In a recent Help Desk Advisor column, TechRepublic columnist Jeff Davis advocated the practice of documenting any changes you make to your clients’ computers on a service call. I picked up this valuable documentation practice in the early ’90s when I began doing consulting work.

In those days, Windows 3.x was the operating system of choice on almost all the computers I serviced, and it came with a little program called Cardfile, which I discovered was a perfect tool for creating a tech support diary on each machine.

When Windows 95 came out, I was disappointed to learn that Cardfile was no longer a part of the operating system and devised a way to install it. By the time Windows 98 was released—again without a Cardfile-type application—I realized that I’d need to turn elsewhere.

That’s when I discovered NoteBook for Windows from Software Design by shareware author Gregory Braun. This little freeware program offered all the same features as Windows 3.x’s Cardfile applet and more. I began installing it on every Windows 95 and 98 computer I worked on and used it to create tech support diaries.

I’m happy to report that NoteBook for Windows is still available and works with all versions of Windows; it’s still a perfect tool for creating tech support diaries.

Adding the professional touch
For me, NoteBook for Windows has been a great way to add a professional touch to my consulting operations.

For example, I have a client whose business chugs along on a custom DOS-based application that runs on a peer-to-peer network of Windows 95 and 98 systems. They call me about once or twice a year to fix some problem.

The first time I was there, I spent a lot of time learning the intricacies of the DOS-based application and its network configuration. At that time, I logged everything I learned in a NoteBook for Windows tech support diary.

Now, each time I return to that client’s site, I can immediately refresh my memory about all the particulars. This usually means that I can finish the task much more quickly and the client can get back to work more quickly.

In another instance, I used NoteBook for Windows to create a technical support crib sheet for a client. They had an occasional problem with a network printer. The solution was relatively simple, as long as you followed a series of meticulous steps.

After visiting the office several times to fix the same problem, I documented the steps in great detail and showed the client how to implement them the next time the problem cropped up. The client was impressed that I had provided him with an easy-to-use tool that he could use to solve the problem himself. Again, NoteBook for Windows allowed me to give my consulting service a professional touch.

Downloading and installing
You can download NoteBook for Windows or its shareware version, NoteBook 2000. The freeware version has a few limitations. NoteBook for Windows is a 16-bit program, so it doesn’t support long filenames—you have to use 8.3 filenames. And although you can’t widen or maximize its window, you can make it longer. Each file, called a Pad, can contain a maximum of 40 pages with each page containing a maximum of 3 KB of text—about 400 words per page.

Once you download NoteBook for Windows, you’ll discover that the program is contained in a Zip file, The Zip file contains two files—NoteBook.exe and NoteBook.wri.

To make installing Notebook for Windows on your clients’ computers easy, I recommend that you extract these two files to your hard disk and burn them to a CD and also copy them to a floppy disk. Even though burning these little files to a CD may sound like overkill, I find that using a CD is a more reliable means of transporting files. (Floppy disks can easily become corrupted.) I keep the floppy on hand for those situations in which the computer I’m working on doesn’t have a CD drive.

Installing NoteBook for Windows is then a matter of copying the two files—NoteBook.exe and NoteBook.wri—from the CD or floppy to the folder of your choice on the client computer’s hard disk. You can then create a shortcut to the executable and place it on the Desktop or Start menu.

Getting started
When you first launch it, NoteBook for Windows starts up empty and is ready for you to create a new NoteBook Pad. To do so, click the Create A New NoteBook icon on the toolbar. You’ll see the Create A New NoteBook File dialog box and will be prompted to specify a name for your NoteBook Pad. Remember that NoteBook for Windows is limited to 8.3 filenames. I typically use the first eight numbers in the computer’s serial number. On Dell systems, I typically use the service tag number.

Taking a tour
Once you name your NoteBook Pad, NoteBook for Windows will open the NoteBook Pad, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The opening page for a NoteBook Pad is the table of contents page.

Many of the controls in the interface are standard or intuitive, so the program is easy to use. To get you up to speed quickly, let’s take a look at a few of the basics and cover some of the features that come in quite handy for the tech support diary.

The opening page for a Pad is the table of contents page. As you can see, the first entry in the Pad is a set of instructions, which you can delete. You’ll also notice that the Pad contains blank entries for the other 39 pages.

You can open any of the pages from the table of contents by double-clicking an entry. You can return to the table of contents or move from the page using the three navigation buttons on the toolbar.

To create a new page, double-click on one of the blank entries on the table of contents page. The first line of text you type in the new page will become that page’s entry in the table of contents. When creating a technical support diary, the ideal entry is the current date. NoteBook for Windows has a built-in time stamp feature, which you can activate by pressing [Ctrl]D. You can then enter information onto the page, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
Using a time stamp as the first line of the page makes an ideal entry in a technical support diary table of contents.

Formatting options

You can configure the time stamp format, among other features, in the NoteBook Options dialog box, which you access by selecting the Options command from the File menu. You can specify the default font for your Pad by selecting Fonts | Display Fonts from the View menu.

As you’re working, you can return to the table of contents and mark an entry with one of two status markers. This can come in handy if you need to keep track of complete and incomplete tasks in your tech support diary. To use the status feature, select an item in the table of contents, pull down the Table menu, and choose either the Completed or Urgent status setting. Figure C shows these two status settings applied to an example tech support diary.

Figure C
You can use the status settings to keep track of tasks.

Of course, using dates for your table of contents entries makes sense from a timeline perspective, but what if you can’t remember exactly when you performed a specific operation? NoteBook for Windows has a full-text search feature, so when you need to track down a specific item in your tech support diary, just select the first item in the table of contents and click the Find button on the toolbar.

If you want to leave troubleshooting instructions in a NoteBook Pad that your client can refer to when you’re not there, but you’re worried about the client inadvertently deleting or changing the diary’s contents, you can configure the NoteBook Pad as Read-Only before you leave. To do so, pull down the Edit menu and enable the Read-Only toggle. When you return and need to make changes, just disable the Read-Only toggle.

Freeware and shareware
As I mentioned, Software Design makes two versions of the program: NoteBook for Windows and NoteBook 2000. Both provide the same basic function—a notebook-based database—but NoteBook 2000 has a lot of extra features, such as support for e-mail and Web browsing, that you won’t find in NoteBook for Windows. NoteBook 2000 costs $25 for a single user license ($250 for a site license) after a 30-day trial evaluation.

While both versions are excellent products and the shareware version is well worth the money, for this particular application—a tech support diary—I’ve found that the limitations of the freeware version are acceptable. Also, when using the freeware version, you can install it on as many systems as you like without making your client liable for licensing fees.