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.



  • 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.

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.[imgclear]

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.


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.

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.



    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.


    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.


    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.

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