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Posts for April 2012

Friday Donut tip: three keyboard shortcuts I use a hundred times a day

April 27, 2012 by Imanuel Votteler

Every Friday afternoon we bring you a great business IT tip. From nuggets that make repetitive tasks easier to simple ways to banish business tech annoyances, we’re here to help.

If there’s something you’d like our help with, send an email to [email protected] or just leave a comment on this post. We’ll try and cover it in a future IT Donut tip.

Smoother, swifter web browsing

There are three keyboard shortcuts I use hundreds of times a day. They save me time and effort, allowing me to focus on the information I’m reading rather than the web browser I’m using.

If you have a PC with Microsoft Windows, these shortcuts work in Firefox and Chrome (which I’d also highly recommend if you don’t already use one of them). Remember, when we say ‘CTRL + T’, it means you should hold down the CTRL key and tap T on your keyboard.

  • CTRL + T opens a new tab in your web browser
  • CTRL + W closes the current tab
  • CTRL + Shift + T reopens the last tab you closed

Has that revolutionised how you use the web? Are you now browsing at light speed?

Bonus tip:

You can use ALT + D to jump straight to the browser address bar, where you can enter the address of the website you want to visit.

Other Friday Donut tips:

2012 ultrabooks: lightening the load in your bag?

April 26, 2012 by John McGarvey

Dell’s XPS 13 ultrabook{{}}Laptops have been getting better for years. Back around 2002-ish, you were delighted if your laptop could run Microsoft Word without slowing down and lasted over an hour away from mains power.

But nowadays we’re reaching the point where a laptop battery can last a full working day. Even the cheapest laptops can handle common business applications. You’re even slightly less likely to hurt your back when lugging one around.

Ultrabooks for 2012

Although they have got sleeker in recent times, many laptops are still chunky, uninspiring to work with and heavy to carry. Choosing one can be tricky, because often you’re faced with a series of compromises.

If you want lightness, you have to sacrifice power. If you want a keyboard you can type on with ease, you’re going to have to find a bit more space in your bag.

But now we’re faced with what some think is a fundamental change to the world of laptops. In 2012, manufacturers are racing to release ultrabooks. These super-thin laptops are designed to end those compromises.

The idea of an ultrabook is to give you all the power you need in a small, stylish shell. You should get enough battery power to work all day and a decent screen and keyboard so using your laptop for hours at a time isn’t a painful experience.

But are 2012’s ultrabooks right for you?

As more ultrabooks appear on the market, we’re starting to see how well they live up to what they promise.

Take the new Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook (pictured). It has garnered excellent reviews (four-and-a-half stars from PC Advisor, and PC Pro’s recommended status) and has all the key characteristics you’d expect from an ultrabook:

  • It’s stylish and well-built. Ultrabook manufacturers put a lot of effort into making the machines look sleek and feel solid to use. Expect clean lines, little in the way of labels and badges and key components made from metal.
  • It’s small and light. Size is everything when it comes to 2012’s ultrabooks. Many are under 2cm thick at their widest point and weigh under 1.5kg – that’s less than half the weight of many workhorse business laptops and thinner than a stack of post-its.
  • It uses a solid state hard drive. Solid state storage works like a camera memory card. Unlike normal hard drives, there are no moving parts. This means data can be accessed much faster, making ultrabooks very snappy to use.
  • There’s no CD drive. You can’t fit a CD drive into a super-thin laptop and it takes a lot of battery power to spin a CD. So, ultrabooks do away with the CD drive altogether. Does it matter? Well, when was the last time you put a CD in your computer?
  • The battery lasts ages. We’re talking four hours plus under heavy use, and over eight hours if you’re not pushing the processor hard. It’s meant to be a mobile computer, so it must have a battery that stays the course.

There’s one other thing that sets ultrabooks apart from more humdrum laptops. And that’s the price. They tend to be more expensive. In general, you’ll pay £900 or more.

Although that may seem steep compared with a bog-standard £500 laptop, when you get your hands on an ultrabook you can see where your money has gone. It takes a lot of engineering effort to fit so many high-spec components into such a small space.

Get ready for lots of 2012 ultrabooks

As there’s no official definition of what constitutes an ultrabook, expect to see plenty in 2012 which don’t tick all these boxes. Indeed, over time, some of those ultrabook features should start trickling down into more standard laptops. And wouldn’t it be great if super-light, super-thin laptops became the norm, rather than the exception?

What does Google Drive mean for business?

April 25, 2012 by John McGarvey

Google Drive logo{{}}The launch of the long-rumoured Google Drive happened yesterday. But is this online storage a useful new service for businesses, or is it a step too far for a company that already knows so much about you?

What is Google Drive?

If you’ve ever used Dropbox, SkyDrive, Box, SugarSync or any other cloud-based storage, you’ll be familiar with what Google Drive does. It gives you access to online storage, to which you can upload documents, photos, files … any of your data, basically.

You create a special folder on your computer (your ‘Google Drive’). Anything placed in this folder gets uploaded to your online storage. Here’s why you might do this:

  • Easier backup. Google Drive creates a second copy of your data online. So it’s an easy way to backup your data.
  • File synchronisation. If you use more than one computer, you can put your Google Drive on all of them – so files are managed across your computers.
  • Anywhere access. You can log in to Google Drive through your web browser, meaning you can get at your files from any internet-connected computer.
  • Easier sharing. You can share files with other people just by emailing them – and you can control who can view, edit and comment on them.

But what’s new? All these features are already offered by most of the other online storage services I mentioned above. Is there anything to make Google Drive different?

The Google Drive difference?

Perhaps the biggest thing that sets Google Drive apart from its competitors is the fact that it’s one of a whole portfolio of services from the ubiquitous search engine. This means Google Drive is closely integrated with elements of the company's other services. For instance:

  • It works with Google Documents. This means you can edit documents stored in your Google Drive using Google Docs, the company’s online office suite.
  • Searching it should be really, really good. Google does search better than anyone. So finding anything in your Google Drive should be a piece of the proverbial.
  • It claims to recognise your photos. Apparently, Google Drive will recognise photos of things like the Eiffel Tower, so you can find them more easily.

There’s one other thing that makes Google Drive attractive, and that’s the price. It’s significantly cheaper than most competitors. For instance, it costs $9.99 a month (all the prices are in US dollars, even though I’m in the UK) for 50GB of storage with Dropbox. With Google Drive, twice that costs $4.99.

As with most cloud storage services, there’s also a basic free option – Google Drive gives you 5GB free, which is actually enough for loads of documents.

The true cost of Google Drive?

Google Drive is poised to shake up the online storage market. Expect prices of competing services to drop over the next few months, as Google takes a big bite of the market.

It may also be worth considering if your business already uses other Google Services, because Google Drive will work very well with them. If you’re using Google Apps for your email and document editing, then Google Drive may be a logical next step.

However, before you jump in with both feet, it’s worth just stopping to think through the implications of the service. Google uses detailed information about its users in order to show them targeted advertising. For instance, the adverts you see in Google Mail are determined – to some extent – by the content of your emails.

Google is likely to extend this capability with Google Drive. It might not show you adverts within your Google Drive, but it will almost certainly analyse your data to help it target ads at you when you’re signed in to other Google services.

So, are you comfortable granting Google access to your files, some of which may contain important business or personal information? The answer to that will probably depend on your attitude towards the company overall, and your feelings about targeted advertising.

As part of its Google Drive FAQ, CNET has a good summary of how Google says it may use your files. You might also be interested in this succinct argument against the service from Chris Armstrong and Aral Balkan’s interesting analogy.

Read Google’s official announcement about Google Drive. Will you be signing up to try the service?

Shopping list: what you need to back up your data

April 23, 2012 by Craig Sharp

Protect your business from all sorts of disasters - Godzilla?{{}}Backing up your data doesn’t have to be that difficult. It doesn’t even have to involve expensive-sounding ‘backup solutions’ or wrestling with 300 individual CDs, each of which contains a small but crucial portion of your company’s data.

Here are some straightforward ways to get started. Obviously, they’re not your only options – so it’s a good idea to chat to your IT supplier to make sure you’re backing up everything you need to.

After all, there’s nothing worse than smugly telling everyone you’re all backed up, then realising you’ve lost your ground-breaking 400-slide PowerPoint presentation.

The cheap and cheerful option for home-based businesses

Sure, it might be cheap and cheerful, but this approach will get the job done for you.

Buy yourself two external hard drives. These can be attached to your PC, allowing you to copy data to and from them. Do this regularly. Daily if you can.

Copy all your important data, including accounting data, word processing and spreadsheet files, plus your email, calendar and contacts.

Some hard drives come with software to make this a bit easier for you. If you use Windows, you can get Microsoft’s free SyncToy software to automatically copy selected folders across to a second hard drive.

Why two hard drives? It covers you against the risk of fire, theft and other physical damage (like dinosaurs attacking your house). Keep one drive on the premises and keep the other one somewhere else – like with a friend or family member you trust. You’ll probably need to back up to that drive less regularly, but doing so weekly will ensure you can get most of your data back.

The other good option is some sort of online backup service. Over time these services usually work out more expensive than buying a couple of hard drives, but they are convenient. Try Dropbox, Mozy or Carbonite.

Something suitable for office-based companies

Ok, so you’re a business with its own premises and maybe a few employees. You’re right to think that you need something a little more advanced. But don’t worry – you still have a number of choices.

Again, online backup can be a really good place to start. But you have to be careful. You want a company you can rely on (because backups are the things you turn to as a last resort). And check the costs carefully. Many online backup services copy non-essential files, pushing up your monthly bill.

The main in-house option is – again – hard drives or tape drives. Tape drives have traditionally been used by companies to back up large amounts of data, but we tend not to recommend them so much these days because hard drives are so cheap.

A good set up is to have seven hard drives. Five of them do your daily backups during the week (Monday – Friday). Use the other two to take regular archives, but make sure at least one is off the premises all the time. Keeping it at your home is the obvious thing to do.

Again, software is available to make this process more straightforward. I usually recommend BackupAssist, because it can back up all your email, calendar and contact folders, and it’s reliable. Which, let’s face it, important

Here’s the most important thing…

From unlikely dinosaur attacks to the more plausible floods, fires, virus attack, hackers, computer crashes and accidental deletion, there are plenty of threats to your company data.

So the most important thing to do after reading this article is to act on it. Otherwise, by the time you realise you really need a backup system, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Craig Sharp is managing director of Abussi, an IT company based in Birmingham.

Friday Donut tip: change what happens when you shut your laptop lid

April 20, 2012 by John McGarvey

Every Friday afternoon we bring you a great business IT tip. From nuggets that make repetitive tasks easier to simple ways to banish business tech annoyances, we’re here to help.

If there’s something you’d like our help with, send an email to [email protected] or just leave a comment on this post. We’ll try and cover it in a future IT Donut tip.

Shut your laptop lid

If you shut your laptop lid right now, what happens? Depending on whether your laptop’s plugged into the mains or an external monitor, it may go to sleep, shut down, hibernate or do nothing at all.

But did you know you can set exactly what happens when you shut your laptop lid? If you’re using Windows Vista or Windows 7, it’s easy.

Options to shut your laptop lid

The settings for what happens when you shut your laptop lid can be found in your computer’s power options. To reach them:

  1. Click the Start button
  2. Type power options in to the Start search box
  3. Press the Enter key on your keyboard
  4. In the Power Options box that appears, click Choose what closing the lid does

The settings in the box that appears let you choose how your laptop should behave when you shut the lid.

Options for when you shut your laptop lid{{}}

Use the drop-down menus to choose what should happen. You can set different behaviours depending on whether your laptop is plugged into the mains or running on battery power.

  • Sleep: this will send your computer into sleep mode. It keeps data in the memory but will turn the screen and components like the hard drive off. Sleep mode is like pausing a movie – you can be up and running again in a couple of seconds, with all your programs just as you left them.
    Choose if: you want to save power but be up and running again quickest.
  • Hibernate: this powers down your laptop, saving more power than sleep. Your laptop will save the status of your programs to the disk, so when you wake it up everything’s there just as you left it. The downside is it takes longer to resume from hibernation than from sleep.
    Choose if: you want to conserve maximum power when not using your laptop.
  • Shut down: this shuts down your laptop completely. It’s just like choosing the Shut down option from the start menu – so your laptop will close all programs and power down completely. You’ll have to go through the full start-up procedure to use the computer again.
    Choose if: to be honest, there are few good reasons to choose the shut down option.
  • Do nothing: this one’s pretty self-explanatory. Shut your laptop lid and it’ll have absolutely no effect at all on what your laptop’s doing.
    Choose if: you use your laptop closed while plugged into an external monitor.

Once you’ve chosen the settings you want, just click the Save changes button. That’s it – next time you shut your laptop lid, it’ll do what you told it to.

What are your laptop’s battery settings? Do you have any good battery-saving strategies? Leave a comment to let us know.

The DIY guide to IT support

April 19, 2012 by Maff Rigby

DIY - IT support the DIY way{{}}I’ve always been a fan of DIY in the workplace as well as in the home. Doing as much as you can yourself before calling in the experts is not only a learning experience, but can also save you money. In times of economic uncertainty this way of working can help bring down costs – especially when it comes to IT support.

IT has become much easier to use and understand over the past five to ten years. You no longer need an IQ of 130 to set up a new laptop or install a new software package.

At the same time, there is an abundance of free information to help you fix your own IT issues. You just need to know where to look for it. No matter whether you outsource your IT support or not, here are a few tips that can reduce how much you spend and increase your self-sufficiency.

  • Find out who your super users are. These are the people in your business who understand how to create powerful macros in Microsoft Office, know how to set up and optimise a WordPress blog, or know their way around a MacBook. Publicise these skills, so other people know who can help with which issues.
  • When recruiting, look for people who are IT savvy. Make it a desired skill on the job description. This way you will naturally bring more IT knowledge into your company without having to specifically employ someone in an IT support role.
  • Always look for answers internally first. You’ll find an increasing amount of IT knowledge within your organisation, mostly gained through your employees‘ increased use of technology in their homes, their cars and their pockets! So before you call your IT support firm, ask your team for answers. You could be pleasantly surprised.
  • Create and maintain a list of your top IT issues. Make sure you publish it somewhere (like on your intranet) so everyone knows where to find it. What are the symptoms of specific problems, and what are the steps you need to take to resolve them? For example, if your wireless router crashes at a certain time of day (like mine does around 11pm!), put that knowledge into a document so anyone can diagnose and fix the problem
  • Finally, ensure you’ve exhausted all your options before calling in the experts – especially if you pay a call-out fee! Create a checklist of troubleshooting steps that people can follow, and channel all escalations to your support partner through a specific person who can check they are necessary.

Maff Rigby has over 12 years of experience in IT support and operations management. He is the founder of IT SmartDesk – a social IT service management platform which enables an organisation’s IT users to help themselves and each other.

Why you’ll never buy another PC again

April 18, 2012 by Lee Wrall

Upgrading your PC? - Office roadworks{{}}

I run a small IT company and I make no apologies for making my customers keep their hardware up to date. I feel it makes a real difference to the productivity of their staff. Modern, reliable, stable hardware returns investment many times over. It’s all about keeping your staff able to do their jobs and not waiting around to get problems fixed.

About five years ago we took on a client with about 40 computers. It soon became apparent that their hardware was flagging and that their computers would need to be replaced.

We put together a replacement schedule and upgraded a couple of machines each month to make sure we didn’t blow the IT budget. As a smaller business this worked for our client, and gradually things improved.

Upgrade time again!

Productivity improved and their people started to think differently about IT. But, of course, several years later we we’re about to run into the same marathon again. The customer wanted to upgrade to Microsoft Office 2010 and their new line of business application required a little more memory than the standard 2GB that most of their computers had.

Upgrade time again! The trouble was that this time we needed everyone to get up to speed quickly to fall in line with the new application. That worked out at a cost of about £10,000 for new computers.

Obviously we didn’t want to spend all that cash but knew that in order to maximise the investment in software we would need to do something. Up steps thin client computing.

What is thin client computing?

Thin client computing means your software and applications are run on a server. Your PC only handles the screen, keyboard and mouse movements. Most of the computing power is centralised. In other words, the server does all the hard work so the client PC doesn’t need to be upgraded.

There are lots of business advantages to thin client computing:

  • People can connect to the system and use their software from anywhere, as long as they have internet access.
  • We only need to maintain one copy of the software for everyone as it’s essentially installed once on the server.
  • It’s fast and scalable, because you only have to upgrade the server, not individual PCs.
  • It costs less. For the client I’m dealing with at the moment, using thin clients will cost half what new computers would.
  • It’s secure. The security is my personal favourite. Without thin clients you have users roaming around with laptops carrying the company’s data. But now - because everything’s done by the server - the laptop they use doesn’t hold any data.

So there you go. I see this as a win-win situation, and as a result I’m sure there will be a big push towards thin client computing over the next five years. In fact, Dell is so confident about this that at the start of this month they announced they had acquired Wyse, a PC manufacturer which specialises in thin client terminals.

Thin client is the perfect accompaniment to cloud computing. It’s a technology that has been around for years. However, the next two years are when it’ll really shine.

Lee Wrall is founder and MD of Everything Tech, an IT support and service provider based in Manchester

Will Real Time Information for Payroll help your business?

April 16, 2012 by Neilson Watts

HMRC is planning to make the PAYE system more accurate. Its aims seem reasonable: it’s looking to drastically reduce the number of corrections it has to make for overpayment and underpayment. And it wants to slash the possibility of fraud. Sounds it should save us all a bit of money.

However, to achieve these aims, HMRC is making changes to how businesses supply them with payroll information. Currently, you only have to submit payroll returns once a year. Under the new system, you’ll have to do it every time you pay your employees.

The new system is called Real Time Information for Payroll (RTI) and it’ll be introduced from April next year**.

A PAYE admin nightmare?

payroll, accounting software{{}}It’s easy to see why this idea is attractive to HMRC. They receive up-to-date information each time you run payroll – they don’t have to wait a year between submissions. But at first glance this sounds like it could create lots more work for your average business.

If you pay employees weekly and monthly then you could end up submitting payroll information 52 times a year. Isn’t that going to be an admin nightmare?

Well, on reflection I think it might not be quite as bad as it sounds. Sure, the new system is going to take some adjusting too (it’ll become compulsory by October next year), but the benefits could be felt way beyond the world of payroll.

Reduce the stress of year-end

Payroll year-end can be really stressful. Wading back through a year’s worth of data, reconciling reports, tracking down needle-in-a-haystack errors, trying to figure out when on earth you did ten months earlier … it might only happen annually, but for many businesses it’s a disruptive and confusing time of the year.

On the other hand, if you got into the habit of submitting payroll information more often, it’s much easier to be sure that the information you’re submitting is accurate. And in fact, it’s not a stretch to imagine that if submitting a payroll return was just a standard part of your payroll procedure – and built in to your payroll software - it could be quick and easy every week.

Benefits for everyone?

Beyond payroll, imagine a world where you get the benefits you deserve and are entitled to. Imagine calling HMRC and them actually being able to resolve your queries faster because they have access to up-to-date information. RTI will help deliver this.

It’s for these reasons that I believe RTI is absolutely the right thing to do to drag us all - screaming and kicking, probably - into the 21st century.

You can become RTI ready and help shape how HMRC and Sage provide on-going help and support by getting involved in our pilot scheme. If you are interested simply register for the register for the RTI pilot online and we’ll be in touch.

** After this article was published, HMRC announced a "relaxation of reporting arrangements for small businesses". According to HMRC: "Until 5 October 2013, employers with fewer than 50 employees, who find it difficult to report every payment to employees at the time of payment, may send information to HMRC by the date of their regular payroll run but no later than the end of the tax month (5th)."

IT support is dead

April 11, 2012 by Francesca Geens

Headstone – IT support is dead{{}}Do you pay for IT support? Does your business regularly suffer downtime? Need help sorting out unreliable email or computers that just don’t work? Been sold white-labeled products just because your IT support company gets a generous referral fee?

It that’s your idea of IT support then let me tell you why I think you are wasting time and money.

There’s no reason to pay for IT support

IT support is based around the premise of fixing problems when they occur and then charging for this. It should come as no surprise that most IT companies make more money through billable hours when disaster strikes than when your network is running smoothly.

In that sense, your objectives and those of your IT company are not aligned when it comes to taking care of your computer systems.

In 2012 there really is no reason to pay for IT support. Technology is at a stage where it just should not fail. Some IT companies make a lot of money adding complexity and then charging an arm and a leg to install and support it.

Ultimately it’s the complexity that leads to downtime. Simplifying your systems and doing things the right way to start with will help you avoid this expense. If you’re like most businesses, technology is your third largest expense after wages and rent. Make your IT budget work for you.

IT support is about maintenance and advice

These days, you should be paying your IT supplier for maintenance (yes, there is still a fee) and best-practice advice. You should be paying for their help to set up systems that are going to work and not let you down.

This means that instead of calling for help when things go wrong you, can call and get help to be even more productive. Find out how to get the most out of Outlook or Word, do more with your tablet computer (such as your iPad or Samsung Galaxy Note) and get to grips with the latest features of Windows 7.

Here’s your best IT investment

In my opinion, the best IT investment any business can make is an IT audit to bring your systems out of the Dark Ages and into 2012. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What IT problems recur again and again and why haven’t they been fixed?
  • How old are your computers?
  • What version of Windows are you on?
  • What version of Microsoft Office are you using?
  • Are your staff properly trained in the software they use everyday?
  • Is your email reliable?
  • Is your data backed up? Do you know how to access and check your backups?
  • Are you managing shared documents effectively?
  • Are you and your team able to work productively on the go?
  • Are you making the most of technologies like cloud and mobile computing?

Discuss these points with your current IT provider. Make sure you’re happy with the answers – and if not, shop around. There are lots of IT support companies out there and it’s important to find one that’s going to work with you and think proactively about your business.

Anyone selling you ‘IT support’ without considering these things is not being honest with you about what’s really possible.

IT support is dead. Long live small business IT consultancy! Ok, it’s not so catchy but it’s going to make your working day a whole lot better.

Francesca Geens runs an IT consultancy called Digital Dragonfly, which specialises in one-person businesses. She is especially interested in productivity and the use of information technology to improve people’s day-to-day business lives. She is setting up a new kind of IT company for small businesses to firmly challenge traditional notions of IT support. Are you ready to Be Nimble with your IT?

Find out more from these IT suppliers:


Why smaller businesses are best placed for technology change

April 03, 2012 by Chas Moloney

Against the backdrop of a challenging economic climate and unpredicted social and political upheavals, the need for agility and flexibility in business is paramount. Accompanying this turbulent environment is a tidal wave of technology change. It’s having an impact on every aspect of businesses operations, from the boardroom to the shop floor.

These trends are fuelling an unprecedented change to the way businesses and employees operate. And many organisations aren’t ready to adapt to the future workplace. 

A power shift away from management

Recent Ricoh research – conducted via the Economist Intelligence Unit – demonstrates how power is shifting away from the traditional management hierarchy. This research found that 63% of business leaders are predicting that business decision-making will shift towards individual employees, as businesses move towards a decentralised structure by 2020.

Although lacking the financial resources of bigger companies, smaller businesses could find themselves at an advantage in this scenario. Their size and nature means they’re more likely to have a cohesive, collaborative management structure where the best ideas can rise to the top and be implemented into everyday operations.

Likewise, SMEs often have a more flexible approach to technology adoption. Having a smaller workforce makes IT innovation more commonplace. For instance, it’s easier to take an individual approach to IT provision, giving each member of staff access to the technology they’re most comfortable with.

Democratic data access

It is, however, difficult to shift decision-making to employees if they do not have access to the data and documents they need to take action. So if your business really wants to get ready for employee empowerment, you may need to rethink how your document processes work. The aim is to ensure important information is shared flexibly across your whole company.

The research also points towards a new, more collaborative approach to product and service development. Nearly 86% of business leaders agreed that project teams will typically include people from outside the organisation like customers, partners and communities.

This adds weight to the argument for shifting towards a connected business model where all these parties are linked and able to communicate effectively so they can develop the brightest ideas.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, there’s a great opportunity here for companies willing to implementing more collaborative technologies. The tidal wave of technology change will give birth to a new generation of business success stories, empowered by customers and partners alike.

Chas Moloney is a director at Ricoh UK.

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