Burney's Legal Tech Reviews: A Laptop That's Just the Right Size; A Vest to Hold All Of Your Techn

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 [email protected].

A Laptop That’s Just the Right Size

Laptop PCs were designed so we could take them with us and work away from the office. But as we demand better performance and more functionality, laptops get bigger and heavier. Handhelds and PDAs still can’t provide the full keyboard and functionality of a PC, so I’ve been searching for a perfectly-sized laptop that will travel well and won’t break my back. The Sony VAIO PCG-SRX87 came along at just the right time.

Big Functionality, Small Size

Literally, the first thing that grabs you about the SRX87 is the small size. It measures 10.2 inches long by 7.7 inches wide. It’s only an inch thick. I felt like I was picking up a small hardcover book.

Of course, the immediate trade-off with such a small size is that the screen shrinks – it’s 10.4 inches on the SRX87. I found myself squinting a little to read everything since the native resolution is 1024×768. On the other hand, the screen is bright and crisp and I enjoyed a good picture in a myriad of lighting conditions.

The second trade-off with a smaller laptop is the smaller keyboard. I would say upfront that the SRX87 is not going to be an enjoyable machine for big-fingered people. I have average hands and although I was conscious of the closeness of the keys, I didn’t have any major problems typing comfortably. I only occasionally tripped over the right-side “Shift” key since it’s the same size as the letter keys. It was only a tiny obstacle to get over and well worth the price of a complete keyboard.

The best part of the SRX87is that it only weighs 2.76 pounds with the standard battery installed. That’s probably all I need to say on that because I’m so happy that my laptop bag doesn’t take my shoulder out of socket anymore.

Lock & Load Laptop

In my opinion, Sony has always pushed the curious and exciting thresholds of style in the computing world, much like Apple does with Macs. Sony VAIO computers always have a certain excitement about them with a different look and feel. The SRX87 is no different.

The battery for the SRX87 nests along the entire back-bottom of the unit and adds a couple of small, smooth “humps” to the curvature of the PC. When you open the SRX87, the screen sort of twists around the battery in the back and as a result, has a “recessed” feel to it. This doesn’t do anything for the use and functionality of the laptop, it just looks a little different than conventional laptop computers.

The SRX87 features a touchpad for the mouse controller and navigation. It’s centered down in front of the machine right below the space bar. I found the touchpad to be a little “squishy” to my touch – I usually prefer a more solid feel. Overall, the touchpad is spacious and responds very well.

The two mouse buttons are located right below the touchpad and I found them to be very accessible. They actually drape over onto the front of the PC so you can even reach them if you’re feeling lazy and your hand is droopy. Sony also elected to put in a tiny “rollbar” and an extra button between the two mouse buttons and called it the “Jog Dial.” What little I played with this device, I was intrigued, but never totally sold on the concept. It basically allows you to navigate and perform functions in applications without having to move the cursor around and click. The “Jog Dial” functions are part of a bigger set of bundled software with the machine.

No Softie on Software

Sony did an incredible job of bundling software with the SRX87. First, you get Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition. Next, they actually install Quicken 2002 New User Edition on the unit and Microsoft Word 2002 (it’s up to you to shell out for the whole office suite).

With the SRX87, Sony focused on multimedia. While the hardware (video RAM, speakers, etc.) is slightly limited due to the small size of the laptop, the SRX87 can handle just about anything an above-average multimedia user wants to dabble in. First, you get a trial version of Photoshop Elements, the stripped-down but functional version of Photoshop. Sony also threw in a couple of programs to help you organize digital photos and capture screenshots from DVDs.

For movies, the SRX87 includes InterVideo’s WinDVD 2000 for watching DVDs. Sony also provided a couple of great-looking applications for editing and creating movies. On the music side, you get the ACID and Sound Forge programs from Screenblast and Sony tossed in their own application for storing digital music on your hard drive.

Plugs, Plugs, and More Plugs!

The most impressive feature of the SRX87 is the amount of connectivity that it provides.

First, on the left side of the unit, you have a built-in modem. Simply flip down a small door and plug in your phone cable. The same side also has a built-in Ethernet port for network cables. Those two connections in themselves would be great simply because in traveling, you wouldn’t have to worry about juggling a modem or network PC card.

But that’s not all! The SRX87 also features a built-in wireless network card! There’s a switch on the side of the unit that you can flip on that tells the SRX87 to start looking for a wireless network. If it finds one, Windows XP will automatically attempt to connect and you’ll be surfing wirelessly before you know it.

Still on the left side of the unit, you have a i.LINK plug (called FireWire everywhere else). This is mainly used with the DVD-ROM drive that’s included with the SRX87. Another big trade-off with a small PC is that you don’t get an integrated DVD/CD-ROM drive. It’s external with the SRX87. The good news is that it’s “hot-swappable” meaning that you can connect and unplug the drive to the PC whenever you need to. The external DVD/CD-ROM drive looks nice but it’s an extra thing to lug around.

Lastly, on the left side, you actually have a PC card slot! I know this may not be as exciting as other things, but I’ve seen many small laptop computers that do not have any room for a PC card slot. This just provides additional functionality to the unit.

Moving over to the right side of the unit, you’ll first notice the built-in Sony Memory Stick media slot. The only real application that I can see for this is that you can swap out the proprietary Memory Sticks with other Sony products like a Sony digital camera.

The SRX87 also features a single USB port. This is a great add-on and I would recommend getting a USB hub (like the Keyspan 4-port Mini Hub I reviewed back in April) so you can add other devices as well.

Lastly, you also get a microphone and headphone plug on the right side of the unit, along with the power port.

Lovely Little Laptop

The SRX87 is a great machine if you need something handy and lightweight. I couldn’t see myself using this as my primary machine, however, but it is perfect for traveling. You can also take it with you when you visit a coffee shop. Not only can you get some work down while you’re sitting there, but you could also take full advantage of the shop’s wireless network if they offered one.

You can probably get a good deal on a SRX87 right now since the SRX99 is making it’s way to the market. The SRX87 is a feature-rich machine and will benef
it any professional that is looking for a lightweight laptop to take on the road – like me.

A Vest to Hold All Of Your Technology

If you’re like most people, you probably carry around several “tech-toys” in your everyday life. In addition to the almost mandatory cell phone, many professionals today carry a PDA and a pager or BlackBerry. If you’re really on the edge, you might even have an MP3 player and a digital camera. Sometimes there’s no comfortable way to carry all of this around, but a few products like the Scott eVest are trying to make it easier.

Pockets Galore

When you first look at the Scott eVest, you may not realize that it has 17 pockets hidden inside and out. The idea of the Scott eVest is that professionals are searching for better ways to carry around all of their gadgets without looking “geeky.” With 17 custom-designed pockets, and a nice, slim construction, the Scott eVest is a perfect choice.

The photo at left is an X-Ray view of the vest.

For this review, I received the Scott eVest Version 2.0. The company just recently announced Version 2.5 that is based on 2.0, but includes a few extra features like a concealed hood. I’ve heard a lot about the Scott eVest and I was excited to try it out. After using it for several weeks, I have become a big fan and use the vest frequently.

There are two pockets on the front of the eVest where you would normally expect to find pockets on a jacket. Each of these pockets can actually be “separated” with the help of a Velcro strip so that you can keep items from knocking together. There are also two breast pockets on the front which I found perfect for my cell phone.

Inside the jacket toward the bottom, there are two large pockets that can easily hold a PDA and/or a CD player. My Pocket PC fit very comfortably. Each pocket has two or three sub-pockets and they’re all closable with Velcro strips.

Lastly, there is a huge pocket on the bottom half of the back of the jacket. I was even able to carry the Sony PCG-SRX87 (see review above) in this pocket with space to spare. I could feel the laptop there, but it was not completely uncomfortable. I did find I had to be careful when sitting down – the material on the back of the jacket is not padded.

A Network For Your Clothes

The truly incredible hidden secret of the Scott eVest is the “Personal Area Network” or “PAN.” Just about every pocket in the jacket has convenient holes for wires to pass through. Just on the inside of the jacket’s front zipper, there are small, Velcroed flaps that run up and down the length of the jacket. When you place your MP3 or CD player in a pocket, you can run the headphone wires through the holes and up the flaps. You can literally hide all of your wires. This would work just as well to hide a microphone or headset wire for your cell phone.

The eVest to the Rescue

The Scott eVest doesn’t necessarily have to be used just for technology. I was able to fit just about everything I carried with me on a daily basis in the vest. The eVest easily holds legal pads, pens, and wallets. There’s even a strap with a plastic clip in the right front pocket to hold your keys.

Last but not least, Version 2.0 has removable sleeves which allows you to use the vest all year ‘round. The vest is made out of water-repellant and wrinkle-resistant material and is even machine-washable.

The Scott eVest may cost a little more than what you may be used to paying for regular jackets, but it’s worth the few extra dollars to know that all of your gadgets have a safe place to live.

Active Words for Active PCs

If you regularly visit the world of legal technology, it’s possible that you might have already heard about a program called ActiveWords. It’s appeared in several legal-related blogs and I even had the opportunity to review it in the April/May 2002 issue of Law Office Computing. All of this coverage is well-deserved – ActiveWords is a fantastic application that can actually change the way you interact with your computer.

The best way to explain that comment is by an appropriate and simple example. Let’s assume that you’re using Windows on your PC. When you want to visit CNN.com, you have to 1) launch a browser using either the Start menu or a Desktop icon, 2) click in the Address bar of your browser, 3) type “www.cnn.com” and hit enter. Most people would say that this isn’t a whole lot of work and wouldn’t think twice about performing these few steps.

But what if you could just type “cnn” wherever you are, regardless of the program you’re working in or the application that’s currently running, and automatically get taken to CNN.com? Would that be useful? Efficient? Convenient?

Well, that’s exactly what ActiveWords allows you to do. When you launch ActiveWords, it runs in the background and just sits and watches what you’re typing. If you type a combination of characters that it recognizes as an “ActiveWord,” then it performs the associated task.

The great thing is that you can program new ActiveWords and totally customize how they operate. In the CNN.com example above, I told ActiveWords to navigate to http://www.cnn.com whenever I typed “cnn” followed by the F8 key. The F8 key is the default ActiveWords “Trigger Key.” You hit F8 after typing your combination of characters to let ActiveWords know that you intended those characters to be used as an ActiveWord. If you prefer another key for the trigger, you can change that in the Options dialog. If you prefer not to have a Trigger Key or confirmation flag of any kind, you are free to do that as well.

When ActiveWords is running, you don’t see anything different on your screen except the very small “Monitor Bar” that’s docked at the top of your screen (sort of like the opposite of the Windows Taskbar down at the bottom of your screen). The Monitor Bar serves several functions and allows you to set options and get help. If you don’t like the Monitor Bar at the top of your screen, you can dock it at the bottom. You can also choose to have it “Auto-Hide” so that it disappears when you’re not using it.

You can try ActiveWords free for 60 days. After that, it’s $29.95 a year. After downloading and launching the program for the first time, you’ll be greeted with a short tutorial. I highly recommend this if you’ve never used the program before because it leads you through a few quick examples of how the program works. The tutorial will certainly whet your appetite and encourage you to try your hand at creating a few ActiveWords yourself.

The support for ActiveWords is nothing short of amazing. Buzz Bruggeman is a tireless promoter of the program. He’s also an attorney down in Florida and the co-inventor of the program. If you don’t hear from him after you download the program, you’ll certainly see his name pop up on the Yahoo! ActiveWords Group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ActiveWords/). If you post a question to the list, there’s a good bet you’ll get a response from either Buzz or Pete Weldon, the support specialist for the program, within a matter of minutes. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this kind of support with any other program, period.

While I’ve just given a brief overview of the program, I do not want to minimize the power that this application provides. Different people that I’ve read and talked with consider this program to literally change the way that they interface with their computer. In the early days before Windows as we know it, we had to type everything in a command line (like DOS). Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft developed the idea of a GUI (Graphical User Interface) where users could point-and-click to interact with their computers. ActiveWords is yet another exciting evolution in the field of computer interaction. The next step will probably involve something to do with voice activation. But until then, ActiveWords is a great leap in the right direction.

Please feel free to e-mail me ( [email protected] ) with any questions, suggestions, comments, or any helpful tips and tricks that you might have relating to technology used in the practice of law.

Posted in: Burney's Legal Tech Reviews, Computer Accessories, Computer Hardware, Legal Technology, Product Reviews