Gadgetorama reviews Confidential Notes by HNS

 

Introduction

Although Pocket PC devices come with some security features to protect data, there are still far too many scenarios where data is vulnerable. For example, even if you have a power-on password on your Pocket PC, any data on a storage card can easily be accessed by simply taking the card out and using another device to read it. Fortunately, third party solutions exist to overcome some of these limitations.

Confidential Notes allows users to create notes that use a combination of text, sketch and audio and store them in a secure fashion. So, even if your storage card is stolen, your data will be protected. It comes with an easy to use interface that makes taking the extra step of ensuring that your notes are secure second nature.

Installation

Before you can complete the installation, two additional steps are required. First, you must select the folder in which all your notes will be stored. You can select a directory either on your device itself or on a storage card. Second, you must set up the security settings. You can choose from standard security which uses one password or Paranoid which uses two passwords. The security settings also use a reminder phrase which you will use if you forget your password(s).

Once these additional steps are complete, Confidential Notes is ready to use.

Login screen
Figure 1: Logging in

Confidential Notes only takes up about 300KB and runs on Microsoft PocketPC 2002 and higher.

A little bit about encryption

Confidential Notes uses 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption. Like other encryption algorithms, throw enough brute strength at the password and you’ll crack it. But the longer the encryption key, the more brute strength you will need. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s web site, it would take one system trying to crack a 128-bit AES key about 149 trillion years to succeed. Given that Confidential Notes uses a 256-bit key, it should be fairly secure.

Using the software

Workspace
Figure 2: The workspace

Confidential Notes is an easy application to use: Everything takes place within the application itself. When you start the application up, you first log in (Figure 1). Once in, you are presented with a workspace (Figure 2). You have a list of all the notes that you already have. Just above the list, you have the name of the directory that you are in as well as the field being used to sort the notes. Beneath the list, you have a menu bar with icons to create text notes, audio notes, sketch notes and combination notes. Click on the appropriate one and a new note of the matching type is created for you. You can also create notes using the ‘New’ menu option. Finally, you also have access to the Options menu.

Text notes use all input methods provided by your Pocket PC (like the keyboard and block recognizer) as well as external keyboards. It is also easy to cut and paste to and from other applications. I was able to cut and paste text from both the regular Notes application as well as Pocket Word and both single cells and cell ranges from Pocket Excel for example. Audio notes present you with a simple recorder. A single note can contain different recordings (each represented with its own speaker icon). Sketch notes allow you to use your stylus to jot notes or doodles. Combination notes allow you to combine the different types of notes into a single note. At first I was puzzled that you would have different types of notes but it starts to make sense when you consider that you can then sort your notes based on what type it is.

Zoom feature
Figure 3: Zoom feature

When working on a note, you have additional options: You can zoom down to 75% or up to 100%, 200% or 300% (Figure 3), rename it, move it to a different folder or delete it.

All your notes are then stored in the folder that you specified during setup. You can also create subfolders to improve the organization of your notes. In the folder view, you can can sort notes by name, date, size and type. You can also filter your notes so that you only see the notes of a certain type (eg, only audio notes). The advantage of using a single folder (and subfolders) is that it makes it very easy to back up your notes. There is no risk of forgetting a critical note that is stored in a completely different folder. But this approach of a central folder does have its disadvantage: For example, I already have folders set up for different purposes (like projects) on my iPAQ and using Confidential Notes forced me to use a different set of folders for my encrypted notes. I would have liked the ability to store encrypted notes in any folder on my iPAQ.

It is just as easy to go in and edit your notes. Simply tap on the one that you want to work on and away you go. You can even change one type of note into a different type of note by simply converting it into a combo note. For example, I created an audio note. Later, I went back and added some text notes, thereby converting the note to a combo note.

Confidential Notes’ encryption works only on notes created within the application. For example, you do not have the ability to encrypt a Pocket Word file. If you want to secure content from outside the application, you will need to convert your data into notes. HNS Consulting’s philosophy is that this application was designed with the goal of using notes in a secure environment and it was never intended to encrypt external data.

I started the review on my iPAQ h2210 and finished it on my iPAQ hx2410. One test I did with the two iPAQs was to copy some notes from one iPAQ over to the other. This could happen if you are upgrading to a new iPAQ. I had absolutely no problems opening notes created with one iPAQ on the new one as long as the passwords were correct.

Another small annoyance I found was with Landscape mode. When using my external keyboard and saving a new text note, I could not see the Save button as it was hidden behind a menu bar that my Stowaway IR keyboard puts up. I had to minimize the bar to reveal the button. It is fairly trivial but it did leave me wondering how to save my note before I clued in that the button was hidden.

Confidential Notes has some customizable features. As I mentioned earlier, notes are stored in a single directory (or a subdirectory in that directory) that you determine during installation. You can change that directory later and Confidential Notes will automatically move your files. You can also easily switch back and forth between Standard security mode and Advanced mode.

Version 1.1 added some new features and enhancements. The first is a timer that will close Confidential Notes down automatically after a user-defined period of inactivity. The second is that the application will now start up again in the folder last used (a small feature but much appreciated). Finally, folders can now be renamed after being set up.

Encrypted filenames
Figure 4: Encrypted files

How far does Confidential Notes take security? To answer that, have a look at the directory from the File Explorer (Figure 4). You will see that even the file names and extensions are masked. Someone who steals your storage card will not only not be able to open your files but won’t even know what the file refers to or what extension it uses. This is a nice touch.

I’m probably being a little harsh but the lack of a help file was surprising. It’s not that I got stuck somewhere but simply my expectation that every program should come with one. The application is very easy to use but a new user might appreciate a quick read-through to see what the application can and cannot do.

What I liked

  • Effortless encryption – Save a file and it is automatically encrypted
  • Two password authorization levels
  • Auto-close feature

What I did not like

  • Single principal directory for all files
  • No help file

Summary

If you are looking for an easy-to-use application that will protect information that should remain private, Confidential Notes might just be the application for you. The way encryption is embedded into the application makes security second nature. You will not have to actively remember to secure your notes, the application does it for you. But Confidential Notes is not an encryption solution for all data on a Pocket PC device. As such, an enterprise or individual looking for a complete encryption solution will need to look beyond this application. My advice, download the trial version and see if it suits your needs.

I see great potential in Confidential Notes and hope that future versions maintain the same ease of use but also expand its capabilities to protect additional data on our devices.

Rating

3.5 out of 5

Where can I get it?

You can purchase Confidential Notes from our affiliate PocketGear for $19.95 USD.