What We Use: Angus Kidman's Tech Essentials

All this week, Lifehacker staff in Australia and the US are sharing the key technology we use to make our lives and this site happen. I've got a list of old favourites here, but suspect 2011 is going to bring a lot of changes.

HARDWARE

Laptops

  • My main notebook: I'm still using the Portege R600 which I first acquired for Lifehacker's Hand Luggage Only project, but the end of its life can't be far off. It now runs so hot that I can't use it for more than 30 minutes without connecting it to a chill mat. What I'll replace it with is unclear; while I don't dislike its successor, the R700, it isn't quite compact enough, and it runs Windows 7 with less stability than the R600. Given the temperatures my current machine operates at, however, I'll have to make a choice soon. (And for anyone curious, no, it won't be a Mac; nothing has changed since I explained my reasons for not going the Mac route last time.)
  • My spare notebooks: I have two main alternative notebooks at home: a really old ThinkPad which now runs Ubuntu and is mostly used for running iView in the background while I work or when I'm testing Linux software, and an original model Eee PC which I generally use as a media player. Both machines work well, but they're both now pretty much single-function.

I haven't purchased a desktop since the mid-1990s, and I can't imagine I will any time soon. I recognise the potential benefits of a multi-monitor setup, but I work in so many different locations that I've always favoured sticking with a single-screen, maximised model that works wherever I am.

By the same token, I have no interest in mice and would much rather a good keyboard shortcut. No-one has yet convinced me that multi-touch gestures are actually useful — I disable them routinely for non-tech users and they're invariably grateful that their trackpad has stopped with the unpredictable zoom BS — and I wish more laptops had touchpoint devices, which are far more efficient when you're typing.

Accessories Aside from the usual USB keys and external drives, I'm a massive user (and tester) of 3G broadband devices. Telstra is the best choice in this category; its software is not as good as it should be and its coverage and speed claims are frequently exaggerated, but it still makes the Optus and Vodafone/3 alternatives look frankly lame. As I've mentioned, I'm currently rather reliant on chill mats, but that should change when I upgrade my notebook. Other than that, my accessories use is minimal; as a committed compact traveller, the less gumpf, the better.

Mobile Devices

It won't surprise regular readers that my day-to-day device is the BlackBerry Torch. I write for a living, so a decent physical keyboard outstrips every other requirement, and nothing on the market comes close to BlackBerry in that respect. I have an ageing iPod Touch and a couple of Android devices I use for app testing and the occasional game, but neither has come close to displacing the BlackBerry as a daily essential. It lets me work remotely, syncs beautifully with Outlook and has actual, real battery life. I love Android's Google integration and if I ever switch it will almost certainly be to Android rather than iOS — I have no interest in joining Apple's closed loop — but there's no sign of that happening right now or in the near future, Honeycomb notwithstanding.

Desk & Office Essentials

As I disclosed in our recent editorial wallpaper roundup, my desktop isn't particularly fancy — it's a photo I took which I still like. And as I run everything maximised, I only see it for the handful of apps which I don't have stored on my Start menu but need more often than is worth searching for. But I still get a burst of pleasure when I see it.

BROWSER SETUP

Main Browser: Firefox (for now)

I love Firefox and some of its extensions remain crucial, but I'm not going to lie: I'm trying to work out how to dump it so I can move to Chrome. Why? Firefox runs slowly, often hangs and has behaved so badly on some test machines I've had recently that I'm no longer convinced it's the best browsing platform. Part of me hopes than when version 4 exits beta I'll change my mind, but I've had such a bad run over the last six months that it's going to take a major improvement for me to actually believe that.

That said, Chrome isn't perfect either. It is missing a few crucial extensions, it has an unpleasant focus on mouse activity at the expense of keyboard shortcuts, and there's a few stupid bugs (like really sloppy support for the PgDn and PgUp keys when editing multi-line text fields) that make me want to stab Chrome's developers whenever I use it. So I think Chrome might be where I'm going, but I want Google to fix some of those issues before I finally make the switch.

Extensions My single most-used extension is CustomizeGoogle, which sadly has been abandoned for so long in terms of active development that it requires constant, stupid Firefox tweaks to keep it working. But I look up and copy links dozens of times a day on Google, and I don't want to have to click through them all to get rid of Google's ludicrous click-tracking code. Of course, this is exactly the kind of feature that Chrome's developers themselves will never implement, so I'm either going to have to wait for a similar extension to emerge for Chrome or stick with Firefox. (I tested out a user script which is supposed to do the same thing, but found it to be completely useless, sadly.) My other crucial extension requirement is CoLT, which I often use for collecting links.

Web Apps I'm way less Google-addicted than most Lifehacker writers — right now and post-Gears, Google Docs is essentially useless for offline work, which I do a lot of, and its feature set still lags way behind Office for stuff I actually need to do on a weekly basis. My crucial Google app is Reader, which I visit multiple times a day to keep up with the world at large.

DESKTOP APPS

Windows

    Call me old-fashioned, but I remain a big fan of Microsoft's Office suite. I have a bunch of customisations in Word which make my life much easier, Excel is streets ahead of any other spreadsheet environment, and organising (and syncing) my calendar in Outlook remains better than any other online alternative. I'm not one-eyed about it; I think the Ribbon is an abortion designed to convince people that Microsoft actually has software developers doing useful stuff and my first task in any Office install is to switch the default file format to something useful. Despite that, nothing else covers my needs as well.

    The other crucial installs on any desktop machine I work on are Dropbox and Irfanview. I think the merits of Dropbox are evident to any Lifehacker reader; all I'll say is that it has my whole working life covered even within its free 2GB service. As for Irfanview, Microsoft should license the code and add it to Windows; it's so much more efficient as an image processor and editor than anything else I've encountered, and super-keyboard friendly.

    MOBILE APPS

    I haven't extended the core set of BlackBerry apps much, beyond adding the Dropbox client and the WordPress software we use for publishing around here. If I could get the Memo Pad app to sync with either Dropbox or Evernote, that'd be great, but it's not crucial. I also wish the Torch browser had retained the option to render sites in Column view; I appreciate having real-world, full-screen rendering, but often I'd just rather focus on the reading.

    TIPS & TRICKS CLOSEST TO MY HEART

    I've written virtually every local post on Lifehacker since mid-2008, so picking out a handful is going to be tough. But these are some of the things that I still do regularly and that make my life simpler:

    • I still routinely clean out my inbox while disconnected. For me, a clear inbox remains the best sign that I'm on top of things. I back up everything I receive to Gmail for easy archive searching, but I still prefer Outlook and my BlackBerry for day-to-day processing.
    • Small, simple tweaks can sometimes make you way more productive. I wish I'd thought to sort all my directories by date modified earlier; I'd have saved a lot of time.
    • Not my post, but Classic Shell eliminated my biggest complaint about Windows 7 — the loss of the ability to launch apps by hitting the Windows key then a selected letter. So much more efficient than searching.
    • Two long-term Lifehacker projects changed my habits quite a lot: Hand Luggage Only and Mastercheap. The former put me right off travelling with checked luggage, and I virtually never do that unless I'm heading OS. The latter reminded me how planning makes for better eating, and while I don't stick rigorously to a low budget, I am more careful about how I spend.

    If I rewrite this list in a year's time, I suspect there'll be changes on hardware, browser, and probably other areas. But right now, that's what I roll with.


Comments

    Have you tried pulling your laptop apart and checking/cleaning the fans? I doubt you need a new laptop and you will be surprised how much fluff finds it's way into even desk bound laptops.

      I haven't done that in a conscientious way -- partly because pulling the Portege is tricky to dismantle (I've seen it done) and I'm a mechanical klutz. That said, it's anything but deskbound, so might try it.

        If you know someone who isn't a mechanical klutz, a 6 pack of their favourite beer is much cheaper than a new laptop :)

        Really though it isn't that hard. A phillips screwdriver and some common sense should have it apart.

        Two rules when dismantling a laptop
        1. Never force anything
        2. Remember where the screws came from.

      +1.

      I've just had my R600 fan replaced (by Toshiba - it's under a 3 year deal).It was completely clogged up, no doubt due to being on almost 24/7 & a fluffy cat.

      It was a 10 min job for the Toshiba guy, so probably 60 minutes for the rest of us. All overheating problems have been fixed.

    Interesting article. Should allow some readers to send in their preferred configurations to work or just kick back.

    *hint hint ;)*

      We'll definitely look into that.

    Yes YES about Firefox!! Why has it been sooo slow and buggy as of late? I have already created a new profile but after a few days it still starts slowing down. The only Add-ons I have are: Xmarks, ABP and FireGestures.

    Also Chrome needs a Search Bar. I find that I often use it as a notepad when researching.

      Totally agree. Have really cut back on extensions but Firefox is still not the browser it once was. But I'm quite emotionally invested in Firefox, having used it since the early beta days, and just don't "feel" Chrome, despite the fact it has some clear advantages.

    Are you aware that Outlook (one of your main objections to Mac) is now available for Mac on MS Office 2011? Also, I challenge you to go to a store, pick up a Macbook Air 11" and not fall in love...

      Yes, I am - but reports on reliability are mixed for Outlook. Besides, I'm not going to fall in love with a machine with no Ethernet port and a clickable trackpad, even leaving aside the stuff I don't like in Mac OS X.

        I'd also like to add that Office for Mac 2011 does not integrate with customers who are not on MS Exchange (e.g. if they are using Google Sync). It lacks the ability to sync their calander between Outlook and an iPhone for instance. Perhaps this oversight is acceptable for users who don't require this feature but for business users it's a deal-breaker.

        Pity, I would have liked to have tried a Mac environment.

        Keen to see what laptop Angus comes up with too. I'm waiting out for Lenovo's E420s!

      I took up your challenge and picked up the macbook air only to look at it, put it down and walk away - it feels like some light flimsy easily breakable piece of crap and i HATE the keyboard - the spaces are far to wide and it feels like i am playing on a kids toy!

    Like Angus, I agree Classic shell saves Windows 7, but for a completely different reason.
    It is the Classic Shell's Explorer Bar that I love. It brings back the ability to place icons for most Explorer functions on the Explorer bar (a bit like Win XP only better).

    Why Microsoft didn't include this functionality in Windows 7 is beyond comprehension.

    I personally use thunderbird for all my mail, calender and contacts on my winodows 7 pc. I found outlook to be just annoying to me, even though it looked sleek, it just never felt right.
    Since thunderbird runs well, and doesnt lack any functionality, ive never seen the reason to switch back to a product that does the same thing but with a hefty price tag (for a student such as myself).

    I've been running Minefield for the past few weeks. Aside from crashing when I've got 200+ tabs open it's a major improvement on current Firefox. Fast. Recovers well. The new reload button is in a stupid place. Fast.

    I don't think that's a Blackberry Storm you have there, Angus.

      D'oh! No, it's a Torch, which is what I actually have (longtime readers will recall I hate the Storm). Typo fixed now!

    Try installing swype on one of your android devices and use it for a week. Software keyboards have come a long way!

      Couldn't agree more, I trialed SwiftKey for a day last week, and quickly went back to Swype!

        Really? I did the reverse!

    This was really fascinating.

    As for your next laptop, consider an Asus UL80vt. Highly recommended, and can be had for less than $1000.

    @Gus: If you haven't already done it yet, buy yourself a couple of self-adhesive velcro sticky dots and use them the stick your 3G Wireless dongle to the back of your laptop display. Tucks it away perfectly when you're working on buses, trains, etc

      I did something like this with my Eee PC some time back, but the Telstra modem I use now connects without a cable, so it hasn't been necessary.

        Makes sense, I figured the photo you used at the top of the page was relatively up to date - though I should have known better considering Vodafones recent dodgy 3G service for the last few months.

    Dear Angus,
    How do you get rid of that awfull ribbon and go back to the workable menus from the top bar? That bloody ribbon occupies all the space and I end up using Wordpad or other text programs rather than my paid for full Office program

      Well, you can hide it with Ctrl-F1, and I do so quite often. There's shareware that restores the old Office menu setup, but I've resisted that so far -- I've just learned to memorise the fiddlier (and longer) Ribbon keyboard shortcuts, and set up macros with easier equivalents for a couple of common tasks.

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