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What We Use: Alan Henry’s Favourite Gear And Productivity Tips

This week we’re sharing the hardware, software, tips and tricks, that keep our blogging wheels spinning. Today, I’m running through my favourite gear, gadgets, apps, devices and tricks to stay productive when I’m on, and to have fun when I’m off.

The last time we did this series, I was on the other side of the table, reading and commenting on what the Lifehacker crew used on a day-to-day basis and applying their tips to my workflow. Now that I’m on the team, you’ll see some similarities, mostly because I was inspired by everyone else so much.

Hardware

Desktops & Laptops

I’ve always been a cross-platform kind of guy. I don’t think that if you’re really passionate about technology you can simply ignore or write off any product or company as useless simply because you dislike it or the culture around it — at least not without using it first. To that end, my setup consists of Macs, Windows PCs, and even a part-time Windows/part-time Linux home server and media centre.

  • Laptop: Ganymede, my 15-inch MacBook Pro: My trusty working system is a 15-inch MacBook Pro that I bought back in 2010. It’s loaded down with a 250GB SSD and a ridiculous 8GB of RAM, along with a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 under the hood. It’s more than enough power for my work, and it’s the perfect portable machine to take with me when I travel. I toyed with the idea of picking up a MacBook Air instead, but I’ve travelled on planes, trains and automobiles with 15-inch MacBook Pros in my bag (more on that later) for years, and the weight’s never bothered me. I have, however, always appreciated having the power and ports on-hand at all times. My laptop is ideal for work — I can pack it up and take my work with me wherever I go. Speaking of those old laptops, I do have a backup mid-2008 MacBook Pro (named Europa) that I use for work if my primary machine is out of commission, but it’s underpowered by comparison. When I’m at home though, I pair my laptop with a Logitech Performance Mouse MX, a standard Apple Wired Keyboard and a Griffin Elevator Stand.

  • Desktop: Deneb, my custom Windows 7 gaming PC: While it serves primary duty as a gaming system and my off-duty PC, Deneb pulls double-duty when I need to test Windows applications, hacks, and tweaks before writing them up for Lifehacker. I’ve always built my own PCs, and I built Deneb at the end of 2008. When I first built it, it was a Windows Vista x64 machine (since upgraded to Windows 7) and it still packs a 3.2GHz Core i7 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 640GB 7200RPM standard hard drive. I’m still debating whether now is a good time to buy an SSD, and even whether migrating to it will be a pain when I get one, but that’s my next logical upgrade. After all, just before the holidays, I swapped out my old ATI Radeon HD 4870 x2 for a newer Radeon HD 6970 I got a good price on. It is a gaming system, after all. I combine the system with some great Creative speakers, a pair of (the Macbook Pro uses one of them during the day, but the PC gets them both when I’m off dity), a Logitech G9x mouse (although you see me here testing out a NZXT Avatar S I got for testing,) and a Logitech G19 gaming keyboard I scored a while back (and would never tell anyone to actually buy — it’s cool, but too expensive.)

  • Server and Media Center: Orion, an upgraded Dell Optiplex 740: I picked up this old desktop for a song from an old coworker who was looking to offload it. It already had 4GB of RAM and a 2.4GHZ AMD Athlon 3800+ under the hood — not too powerful, but enough for a home server. It had (and still has) Windows on it, but I installed Ubuntu on another partition just for kicks. I slapped in a pair or 1TB SATA drives to accompany the 250GB boot drive, and attached a pair of 1TB USB drives. That’s right — this system is packing well over 4TB of space, most of which is used for music, movies, downloads, and perhaps most importantly, CrashPlan backups from all of the other computers in the house (where they’re also staged for offsite backup.) Because I wanted Orion to also be a media centre PC, I also added an ATI Radeon HD 5570 based on the advice of the folks at AVS Forum, and have it connected to my 50″ Panasonic Plasma via HDMI, and I fire up XBMC whenever I want to do some TV or podcast watching that I can’t do with the XBox 360.

Phones, Tablets and Other Mobile Devices

You might think that because I use a Mac for my day to day work I might be an iOS person. Not quite — I’ve been a Verizon Wireless customer for the longest time, mostly because they’ve always been the carrier of choice in my area, both for signal and reliability, and because all of my friends use them too. So, when my friends on AT&T were getting iPhones, I suffered with office-issued BlackBerry phones and a really old Motorola Q that I’d rather forget. When the original Motorola Droid appeared on Verizon Wireless, I jumped on it, and my love affair with Android began. Here’s what I’m carrying around now.

  • Motorola Droid Bionic: Affectionately named Sonico, my Droid Bionic is rooted, but I don’t have a custom ROM or kernel installed. It’s my lifeline — the first thing I look at when I wake up and probably the last screen I turn off before I shut my eyes. Sure, I could have waited for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus to arrive, but my OG Droid was getting on in age, and I had waited for the Bionic since it was shown at CES in early 2011. Plus, for reasons entirely too lengthy to get into, the Galaxy Nexus — while an impressive device — didn’t appeal to me at all.

  • Droid by Motorola: The first Android phone I ever owned. I used it stock for entirely too long, and was entirely too reluctant to root it and install a new ROM (mostly because my cell phone is my only phone,) but once I did, I went on a campaign to let other people know how easy it was. Cyanogen 7 turned my ageing Droid into a serviceable device again, much more richly featured than it had ever been in the past. When I picked up my Bionic, I wiped it, installed MIUI, and now I use it as a testbed for betas, side-loaded APKs, new ROMs and anything else I consider too high-risk for my primary phone.
  • 32GB 1st Gen iPod Touch: There is one iOS device in my life, and it’s all but permenently stationed in my bedside dock/radio. I travel with it because it gets incredible battery life, carries tons of music, slips in my pocket, and I can watch video podcasts and listen to music on it to my heart’s content without worrying I’m draining my cell phone’s battery — which I’ll need when I land in a new city and need to fire up GPS. When I’m not travelling, it wakes me with music.

You might notice I don’t have a tablet of any kind. Mostly that’s because I haven’t found an Android tablet that I actually wanted, and while I completely plan to get an iPad, I’ve been holding out for the iPad 3 since the original came out. I was tempted to buy an iPad 2, but all the short-stock issues Apple had when it launched put me off the device until I knew it was just better to wait for the next generation. We’ll see if the iPad 3 is enough to get me to open my wallet.

Accessories

My go-bag has always been a Timbuk2 Commute messenger bag, although I have the previous version (the one that’s not TSA compliant and has a padded back.) The laptop sleeve is large enough for my 15-inch MacBook Pro, the charger goes in the back, and it’s all but cavernous when it comes to pockets and hiding places for tools, essentials, power cables, chargers, and more. Here are the highlights:

This is actually the tip of the iceberg. When I travel, I’ll toss in my old Nintendo DS Lite and a couple of games to pass the time. I usually pack painkillers, hand sanitiser, stain removal pen, spare notebooks, stuff like that, not to mention spare USB cables, stereo cables, things like that.

Software

Most of my work is done in webapps these days, but there are still some essentials that I open and keep open on a regular basis. I tend to keep a pretty clean desktop, especially on the Mac OS side, but here are some of my favourite browsers and tools that I use to stay organised and productive.

Web Browser, Extensions and Web Apps

I’m still primarily a Firefox holdout. When I worked in an office on a woefully underpowered laptop, Chrome was my browser of choice because it handled memory much better back then. Firefox has been making strides recently, and I’ve been known to have Firefox and Chrome open at the same time for different things. I keep them both installed on all of my systems. Still, if you forced me to choose, I’d pick Firefox. Old habits. Still, whichever browser I’m using, here are the extensions I have installed.

Extensions

Webapps

  • Google Docs has replaced Microsoft Office for me, mostly because I can write faster in Google Docs, collaborate easier with the Lifehacker team, and organise my documents easier. Still, I keep Office around for other things.

  • I’ve really been getting into Wunderkit as a way to organise my ideas and personal projects, now that the beta is open to anyone, but it’s more of a compliment to ReQall, which I’ve discussed before for recurring and location-specific tasks.
  • Mint is still the one-stop shop I use to manage all of my finances, from my budget to my investments to my credit cards — all in one glorious view…that just takes a few days to update unless I do it manually.
  • Google Music was my saviour when it was released. I have a ridiculously large music collection, and Google Music was the first service that let me put it all in the cloud without having to stream it from my home computer to where I was sitting.
  • When I’m not using Google Music, I rock Pandora (and pay for Pandora One) so I can listen to music without interacting with it, and even stream Pandora in my car almost exclusively via the Android App. I’m also a GrooveShark fan, and use it to hang on to songs that I discover and want to listen to now and again, or preview albums of new artists before I buy them. (I still use iTunes on the Mac for podcast management though.)

Desktop Apps

Even though a lot of applications are moving to the web, I tend to prefer desktop apps — even desktop versions of webapps — because I just want to get as many webapps out of my browser as possible. Keep in mind my Windows machine is really a gaming system, so the majority of installed software there consists of Steam and dozens of games-not mentioned here, for obvious reasons. Now then, here are the apps I use every day on my Mac and Windows machines.

Mac:

  • Dropbox, of course.
  • Adium for AOL IM and Google Chat
  • Mozilla Thunderbird for email. I seriously have a half-dozen email addresses, and Thunderbird makes it easy to manage them all at once.
  • Reeder as my primary newsreader (and hook to Google Reader.)
  • TextWrangler is my text editor of choice, perfect for hand-writing HTML.
  • Apple iWork, mostly Pages and Keynote, because I haven’t found a better presentation creation tool than Keynote, and Pages is a superb desktop publishing tool for stylised documents like invoices.
  • Transmit by Panic as my primary FTP client.
  • iTerm2 when I need to get my hands dirty.
  • Alfred as my application launcher — I used to be a Quicksilver faithful, but Alfred may have won me over.
  • The old, Adobe AIR version of TweetDeck, because the new one, while pretty, sacrificed a ton of features.
  • Adobe Creative Suite for image editing, although Apple’s Preview handles all of my resizing needs easily.
  • VLC, my favourite media player.
  • Previously mentioned FormatMatch, since I copy and paste, a lot.
  • Caffeine for Mac to keep the screen awake.
  • Previously mentioned CapSee for Mac, so I never leave the Caps Lock key on.
  • Previously mentioned Cobook, which does a great job of organising all of my contacts.
  • ScreenFlow for screencasting and editing.
  • Stattoo, as a combination HUD and status display on my desktop.

Windows:

Mobile Apps

Games and time-passing social networks (Twitter — I prefer Twicca for Android, Facebook, Foodspotting, Foursquare and Google+) aside, these are some of the most useful and interesting apps I keep on my Android phone.

Tips and Tricks Closest To My Heart

Consider it a curse, but I certainly know how difficult it can be to write about tips and tricks, and not have the time or the opportunity to fully utilise them all. I’ve been a Lifehacker reader since the site launched, and only a writer for the past year. There have been dozens of articles that have had a serious impact on me, but here are a few.


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