Burney's Legal Tech Reviews - FineReader, Pocket KeyPad, Targus Notebook Light, Mozilla Awakens

Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com's Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal-technology questions at bburney@bburney.net.

 

 

A Fine Way to OCR

If you haven’t had to “OCR” a document before, chances are that you will sometime in the near future. OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition and refers to the process of scanning text from a piece of paper into a computer so that it can be manipulated by a program such as a word processing application. The cheapest way to do this is to have a piece of software that can interpret what your scanner sees and recognize the individual text characters. One such product is the newly released FineReader Professional 6.0 from ABBYY USA, Inc.

I see more and more legal professionals today realizing the advantages of putting paper documents into electronic form. When you scan a document, however, it simply becomes an “image” file. You can “open” the document on your computer, but you’ll only be looking at a picture of the document – you won’t be able to change the text.

When you use an OCR program, the same document can be scanned and the text will be recognized. This will give you the ability to make changes to the text in word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect.

Probably the most popular product in the OCR field is OmniPage. It would be safe to say that FineReader runs a close second. I was fortunate enough to review both products in a “Software Shootout” in the February/March 2002 issue of Law Office Computing Magazine. I picked the current OmniPage Pro 11 over FineReader 5.0 in that review but it was a close call. Since that review, ABBYY USA Inc. has released version 6.0 of FineReader and it’s an even closer call now.

New Features, Better Recognition

FineReader Professional 6.0 boasts a few new features but I was more impressed with the streamlined user interface and better accuracy. The “Scan&Read” Wizard made it incredibly simple to go through each step of a scan. I followed the no-nonsense instructions on each panel of the Wizard and soon had my document OCR’d, spell-checked, and saved as a Word document within about a minute and a half.

If you choose to make a go of it without the help of the Wizard, there are big, easy-to-use buttons at the top of the program that will let you set options and click through each step of the process.

A really interesting feature that is new in FineReader 6.0 is something they call “Intelligent Background Filtering” technology. It’s supposed to help improve OCR accuracy on documents that have colored, textured, or “noisy” backgrounds like newsprint, faxes, and copies. I tried this on a very poor-looking faxed itinerary from my travel agency. I was very impressed with the accuracy although it was not quite as good it would be on a “clean” document. This new technology alone makes FineReader worth it’s price because we will all inevitably have an occasion when we will need to OCR a document that’s been run through a copier one too many times.

Other features that FineReader added included the ability to “OCR” a PDF file. This can be very helpful if you have a PDF file and need to make some major changes to the text. New image saving options were added to the 6.0 version and FineReader upped the number of recognized languages (which now even includes “artificial” languages such as Esperanto and COBOL, C/C++, etc.).



What a Deal

The only little quirk with FineReader is their method of installation. Even though the program is on a CD-ROM, you are required to insert an accompanying floppy disk during installation. To be fair, you can continue your installation without the floppy, but ABBYY’s approach to the installation is just a little odd.

Other than that, FineReader Professional 6.0 is a mighty fine purchase for only $299. This is a full $200 less than the comparable OmniPage Pro 11. You can also upgrade from any OCR program to FineReader 6.0 for only $149. ABBYY also offers a Corporate Edition of FineReader 6.0 if you are interested in having the application run on your network.

If you are in the market for an excellent product to take care of your OCR needs, FineReader Professional 6.0 might just be the best choice on the market right now. I didn’t even get a chance to discuss many of the tools that are available once you get your scan into the program. FineReader offers a lot of functionality for a good price. If you need more convincing, you can try out a 15-day demo from ABBYY’s Web site. Have fun and OCR to you heart’s content!



The External Keys to Happiness

I was a whiz in my high school typing class except when it came to numbers. I still have never really learned the proper hand and finger positions for using the numbers at the top of keyboards. Perhaps that’s why I usually prefer to type numbers and perform calculations with the ten-key number pad that’s on the right side of full-size computer keyboards. Except this doesn’t work so well when I have to work on my laptop. Inputting numbers on my laptop used to be a pain until I found the Pocket KeyPad from Kensington.

Doin’ the Numbers

The Pocket KeyPad is simply an external ten-key pad that plugs into your computer with a USB plug. The idea is that if you really need a numeric keypad for your laptop, you can plug in the Pocket KeyPad to get that functionality. The KeyPad is just under 5 inches long by 3 inches wide. Four rubber pads on the bottom keep the KeyPad from sliding around. All you need to use the KeyPad is an empty USB port.


Since I’m using Microsoft Windows 2000, I did not need any special drivers to use the KeyPad. As soon as I plugged the KeyPad in a USB port, I was able to use the product within about a minute. The KeyPad features a “Num Lock” key which operates the same as the “Num Lock” on a regular keyboard. The great thing about the KeyPad’s Num Lock key is that it can operate separately from your laptop computer’s Num Lock (or “Pad Lock”) key. This means you can have Num Lock active on the KeyPad while the keyboard on your laptop is unaffected.

I found the KeyPad to work superbly. With the Num Lock turned on, I was able to ten-key calculate to my heart’s content. With the Num Lock turned off, the keys operated their “sub-functions” as arrow keys, Home, End, PgUp and PgDn (just like a numeric keypad on a regular-size keyboard).

The greatest feature of the Pocket KeyPad is that it offers two additional USB ports at the top of the unit. This is great because the KeyPad itself sucks up an open USB port. Plugging in the KeyPad will give you two USB ports for the price of one.

The Pocket KeyPad from Kensington features a 24 inch cord so you have plenty of room to maneuver for maximum number-crunching comfort. The KeyPad is a handy travel companion but I also find it very helpful to use with my work laptop on my desk. Now I don’t have to hear my old typing teacher every time I try to hunt and peck the number keys.

This Little Light of Mine

I always try to follow the rules of good posture and proper lighting when I’m working on my computer at my desk. But there are times when I find myself using my laptop computer in a dimly lit room or at night when I'm supposed to be asleep. The glow from the screen helps when I’m navigating my keyboard, but the Targus USB Notebook Light does a much better job at illuminating my whole workspace, including my keyboard.

Let your Light Shine

The actual light head of the Targus Notebook Light is only 1.5 inches long and about as big around as a standard ball point pen. It slides into a swivel head that is connected to a strong, black clip that attaches to your laptop’s screen. A wire comes out of the light head which is coiled for expandability and has a USB plug on the other end. To operate the Targus Notebook Light, you simply plug the USB end into a spare USB port on your computer. Once plugged in, the Notebook Light uses the power from the USB port to give this “Xenon,” cool, soothing glow of light. To turn off the light, simply unplug it.

I found the plastic clip of the Notebook Light a little hard to use. This is good in one sense because I know that when I do get it clipped on to my notebook screen (on the plastic part, of course, not on the screen itself), it’s going to stay put. But I think the design could be a little better, it just didn’t seem easy enough for me to use as a portable device.

The power cord for the Notebook Light reaches 32 inches when fully extended. This was plenty of length for me to even plug it into my USB hub that sits off away from my computer a little.

The swivel head for the light is very convenient – I was able to point and move the light wherever I needed it. I actually clipped the light to the side of my notebook screen rather than on top and that worked very well.

The Targus Notebook Light is a very neat product and it will definitely come in handy if you need a small light on your next red-eye plane trip to do your work while everyone else is snoring. I was a little surprised that Targus used such a weak-looking power cord – I think a portable device should have a little more durability. I think a product like Kensington’s FlyLight is a better concept for notebook lights. But Targus does include a compact plastic carrying case for the Notebook Light that comes complete with a pre-cut foam insert that fits the Notebook Light perfectly.

The USB Notebook Light is a handy and useful product from the Mobile Computing experts at Targus.

Mozilla Awakens!

Since there has been some recent hoopla surrounding the “new” Web browser from Mozilla, I wanted to take a quick look. I wish I could tell you that I found a better, faster Web browser that could beat Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, but alas, we’re not quite there yet and that’s not really the story behind Mozilla anyway.

When it comes to Web browser’s in today’s world, you’re probably either using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) or Netscape’s Navigator, and probably IE if I had to guess. The bickering surrounding these two browsers is well documented, but let’s suffice it to say that along the line, Netscape has tried several tricks to gain users away from the world of Microsoft. In 1998, they had the idea to organize a group called Mozilla which would was given the responsibility of coordinating the delivery of the back-end code of the Netscape browser to the Open Source Community in the hopes of creating a better mousetrap.

Plans got slightly waylaid, however, when a little company called AOL decided to add Netscape to their empire. Even so, Mozilla continued on their independent merry way and forged on with the mission of creating a more solid and stable Web browser.

Mozilla! Geckos! and Lizards! Oh My!

Since Mozilla originated with Netscape, it should come as no surprise that the Mozilla 1.0 Web browser looks very similar to a Netscape browser. The Mozilla organization created the “Gecko” core on which Netscape version 6.0 was based. Many users felt that Netscape 6.0 was a miserable failure as far as Web browsers go and so Mozilla went back to the drawing board to hammer out a better solution.

Mozilla 1.0 is the result of many years of waiting and hours of working. It is simply a core technology offered to software developers to use as they may see fit. In other words, Mozilla 1.0 isn’t really offered as a Web browser for the public, the assumption is made that software developers (such as Netscape) will take the improved technology and “brand” it accordingly.

On the other hand, nothing is really stopping common, everyday, computer users (such as myself) from downloading the browser from Mozilla’s Website  and using it themselves. You’ll just have to be happy with a plain vanilla browser, which in many respects, is a good thing.

Tabbing Your Way Around the Web

My favorite feature of Mozilla 1.0 is the new “tab” function used to switch back and forth between “windows” that you’re currently surfing. When you use IE and want to open a link in a new window, you’re required to launch another instance of IE and have another button added to your taskbar. With Mozilla 1.0, those “new windows” can be tabs. That means you only have one instance of Mozilla running on your taskbar, but you can have many “tabs” open within the browser. I found this to be very efficient and easy to use.

I was disappointed to find that Web pages didn’t seem to load any faster in Mozilla 1.0 than what I am used to with IE 6.0. The more I surf, the quicker I want my Web pages to load up (knowing, of course, that a lot of that depends upon my Internet connection). I still think that IE loads pages a little quicker than Mozilla 1.0. And while it’s not all that noticeable, those extra nano-seconds can really come in handy.

Mozilla 1.0 will let you set many options within the program, very similar to what the current version of Netscape offers. Another big draw with Mozilla is the wide support for Web standards that they included in the program. Mozilla can handle all kinds of new technologies that are popping up on the Web.

If you happen to just be totally fed up with IE and Netscape and don’t want to pay for Opera, then Mozilla 1.0 is a great pick.