My Tech Life

I am occasionally asked to give recommendations for tech/software, based on my own usage. I don’t know that I would necessarily follow my own example in terms of tech usage if I were not me, but for everyone who is curious, here’s the hard-and-software I currently use, and the short form reasons why.

Primary Computer: PC from iBuyPower, featuring Intel i7 3.066 GHz quad core processor, dual ATI 4890 graphics cards in Crossfire mode, Creative X-Fi sound card, 6GB onboard memory, and 3.5 TB total storage, with Dell 24″ monitor. I’ve got a fairly tricked out system, for a number of reasons: One, I do a lot of multimedia stuff, including most obviously photo image manipulation; two, I play media-intensive computer video games; three, because I totally wanted a tricked-out system, so there. It’s not entirely overkill for the more mundane writing things I do either, and in particular having a large monitor is really useful. But the primary computer is probably the most high-end bit of tech I have.

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium (64 Bit). Because (among other things) most computer games run on Windows but not necessarily on Mac OS or on Linux. Win7 is also nicely composed and easy to use, so there’s a bonus there, too. On my last computer I had an Ubuntu dual-boot, and Ubuntu was fine, but I didn’t actually use it much, so I haven’t installed it on the new primary computer.

Browser: Firefox 3.5.4. That’s currently, but I generally update to the latest stable version when it becomes available. Because I like it and the extent to which is it customizable, and because I’m very used to it — I’ve used Firefox and most of its antecedents almost exclusively for as long as they’ve been about. For backup and for specialized purposes I use Chrome, which I like just fine. I use Opera sparingly and IE almost not at all, except to check how Web sites look and/or for the occasional times when some Web site designer is too stupid to check that his site code works for browsers other than IE.

Mail: GMail. Up until April 2007, I used some variation of the Eudora e-mail client, but when I went on my book tour for The Last Colony I started using GMail because that way I could get my mail whether or not I was on my own computer (a smart decision, it turns out, since my then-laptop crapped out on me mid-tour). I never bothered to go back to a dedicated e-mail client because GMail’s spam blocking skills are excellent, and the thing they do of grouping e-mails into “conversations” was really useful. Basically, it’s just about the best e-mail handling service. When on occasion GMail goes down, I access my mail from my host provider’s e-mail app, which it runs off its servers, but those instances are few and far between. This isn’t to say GMail is perfect, it’s just better for me than anything else out there.

Word Processing: Microsoft Word 2007. I like the way it works and I like its aesthetics, the latter of which may seem trivial, but on the other hand you probably don’t spend as much time looking at your word processing application as I do. On the occasions that I need a backup to Word, I usually use OpenOffice (currently on its 3.x iteration). I use Google Docs for certain specific tasks but I’ve found over time it’s not as featured as I need to be to use it on a regular basis. Note to Google: When you can’t be bothered to add indenting to your word processor, you’re signaling that you’re not actually serious. I buy Word as part of the larger Office suite, so on the rare occasions I need spreadsheets or to access Powerpoint, I’m good to go, with OpenOffice again being backup.

Blogging Software: WordPress. I started out with Movable Type back in 2003, which I liked very much, but eventually it became evident that MT was not playing nice with my host provider (or more accurately, my host provider was not playing nice with MT), and switched over to WordPress. WP turns out to be an excellent choice too, as it’s got enough features and widgets to let one customize one’s site to one’s desire. Disclosure: now hosts this blog, so I’m not an impartial commenter on the software. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be hosted on if I didn’t like the software.

Photo Editing: Photoshop CS4. I’ve been using Photoshop since the early 90s, so I’m comfortable with it and its interface, and that it’s the industry standard is nice too. For quick editing or specific specialized filters, I’ll use Picnic, which is bundled into my Flickr Pro account, but generally I’ll just pop open Photoshop.

Photo Management: Flickr. Simple, friendly interface and the Pro account is cheap at $25 a year. At this point most of the pictures on Whatever are housed there and linked to; if Flickr ever goes under, Whatever’s pictures will require lots of re-sourcing. But I’m optimistic Flickr will be about for a bit (also, lazy). For photo management on the actual computer, I simply use Win7’s photo viewer.

Audio Recording/Editing: Sony Acid Pro. I’m one iteration behind on the software, so I need to upgrade, but again I’m used to it (I’ve been using it since the early part of the century) and it’s got a nice set of features. My backup is Audacity, which is free, which is nice, but which I don’t typically seem to have good luck using. I used Adobe Soundbooth briefly and I liked it very much for voice recording but have been too cheap to pull the trigger to buy it.

Music Management: Rhapsody. Which is to say that at this point I end up not actually accessing the music I have stored on my hard drive, but just stream it off Rhapsody instead. Which is not to say I don’t buy music (or store it on the computer), as I like to support the musicians whose work I like; when I do that I tend to buy it off Amazon. I tend to avoid iTunes, except to manage my iPods. For casual “radio,” I’ll use Rhapsody’s channels or Pandora. I use the Windows Media Player when I play something housed on the computer; the Win7 version is much improved.

Video Game Management: Steam. By and large I’ve stopped buying video games on physical media and instead download them via Steam, which has a nice management and game-matching interface, and a nice selection of games at good prices. I also keep a GameTap subscription for casual gaming and for games I’d like to play but don’t want to buy.

IM Client: Digsby. Accesses a number of IM services and isn’t ugly/crammed with ads.

Twitter Client: TweetDeck. Lots of functions and easier to use the the Twitter Web interface.

Personal Music/Video Player: iPod Nano (3rd generation). It’s small and holds 1,200 songs, and that pretty much works for me. And personally I prefer the 3rd gen’s square look, although I know that puts me in the minority. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it doesn’t play my “rented” music from Rhapsody, but it’s not like I don’t already own more music than I can fit onto the nano as it is. I also own an Archos 605 player, with substantially more onboard memory and a great screen (800×480 or some such) for movies. But it’s bulky and not as convenient to carry about.

Cell Phone: BlackBerry Storm: Which is much maligned but which I like perfectly well, especially with the most recent software update. That said, when the contract is up next October I’m not necessarily going to upgrade within the Storm/BlackBerry family. I like my phone fine but it hasn’t won me over as a consumer.

I think that’s everything, but if you have additional questions regarding my tech usage, drop ’em in the comments.

61 Comments on “My Tech Life”

  1. I used to use a Mac until I had a change in lifestyle and resetting of priorities now I have a custom PC with Vista SP2.

    For writing I use FrameMaker to make stuff pretty. Gedit for most of day to day writing. I have to use Office 2003/7 at work.

    I used to geek a lot and use various OSes. Now I have a laptop that runs NetBSD with Fvwm2.

    For games, I play on online games and Freeciv.

    TweetDeck rocks.

  2. I’m sure you’re just looking forward to all the comments from the linux/open source crowd :) I’ll skip past that and make the following comment:

    If you haven’t yet, you might want to try Google Picassa for photo management on locally stored photos.

    I liked the look of Digsby, but I was a little curious about the revenue model, since there is no ‘premium buy’ option, and it’s obviously not a philanthropist project. Nothing terribly bad to find, but something that people should be made aware of before isntalling:

  3. My theory is, use whatever works for you. I use Vista because it allows me to the use the computer the way I need to. If I could do the same on Linux or Solaris, I would consider it.

    I am 100% for open source software but one must be realistic as well.

  4. Rashkae:

    “If you haven’t yet, you might want to try Google Picassa for photo management on locally stored photos.”

    Picasa never works for me; it chokes on the sheer number of photos I have. I find it confusing, frankly, since no one else seems to have that problem.



  5. “since the early part of the century”
    Isn’t 2009 a bit too early in the century to be saying that?

    I like Steam, it’s really convenient. If only I could find the time to play all the games I’ve bought.
    *goes back to waiting for the Black Mesa mod*

  6. I like Steam, but I mostly gave up on PC gaming myself. Console gaming means getting off the videocard upgrade merry-go-round and no more stupid incompatibilities. Now if only there were a way to make a good RTS…

  7. Wait, Twitter has clients? What? I actually understood all the categories except for that one. So close!

  8. Evan@12: it is much easier to have a nice client on the desktop than to have to go check a website every so often. This way I get to see John’s tweets instantly!

  9. I use a lot of the same stuff, but with a fairly basic laptop–I don’t really do gaming. I love it too much. I used to use Firefox, until it fubar-ed my whole computer. I thought I had a virus; had frequent crashes. Finally it locked up and I was on the verge of reimaging the hard drive when I found out my virus was Firefox. I uninstalled it and everything was fine. This may be a Vista interaction thing, but I don’t use Firefox anymore. I bounce between Chrome and IE. IE is cumbersome and unstable and I hate it. Chrome has one specific bug that drives me nuts–most of the time (but not all) it will not let me cut and past from OpenOffice.

    I’ve never really found a compelling reason to pay $300 for the Microsoft Office suite. I like OpenOffice a lot, and it converts to .doc format for people that wants ’em. I, too, use Google docs lightly, but still rather have my word processing on the desktop. OpenOffice does have a plug-in that will give you a one-click option to back up your current document to Google Docs which is pretty nice.

  10. I use pretty much the same stuff myself -although I could only wish my pc was as powerful as yours!

    One suggestion regarding music management though: give Spotify a try. It is not available in the US yet, but it should be by the end of the year or in early 2010. The free version (with audio ads every 30 minutes or so, nothing too annoying) is good; the premium version (which I guess will be priced around 10-15 usd/month or 100ish usd/year) literally changed the way I listen to music. And mind you, I am a music lover: I spend several hours per day listening to it while working on my pc.
    Give it a try, you won’t look back.

  11. I did the dual Linux/Windows boot on my laptop for a while, too. I really liked using Linux (Fedora, I think I had? Been a while.) but I found I had to have Windows for specific programs, particularly for macros in Word. Also, the filesharing between platforms required a clunky workaround and doubling up on some files. I had to bid a sad farewell to Linux.

    (However, my husband has Ubuntu and Vista dual-booted on our desktop, so at least I have visitation privileges.)

    At the moment I’m stuck with Vista. I’ve used it for 10 months and it’s crapped out on me twice (as in, it required a ground-up reinstall; needless to say, I am now very, very good about backing up my work). I’m saving up for / watching people’s reactions to Windows 7.

  12. You’ve said you have a Wii – any other gaming platforms or does your PC scratch that itch?

  13. jm (17): Just what I was thinking.

    I like Steam a lot. Sometimes it makes me nervous (I still play games I first bought 20 years ago sometimes; will I be able to do that with a Steam game in 2029?), but it’s so convenient…

  14. Picasa chokes on my image filing system, too – in part, I suspect, because I have a fairly detailed photo storage architecture in which many subfolders bear the same name (“archive”, for instance); last time I tried Picasa – and I admit it’s been a while – it presented me with a gazillion archive folders and no easy way to tell them apart. Feh.

    This year, having got all serious about photography, I shoveled all my image files onto external hard drives (one for primary storage, one for backups) and now use Adobe’s Lightroom for organization, workflow and most post-processing (with occasional forays back into PhotoShop for specialty work).

  15. I would recommend Faststone Image Viewer as the tool to view images on your computer. It opens images to a full screen view, you can move the mouse to the top, bottom, and sides of the screen for pop out tools.

    The one I use most often is a quick resize tool for when I want to put the picture on the internet or email.

  16. I am now viewing this page through Chrome. I am clearly not a tech geek. It seems to load faster, less locking up. I can scroll down the page while it’s loading, which IE wouldn’t do.

    Low and behold, it underlines typos in red. Never saw THAT before.

    Thanks for the tips.

  17. Cell Phone: If you’re not satisfied with the Blackberry Storm, are you looking/pining for something, or is it too early to even think about what’s going to be available 11 months from now?

  18. Alan Kellogg:

    In fact, yes.


    I’m not dissatisfied — it does what I want and need it to do — I’m just not so thrilled by it that I will default to another BlackBerry purchase when it comes time to upgrade.

    Ian M:

    My gaming needs at the moment are pretty well sated with the PC and the Wii.

  19. But what about your GPS needs? Bulit into phone, stand-alone, or not necessary? You seem to do a fair amount of travel, but not necessarily by car, so maybe you don’t feel a need for one.

    Although you do strike me as someone that might enjoy a bit of geo-caching, if you had the time.

  20. For those working in the weird subset of offices where you can install Firefox on a company computer but not TweetDeck, Twitterfox is a pretty darn convenient app and much better than the web interface. But not much good for power users, I would suspect.

    Have you tried running Rhapsody on the Storm, John? I read that it could be done and nearly upgraded for that reason alone, but I was scared off by descriptions of the firmware.

    I’ve heard great things about Scrivener for word processing from writerly types, but I believe it’s Mac only.

  21. Do you own a camcorder and if so, what software do you use for video editing?

    we recently got a camcorder and the bundled software sucks. My god does it suck. So, I’m going to have to buy something at some point.

  22. John,

    Nice set up. I’m trying to start to write myself. I’m surprised to see that you are doing the heavy lifting in Word. I’ve been thinking I would need to buy some specific software, but maybe I’ll try a little longer to hold off.

    Three pieces of hardware advice from an old hardware hand (I’ve been building my own computers since before Win ’95), listed in order of speed enhancement:

    1. Buy an SSD (or better yet, a pair of SSDs in a RAID array) to use for your c: drive.

    If you don’t want to invest that much coin…

    2. Buy a pair of 10,000 rpm Raptors and set them up in a RAID 0 array, and use that as your c drive. (I’m assuming your MB will handle RAID.)

    And whether or not you do either of those….

    3. Buy a good quality 8GB USB flash drive. Plug it in around back. When Windows asks what to do with it, tell it to dedicate it to ReadyBoost.

    ReadyBoost takes a little while to learn what programs you use, and so it gets faster for a few days/weeks.

    On the beta of Windows 7 Ultimate I had moved my virtual memory off of my hard drives and onto another 8GB USB flash drive. That seemed to help some, too. But the GA Home edition won’t let me do it. I’m not sure if it was a beta thing or an Ultimate thing.

    And one software point. Try using Gmail (and other Google web apps) in Chrome. I find that Chrome is much much faster and smoother than any other browser for Gmail, Google Maps, Picasa, YouTube, Blogger, and other Google sites.

  23. What are your thoughts/feelings regarding the iPhone or iPod Touch? I refuse to buy an iPhone because of at&t, but I finally got myself a 32bg Ipod Touch about 6 months ago and it’s the best toy I’ve ever owned. I highly recommed it to everyone and I am not a mac fanboy.

  24. ReadyBoost is fun, I bought a 16Gb USB key for that purpose (and because it was dirt cheap special offer time) not long after I started using Windows 7. Personally I’m still getting used to Office 2007. I have the Office 2010 tech preview running on my sandbox system and that has some nice touches but I still prefer the 2003 interface, especially the way it handles multiple files. Tried Vista from Beta 1 to RC 1 and haven’t touched it since. Love to play with Macs but hate iPhones with a passion.

  25. Little tip:
    use Firefox plugin IE tab so you never need to start up IE again…

    P.S., for phone, I just ordered the HTC HD2, but then I’m a phone specs nerd. (would have preferred an android phone, but I wanted these specs (1GHz Snapdragon™ processor!) now)

  26. Huh. While I’m sure that others exist, I think you’re the first person who writes professionally that I’ve seen endorse Word 2007.

    In the technical writer field, more folks who spend an awful lot of time staring at a word-processor, it seems like people used to be split fairly evenly between Word and Frame, but are more and more turning to Word, but even that seems to me to be slanted overwhelmingly in favor of Word 2003. The UI is look-and-feel similar to Word versions that go back to Office 4.3 on Windows 3.1, so pretty much everybody knows their way around it, and most of the kinks have been ironed out, and although active content, outline numbering, master documents, or any combination of the above STILL occasionally throw a monkey into the ointment somewhere around 200 pages of manuscript or so, it mostly does what you mostly expect it to do.

    I’ve been writing professionally full-time for about eight years now, and at this point I think I’ve written more books than you have (except mine all have captivating titles like “System Requirements Specification for the Active-Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program Automation Project”, and have been read by literally TENS OF PEOPLE, so I expect our needs are a little different) but my experiences with Word 2007 so far have shown me that I’d rather skewer my own eyeballs out with a rusty shrimp fork than give up Word 2003 for it.

  27. Me myself like very much with windows XP with great performance and using mozilla for my primary browser which can be customize with my needs for exploring the internet..

  28. Jim Saunderson @38:

    What are your thoughts/feelings regarding the iPhone or iPod Touch? I refuse to buy an iPhone because of at&t, but I finally got myself a 32bg Ipod Touch about 6 months ago and it’s the best toy I’ve ever owned. I highly recommed it to everyone and I am not a mac fanboy.

    I’ve carried variations of $gadget since the very first Palm Pilot, and I have to say, the Touch is easily my favorite so far. Sweet package, plus a huge app base, even after applying Sturgeon’s Law.

    My current plan is to switch to an iPhone when one is easily available with a pay-as-you-go plan, though I’m also eyeing the Android variants. The question may revolve on whether Android-based apps appear which duplicate (or improve) Touch-based apps that I’ve come to rely on.

  29. Not sure about blackberry but the other PDA’s (iPhone etc) have WordPress clients I believe that would allow you to post while out in the wild. If your into that sort of thing.

  30. I know PhotoShop is king of the hill, but there’s a nice little freeware app called Paint.NET that does a pretty good job without the expense.

  31. Don’t you mean:

    “When on occasion GMail goes down, I spend the downtime crouched in a corner trembling and crying hysterically.”

    …that’s the way it is for me, anyway.

  32. My own recommendations to add:
    – great tool for making to-do lists that you can access anywhere. Free. :-) Can sync with your google calendar too. I believe there is an iphone version too.
    – great online database for tracking, gathering and storing information that you can access anywhere on the internet. But also can have sync’d versions on your laptop.

    Google Calendar
    Again, a calendar you can access anywhere. I like how I can categorize everything and access at work, or home. I think there is a phone version too.

    All these sites are free. Only evernote has an application you can download and it can also be upgraded for a small yearly fee.

    I just started using, so not a lot to say, but it is mighty helpful to know my stuff is safe … hopefully.

    Thanks for the low-down John! I love to see what everyone else is using.

  33. Having written several book-length manuscripts using Word Perfect (various releases), I can’t imagine anyone using MS Word (in any release) for that purpose… Its .wpd to .doc conversion is perfectly adequate for communicating with people who are stuck with MS Word, like editors and publishers, for example.

  34. Neat rundown of items.

    On the dual-booting front, I’ve gone from setting up my machines to dual-boot windows and linux to using virtualbox to virtually host linux inside of windows. It’s a lot easier to deal with, I can transfer my linux machine from host to host, and I don’t need to worry if a laptop’s wifi will be linux-friendly anymore, because windows talks to the wifi card, and the virtual linux box thinks it has a ethernet cable plugged in.

  35. John, I totally agree about Google Docs and the appalling lack of an indent feature. However, you can add that feature by pasting this text into “Edit/Edit CSS”:

    p {
    text-indent: .25in;

    That works just fine, but I had to do a lot of searching, and seriously? It shouldn’t be that difficult. Heck, it shouldn’t be difficult at all.

    I use Word 2K7 too, and I like it. The interface is funky and takes some getting used to, but once you’re past that it isn’t an issue.

  36. I personally tend to favour SSuite Office’s free office suites. Their software also don’t need to run on Java or .NET, like so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small and efficient.

  37. I use a 2-yr old Macbook (with OS X 10.6, upgraded to 4GB RAM) and am in the market for one of the recently revised Mac Minis. Yeah, the iMac is a nice machine, but it’s out of my current price range and the Mini does 95% of what I need anyway (plus I already have a nice, 23″ widescreen flatpanel ;) Software is iLife, iWork, Firefox & Safari, and iTunes (the last of which I’m not crazy about). I’m an old Unix geek, and Apple has the nicest desktop Unix out there, as far as I’m concerned.

    The wife and child have a Dell box running XP, and soon to dual-boot Win7. It’s not the fire-breathing game machine you have, but it runs the games we like fairly well. It’s got Office2003, which my wife is used to. In comparison to the Mac, I spend *way* too much time keeping it free of viruses & other such crapware (welcome to the World ‘O Windows ;)

    Through my work, I have a long-standing familiarity with Linux – but like you I find I don’t use it that much at home. But I might decide to re-purpose an older machine I have with Ubuntu as a home server.

  38. I’m running a MacPro that I bought in September. I’ve got it running 10.6 with Vista Ultimate 64bit as my Bootcamp partition. I think I would have gone Windows ages ago were it not that I need to be able run Final Cut for work. Really, that is the only thing keeping me from owning a Windows based PC. I switch between the two without any real thought for regular computing, unless I need to work, then it’s Mac all the way. All my other software, for the most part, is available for Windows. And it wouldn’t cost me a fortune every time I needed to upgrade.

    But if I need to play Dragon Age or Borderlands or any of the Fallouts, it’s Windows all the way. MacDrive makes it so I can access all my drives under Windows which is just fantastic. Luckily, a MacPro makes a pretty beefy Windows box.

  39. I definitely need a new computer! My current XP system has been complaining about disk errors for some time now. I’d love to have a system with many bells and whistles, but I worry about how much noise the bells and the whistles will generate.

    So, how noisy is Primary Computer?

    Can you tell when the fans on the graphics cards kick in?

    I’ve been running Ubuntu in VirtualBox on a Thinkpad and it runs just fine. VirtualBox is a lot of fun.

  40. I’m looking at getting a new desktop, and though I have never heard of iBuyPower, I checked ’em out on NewEgg after seeing your system specs. How are you liking them? I trust your gaming experience must be more than adequate?

  41. PixelFish:

    Indeed, so far I have no complaints about the iBuyPower rig except that when it shipped one of the hard drives was damaged in transit. But they sent me a replacement one quickly, so that wasn’t actually too much of a problem.

  42. Are you running Gmail as a web-based IMAP/POP client, or have you changed over to Google Apps (and let Google host your e-mail)?