My Tech Life, 2012
Posted on September 22, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 38 Comments
Three years ago, I gave an accounting of the technology I use and why, because people seem to be fairly curious about what I use and how it has an impact on my work. In the three years since I posted that piece, the day-to-day technology I use has changed quite a bit, so I thought I would give an update and what’s going on in my tech life and the reasons I have to use what I do. Here’s what I’m using now.
Desktop Computer: 2011 edition Mac Mini, 2.5Ghz Intel i5, 4GB RAM, AMD Radeon 6630M GPU, 500GB Hard Drive. The last time I did this, I referred to my desktop computer as my “primary computer,” but I don’t know if such a designation would be accurate these days. I spend a lot of time at my desktop computer, of course, but I’m equally likely these days to be working/viewing the Internet on a laptop or tablet. As time goes by I’m using my desktop for specialized things, or when I want to look at the Internet through a large monitor. There are also things I am doing less of; for example, I’m not playing PC-based videogames nearly as much as I used to, mostly because, in the last year, I’ve had less time just to chill out and shoot things. I do hope to correct that in 2013. Nevertheless, in 2012 this is where I am.
Earlier this year my former desktop died on me, and I decided not to immediately swap it out another monster rig; instead I used the MacBook Air I had, which suited me just fine for a bit. When I lost that (it was stolen, but then it was stolen because stupidly I left it somewhere it could be stolen), I decided that, for at least an interim basis, I would replace the desktop with a Mac Mini. Why? Because it was small, it wasn’t noisy, it would reduce clutter around my desk and because spending time with the Air made me fall in love with the Mac trackpad, which I now vastly prefer for my day-to-day work tasks over a mouse.
It’s not a monster machine, and in fact in almost every way is less robustly specced than my previous desktop, which is now three years old. I haven’t even bothered to play video games on it yet, and I do miss playing video games on my computer, so it’s possible I will get back to a larger, more powerful rig at some point. But for writing, Web browsing and basic photo/audio stuff, it works just fine, and at this moment that’s what I need it to do. I’m not in a huge rush to upgrade this.
Laptop: Acer Aspire One 11.6″ Netbook, AMD Dual Core Processor, 2GB RAM, 320GB Hard Drive. It used to be the 2011 MacBook Air, which I still consider the best all-around computer I’ve owned. But I lost it in May and needed a good, cheap travel-sized laptop, and I’d had relatively good luck with Acers before, so this what I got. The Air came back to me, but then I lost it again, basically because I’m an idiot. So this is my laptop for the moment at least.
It’s basic: It allows me to write, answer e-mail and do stuff on the Web. It’s okay but not great to write on and its build quality is sufficient but not memorable. The keys on the keyboard feel a tiny bit wobbly but only a tiny bit. I don’t get angry with it for not being fantastic because, you know what? I knew what was getting when I spent $250 on a laptop. It does what I bought it to do.
That said, the laptop is the piece of equipment mostly likely to be upgraded next, either to an Air again or to another kind of ultrabook after Windows 8 comes out. Basically I want to know how Windows 8 handles as an operating system (and whether Windows OS computers will stop having such suck-ass trackpads). There’s also another possibility, which I will detail below.
Tablet: Galaxy Tab 2, 7 inch. Yes, I just got the 2012 iPad, and I’m liking it a lot, and depending on how things work out with the incoming keyboard I got for the thing, it might de facto slide into the “laptop” slot for me moving forward. That said, when it comes to walking around the house with a computing device for reading the Web, fooling about on Twitter and quickly going through e-mail, the Galaxy Tab gets the nod. I like its size and it gets the job done, and the form factor is especially good for book reading. The iPad I have for business purposes (the video game I have a hand in is being developed for it), whereas the Galaxy Tab is more congenial for my daily life.
Phone: Motorola RAZR MAXX. When I went to upgrade my phone last year it came down to the Razr Maxx and the Galaxy Nexus. The Maxx had a ridiculously long lasting battery, but the Nexus had a better screen and Android 4.0. I went with the shiny and was mostly happy with the Nexus, except for its battery life, which, frankly, sucked. And then it died on me and I replaced it with the Maxx, and I have to say I’m glad I did. I really almost never have to worry about if I’m going to run out of battery, and at the end of the day I find that’s the thing I worry about most with my phone. The Nexus’ display is still better, but the Maxx’s is perfectly fine and otherwise I find nothing to complain about with the phone, with the exception that the power button is too flush with the phone, which makes it hard to activate sometimes. But if that’s your major problem with a phone? You’re fine.
Operating System: Varies. Mountain Lion on the Mini, Windows 7, iOS6 on the iPad, Android 4.0 on the Galaxy Tab and Maxx. Esthetically I like Mountain Lion, and especially the ability to flip back and forth between programs with a swipe of the keypad. Functionally Windows 7 is still substantially better for how I do things. The mobile OSes I find I don’t really care about one way or another although if you put a gun to my head I would probably give Android the nod over iOS6, and not just because of the maps but for overall functionality. But these days operating systems are much less of a deal than they were before, at least for me, not in the least because so much of what I need for computing goes on over the Internet, which is increasingly agnostic about operating systems.
Browser: Chrome (currently version 21.0.1180.89). It’s the browser that works the best across multiple platforms, and these days that’s important to me. It’s also stable and seems to handle memory management better than Firebox, my previous go-to browser. Also, I tend to use a lot of Google-based or -oriented services, and Chrome, which is made by Google, not surprisingly seems to integrate those better than other browsers. Firefox is now my backup browser; I miss its plugins but not how it would eventually cause my computers to chug. Safari and Internet Explorer I use exactly as long as it takes to download Chrome and Firefox. I acknowledge that Opera exists.
Mail: GMail: Was using it three years ago and still using it today because I am used to the interface and it works well for what I do with e-mail. And if something works, why change it?
Photo Management: Flickr. Again, something I’ve been using for a while, for the same reasons (applied to photo management) I use Gmail. I had some mild concerns for a while about how long Flickr might be around because Yahoo, its parent company, seems have made a concerted effort to mess itself up, and I was also concerned Yahoo would decide that Flickr was not part of its “core strengths” or whatever. But for the moment at least their new CEO seems to be helping. Hopefully it will not go away.
Photo Editing: Varies. I used to use the latest iteration of Photoshop exclusively, but these days I find that what I use depends on where I am sitting and how I am taking the picture. If I use my Nikon to take the picture, I’ll use the Photoshop Elements and CameraBag 2, which I have on the Mini (which has a slot for my Nikon’s memory card). If I’m using the iPad, I’ll use Snapseed or PS Touch. On the Galaxy Tab, I have Vignette, Pixlromatic or Instagram, which I also have on the Maxx, along with Flickr’s app and Perfectly Clear. I’ll also often use Aviary, which is now integrated into Flickr. Really, this category is just kind of a mess at this point.
Music Management: Rhapsody. Again, still, and again, for the same reasons as I use GMail, as they relate to music. That said, these days “music management” means something different than it meant three years ago. At this point I don’t really download music anymore. I still buy it — I think it’s important to support musicians — but I tend not to buy it to own the files, I buy it to give the musicians money. So what happens is that I’ll listen to an album on Rhapsody, if I like it I buy it on Amazon, Amazon will store it in that music locker service of theirs so I can download it later if I want, and then I listen to it on Rhapsody some more. That way the musician gets paid twice — first for the album I’ve bought and then for the streaming. I like paying people twice!
Video: Netflix. Krissy and Athena are all about streaming TV series (Krissy: Sons of Anarchy; Athena: Black Butler) and I will on occasion dip in for Asian action films (most recently: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), and the service is ubiquitous — hell, it even came packaged in a TV we just bought. We also still do subscribe to their BluRay service, which I understand makes us old people. And get this — sometimes we even still buy BluRays. I know! It’s crazy. I also have Amazon’s streaming service because I’m a Prime member, but I use it very rarely.
eBook Managment: Nook. Mostly because I was given a Nook eReader a couple of years ago as a gift, and therefore did a number of purchases through it, but also because, well, I see no point in just handing the eBook field to Amazon (which I use for other things, however). I rarely use the Nook eReader anymore; I have the Nook app on my mobile devices now. I do also have Amazon’s Kindle, and Google Books and (on the iPad) iBooks, although I’ve bought almost nothing on the latter because of lack of cross-platform apps. I still tend to default to Nook when I buy eBooks. What I would really like is to be able to buy my eBooks through my local indie book retailer, but that’s not doable yet.
Cloud Service: Google Drive. I primarily use this because, again, I tend to use a lot of Google services. However, I do have iCloud turned on for my Apple stuff, and as noted also use Amazon’s offerings from time to time. And I have a personal “cloud” option, namely, my Web site provider 1and1.com, which offers me effectively unlimited storage space on my site. This is a reminder that “the cloud” is just a silly metaphorical name for “a bunch of servers that are not in your house at the moment.”
Web Hosting: 1and1.com. I’ve been with 1and1.com for I think eight years now and in that time I’ve been very pleased with their service. I have their business package, which means effectively I have unlimited space and unlimited bandwidth. The only problem I ever had, in fact, was when Whatever became a processor hog on their servers, which would time out processes before they could complete, causing me all sorts of headaches. But now Whatever is elsewhere (more on that in a minute) and in any event I’m pretty sure the problem there was me — specifically my lack of competence in setting up the blog — not them. 1and1 does its job so well I don’t even think about them anymore, which is really the highest compliment one can give a Web host.
Blog Software/Hosting: WordPress. I’ve been using WordPress for Whatever since 2008, and Whatever has been hosted via WordPress’ VIP service since October 2008, and I’ve been deeply pleased with both. I’ll have more to say about both of those on October 8, which is the day in 2008 the site switched over, but for now I’ll say I can happily endorse both services.
Word Processor: Google Docs. Which is now integrated in Google Drive, so honestly I don’t know if that’s what it’s still called, but screw it, that’s what I knew it by when I started using it, so that’s what I’m going to keep calling it. I’ve had a largely dissatisfied relationship with Google Docs over the years — the “write and edit from anywhere” proposition is largely undeniably a compelling one, but the program itself was half-baked for a very long time. But here in 2012 they’ve finally largely got it working for what I need it to do: I can write, edit and format words, it has a built-in spell-check and word count, and I can work on the same document across multiple computers and platforms just by clicking into the document. Done and done.
It’s interesting to me how important “working across multiple computers and platforms by clicking into the document” has become to me, and it, not cost issues, is why I use Google Docs more at the moment than I do my previous default word processor, Microsoft Word. It’s possible to use Word across multiple platforms, but to do so is more kludgy at the moment than anything else, in my experience. I imagine this will be directly addressed in Word 2013, which I understand is better integrated with Microsoft’s cloud offering, and so on and so forth. So we’ll see. At the moment, however, Google Docs is working for me. I am also using Apple’s Pages, which uses the company’s iCloud storage component, but it’s not my preferred word processor. I haven’t stopped using Word, I should note, but I use it for specialized purposes at the moment.
(Writers, before you try to pimp me your favorite writing tool — especially Scrivener — be aware that I try them all. If I don’t mention using your favorite, it’s because it doesn’t work for me. Especially Scrivener. Man, you Scrivener fanboys drive me a little crazy sometimes.)
Twitter Client: Janetter. It does everything I used to use TweetDeck for, before Twitter bought TweetDeck and made it suck. I understand Twitter is cracking down on third-party companies, which makes me worry about Janetter’s future. But for now, I like it better than any other Twitter client. At least on my computers; on my mobile devices, I find Twitter’s client perfectly adequate.
Things On the Previous List Not Really on This One: Video Game Management, Audio/Video Editing, IM Software, Personal Music/Video Player. As I’m not really playing games at the moment, I’m not really using Steam, my prior game management software, although when I come back around to gaming on the PC, it’s what I’ll use again. I’m playing games on my tablets and phone, but they don’t need specialized management software. I’m using Apple’s basic audio/video tools and hate them with a blinding passion and will be looking for something better (no, I’m not looking for recommendations at this time). As for IM, I’ve mostly stopped using it on a day-to-day basis, although when I do use it, I’m using Apple’s Messaging software that came with Mountain Lion. For music/video playing, those functions have been totally subsumed by my phone and tablets, and on those I use Rhapsody or Spotify primarily.
I think that’s a pretty exhaustive list, but if there’s something more you want to know, drop it into the comments.
When you ARE looking for recomendations for audio editing tools, I have some thoughts.
In the meantime, I was pleased with the capability we used to have to buy Google Books ebooks through my local indie bookstores, and I’m looking forward to testing Kobo’s relationship with indie bookstores sometime soon.
I use Google Drive/Docs for most things other than my novel. It still lacks offline editing for Linux and iPad, though, which are my mobile devices of choice.
I know better than to recommend Scrivener. For me, it’s excellent, but I remember that you mentioned once that you’d tried it and it didn’t fit your process. It would be like recommending paintbrushes to someone who works in pastels.
I love Google Docs as well though for heavy revisions between drafts, it’s still OpenOffice.
We could liven things up by recommending Scrivener for music management, or as a laptop, or something.
In re Scrivener, the Scrivener bit in Redshirts gave me the biggest full belly laugh I’ve had in a long time.
John, it seems to me like you generally haven’t been too excited about writing software because you spend more time actually writing words than you do formatting, doing tables, data structures, state transition diagrams, complying with corporate document formats, etc.
We use Word at work. We used to use Framemaker and I miss it every time I use Word. I also imagine Framemaker is pretty pointless for writing fiction.
I’ve played with Scrivener and completely understand why people would love it. I played with is because I had an idea for a radio play and it seemed to have some nice formatting and organizing for script writing. However I couldn’t imagine using it to do any sort of spur of the moment writing (I still prefer pen and paper for that) or any standard prose construction. It feels more like a neat distracting toy then an aid for creation.
Just curious as to what you use for file backup.
I still have the hardest time getting clients/friends/relatives/co-workers to back up their files regularly. It usually takes at least one disaster that results in lost irreplaceable data to get them to even think about backup. (On occasions it has taken two or more disasters for them to get backup religion. The old, “It won’t happen to me AGAIN” philosophy.) I’ve had good luck with getting people to use Crashplan because it’s a set it and forget it system. Me, I’m paranoid about backups. I’ve got one on site backup to an external HD, one off-site backup to an external HD, and one backup on Crashplan.
What’s your feeling about having your data out there in “the cloud?” Especially your writing projects.
I like Google Docs, and it would probably be my favorite word processor if it didn’t store my files on Google’s servers. Not there would be anything incriminating or embarrassing in them; I just don’t like the idea that someone else has access to my data. Maybe Google the company won’t snoop, but that doesn’t me a bad employee won’t, nor does it prevent a third party from stealing the data. My policy is that my data is either stored on a machine over which I have physical ownership and control, or, if it is on someone else’s server, my data is encrypted, and only I have the key.
Maybe I’m getting old, paranoid, or just approaching the “get off my lawn” stage of life, but I’m just not comfortable putting my data “out there.” For me, it’s all potential costs and no benefits.
you mentioned that athena is watching Black Butler. If she likes it I strongly recommend Code Geass. It’s not quite as dark(most of the) time but my friends and I really enjoyed both Black Butler and Code Geass.
You mentioned your lack of recent video game playing and that you’d like to play more someday, so while this is a little off topic perhaps it is something you’d answer in a separate post sometime if not here:
Have you ever played or considered playing one of the massively multiplayer video games like World of Warcraft or, for a more recent example, Guild Wars 2? If so, which ones and what drew you to them? And if not, any particular reason why not?
Having followed your blog since forever, my guess is that they simply don’t interest you, but I’m still curious.
Steam now lets you get the Mac and PC versions of games for no extra charge. It’s really handy if you have multiple devices. There are a lot of fun indie-type games out these days that support both that run great on low end software, so you can use your game machine for Borderlands 2 and chill out with FTL:Faster Than Light on your Air. There’s a bunch of games that I play that would work just fine on your Mini. (Not FPSes, mind.)
Agree about Janetter, it’s a great multi-account Twitter client. Hope it survives. Today I can’t get it to work at all, getting server initialization errors and so on. Sometimes I think Twitter is its own worst enemy!!
When I got my first full-time tech writer gig more than ten years ago, the tech writer field was divided pretty firmly between Frame People and Word People. And since the place I was working didn’t want to spring for Frame (or Documentum, or anything else cooler) but had a site license for Word, I became a Word guy. Word 2003 is still my favorite thing, although I’ll admit that I’ve only scratched the surface of OpenOffice Writer, and I’ve touched Google Docs hardly at all.
But starting with Office 2007, Microsoft appears to have lost their minds. Given an automated upgrade I didn’t ask for, I downgraded back to 2003 in around a week. Years later, given another automated upgrade to Office 2010 I didn’t ask for and couldn’t downgrade, I installed the ubit.ch plugin to reinstall the menu structure that had been around for at least ten years (Office 4.2, at least) so as to not have my productivity destroyed by some idiotic jerkwad’s ‘artistic vision’ for a ‘ribbon’, and I still pretty often find myself thinking “this is easier on the laptop that still has Office 2003 on it”.
The thing is: as someone who has also done some UI design, I can appreciate Word 2010 as being a decent word-processor for someone who has never used one before. If you don’t know anything about computers, and you need some software to write something in, Word 2010 is a fine choice. But if Word 2003 was the primary tool of your craft? Word 2007 is like being cold-cocked by the guy next to you at the bar, and Word 2010 is like is larger friend showing up later to kick you in the ribs while you’re down. From a marketing perspective, I think it was a mistake to call those ‘Word’. They should have called those ‘Microsoft Write’ or something, because they didn’t look a damn thing like Word has looked for the last decade, and needed a fifty-tab spreadsheet full of instructions for how to find all of the commands that you USED to know where the hell they were.
Even with the plugin, this might be the last version of Office that I can stand to use. Putting words together on a screen shouldn’t be this hard. The word-processor should not get in my damn way. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s entirely possible that Microsoft has pissed me off for the last time.
It’s wild how much cloud-based tools have crept into everyone’s lives. I really like the Google suite of tools, though I have my own set on the intel/nvidia PC (open source stuff for the most part). The iPad is a very convenient device, from which I do a lot of reading (iBook, Google Play–and Kindle). The biggest change has been Xbox, which we bought a year ago. That has been a game changer in more ways than one. I rarely sit down to play games on my PC anymore. Why bother when Xbox turns my sofa, ottoman and 60″ HDTV into a game system that’s every bit as good as my PC games were?
Wow – 2 (other) commenters who know what Framemaker is! Proof that the Whatever is geek central. :-)
I’m relegated to Word-land in my current gig. Sympathize with your thoughts Huey – it took me about 6 months, but I now have that “ribbon” curled right around my little finger. Really makes me feel like a master of the universe!
I might not have trepidations on the cloud if my work was like John’s, but proprietary client files can’t go there, so it’s still the old flash drive for me.
John, thanks for sharing your experiences and opinions. It’s interesting to read your reflections on technology at a meta level: what changes in the products/services used says about one’s lifestyle.
Too bad Janetter is only 10.6 or later on the Mac.
Do you still use LiveStrong?
How about a printer? Do you find you still need one, or are you pretty much paperless? Last night I had occasion to visit the desktop and print something, and was a little surprised to see by what was on the screen that the previous time I’d been there was more than 2 months ago.
I loved, loved FrameMaker! It’s the best word processor I ever used. First they dropped the Irix/AIX/Linux version, then the Mac version, then the Solaris version. Only Windows remains and they made the UI some shade of grey that hurts my eyes (is there a way to get rid of it?) so I went to OpenOffice.
Hah. gleonguerrero I still mourn Word Perfect 5.1. It was my favorite word processor. I don’t want to take my hands off the keyboard to mess with a mouse when I want to format something. You could make much nicer tables and columns with WP than you can, even now with MS Worthless. But we were forced by higher ups to go MS only. Blargh. And I agree. Lately, each upgrade is worse than the version that preceded it. Don’t even get me started on Excel.
Here’s another vote for FrameMaker running on Solaris. Those were the good ol’ days.
FYI, I have the same Mini, except with 8GB RAM instead of 4, and it works just fine for gaming. I play Diablo 3 with no problems at all.
nice specs you got overthere,not only you are a great scifi author but also a hardware pro :)
@schnauzerfan: I remember WP 5.1. Loved it too. Macro’s made extensive edits pretty easy too. I grew up a DOS boy, including system code stuff, and I never quite got into the whole windows thang. Too much crap under the hood of their sanctioned functions, and whatnot.
Upgrading the RAM on your mini will improve it’s performance dramatically.
I have the same Mac mini as you do. I recently upgraded to 16Gb of RAM and am amazed at the performance difference. The upgrade was about $90 from Amazon and took all of five minutes to complete.
Also watch out for the rubber strip that sits in front of the iPad on your Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard. There’s a number of documented cases where the rubber strip starts delaminating from the main body of the keyboard.
Oops. I put an apostrophe in “its”. I’ve doomed myself…
I wrote speculative fiction on a Sun SPARC system at home in FrameMaker, after WriteNow stopped being viable and before I gave up and started on Word…
I’m a bit surprised that you find your current desktop not as “robust” as your previous one. Although I’m not familiar with Mac’s, you have a nice processor and 4GB RAM give you more than enough to do what you use your computer for. Not familiar with your GPU, but that is more important if you are gaming on that computer. I built myself in i7 with 16GB RAM (Win 7), have a laptop with an i5 in it, and love them both.
If you are at all interested in games on the iPad, The Room just ate my weekend. I’m sure a non-sociopath of normal intelligence would get through it a lot faster, but it is really beautiful, and well worth the five bucks, IMHO.
You’re such a techie, of which I am not! lolz I have a good desktop computer (which I prefer more than laptop) but I don’t know many things about it. All I do is emailing, Office documents, and research. Much of the apps and software I don’t know. But I’m glad I don’t know that much, I don’t want to occupied my mind so much.
I suppose my question is what do you use to listen to music in the car. I use a Zune HD and expect to be looking for a new option that’s not a “smart” phone when Microsoft leaves me in the lurch in a month or so.
I’ve been a big fan of the Mac Mini for several years as an ideal desktop machine for most folks (barring hardcore gamers). And as our host has shown, Mac OS X is perfectly capable of integrating with Google’s ecosystem if Apple’s iWorks, iCloud, etc… isn’t your thing.
Yeah, I have (home-built) Win7 boxes around for gaming, but always head back to the Mini when I want something that stays out of my way and just works with minimal fuss.
I’d like to put a few words for Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) as an ebook management software. I have a Sony and an iPad and having a third-party management app makes synching books from various sources a piece of cake. It can be clunky, but it’s cross platform, continually under development, works with most devices and free.
I also have a hate on for the movement toward proprietary ebook formats and the idea that I need to organize my bookshelf according to who sold me the book. Reading software is one thing but ebook management should be independent…
Hey John, which iPad games do you like?
Bejeweled? Angry Birds? Temple Run?
Sure, I have a few questions if they’re not too personal. What Internet service provider do you use at home?
Also, you write that your former desktop ‘died’, and “…less robustly specced than my previous desktop, which is now three years old”. Does that mean your previous computer only lasted you three years? Is that common for you?
As someone who does mostly scientific writing, I use Latex for almost everything (edited on Macs w/ TexShop). I’ve sometimes wondered if anybody in other fields uses it. If you want ‘get out of my way and let me write’, it’s hard to beat the simplicity of Latex.
I think the adblock plugins for firefox are superior to plugs for chrome. They block popups and advertisements on top of videos. I am not sure if they are available for Chrome or if chrome has anything of the same quality.
BTW, if you want a desktop the most affordable way to go is to build it yourself. It is not that hard. You can literally build a high end one for half the price or less than if you buy from someone else. Once you do it once, its not hard at all. There are plenty of sites for doing it.
If you game again, take a look at ‘steam’ you can buy the software online and download it. They have very good prices.