A secure document library for your Mac (part 1)

I spend plenty of time futzing* around on the Mac listening to music, watching movies and surfing the web so it’s quite rewarding when I really put it to good use. Shrinking the mountain of old paperwork that filled dozens of A4 ring binders in my study bookcase was one such project, and I now have an online, searchable and secure archive of all my old documents.

My list of ingredients for this little project were:

  • An Apple Mac (running Leopard OS X)
  • A Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M (or a flatbed scanner if you’re patient)
  • TrueCrypt (optional – I ended up using the Disk Utility built in to Leopard)
  • DevonThink Pro (optional – you can just as easily use folders and Finder if you want to)
  • Fellowes P-58Cs shredder (any good cross-cut shredder will do)

The first thing I did was to scan all my old documents using the ScanSnap scanner. While other scanners will do, flatbed scanners are notoriously slow and cumbersome given that the ScanSnap S300M can scan both sides of a sheet of paper in around five or six seconds, and can take 10 sheets of paper at a time. I wrote a little article about the ScanSnap S300M which you can find here, and if you’ve got the budget it’s bigger brother, the S510M can take up to 50 sheets at a time. The time consuming bit when you’re scanning is to give the scanned documents a sensible name. I opted for keeping it simple, sticking to a name and date wherever possible, so for example a copy of the order sheet that Amazon sent out with an item I ordered on December 3rd 2008 got named “Amazon Slip – 2008.12.03”. Generally if I’m looking for something then I’ll at least know the company or person involved and roughly the date it happened, well to within a year or so!

Fellowes P-58Cs Shredder

Fellowes P-58Cs Shredder

So the upshot of this is that after a few days casual scanning and labelling, I had a folder structure on one of my hard disks consisting of folders labelled according to subject, e.g. Amazon, Apple, etc. So far so good, all my old paperwork is now safely on disk, and indexed by Spotlight. Next job – security!

It’s all very well scanning old credit card and bank statements, but what if someone were to break in and steal your Mac while you’re out?! Not only have they pinched your pride and joy, they’ve got a load of your financial details to start making mayhem with your credit rating. Originally I tackled this problem by encrypting individual files using GoSecure. Great drag & drop utility – virtually unbreakable AES-256 bit encryption, but with hundreds of files needing to be secured it quickly became very laborious to encrypt each one by hand. More to the point, every time I wanted to look at one of these documents I had to decrypt it manually then re-encrypt it afterwards. The solution? Store all your scanned files using an encrypted disk image – basically a secure encrypted area that looks like a regular disk while you’re using it. Think of it like a little CD or DVD disk or even a miniature hard disk hidden away inside your Mac. Now I could have used OS X’s FileVault feature to secure an entire hard disk, and if you are happy doing that then it’s the way to go. However, some people think it’s overkill, and it still leaves the issue of how to secure your backups as well. More flexible options include things like the excellent (and free) TrueCrypt utility or Leopard’s very own Disk Utility, which is what I ended up using.

So, I have a bunch of scanned documents that amount to around 1.5Gb of data, and it’s likely that I’ll add to this over the coming years. What’s needed is an encrypted area big enough to allow growth, so let’s say capable of holding up to 2.6Gb? Now while TrueCrypt has lots of bells and whistles, I opted to use Disk Utility as it’s already part of Leopard OS X and it’s really easy to use, and this is what you do:

  1. Go to your Utilities folder and launch Disk Image.
  2. From the File menu, choose New then Blank Disk Image.
  3. Choose a location where you want to store your disk image. I put mine in a separate little disk partition I’ve got, but your Documents folder is as good a place as any.
  4. Give your disk image a name in the ‘Save As‘ box, and give it the same name in the ‘Volume Name‘ box too.
  5. Choose a size for your disk image, remembering that you should allow space to add more files to it in the future. I chose 2.6Gb for my 1.5Gb of files, but you can choose any custom size you like.
  6. Choose a disk format – Mac OS Extended is good for performance and Time Machine compatibility if you’re backing up the whole disk image as just one file.
  7. Encryption – now here’s where Mac OS X does the clever stuff. The default will be ‘none’ but seeing as the idea is to make it secure, choose 128-bit AES or if you’ve got a reasonably fast Mac, go the whole hog and use 256-bit AES. All the encryption will be handled on the fly by OS X when you’re using the disk – you won’t feel a thing!
  8. For the Partitions option you can choose ‘no partition map‘ and for the Image format choose ‘sparse bundle disk image‘. Sparse bundle is good as it allows your disk image to grow and shrink as required.
  9. Click the OK button and Disk Utility will get to work creating your disk image.
  10. After a few seconds you’ll see a prompt asking you for a password for your encrypted disk image. Helpfully the window will show you how good your password is – I’d recommend choosing something with a rating of ‘Good‘ or better.
  11. You’ll also need to decide if you want to store your password in your Keychain. Now while it might sound like a good idea to tick the box, you need to think about what that means. I chose not to store the password in the keychain, and I think that’s a safer setting especially for laptop users. If you do store the password in your keychain then basically if someone manages to log into your Mac, they won’t get prompted for your password when they open your disk image – now is that something you want? Depends on how strong your login password is perhaps. So my recommendation is – make the password ‘Good’ or better, do not store it in your keychain, and choose a different password to your login password.

Now that you’ve created your secure disk image, it’s very easy to mount it and start using it like a real disk. Just open Finder and go to where you created the disk image. You’ll see a ‘.dmg‘ file with the name you chose in Disk Utility, just double-click on it and you’ll be prompted for your password. That done, you have a new ‘disk’ that you can use like any other hard disk, CD, DVD etc. under OS X. At this point you’d move your scanned documents to your new secure disk area. What’s more, when you’re done you can eject the disk image if you like and your documents are safe from prying eyes until you mount the disk image again. Reboot you Mac and your scanned documents are still safely locked away until you decide to open the disk image using your password.

Disk Utility

Disk Utility

I went a step further and decided to try out DevonThink Pro for managing my library of scanned documents. There are benefits and disadvantages to using a tool like DevonThink rather than natively storing the documents and using Finder so it’s a matter of choice and I’ll cover DevonThink Pro in a separate article.

Well that’s about it – the only thing left to do is to decide on a sensible backup strategy for your encrypted disk image. As the disk image itself is a single .dmg file, it’s relatively easy to back it up and if it’s small enough you can back it up to online services like Mozy or even iDisk, after all it’s already encrypted so it’ll be pretty safe wherever you put it.

Oh and last but not least, you can now have fun shredding all your old scanned documents and putting the space you’ve gained to good use!

*In case you wondered what futzing is, the dictionary definition is: To waste time or effort on frivolities; fool. See, told you Macs are fun.

The ScanSnap S300M just keeps going

Canon ScanSnap S300M 3Now that I’m getting used to the quirks of the software, life with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M is becoming a lot better. On the hardware side I can barely fault it as the scanner has reliably munched its way through nearly 2,000 pages of A4 documents, tiny till receipts, crumpled up carbon copies, torn invoices and pretty much anything I can feed through it. There have been only a couple of times when it has mis-fed documents and there’s usually a good reason for it. In one instance a batch of 5 sheets that had been folded together for some time decided to feed through all at once, but after mixing the pages with 5 other sheets I had to scan, the scanner worked perfectly again.

The amount of clutter I’ve cleared out of my study thanks to this little gadget is amazing, and I’ve now got into the habit of scanning most of the documents that arrive on my doorstep that I would otherwise file in some binder and forget about.

One of the things the manual does point out, that you might not think about before buying the scanner is ScanSnap Consumablesconsumables. Chapter 6 of the manual shows a table that states the ‘Pad ASSY’ should be replaced after 10,000 sheets or one year, likewise the ‘Pick Roller’ should be replaced after 100,000 sheets or one year. In my case I’m not likely to hit the threshold on number of sheets scanned, but I can see a year passing before I know it. Where then to find these consumables? A quick Google of UK websites revealed that there’s nowhere in the UK selling these parts, but fortunately there seem to be some US suppliers. To be on the safe side I think I’ll order some spares now rather than wait until the last minute. At $12.99 for the ‘Pad ASSY’ it doesn’t seem too steep, although there’s international shipping to add to that, so I may also buy some of the Fujitsu Cleaning Wipes that the manual recommends for routine cleaning, to make the shipping worthwhile.

So all in all the S300M is turning out to be one of my better computer-related purchases – now if only it were just as easy to scan all the other clutter I’ve got in the house!

Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M – Perfect? Not quite.

When it comes to paperwork I horde everything, convinced that some day I’ll need evidence of something to prove that I paid a utility bill fifteen years ago! The price I pay for this paranoia is three shelves of a bookcase groaning under the weight of thirty carefully organized A4 lever-arch files, stuffed with every last piece of paper that’s dropped through my letterbox. Now being technically minded I’ve known about scanners since they first appeared and I own a Canon CanoScan LiDE 25, but as a flatbed scanner, and a slow one at that, digitizing my collection of paper would probably have taken the rest of my (hopefully long and fruitful) life.

So there I was thumbing through the pages of MacWorld magazine when I saw it. A small, quick, colour, duplex scanner made specially for the Mac – the Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M. First job was to Google some reviews on it and the few results I found looked good. Second job was to find a UK supplier that stocked the thing, and I ended up going for The Mac Warehouse, and the painless online ordering system saw the scanner arrive on my doorstep the very next day. Unpacking it was pretty uneventful although I would make two ‘green’ observations at this point. Why wrap every single piece of wire in it’s own separate plastic bag, and why send me a 300 page manual when only 37 pages of it are in my language? It may cost Fujitsu less to print it that way, but what a waste of paper!

Unpacking complete, and the box safely stored in the loft (yes ok, I horde the packing too!) we’re in to setting it up and like most things with Macs these days it’s fairly intuitive, just install the software before you plug the scanner in. On that note I’d recommend that if you don’t plan on scanning lots of business cards, don’t bother installing the CardIris3 software. It’s the first piece of software that’s made my Mac act funny, causing it to become unresponsive for long periods during the install. The ScanSnap Manager software on the other hand installed with no problems at all. The version of ScanSnap Manager included was v2.2L10 and a link to where to find updates wasn’t obvious until after I’d installed that version, but to save you the hassle you can find the v2.2L11 update here. Another point to note is that this device can be AC or USB powered and in the case of the latter you’ll need two free USB ports. Scanning performance is supposed to be slower when it’s USB powered but I’ve only used it with the AC adapter supplied so I can’t vouch for that.

When it’s running, ready for you to scan something, the ScanSnap Manager icon just sits in the dock and offers a right-click shortcut menu to some simple scanning actions and your scanning preferences, or a left-click list of profiles to choose from. In the preferences you can set a default save path for output files, scanning options like quality, colour and simplex/duplex, output types (e.g. PDF), paper size and compression. There’s also an applications preference which lets you choose an application to handle the scanned results, but confusingly that option is greyed out if you’re scanning using what they call ‘Quick Menu’ mode. If you want to use an external application like Devon Agent Office Pro with the scanner then you have to switch to ‘Profile’ mode. I’ll try and explain the difference between the two modes as follows:

Quick Menu mode – either you choose simplex/duplex scan from the dock icon right-click menu or you press the scan button on the scanner and scanning starts. Once it’s complete, you’re presented with a menu of 4 options – Scan to folder, Scan to email, Scan to print or Scan to iPhoto. Depending on which you choose, you’re then presented with a list of options.

Profile mode – simply press the button on the scanner and once scanning has completed a ‘profile’ of settings and actions is invoked. For example, you might set up a profile to scan images, automatically rename the resulting images and then save them as individual PDF files to a specific folder.

ScanSnap Manager Settings

ScanSnap Manager Settings

So, you load up the sheet feeder with up to 10 sheets and off you go. The result is impressive, with a single sheet of A4 being scanned in around 10 seconds on the ‘best’ quality setting, and that includes scanning both sides if you’ve chosen duplex mode. Cranking the quality setting up to ‘excellent’ didn’t really produce any better results and slowed the scan process considerably, so I’ve stuck with using the ‘best’ setting. Accuracy is really good, sheets feed through without snagging or skewing and the resulting images were clear and easily readable. In fact, with an initial session of scanning where I fed over 700 pages through the scanner, the only time I got a mis-feed was when I inadvertently included two pages stapled together which understandably the scanner took exception to. So my first impression is that mechanically this is an excellent little gadget. If only the same were true of the software…

My first complaint is that setting up profiles is un-intuitive. There is a Profile Manager, but all it lets you do is to rename, delete or re-order your profile list, you cannot add or edit profiles from it – how dumb is that? In fact if you want to create a new profile you have to proceed as follows:

Turn off ‘Use Quick Menu’. Right-click the ScanSnap Manager icon and choose ‘Settings’. From the ‘Choose a profile’ menu at the top, pick ‘Add profile’ from the list. Give the profile a name. Work thruough each of the settings tabs to decide what options you want. Click the ‘Apply’ button. You now have a new Profile that will appear Profile Manager list and that you can select by left-clicking the ScanSnap Manager icon in the dock. Editing an existing profile is a case of opening the ScanSnap Manager settings, selecting a profile name in the ‘Select a profile’ menu, and then working through the settings tabs making the changes you want before clicking the Apply button. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is. There is no distinction between changing settings for a profile and changing them for Quick Menu mode, it boils down to whether you happen to have ‘Use Quick Menu’ ticked in the right-click menu at the time you’re changing your settings.

A Better Finder Rename

A Better Finder Rename

My next gripe is about the rename or ‘serialize’ option. The theory is that this lets you automatically rename a batch of images, so you might scan 50 pages (in 5 batches of 10 pages) and want the resulting 50 PDF files renamed something like ‘Utility Bill – 001’ through to ‘Utility Bill – 050’. Sounds logical, but it only works properly in Profile mode. If you try it in Quick Menu mode, then each batch resets the counter to 001 for some strange reason, so in this mode what’s missing is a way to control the sequence numbers that are tacked on to the end of the filenames. By default the software will name your files based on the date & time the pages were scanned, and in the end I resorted to using this default and then using A Better Finder Rename to do the re-naming honours.

While we’re on it, my next complaint is about how the S300M handles blank pages. When scanning in duplex mode you can choose to ‘ignore’ blank pages, ideal for sheets where only one side has been printed on. While this works fine for clean, un-creased paper, the results are not so good when using paper that’s been folded. So for example, when scanning A4 sheets that had been received by post and typically have two prominent folds across the page, the scanner assumed these represented markings on the page and duly scanned in these blank pages. To make matters worse, the ScanSnap Manager software, while showing you a preview of each page in a batch after it’s scanned them, annoyingly doesn’t let you delete or otherwise exclude these ‘blank’ pages from the subsequent processing. So, if you’re using the ‘Serialize’ rename function, then the blank pages will be included in your sequence whether you like it or not.

My final moan about the software is that even though you can set the destination folder for your saved scans, this is actually ignored and files are saved to the last folder that was used for saving output unless you remember to change it – a bug which caught me out a couple of times. Let’s say you have two profiles, one called Receipts which saves to a folder called Receipts, and another profile called Invoices which saves to a folder called (wait for it…) Invoices. You set these folders in the default settings for each profile, then you scan a load of receipts and save them in your Receipts folder. Now you switch to the Invoices profile and start scanning invoices, but first time through, the destination folder shows up as Receipts even though the profile default is to save to Invoices. Annoying huh? Anyway, enough of me bitching about the software, it’s starting to sound like I hate the thing!

Quick Menu mode

Quick Menu mode

Returning to Quick Menu mode, the ‘scan to email’ function works well enough, giving you the option to set the file name(s) in the same way as the ‘scan to folder’ process does, before invoking your default mail application and inserting the scanned image in-line. It would be nice if there was the option to simply attach the file rather than embed it in the email body, but you can always work around that by scanning to a folder and then manually attaching the scanned images to an email yourself. The ‘scan to print’ option does what it says on the can, giving you a basic photocopying feature, while the ‘scan to iPhoto’ is pretty much self-explanatory in that the scanned results are converted to images and imported to a new event in iPhoto.

So the bottom line is am I glad I bought this scanner, and how does it stack up against my Canon CanoScan LiDE 25 flatbed? Well it beats the Canon hands down on everything except of course the ability to scan stuff that simply won’t fit through an ADF scanner, but what about as a scanner in it’s own right? Well, build quality is excellent, the scanning mechanics are really clever and work reliably and the resulting images for documents, letters, etc., look great given this is only a 600×600 dpi scanner. What lets it down is the software, so Fujitsu if you’re listening here’s what you need to address:

  1. Make the Profile Manager intuitive – include a Create and an Edit function, and make the configuration of profiles distinct from configuring Quick Menu settings.
  2. Add a ‘check for updates’ feature to your software, it’s not that difficult.
  3. When previewing and processing scan results, provide the ability to drop blank pages that the scanner mis-reads as having something on them.
  4. Make the ‘Serialize’ feature a bit more intelligent when in Quick Menu mode by allowing the user to specify a starting number for the sequence instead of always defaulting to 1.
  5. Allow images to be attached rather then embedded in emails.
  6. Save paper and don’t ship huge manuals in multiple languages, seeing as I now have a nice paperback book 4/5ths of which I can’t even read.

This might sound like I’m having a real downer on the S300M when the truth is I’m still glad I bought it. Aside from the fact that I sometimes find myself using other utilities to do what the ScanSnap Manager software should do, the speed and accuracy of the scanning really does impress, and in hindsight I might even have bought the S510M just for added capacity and the OCR feature (if it works!). So if you’re looking to digitize a huge mountain of paper, I’d definitely recommend the ScanSnap S300M so long as you can forgive the quirky software.

PS – I could not get this device to connect to my Mac using the Belkin Network USB Hub, but it works fine when connected directly to the Mac. This is almost certainly the fault of the Belkin device which can be very flakey in a Mac environment.