimeCamp, but they won’t deter me from recommending them and I need to catch some sleep now. In the mean time, feel free to ask questions below, which can guide me when writing my next post.

 

The Xcanex document scanner: update #3

Xcanex-scanner This is a follow up to my previous review posts (1, 2) on the Xcanex document scanner from piQximaging. Just a quick one. As you know, I like to complain about everything that doesn’t work perfectly, so this is of course about some more complaining…

But before I start complaining, I also need to say that I have come to appreciate the scanner to make a few scans here and there: e.g. the when I was ripping some CDs the other day, whose covers I could not find online, I just flipped them under the scanner and it was just a matter of seconds until I had the cover image saved with my ripped audio files. Or some of those official letters that you don’t know whether you will ever need them – probably not – but you don’t want to have them pile up on your shelf: I now just scan them, save them in Evernote or wherever, and get rid of the paper copy. I’m starting to think, maybe I would actually spend those 300 USD for the device (mine is a review copy).

But I guess I’d do some comparison work, especially regarding scan quality. In my last update, I already showed illustrated the limits of the device compared to a professional photocopying-machine-scanner, but I’m not sure how the Xcanex would fare when compared to something in the same price range or even with the various smartphone scanning apps out there, which do pretty much the same. But I’ll leave that comparison to others to make (please do tell us in the comments below!).

So, here is what I want to complain about (of course hoping that the developers will fix this in the next software update): I just scanned about 100 business cards that I have collected over the years. The good part is that the scanner offers timed automatic capture (i.e. it does one scan ever x seconds) so you just flip those cards under it, one after the other and it captures them, no problem. But once I had them all scanned, I wanted to drag-and-drop some of the scanned cards from the perfecapture software directly into Evernote. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

OK, let’s do copy-and-paste then. I tried to select a couple of scans and paste them into an Evernote-note. Well, it doesn’t work either. It only works with single scans. And when selecting a single scan, you cannot copy it with your usual “Ctrl+C” shortcut. No. You have to click on the “copy” icon of the perfecapture software. I think that’s quite cumbersome!

Next problem: after I copied various cards into Evernote, I wanted to delete them from the perfecapture software. At first it worked (or did it?), but now I cannot delete any of the scans. I don’t understand why. Maybe I hit some shortcut that protects scans from deletion? To be honest, I haven’t bothered to check the manual on this (laziness, but also experience that manuals rarely help with these things). Anyway, if this is not a bug, I think it should be transparent to the user why deleting is not possible (instead of the “delete” key just having no effect at all).

So, how do I get this scanning job finished without losing any card by not saving it? My last resort is to save all scans in a temporary folder and then drag and drop them from there into Evernote. So I selected all scans and hit “save”. Well, unfortunately, perfecapture is now asking me for each and every scan to manually confirm the file name. And no possibility to select “apply to all” or something like that. And it takes about a second between the save-dialogues to come up, so here I sit, spending another two minute just to save those scans. Developer fail!

Speed-reading pdfs using the “Spritz” technique

sprint reader logoA couple of days ago, I came across Spritz, a company that is popularizing a speed reading technology whose name I’ve forgotten called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation.  You get the idea once you look at the Spritz website. I immediately thought that this could be a way for me to read all those texts that I have to read as an academic a lot faster.

I am a very slow reader for three reasons: the first is that I look up every other reference and almost all footnotes. Sometimes I get so distracted that I even look up some of the references and start reading those instead (and so on).

Another reason is that when I read an interesting paragraph of sentence, that often triggers my own thoughts and associations and I start wandering off, thinking about how I might integrate that idea into my own text or whatever.

Finally, the third problem is that I simply read slowly, I guess because I really want to understand and thing through everything, rather than focusing on the essentials.

Now, I don’t want to philosphize too much about the pros and cons of speed reading here. Suffice it to say that if the aim is to get through a text reasonably fast at 350 words per minute with at least superficial understanding of the content (or even ridiculously fast at 800 wpm with probably minimal understanding but a rough idea), then this Spritz technique seems adequate to me, and I have indeed read two articles that way yesterday.

My point here is to show you how to read pdfs using this technique (not the original Spritz itself, cause their app is not released yet) because the reading apps that are out there at the moment seem to work only with plain text, while most academic articles come as pdf files.

It’s not a big deal, actually, but it took me a while to figure it out nevertheless. All you need is the Chrome bowser with the Sprint Reader extension installed. You also need to make sure that you have the native Chrome PDF Viewer enabled. This is the case by default, but if you are using Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat, you might have disabled it. In order to enable Chrome PDF Viewer, type “chrome://plugins/” into Chrome’s address bar and scroll down to find Chrome PDF Viewer and, well, enable it. The following will not work with pdf-files that are not displayed using Chrome’s PDF viewer.

You can now use Sprint Reader to speed read not only text on websites but also your locally stored pdf files (just drag them into the browser). Select the text you want to read, right click and select “Sprint read selected text”. There you go. (Needless to say that your pdf file needs to have actual text in it, not just a scanned image of text. If you have an image of text, you need to run some OCR on it.)

The Sprint Reader extension in action
The Sprint Reader extension in action

I recommend setting the “pause after period” higher than the default 450 milliseconds. I’m currently using 900. I also set the “pause after paragraph” to 2000, but that basically has no effect when reading a pdf, because there seem to be no paragraphs in there that the Sprint Reader would recognize as such, unfortunately.

There are also a couple of other drawbacks that we currently will have to live with, especially that the reader will – not surprisingly – read all the text in the pdf, which means it will also read the header on each page, the page numbers, and – most annoyingly, the text inserted on every page by various publishers, such as:

This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

You will also encounter problems when there are tables and figures in the text, but hey, otherwise it works okay.

Why did I chose Sprint Reader and not any of the many other similar services and extensions such as Spreed – speed read the web, Spread Speed Reading Extension, Spreeder, or OpenSpritz, to name but a few? Well, it’s the best of them all. It’s not perfect (I did encounter a couple of crashes or whatever it was when it simply did not work until I restarted the browser), but it is very customizable and it works with pdfs, which not all of the others do.

Having said that, here are some suggestions for improvement in Sprint Reader, especially for people like me reading scientific texts:

  1. Add an option to exclude (i.e. hopp over) brackets containing a four digit number. Why? Because that would exclude all references provided using an Author-Year citation style and make reading academic texts a lot easier.
  2. Recognize abbreviations such as e.g. and treat the dots in these differently (i.e. don’t apply the “pause after period” rule). One quick way of minimizing this problem could be by checking whether the dot is followed by a capital letter. If not, it’s not a period.
  3. It would be nice to be able to exclude customized strings, such as “This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions” (see above)
  4. Ignore hyphens at line breaks and join the words to one. The few cases where the hyphen should not be eliminated because it is a hyphened word, are negligible.
  5. Recognize paragraphs in pdfs (see above). I’m not sure whether this is possible, but I might as well add it to my wish list.
  6. Add a keyboard shortcut for quick rewind as, for example Spreed has it (I think it was spreed anyway). In addition, it would be nice to have the replay at a lower speed and then back to normal speed when passing the point where the rewind was initiated.
  7. The extension should not be dependent on the text selection in chrome, once it has started. This is feels almost like a bug to me, although it is not, but it is a bit of a pain in the *** that you cannot unselect the text you are currently reading without the reader losing track of it. It would be better if the reader would load the whole text into its own memory, once you press play, making it independent from what happens in the browser.

UPDATE: I just realized that the Sprint Reader sometimes seems to have problems rendering text in pdfs. I have a pdf in which it reads some of the text without problem but when I select and right click other parts, there is not even a possibility to select “Sprint read selected text”. In fact, this may be a problem of chrome (or the pdf?) and not the extension. Either way, be prepared to encounter this problem with your favourite pdf file…

Update on the Xcanex document scanner review

Xcanex-scannerI just thought I’d mention that there have been several software updates since my first review of the Xcanex Document Scanner by PiQximaging. The current version of the scanning software (called perfecapture) is 2.1.0.8.

I have installed it and it works fine. I did not do an entirely new install so I cannot say whether the glitches that I described with version 1.0 have disappeared, but I’m inclined to believe so since the developers seemed to take my review quite seriously when they wrote to me and apologized for the inconveniences I had encountered.

They also said that they

have studied the problems you encountered (from your blog post) and ver 2.1.0.7 solves them:
– installer issues when installing as Windows Standard User (not asking admin rights, no icon found)
– software hang and crashes caused by some USB 3.0 ports (marked with ‘SS’)

(Just as an aside: I don’t think I have a USB 3.0 port on my 4 year old PC, so that none of my hangs or crashes can have anything to do with that)

I can say that I still have the scanner on my desk and now and then, when I want to get rid of some papers and store them on Evernote, I flip them under the scanner and within less than a minute, the job is done and the original hardcopy goes into the shredder. It works just fine, although sometimes (when the paper is a bit too crumbled or has bent edges) the scanner does not recognize the edges of the paper 100 percent properly and cuts off a bit too much. (I guess this has something to do with the straightening algorithm which makes sure that your final image is always rectangular.) But in those cases where it matters, it is quite easy to correct this manually by repositioning the edges.

It has also been useful a couple of times when I urgently had to send a scanned copy of whatever document it was to whoever it was: I could do it from home. But for the ordinary scanning work, I still use the scanner/photocopier at work. It is faster, and the quality is better.

Here is a comparison between a 300 dpi scan from the photocopier and Xcanex:

image from Xcanex
image from Xcanex (click on image for 100% view)
image from photocopier
Image from photocopier (click on image for 100% view)

 

And here are the full page scans, if you want to see more (please note that it was me who cut off the margin in the Xcanex scan):

scan from photocopier
Full page scan from photocopier (click on image for 100% view)
Xcanex scan
Full page scan from Xcanex (click on image for 100% view)

I have to say that the point of this comparison is not to say that the Xcanex has bad scanning quality. It is actually quite amazing, considering the size of the device. And when it comes to ordinary size text, I would say it the difference is almost negligible for ordinary use. Where the difference becomes more obvious is in very small print in a coloured or grayscale context as in the image shown in the top left of the scanned page.  I am not making this a point of criticism, but I thought it is good to show where the difference to photocopier scans is, since many of us have access to those big machines at work.

So while the scanning quality is not a point of criticism here, the following is: The settings menu has now OK button, so you are left wondering: how do I save the changes?

settings menu
Perfecapture settings menu

At first I thought it is the big “Calibrate Scanner” button that is filling in while the OK button is on vacation or so, but then I noticed that changes actually seem to be save immediately as you make them and you close the Settings-dialogue with what would usually be a cancel button: the cross in the top right hand corner…

It would also be nice to have an option to scan directly into Evernote, but even without it, it is quite easy to do this: just activate automatic saving as shown in the screenshot above and then tell the Evernote client on your PC to watch the folder in which your scans are being saved and voilà! (That is: if your EN client reliably notices new files in the folder and uploads them to Evernote, which is unfortunately currently not the case, according to my experience).

Another option is to email your scans to your Evernote account, directly from the scanning software.

But I would really like to encourage the Xcanex developers to implement a “save in Evernote” button. It should not be too difficult to implement this using the Evernote API. Check it out here.

The Xcanex document scanner: a first review

Xcanex-scannerFirst off: this is a product with some potential, in fact it is a great product, once you have worked yourself through some of its glitches and annoyances. I have had the “Xcanex Professional Book & Document Scanner” for just a couple of weeks now, but I think it’s time to share my first impressions and experiences with this innovative little gadget, which is basically an 8MP digital camera with an LED flashlight built in and which “scans” your documents by taking pictures of them. It also includes a software that does quite a good job in cropping the image so that you end up with a jpg/pdf of just the document that you wanted to scan. It is in many ways similar to booksorber, but booksorber comes without the hardware because most of us already have all the hardware at home, i.e. a DSLR camera).

But let me start from the beginning: a couple of months ago, I wrote this review about the “IRIScan Book 3” mobile scanner and basically scrapped it and sent it back. I then received a message from a hitherto unknown little company from Singapore suggesting that I should have a look at their newly launched document scanner. And so I did. First on the many videos on their website, and later by trying out the free unit that they sent me. Given that all the basic information about how the thing works is actually in these videos and on their website, I will skip over those basics and provide you with what you wont find anywhere else on the net: my experience and evaluation.

So, here we go:

For ordinary users with little knowledge about the existence of admin-rights on windows, the journey with this scanner may well end before it has even started: When I tried to install the driver (version 1.0 from a burned DVD!), it repeatedly failed until I noticed that it never asked me for admin rights so I figured that it may require these rights but fails to ask for them, perhaps because the developers use admin accounts and therefore never noticed this as a problem (I use an account with limited user rights as generally recomended). So I started the installation with administrator rights and finally the software was installed properly. It requires quite a bit of space on your hard-drive:

The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
The scanner software requires quite a bit of space
After install, what happened? – Nothing. I mean, I like it, when software doesn’t try to take over my computer after I installed it, but this was kind of the opposite extreme. I wanted to try the scanner out, but there was no desktop icon, no popup question that would ask me: “Hey, would you like to try me out right away?” I checked “all programs” in the start menu and searched for “piqx”, “xcan” as well as “perfecapture”: nothing. I was wondering whether I actually installed the thing.

So I went to the program files folder and found a folder called “piQx Imaging”. Aha! And in that folder I found a file called “PiqxImaging.exe” and I (double)clicked on it. What happened: nothing.

Finally, I found a new icon in my taskbar (the ones on the right, not the ordinary program icons) which said “Xcanex Launcher”. Ha!  Gotcha!

Looking for the Xcanex Launcher
Looking for the Xcanex Launcher

So let’s (double)click on it! What happens: nothing! – How about a right click? Aaah! It gives me some options to choose from:

Right clicking the Xcanex launcher helps
Right clicking the Xcanex launcher icon helps

I’m not sure what BCO is, so I choose “Launch PerfeCapture”. And? Something happens! Finally! But hey, did I say it works?

Selecting "Launch PerfeCapture" leads to an error message
Selecting “Launch PerfeCapture” leads to an error message

Scanner not found? But it’s here on my desk!

The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)
The Xcanex scanner with the scanning pad (included)

Oh! maybe I should plug it in? Maybe that is what the error message is trying to tell me. Okay, this is a minor glitch, but after all those other issues, I’ve gotten into a “complaining mood”. It will be difficult to please me now…

And indeed, after plugging it in, the steps above no longer produce an error message but the piece of paper lying under the scanner actually shows up on my screen! Wow! But my euphoria comes to an abrupt end when I try to position my piece of paper so that it is fully visible under the scanner: before I can even press the “scan” button the PerfeCapture crashes:

Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
Sometimes, PerfeCapture crashed without any evident cause
But the good thing is (and I have actually not seen anything like it on any other program): the problem did actually solve itself and without me doing anything so that if I had left the room for two minutes while this happened, I would never have known. Or actually, I would, because this happened several times: crash without me even touching the computer, crash disappeared again. Strange.
Sadly, however, I was still not able to scan. At least, when I clicked on the “scan” icon nothing happened. This was not a bug though, but due to me ignoring the read notice on my screen saying “too low”. I ignored it, because I didn’t know what it meant. What is “too low”??
Once again I had to figure it out myself (or I could have read the manual, but honestly, who reads manuals?) Hmm, maybe the scanner is too low, i.e. to close to the paper? I twist it upwards and click on “scan”. And now the magic happened: The thing focused, then flashed, and then the software identified exactly what I wanted to scan, i.e. this little instruction manual and cropped it from the overall image:
My first test scan with the Xcanex
My first test scan with the Xcanex

So there you go! After quite a bit of trouble with the setup, I finally got not a very acceptable scan (you can click on the image to see it in full resolution).

I have done some more testing but I will write about that in a second post (which will be linked here once it’s done).

Just one last thing: the second time I tried to use the scanner, I couldn’t even find this little launcher icon that I used above to start the scanning software… I thought that this maybe because the scanner is not yet connected to the computer? So I plugged it in and what happened was that drivers were automatically installed (Why again?), but the icon did not come back. So I’m clicked on “PiqxImaging.exe” again. Nothing.

I finally go deeper into the “piQx Imaging” branch of the program files directory and I find “perfecapture.exe” which finally starts the scanner. I created a shortcut to this file manually so that I would remember how to start the scanner the next time. And it has worked fine for me since then. I have never seen that Launcher icon again…

So let me give you a preliminary verdict (as I said, there is more to come): The setup has been more than cumbersome and I’d say it is impossible to master for the average user. But what I have is version 1.0 of the software on a burned DVD and I assume that the developers will soon have fixed these problems (although there is quite a but to go to make the software really easy to use – more about that in the second part of the review). Otherwise, this scanner is solid hardware (I could quibble a bit about cheapish plastic, but I’ve seen worse) and it is obviously well though through. When you assemble the product (you actually do need to look at the IKEA type instruction to but it together correctly), you can’t help notice that the developers really worked hard to design this innovative pocket scanner which is a bit bigger than the IRIScan Book 3 but it still suitable for taking it with you on a trip.

But would I pay 299 US-dollars for it (it’s price as of October 2013)? Definitely not. The product is definitely overpriced, I’d say 150 USD would be reasonable. I think I might pay that much for it. Perhaps some people who don’t have access to a scanner at work would pay more? But I think then I’d by a proper scanner with automatic feed for a bit more. When it comes to mobile use and portability, I’m wondering what actually can be done with a smartphone camera in combination with booksorber. I have not tried booksorber yet and I know that an on-camera flash easily ruins your “scans”, but what if there is sufficient ambient light? Or what if you hold it at an angle to the page you’re scanning, just like Xcanex does? It might be worth a try.

Speaking of money: I need to mention that I received my scanner unit for free from piqximaging. But I can clearly state that piqximaging did not require me to agree to any conditions whatsoever. They merely asked me to review the device. And while even that is not a legal obligation, I do feel morally obliged to do deliver this review now, and I’m sorry if they had hoped for an earlier post on the device, but I’ve been just too busy…

UPDATE: have a look at my updated review here

IRIScan Book 3: pretty much useless

Image I just got an IRIScan Book 3, a portable scanner that looks promising when you check it out online. And I’m sending it back. The problem is that you can never rely on it actually scanning the whole page that you intend to scan. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to make a video of this but I hope I will manage to do one before the 30 days trial period is over.

The device is a nice idea, but it simply doesn’t work. If you get one, you can expect to have problems with it all the time. No, my device is not defect. The product is simply badly designed. There are two main problems:

  1. As far as I can see, the scanner measures its movement through the rolling thingy on  the bottom, i.e. it does not use the actual optical sensor to register movement. As a result, it will stop scanning once the rolling thingy has rolled over the edge of the book so that it is suspended in the air. In other words: while the scanning sensor is still gliding over your text, the “wheels” tell the device that it is no longer moving and it will therefore stop recording the signal coming from the sensor. This may not be a problem if your book has a margin of at least 1.5 cm, but if your margin is narrower (or if you want to scan the notes scribbled on the margin) then the Iriscan Book 3 just wont work for you.
  2. The frame of the device is too thick so that it wont scan what is towards both ends of the sensor, i.e. the width of the scanned image is smaller than the sensor window on the bottom of the device suggests. Again, you could work around that making a mark where the sensor really starts and use the device accordingly, but the problem is that you may not always be able to do so because the fold of the book is preventing you from shifting the device far enough. Similar to point 1 mentioned above, this will not be a problem if your book has large margins, but I have one here that has just under 1.5 cm margin at the centre fold and the leads to the first letter or so of each row to be cut off.

I could also complain about the wifi functionality (on the Irisscan book 3 executive), but that has become a minor quibble compared to these problems. The problem with the wifi functionality is that the Iriscan Book 3 does not conntect to your existing wifi but it sets up its own wifi hotspot and if you want to connect your computer or ipad with it, you need to disconnect from your wifi (and hence the internet), connect to the Irisbook wifi, scan, connect back to your original wifi and only then can you upload the scanned documents.

Honestly: this could have been solved better. Why did they call it IRIScan Book, when it can scan single pieces of paper just fine, but not books? Anyway: I’m sending it back. Luckily they I.R.I.S. is giving a 30 day money back guarantee, so that should not be a problem. Despite this, I recommend anyone to think twice before ordering this. If you think you might want to use it for scanning pages out of books, don’t buy it.

Instead, I will try a fascinating software called booksorber. I had considered it before I bought the Iriscan Book, but I thought it would be nice to have a dedicated device for scanning, rather than setting up my camera everytime I want to scan a couple of pages, but now I’ll give booksober a chance. I’ll post my exoerience here as soon as I had time to test it.

UPDATE [31-10-2013]: If you are looking for an alternative portable scanner, you might want to have a look at the Xcanex document scanner by piQx which I reviewed in another post.

ASUS Transformer Book and Windows 8: a big disappointment

ASUS Transformer Book OK, this is a bit off topic, but I have to briefly air my frustration about the ASUS Transformer Book (TX300CA – C4005P), which I’ve been waiting for so long for. After a few days of good willed fiddling with it, I’m sending it back cause I know that this will just continue to frustrate me, even if I am starting to get used to some of the annoyances of Windows 8, that drove me crazy at the beginning, such as the layout of the on-screen keyboard or the fact that it does not always show up automatically when you are in a text field (it does work with genuine Touch Apps, but only sometimes when you’re in desktop mode), or that you have to aim for the little X in the corner in order to close it, rather than a bigger key or a swipe gesture.

I guess I needed to use a Win8 tablet in order to understand what a good job Apple did with the iPad. I was similarly annoyed with my iPad 2 when I first got it and I still think it has major faults (not to speak about the closed systems approach of Apple in general), but I have to admit that they at least got the basic essentials of the user interface working. Things like browsing a webpage and doing a quick pinch to zoom in to read small print or smooth scrolling or simply making it easy to tap on a link or button or whatever without having to be dead on centre, those are the things that I now appreciate on the iPad. Because they don’t work.

While I appreciate the amount of pixels on the Transformer Book screen, this leads to buttons, menus, and text being incredibly small on your screen so that they are not only almost illegible but, most of all, un-tapable with your fingers. Only when I increased the screen display to 150 percent did the device become somewhat usable via touch screen. In the default mode, it you just keep tapping and tapping until you finally hit something and get a response (though it might be the wrong one, cause you tapped slightly too far right or left or so). Why can a convertible in this upper price range not be configured so that it is usable from the start?

And let me say, that even with 150 percent screen display, I often have to tap multiple times to, for example close a tab in Chrome. I guess you have to be dead on centre on whatever you are trying to tap and there is no tolerance or smart algorithm that makes Win8 realize that when you tap 5 pixels next to a link, maybe you were trying to tap that link. Oh, and speaking of browser. I installed Firefox first and it seem like they havent managed to produce a touch screen compatible version yet, cause what happens, at least on some pages (most importantly: google search results), when you try to scroll by swiping up: you are selecting the text on the page. WFT? – Anyway, this is not ASUS’s fault and probably not that of Win8 either, but it’s part of the experience.

Similarly, with the Evernote App: I wrote a note on the Transformer Book up to today but it did not sync until today. And it did not do so until I went back and tapped sync and waited in the App until it had synched 100%. Apparently it does not synch automatically in the background. WTF?

Another very basic problem was that when I first started the Transformer Book, the PC clock was apparently set to a date several weeks ago. OK, you cant expect the time and date to be right when you get the device, but did Win8 bother to check time and date with one of the many NTP servers out there? No. I had to manually trigger that my going to time and date settings and clicking on “Sync with NTP server” or something like that. And when did I do that? After I spent about half an hour trying to figure out why I was getting security certificate issues from Chrome all the time. It would not let me visit the most basic websites, claiming that there was a problem with that site’s security certificate. – The reason was that my PC time was weeks in the past and the website was claiming to be way in the future, and that is of course suspicious. So that was another wasted 45 minutes, just because Windows 8 was unable to automatically correct the date. What year was this operating system produced again?? Oh, and another consequence of the wrong date during installation was that when I corrected the date, the 30 day trial version of McAffee expired and Windows started bugging me that my computer was not safe. Not that I am in any way interested in McAffee bloatware, but what if I had installed other trial versions that I actually did want to try for 30 days?

It’s about time for me to mention one of the major failures: at some point the TouchPad stopped working! And no, it was not because I deactivated it with Fn + F9, it truly did not work. When I went to the Device Manager, the Touch Pad was listed as a “hidden item” because it was apparently not recognized by the system. (NB: the TouchPad is built into the Keyboard dock of the ASUS Transformer). I tried updating the driver, but it said that it was up to date. The way I eventually solved it was to boot Windows 8 in Safe Mode (Took me another 30 minutes or so to figure out how that works in Win8, since the F8 button that used to bring up the Boot menu in previous versions of Windows no longer works with Win8. It was so complicated (multiple clicks into some menu) that I don’t even remember how I did it. But when I eventually booted into safe mode, the Touch Pad started working again and continued to do so when I booted normally again. (Yes, I did try to reboot normally before, but to no avail.) I mean how can a Touch Pad just stop working on a new device??

But it fits with another annoying problem: the left swipe, which shuffles you through open apps, does not  works when the device is turned upside down and it also sometimes just stops working in other situations was well (i.e. nothing happens upon left swipe) and you have to use other ways to move around and then at some point it works again. And I think the same has happened with the right swipe, which is supposed to give you the charms menu, but even when the charms menu works, it seems to give you different options depending on whether you’re in desktop mode or metro mode (or whatever it’s called). But in both modes you will still give you some similar options, like the Control Panel, only in metro mode it’s called PC settings, and it only gives you very basic settings. Once you realize that, you still need to figure out which settings you can change via PC settings and for which ones you need to go to to the control panel. This is just an example of a broader problem: even when you decide to ignore those metro tiles and work mainly in desktop mode (which is not easy with a touch screen), it still feels like there are two worlds on your device: the touch metro world, with its apps and settings and what not. And the familiar windows 7 desktop. And the problem is that you don’t really understand how they interrelate.

For example, I installed Sugarsync from the App store, as well as the desktop version of sugarsync, and I still havent understood how they relate to each other. Admitedly, I have not spend much time trying to figure that one out, but that’s the point: I don’t want to spend weeks figuring basic things out all the time. I’m spending enough time doing this anyway cause I’m a gadget and tech guy. So I expect that basic stuff just works intuitively, and that’s simply not the case with Win 8. I can understand now, why PC sales dropped so dramatically: I will avoid win8 on my PC as long as I can too. Problem is: I won’t be able to avoid it on a Windows tablet…

Want some more failures and disappointments? – I really did not install a lot of Apps (afterall, there are really not that many in the App store!), but when I tried to do so. Microsoft app store was unreachable several times. (And no: my internet connection was fine, I tested that). But not only was it not reachable, but what annoyed me even more was that Windows 8 blamed my internet connection and suggested I should fix it when it was clearly a problem on the side of the App Store thatfailing to reply on time or whatever. I know, those kind of error messages have a long tradition in Microsoft Products, but I was under the impression that in Win7, things had improved somewhat and even functions like “Try to solve this problem for me” sometimes actually solve the problem.

And there is more: I calibrated the touch screen because my impression was that it was not reacting properly, i.e. not targeting the item I was trying to tap. The result was (and it again took me a while to find that out!) that the right swipe for the charms menu no longer worked. Its an official bug. Here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2795584. So although there is a possibility to calibrate the touch screen, this will result in Windows 8 becoming more or less dysfuctional, so that you are advised to reset the calibration.
Last, but not least, one of the bigger reasons for me to return the ASUS Transformer Book is that it is quite loud for my taste. Now, admittedly, I am not the typical user when it comes to fan noise. I cannot bear fan or hard drive noise and I don’t understand how people are willing and able to work on computers that not only have a clearly audible fan but one that is really loud. I probably could live with the of the fan of the ASUS Transformer book when it is running in its slowest mode (as it is during surfing and basic activity) but once the CPU gets just a bit busier (for example while installing an app), it accellerates so much that it becomes clearly audible and that is just a deal breaker for me, at least when so many other things are just not right.
It looks like I’m now going to be a bit more patient and wait for convertibles with the new Haswell processor to come out and I hope to find one with a Wacom Digitizer, so that I can highlight and scribble into pdfs while reading them. The Toshiba WT310 looks promising, for example, but if you have any other suggestions that come close to the following criteria, please leave a comment:
  • at least a i3 core cpu (i5 preferred, or even i7, but that might lead to problems with the next point)
  • low noise
  • at least 11 inch screen, preferably 13 inch
  • digitizer pen (i.e. non capacitive)
  • weight well below 1.9 kg for keyboard and screen combined.
  • touch screen
  • touch pad in front of the keys