My new (almost) paperless office

I thought I would do a post about my office and the various tools I use to do the work I do for anyone who is interested in this stuff. Over the last month or so my office space has transformed being fairly paper dependent and cumbersome to a potentially and largely paperless office. Although I would love to see my office become totally paperless, the way the people I deal with work means that this is probably not going to happen anytime soon so my goal is to reduce the amount of paper I use as much as possible.

Samsung_mfp.jpgMy setup about a month and a half ago included a black MacBook (2.16GHz Core 2 Duo, 160GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM), a Samsung ML-2010 printer and a Samsung SCX-4720F multi-function printer). I bought the multi-function printer when I started my practice and, at the time, I was using a Windows PC which supports all the functions of the multi-function. When I migrated to my first Mac, a PowerBook G4, in late 2005 I discovered that the only thing I could do with the multi-function if it was connected to a Mac is print to it. The fax function was handled on the machine itself so there weren’t any issues there but I couldn’t scan to my Mac. That particular device (which I believe is no longer being sold) is strictly PC and Linux compatible (although I couldn’t work out how to get Ubuntu to support it).

The core piece of equipment in my office is my black MacBook.


This is the hub and essential tool for all my computer based activities. This isn’t the right place to talk about all the benefits of the Mac operating system and its latest iteration, Leopard, in particular. Suffice to say it leaves Windows in the dust and has as a possible next best option Ubuntu Linux which I used while my MacBook was in for repair and I was waiting for the new one.

Another important tool is 37 Signals’ Basecamp which I have been using as a client extranet and project workspace for some time now. Quite a lot of people use Basecamp and for good reason. It has a great interface and is really easy to use. I subscribe to the $49 Plus option which gives me 10GB of storage space, SSL security and enough projects to manage all my active files and more. I recommend Basecamp for anyone wanting to collaborate on projects and have considered doing it online.

I soon bought the ML-2010 (which is Mac compatible) so I could print directly from my Mac and kept the multi-function connected to the original PC for scanning jobs. I used the multi-function to send faxes and occasionally make copies of documents although I realised that I had better quality reproductions if I scanned the documents first and then printed copies as opposed to making straight photocopies. Incoming faxes come to me via Digifax which I have been using for a couple years now. It is a pretty simple fax to email solution.

The challenges with this setup were largely to due with the incompatibility of the multi-function with my PowerBook and then my MacBook. I had to get up from my desk and go to the PC to scan a document and then save the scan to a shared folder which I would then access from my Mac to retrieve the file. I sometimes found that the scanned files didn’t jive too well with Preview and I sometimes had to work some file format voodoo to sort out the scans. I also had to print documents to be faxed, head over to the multi-function at the PC desk and fax the documents manually. This isn’t an unusual workflow but given my desire to be able to handle faxes entirely digitally, it wasn’t a step in the right direction.

Acer_lcd.jpgThe first step I took towards a new workflow was inspired, in part, by Jason Calacanis who often spoke about how his employees at Mahalo have at least 2 displays at their work stations and often have 3. The reason for this is that this sort of setup improves productivity. I had been thinking along the lines of a second display for a little while already because it would save me having to constantly flip between applications when I work with multiple documents on my Mac. I have been scanning documents and working with them digitally for a little while so this became a problem I wanted to solve so I bought an Acer 22″ LCD monitor (mine had a silver trim) to accompany my Mac. This has already improved my productivity because I can comfortably place two documents side by side on the LCD monitor and work off my MacBook. This saves me a lot of window switching and frustration. I can refer directly to the documents and items I am dealing with without interrupting my flow every few minutes to switch windows.

The LCD is also great for media so I often move iTunes to the LCD and watch videos on the LCD. Another handy use for the LCD is to move Skype, IM and Twhirl onto the LCD so I can keep working on my MacBook and keep an eye on any incoming messages.

s510m_header.gifMy next three purchases were inspired largely by Grant Griffiths, the home office lawyer and guru on mobile legal workers. I have been chatting to Grant for a while now and he has often told me about his setup which includes a scanner called a ScanSnap and a nifty piece of software called PageSender. ScanSnap scanners are really well made sheet fed scanners than can scan straight to PDF. There are versions for the Mac and the PC and Grant told me about how the ScanSnap has become such an invaluable part of his office that he just couldn’t see himself going without one. I had grown pretty frustrated with my scanning workflow using the multi-function through the PC and really wanted a Mac solution (I don’t see the PC being around for much longer). So I saved up and bought a ScanSnap S500M (it looks like the S510M which apparently wasn’t available here). This device is such a cool device I agree with Grant completely that it has become indispensible to my office workflows. For one thing it is really fast. The pages basically just feed through as if I am cycling paper through the machine and I get a double sided colour scan. I can customise the image resolution to suit my needs as well as specifying output folders, automatic file naming and output formats. What really makes this purchase worthwhile is that the scanner comes with Adobe Acrobat (I got version 7 with the ScanSnap for my Mac). This is worth a few thousand rands already. Using Acrobat you have more options for manipulating your PDFs than Preview allows for (although Preview in Leopard is a huge improvement over the Tiger version). I am already considering upgrading Acrobat to version 8 Pro to have the benefit of the additional functionality.

PageSender is a great fax application produced by Smile on my Mac which also produces gems like TextExpander which I use to automate a number of text-based tasks. The MacBook doesn’t ship with a modem so I went out and bought an external fax modem to go with PageSender. Between the ScanSnap and the PageSender/modem solution, I no longer needed the multi-function for the two main tasks I used it for, namely faxing and scanning. The only thing I can’t do with the ScanSnap is scan items that won’t feed through and which I would have used a flatbed scanner for. This isn’t a big issue for me because the ScanSnap will feed just about anything from an A4 page to a boarding pass.

My MacBook’s recent (complete and catastrophic) hard drive failure reminded me about the tremendous importance of good backups and big enough backup drives. Time Machine on Leopard was instrumental in preserving my sanity (it is a good reason to upgrade to Leopard). I wound up buying a new MacBook because I thought it would take a lot longer for the hard drive on my “old” MacBook to be replaced (it was still under warranty) and the new MacBook quickly picked up my Time Machine backup on my LaCie external hard drive and restored just about everything I thought I had lost. I even discovered that I had managed to backup my iTunes and iPhoto libraries! What I found, once I had my new MacBook up and running (it took me more time to reinstall all my apps than it did to restore the backup) I found that my external drive was too small to serve as the Time Machine backup for the new MacBook with its bigger hard drive. I set out to buy a second external drive and bought a Western Digital My Book 750GB USB drive which looks a lot like the one in the photo below:

Along the way I learned that you really should make sure the drive you want to buy is formatted for your machine. I first went with another WD drive that only seemed to be suited for a Windows machine and because it was an ethernet drive without a USB option, I couldn’t access the drive on my Mac and reformat it so I returned it.

By the time I bought this new external drive I had received my old MacBook back (I’ve said it before, C3 in Randburg is probably the best Apple dealer I have come across in terms of price, service and expertise – I won’t use anyone else for anything more substantial than a cable adaptor) and it turned out to be a relatively easy process to re-partition the new drive for the two MacBooks (my wife is using my old one and is thrilled) and share the drive via my USB port on my MacBook. I was advised to partition the drive and create a partition for each Mac that is going to access the drive. Each partition then shows up as a separate drive on my desktop and in Finder. I set my partition on the drive as my new Time Machine backup drive for everything on my Mac and the old LaCie drive has become a secondary backup drive for media and key documents. Time Machine will backup your entire profile by default and this means that when you restore a complete backup you get your user accounts, settings and all your files and folders back pretty easily. It certainly takes the edge off a drive failure and makes the cost of a bigger drive well worth it (not that external drives are that expensive these days). At the end of all this I have around 900GB of storage space, primarily for backups.

Not only has my desk changed a lot in the last month but my workflows have changed quite a bit too. I am donating the multi-function to Hospice and, instead, I now have the following solutions for my needs:

  • Basecamp for project collaboration
  • 22″ LCD screen for additional screen real-estate
  • ScanSnap to handle scanning (including scanning incoming paper documents for paperless archival and faxing)
  • PageSender and the external modem for outgoing faxes
  • Digifax for incoming faxes via email
  • Two external hard drives for complete Time Machine and redundant backups

One important need which I am not filling yet is some sort of power backup for when loadshedding returns and to cater for general power failures. At the moment this isn’t a pressing need but as Merlin Mann put it, you usually don’t realise you need more toilet paper when you are standing in the aisle at your local Woolies/Pick ‘n Pay/Spar.

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