Gadgets on the go

A review of lightweight, affordable products ideal for the mobile professional

If you are one of the many federal employees who are constantly on the go, this month’s annual "use it or lose it" buying season may be just the time to spend a little extra money to make your job a lot easier.

In the course of reviewing the many products offered to federal agencies, Federal Computer Week often comes across devices designed not for agencies, per se, but for agency employees.

This week’s feature highlights a handful of such products that have caught our attention in recent months. The products fall into many categories — security, storage and related peripherals. What they have in common, though, are their small size, light weight and other qualities intended to make it easier for traveling professionals to do their work while on the road. And better yet, these products are also inexpensive enough to buy using your government charge card.

The World in the Palm of Your Hand

If your job involves a lot of time on the road in unfamiliar places, consider turning your handheld computer into a satellite receiver with Pharos Science and Applications Inc.'s Pocket GPS Portable Navigator.

Unlike specialized satellite receivers commonly used by outdoor enthusiasts, this device, about the size of cigarette lighter, clicks right into SanDisk Corp.'s CompactFlash slot on your handheld device. It enables you to access street-level maps of the entire United States, then use the Global Positioning System link to pinpoint your location and figure out how to get where you are going.

You are warned repeatedly to not use the device while your vehicle is in motion. And that's good advice, both because the program is engrossing and because handheld screens are notoriously difficult to see in broad daylight. But if you have a passenger along, the device's real-time display makes it a snap for him or her to see just where you're going and what intersections are coming up.

Like traditional GPS receivers, the software allows you to set waypoints and a destination, and it will even generate a route for you to follow. As you approach the next turn in the route, the street name and its distance from your present location appear at the bottom of the map.

You can also set up an automated voice system to call out directions. The same system can alert you, if needed, if you have strayed from the map. If that happens, the device will automatically reroute you to your destination. The system also can display a text-based set of directions.

For the most part, the device worked incredibly well. We only encountered a couple of minor glitches. For starters, the automated voice was unintelligible on the Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. e740 we were using.

When we were far from a metropolitan area, the provided maps often lacked detail. Major thoroughfares were covered, but many side streets were missing. By the way, maps are updated annually and can be downloaded from the Pharos site.

Of course, for those wanting to use the device to specify locations, the unit will also give a latitude/longitude reading for any current location. Bear in mind, however, that the accuracy of the device is within about 15 meters — not nearly enough for surveying work or other purposes requiring precise locations.

The Pharos device works with almost any handheld that has enough capacity. Pharos recommends 16M of free storage and 32M of system memory.

There's one other factor to consider: When the device is plugged into the CompactFlash slot, you will not be able to use flash memory in your handheld at the same time. As an alternative, the company offers a version that attaches via cable to your handheld's serial port, but you might find it somewhat awkward to have a product dangling from your handheld.

If you're using a Palm Inc. m500 computing device, take a look at the Magellan GPS Companion from Thales Navigation Inc. You'll find the same basic functionality in the Magellan device as in the Pharos unit.

The Magellan GPS Companion enables you to set your route using destinations and waypoints, and the unit will provide audio cues for directions as well as a text readout. Unlike with the Pharos product, however, if you're using the Magellan GPS Companion, you can only create a route when you're connected to the Internet. For most users, that means you must plan your routes on your desktop computer and download them to the handheld device.

We found the Pharos product significantly easier to set up and use than the Magellan device, but the latter is more accurate. The Magellan GPS Companion can track your location to within 3 meters, compared to 15 meters with the Pharos GPS Portable Navigator.

Instead of plugging into the Palm device, the Magellan GPS Companion wraps around the handheld computer. Unlike the Pharos GPS device, the Magellan carries its own power supply, once you load the two AAA batteries into the unit. On the other hand, if you want to have the Palm device charging while you're using the GPS unit — say, in the car — you'll need to buy the optional cable for $19.99.

The Magellan GPS Companion ships with its own GPS software and Rand McNally StreetFinder Deluxe software, which provides street-level maps for the United States. You can also obtain maps for Europe.

Magellan GPS Companion has a retail price of $199. Contact Thales Navigation at (909) 394-5000 or www.magellangps.com. Prices for the Pharos GPS Portable Navigator range from $155 to $200. Call (310) 212-7088 or go to www.pharosgps.com.

Passwords at Your Fingertips

Despite the visions of a password-free world that biometric technologies offer, passwords do not appear to be going away anytime soon. Even biometric systems often require passwords as a backup in case the biometric fails.

The number of passwords is actually multiplying, as federal workers conduct more business over the Internet and use different systems, such as networks, laptop computers and handheld devices. Some people even end up with multiple user names because their preferred user names are already taken on commercial sites.

If you have multiple passwords and user names swirling around in your head or, worse, scribbled on pieces of paper, you could use the ebp lite Personal Password Manager from Mandylion Research Labs. The device not only helps you manage the passwords you already have, it can also generate highly secure random passwords for you.

The ebp lite is a small, lightweight device measuring about 2.5 inches by 1.5 inches that is designed to fit on a key chain. It has four arrow keys and one round "enter" key in the center, with a small, monochrome LCD. It can store up to 20 passwords, along with an identifying name and the log-in name or number for each one. We were impressed with the high level of password customization possible with such a small, simple device.

The ebp lite was designed in compliance with standards developed by the Defense Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency for the secure creation, management and use of passwords.

Access to the ebp lite is controlled by a five-keystroke sequence Mandylion officials call a "personal finger authentication pattern." You can create your own patterns using the four arrow keys. Mandylion strongly suggests changing this code often. Of course, that's one more thing to remember, but at least it's just one.

You can set the device to lock after one, three, five or 10 incorrect attempts at entering the keystroke pattern. A lockout after one incorrect attempt is the most secure option, of course, but if you change the code frequently you might want to allow for three attempts unless you have a perfect memory.

When locked, the ebp lite is totally inaccessible. For security, there is no backdoor entry, so if you forget your keystroke pattern you must manually reset the unit and re-enter all data. In addition, the circuitry is designed to thwart electronic bypass. It's encased in a gel that, if damaged, renders the device useless.

This begs the question: What would you do if you lost all of your password information this way? Or if you physically lost the device? Fortunately, Mandylion has it covered.

The last page of the user manual contains a chart you can use to record the permanent data associated with each log-in account — not the passwords themselves, of course. This will help you recover the passwords from the source. The chart contains fields for the record name, account number or user identification, official name of the site or system, and the technical support telephone number.

You should be diligent about filling out this form when you program your device or add accounts. Presumably, the sites or accounts you use have enough security to prevent an imposter from calling and obtaining your passwords. You should also remember to think of the ebp lite as a security aid, not your entire security system.

When entering passwords, you have three options. The Manual option allows you to input any password you choose, which can consist of any combination of the printable ASCII character set. (In other words, anything you can type with a keyboard, up to 10 characters long.)

Another option is Auto Calculate, which lets the unit automatically create a random password for you. The default schema for this function is a six-character password drawing from the upper and lowercase alphabet character set and the numeric character set; for example, "5Jh5xJ." It is also set never to expire.

The third and most impressive password option is Create, which allows a high level of customization.

With Create, you can specify the password length and choose from six expiration periods: 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, one year, two years and never. The most interesting option, however, is the ability to specify a set or subset of ASCII characters to use for each individual character position. For example, you could specify a password that will use any ASCII character in the first position, only a special character in the second position, only numbers in the third position, and so on.

To further increase security, Mandylion has added a fascinating, patented feature called kinetic sensing circuitry. This feature thwarts hackers by adding another element to random password generation.

The fact is that most random password generators, given the same set of circumstances, will generate the same sets of passwords because they start at the same place and always follow the same mathematical steps. The passwords will appear purely random to individual users, but another person using the same software could end up with the same set of passwords during the course of a product's lifetime.

Therefore, hackers can create tables of a program's most commonly generated passwords and use them like a set of skeleton keys for hacking. Mandylion's kinetic sensing circuitry senses the user's unique physical interaction with the device — picking it up, putting it in a pocket — and uses that as a purely random input into the generation of passwords. This way, each device will generate a different set of random passwords, in contrast to programs that follow the same formulas each time for each device.

When a password expires, the ebp lite will prompt you to change it. You can either manually create a new password or have the device automatically generate a new one using a previously specified schema. We liked the fact that the system continues to store the old password until the user deletes it.

Overall, the ebp lite is easy to use, but it does take some effort to get the hang of it because of the limited number of keys. However, for everyday use, which consists primarily of viewing password accounts, the device is extremely simple to operate.

Call (703) 628-4284 or go to www.mandylionlabs.com. The retail price for a single unit is $69.95. Volume discounts are available.

Mousing with Mobility

When you're not on the road, you may still need to be away from your desk, even if it's only across the room. That's what Gyration had in mind when it developed its Ultra Cordless Optical Mouse.

According to Gyration officials, it's the only wireless mouse that works both on and off the desktop, giving PC users the flexibility to use it in a variety of comfortable positions. Or, thanks to the device's 25-foot range and the fact that it does not require line-of-sight operation, the mouse can double as a presentation device.

On the desktop, the mouse's optical sensor provides smooth, seamless cursor operation. But the air is where the real fun begins. We could use it while leaning back and resting both arms on our chair's armrests. Of course, in-air use is not efficient if you need to use your keyboard at the same time.

Nondesktop usage is best for scrolling, viewing and other mouse activities that don't require typing, such as making presentations. The handy scroll wheel makes scrolling a breeze whether on the desktop or in the air.

Another unique feature is the rechargeable battery. The entire mouse fits into the desktop charger unit, so you need not pop out the battery for charging — just rest it in the charger when you're not using it and you'll never have to worry about running out of juice.

The mouse works by relaying radio frequency signals to a receiver. The receiver is a plug-and-play USB device about 1 inch high, 4.5 inches wide and 3 inches long. Since it has eight channels, it can recognize up to eight Gyration devices, such as mice, keyboards and pointers, but you can only use two devices simultaneously.

This mouse is a low-cost, fun and easy-to-use product that should be of special interest to people with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or other repetitive stress injuries, presenters or anyone who needs to operate a computer while having physical freedom of movement.

Call (408) 255-3016 or go to www.gyration.com. The retail price is $79. A professional version with a 100-foot range is available for $179 and also includes an extra battery pack with its own charger, a AAA battery pack for use on the road and GyroTools presentation effects software.

NEXT STORY: Addressing Postal questions

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