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, apps, hacks, and tips that help me work (and play) better.
Last year we provided a look into what we use every day, and things can change lot in in a year. While some of my setup has remained the same, a lot has changed. I’m now using Android and iOS, all my desktop machines are hackintoshes, I adopted a few new apps, and learned a few new tricks. Here’s a look at what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.
Desktops & Laptops
There’s no question I have an excess of computers around the house, but in an effort to reduce the number of things I own I’ve downsized a bit since last year. Now I operate with a laptop, a desktop, and a media centre (which also doubles as a video encoding machine when needed).
Laptop: MacBook Air 11″
Last year I was working on a 13″ MacBook Air, but I liked the idea of a more portable machine. I was concerned about the battery life, but after performing a very scientific comparison between the two models I found out there really wasn’t a realistic difference. I decided to switch and haven’t looked back since. Having a laptop that fits in just about any bag is pretty great, and with a Core i7 processor it’s powerful enough to handle pretty much whatever I throw at it. The only thing I really miss is the SD card slot, but this SD card that converts into a USB drive pretty much solved the problem. (Please make bigger and faster cards like this, SanDisk!)
(Also, since everyone always asks, the “laptop desk” is actually a OFFI Mag Table turned the wrong way.)
Desktop: Hack Pro
After building a “Hack Mini” for my media centre (details below), I loved it so much that I decided to replace my other desktop with a Hack Pro based on this tonymacx86 build. After building both machines and selling my Apple-made computers, I ended up with a surplus of $600 and the fastest hardware I’ve ever owned. Although hackintoshing has its ups and downs, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I only had a little experience in building computers so (my fellow writer) Whitson volunteered to help me out. Since then, he’s written a computer building guide so you can get his help, too. Building a machine is really fun, and now that the hackintoshing process is so simple it’s hard to justify buying a real Mac desktop. (Unfortunately, it’s generally not worth the trouble with laptops.) Despite being the fastest machine of the bunch, it probably gets the least use. Sometimes I use it for Lifehacker work, but generally the MacBook Air is fast enough. When it comes to creating music or working on complex video projects, however, this is the only computer that can handle the job.
Server and Media Center: Hack Mini
My file server and media centre — which I often use as a secondary machine for handling CPU-intensive tasks as well — was the first hackintosh I ever built. If you want to build the exact same machine, you can find the build and instructions (with video) here. You may, however, prefer something more up to date. We always offer a cheap sample build in our always up-to-date hackintosh guide, and it’s likely a better alternative at this point. While this machine’s main purpose is to run SABnzbd+, Sickbeard, and process the audio from other devices like my Xbox 360 and Wii, it’s also used for work. Aside from offloading tasks, when the LA-based Lifehacker team is at my place for a collaborative work day, we often use this machine to look at one central screen. It’s hooked up to an old Optoma 720p projector so it’s easy for everyone to see, plus it can be controlled from my laptop and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse so it’s easy for multiple people to use. This machine now handles so many various tasks that I upgraded it with a Core i5 processor. It’s really fast, and is always working on something — even when I’m not explicitly using it.
I keep my accessories excessively organised with a Grid-It, which is GRID-IT. In fact, I now use two. One GRID-IT holds my tech accessories and another handles my old-fashioned drawing tools (which are extra helpful lately, now that I'm trying to illustrate more of our Lifehacker posts). Here's what I keep on the tech-centric GRID-IT, plus a few other things that sit around in my backpack:
- Acme Made Skinny Sleeve for the MacBook Air and 7" Tablets (these are the best sleeves I've come across, but they can be hard to find -- I've only seen them stocked at Apple Stores and MicroCenters)
- External USB 3.0 drive with a 120GB OCZ Vertex II SSD
- Lacie iAmAKey 8GB Flash Drive
- Zoom H1 portable recorder
- Kindle USB Power Adapter (I don't own a Kindle, but it's my favourite tiny USB charger)
- A pen
- A microfibre cloth
- Sony PS3 Six-Axis Controller (for playing emulated games on my Android tablet)
- Bose® MIE2i Mobile Headset
- Apple MagSafe Power adaptor 45W in a Quirky Power Curl
I add and subtract items as needed, but generally this is the full accessories list.
Phones, Tablets, and Other Mobile Devices
My laptop is my mobile device because it's pretty much tiny enough to take anywhere, but my iPhone 4 is a good supplement. Although normally I use this free upgrade process to get a new iPhone every year, I just didn't want to bother going through the trouble for a better camera and Siri. I've decided to stick with the easier-to-jailbreak iPhone 4 for now, hoping the 5 offers a little more.[imgclear]
The tablet situation is still something I haven't figured out. I was very excited about the iPad when it was first released, but it didn't take more than a few hours to get bored with the device. Since then I've moved to Android, on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, for a lighter and smaller form factor. My main reason for going Android was to turn the tablet into a retro game arcade. While the iPhone's capable of this as well, the emulators on Android are generally superior and, using an app called Sixaxis Controller (which requires root access), you can sync a PS3 controller for better gameplay. Additionally, it can play pretty much any video file and Google Music is great.
That said, I've yet to find anything else it does better than the iPad and the app selection isn't nearly as good. Most Android tablet apps are just up-sized phone apps that don't work perfectly. Android is also slower, clunkier, and worse when it comes to battery life. Both platforms have their pros and cons. I just wish the two would merge. Right now, I'm not sold on either but I'm hoping that Google -- or an Android manufacturer -- will hire the people who created the MIUI ROM. That would be a step in the right direction.
I've left my media equipment virtually unchanged over the last year because each item has been a solid investment since the day I got it. The Canon 5D Mark II is still my favourite DSLR and I have yet to see anything quite as good. Canon also recently cut the price making it a little more affordable. That camera is supplemented by the Sony a NEX-5, which is responsible for taking all the photos in this post. While there are newer models in the NEX line, I still think the NEX-5 is a great deal. If you're looking for a compact camera with interchangeable lenses and a DSLR-sized sensor, this is the camera to get. Newer models are very reasonable priced and offer a few spec upgrades that may be worthwhile to some, but you can pick up the older models for far less -- especially when buying used -- and get a phenomenal deal on the best line of compact cameras I've ever used. When recording the Lifehacker Show, we've used both of these cameras. In the episodes starting this year, we've relied solely on the NEX-5 for its longer recording time.
For audio I still use the Zoom H4N. It's a phenomenal little portable recorder. There are newer models of this device as well, but I've yet to find any reason to upgrade when it works so well.
I keep a very simple, very tidy desktop thanks to my Dropbox organisation system and an icon set I created. That doesn't stop me from running far too many apps and opening an excessive number of browser tabs, but fortunately I have tools that help me manage it all.
Here are the apps I use every day on my Mac:
- Dropbox, obviously
- Transmit (although CyberDuck is an excellent free alternative)
- Twitter (the official Mac client)
- Sparrow (finally, a great alternative to Apple Mail)
- Adium, also known as the best damn chat client on Mac OS X.
- Google Chrome, my main browser (more on this later)
- Notational Velocity, a wonderfully simple notes app that syncs with Simplenote
- Adobe Photoshop CS5, which still can't be replaced by alternatives for a lot of what I do (though I can't argue that PIxelmator isn't a great alternative for many things)
- Snippets, a great $US5 text expansion app that no longer exists
- Reeder, the great news feed app
- VLC, since it never fails to play any video file
- Textmate, for when I need to write code (which I don't use every day but it's worth mentioning anyhow)
- ScreenSharingMenulet, for easy screen sharing from the menubar
- Teleport, for controlling other computers with my laptop
- Screenflow, the amazing screencasting software
- Cobook, a great free alternative to the Mac OS X address book app
- BigPhone, for Google Voice in my menubar
- MAMP, for developing web apps and scripts locally before deploying them online
While I'm not a heavy Windows user, there are a few apps I really like:
- Skype, which I hate on the Mac but somehow love on Windows
- ClipCube, for an endless clipboard history
- Sublime Text, which is basically the best Textmate alternative for Windows
- Digsby is my favourite Windows chat client, aside from all of those annoying ads you have to go through during installation
- RealVNC, for, uh, VNC
- ClipUpload for quick, easy uploading
- Lightworks is a great free video editing app
- ResophNotes, for Simplenote access
Webapps and Browser Extensions
Although I feel as though Chrome has lost some of its stability and reliability on the Mac over the last year, and Firefox has only gotten better, when I tried to switch I ended up coming back to Chrome after a few weeks. No browser is perfect, but I love Chrome's features, extensions and interface. Speaking of extensions, here are some of my favorites:
- Amazon Wishlist, because it takes up less space as an icon than a bookmarklet in my bookmarks bar
- Bit.ly URL Shortener, because it's faster than going to bit.ly
- LastPass, because you have no idea what you're missing/insane if you're not using it
- SabConnect++, because...well, you're all going to yell at me if I explain this one
- Pash's Google Music Plus
- SendTab, for quickly sending browser tabs to other computers and devices
- Announcify, for those times when my eyes are too tired to read another article
As for web apps, I'm more of a desktop kind of guy but I do like a few:
- Google Music has essentially replaced iTunes in my life
- Google Docs is where I write any long-form posts or other material, and the first place I go for any collaborative writing
- My file sharing scripts make up a pseudo-web app I use all the time for easily sharing files with others
- Sickbeard and SABnzbd+ are the two locally-run web apps that make my media centre run beautifully (along with Plex, of course)
It's a short list, but I almost always prefer desktop apps that integrate with web services to the ones that are solely online. Maybe someday that'll change, but for now I like knowing things will work as expected when I'm disconnected.
I have a lot of these, but here are the best:
- Downcast, the alternative podcast manager that is my favourite find of 2011.
- Audible, because I like my audiobooks and hate syncing
- The built-in Clock app, which I still say, two years in a row, is the best app on the iPhone
- MyWi (jailbreak), for tethering
- Google Voice extensions jailbreak, to fully integrate Google Voice on my iPhone.
- Vokul, for safer use of my iPhone will driving via voice control
- Slice, the excellent automatic purchase and package tracker
- Skype, for making clearer phone calls in my reception-lacking apartment
- Simplenote, because it's the best notes app for iOS and it's free
- Dropbox, for those times when I don't get around to syncing something I want on my phone
- TV Forecast, which reminds me what to download
- myNZB, which facilitates downloading...files
- Air Video and StreamToMe, because Apple video format support sucks and both apps have their advantages
- Amazon, because I buy most of my stuff from Amazon
- DSLR Remote, because it's perhaps the most amazing iOS app ever made (when it works)
- Screens, for the rare occasion I need to access my computers remotely and I've only got a phone
If you were hoping for more jailbreak apps and hacks, check these out.
Tips & Tricks Closest To My Heart
We integrate so many tips and tricks into our daily lives that it can be pretty hard to choose favourites, but a few definitely stand out. Here are the four I've found most useful over the past year.
Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret
This tip, also known as "don't break the chain," has turned me into a productivity powerhouse over the past two months. I'll be writing about the experience in more detail in the coming weeks, but for now I have to say it's one of the greatest changes I've ever made. Taking on everything I want to do in small pieces every day and keeping track on a simple calendar was a perfect fit for my semi-neurotic personality and many interests that previously felt neglected.
Ditch the Granny Knot to Tie Your Shoes More Efficiently
This tip has stuck with me longer than any other because it changed my disdain for tying shoes into something fun. Also, it works. While my shoes still come untied now and again, it happens quite a bit less often than it used to. I love this tip so much I demonstrated it in this episode of the Lifehacker Show.
How to Build a Car Mount for Your mobile phone with Office Supplies
It's been a year and this is still the smartphone mount I use in my car. The same goes for Adam Pash and Whitson Gordon. We all love it, and it's one of many fantastic users for a binder clip.
It is simply the best browser keyboard shortcut in existence. Did you accidentally close a tab or browser window? No problem! Quickly re-open it again in seconds.