Tips, tricks and downloads for better working on the move
21st Dec 2010 | 11:30
Power, security and more
Better mobile working: connectivity and security
When you spend a lot of time moving between meetings and conferences, most of your work probably gets done away from the ideal office environment.
You find yourself catching odd moments to work in waiting rooms, stations, departure lounges and, more often than not, hotel rooms. Your productivity can be slashed unless you plan your time and resources carefully.
Most hotels provide access to Wi-Fi, usually via a paid hotspot or an unencrypted connection. These services are begging to be abused by hackers sniffing the data packets flowing between business laptops and the wireless access point. If you handle any sensitive data at all, you need to ensure that it's encrypted.
All direct communication between your browser and the access point using unencrypted web pages can be easily accessed and read. Encrypted pages with URLs starting with 'https' are safer because the encryption exists between your browser and the destination site. Anyone sniffing out the communication would need to crack the encryption in order to access the data transferred.
Pay close attention to encryption messages from your browser and reject the insecure portions of mixed pages. It's also vital to ensure that potential hackers can't access shared resources on your PC. Be sure to identify any public networks as such so Windows doesn't enable sharing automatically.
Also check that your firewall doesn't permit incoming data from anything other than your allowed programs. Windows Firewall isn't ideal, but you can tighten its security significantly if necessary.
Click 'Start', type firewall into the search bar and select 'Windows Firewall'. Here you can verify that your connection is correctly identified as a public one. Click 'Allow a program or feature through Windows Firewall', then disable all unnecessary programs in the 'Public network' column.
You should also consider installing a third party firewall such as ZoneAlarm or Comodo to replace Windows' offering if you use public networks frequently. Both tools are available as free downloads, and they're pretty easy to set to a lockdown mode, blocking all but web traffic.
Check your connection
Make sure you check your connection details with the hotel or hotspot provider. A classic hacker trick is to set up a network with a similar SSID to a nearby hotspot, or to provide a honey pot connection called 'Free internet'. These can be used to harvest hotspot passwords and any insecure data you have. Make sure the SSID matches that provided in the hotel's details exactly.
Most cloud-based applications use 'https' encryption, but there are some that don't. For example, the free version of Humyo's online storage removes encryption. It goes without saying that you should avoid using these applications for anything other than files that you're completely happy to share with the world.
Even those apps that support encryption may not use it as standard. Google Docs does, as do Zoho and Gmail, but it's a good habit to check that your connection is secure by ensuring the URL starts 'https' and your browser indicates that you're on a secure page. Unencrypted data that's transferred from your browser can be picked up easily by another hotspot user.
You should also consider the physical security of your laptop. A simple Kensington lock enables you to secure it to your desk or another permanent fixture. Most laptops include a compatible slot to attach the lock so that it can only be removed by damaging the casing if you don't have the key. It's not foolproof – locks can be picked – but it reduces the chances of opportunistic theft.
If your laptop were to fall into the wrong hands, how easy would it be for someone unscrupulous to harvest useful data? Are all your passwords stored in your browser? Use a password manager such as Keepass, protected by a strong password and a key file that's not stored on your laptop.
Encrypt sensitive files using TrueCrypt, or enable BitLocker Drive Encryption if your version of Windows supports it.
If you're going to be travelling for some time, you may not be sure when you'll next be able to charge your battery, so take the opportunity to do so while in your room.
Consider buying a second battery for your laptop to extend your working time when you're away from power. They're often available on eBay much more cheaply than from the manufacturer. Alternate your batteries to keep them in good condition.
Some hotels disconnect the power when you're out of your room; the electronic key card used for unlocking the door needs to be docked in a wall slot for the lights and power sockets to work. It's a good way to ensure you don't leave the air con blasting while you're out, but it also snookers your chances of recharging your laptop while you're having dinner.
Try the simple hack of putting a loyalty card or other low value plastic into the slot while you're out so you can keep charging your battery.
Better mobile working: connections and power
Maximise your battery life
When you're away from a power socket, every second of battery life counts. It therefore pays to keep your laptop's battery in good condition, letting it discharge fully at least once a fortnight to keep its capacity high.
Also make use of Windows power plans, and remember to switch to 'Power Saver' whenever you're working from the battery to make each charge last longer. You can make tweaks to the current plan to get more from it, or opt to use a plan manager, which will change the plan automatically to conserve power.
1. Power Plan Assistant
You can make switching between plans quick and easy by installing Power Plan Assistant, which you can download from powerplan7.com/home.htm.
Once installed, it runs in the system tray and shows the current plan in its coloured icon: red for 'Power Saver', yellow for 'Balanced' and green for 'High Performance'. Click the icon and select the plan you want to change to.
2. Assistant settings
Right-click the 'Power Plan Assistant' icon in the system tray and choose 'Power Plan Assistant Settings'. Select 'On unplugging automatically switch to… | Power Saver'. Return to these settings and then choose 'Save' to confirm them.
Alternatively, you can opt to switch to 'Power Saver' mode if your battery's charge drops below a minimum level – say 20 per cent, for example.
The emergency plan
You might be forced to stay somewhere without usable internet access. If you don't have a 3G dongle, consider enabling internet tethering on your mobile phone. Android phones and iPhones are well suited to tethering – see below for details.
Symbian phones with Wi-Fi can use Joikuspot to produce a personal hotspot, which you can connect to with your laptop. Lengthy use of 3G and Wi-Fi together can make your phone hot and draw heavily on its battery, so disconnect it when not in use
1. Android tethering
Install the PdaNet phone software (the free version blocks secure sites) and download the PC component. Connect your phone to charge and launch PdaNet.
Choose 'Enable USB tether'. On your PC, click the PdaNet icon in the system tray and choose 'Connect'.
2. iPhone tethering
With an iPhone running iOS 4, tethering is simple, although you'll need to check that your network supports it. On your phone, go to 'Settings | General | Network | Internet tethering | On'.
Choose 'USB only', then connect your phone to your laptop and select the new network.
First published in PC Plus Issue 302
Liked this? Then check out 10 ways to make your laptop battery last longer
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