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 keep me a productive blogger by day and dragon slayer by night.
We took a look at our tips and gear last year, and boy has my setup done a complete 180. Where before I was a Mac and Linux user, I'm now running strictly Windows, not to mention using Firefox over my now-estranged friend Chrome. Here's a look at what's changed (and what's stayed the same).
Desktops & Laptops
I have too many computers. I caught the computer building bug a couple years ago and can't seem to stop myself. I've added one to the arsenal this year, not to mention upgraded all my old rigs and even traded in my old laptop for a shiny new one. This is what I currently use:
- Desktop: Jotunn, my custom-built gaming PC: This machine is about two years old now, but I'm still in love with it, and with an upgrade or two, it still packs a huge punch. Originally built as a hackintosh, this now-Windows rig contains an overclocked i7, 12GB of RAM, an Intel SSD (not to mention a bunch of other drives for testing browsers and the like), and a brand new GTX 560 Ti, which I got to beef up my graphics before buying Skyrim (and let me tell you, it is a pretty rockin' card). You can see the full build details here. I've also got a hot swappable drive bay and an SD card reader built-in, which make my life oh-so-much easier.
- Laptop: Valkyrie, my 13-inch MacBook Air: I got sick of lugging around my 15-inch MacBook Pro, so I sold that sucker on Craigslist and got a 13-inch MacBook Air. Best laptop buying decision I've ever made. I mainly run Windows on it and just use it when I need to head to Dachis's for the day to work. I'm not really interested in Mac OS X anymore, but I'll be the first to admit that Apple still has some of the best hardware on the planet, so I'll be sticking with Macs until the PC makers step up their game.
- Netbook: Dökkálfar, my Acer Aspire One: I have to admit, I barely use this thing anymore. It comes in pretty handy if I'm out and about for the day and don't want to carry an entire backpack full of stuff with me (see "Accessories" below), but for the most part this Archbang-running machine sits in the corner and doesn't get a lot of attention anymore. I will say this: buying a small mouse to use with this has made a huge difference, considering the touchpad kind of sucks and the drivers are half-broken on Linux
- HTPC: Loki, my custom-built media centre: This is the first computer I ever built, and while it still likes to mess with me on a regular basis (hence its name), I love it. It no longer stores any of my movies (that has been delegated to my NAS, see below) but it runs XBMC like a champ. It runs XBMC on top of a Fluxbox-armed Ubuntu installation, so I can fully customise my remote, watch Blu-Ray discs and play old-school video games right from XBMC. I even got Nintendo 64 up and running since I overclocked the atom processor that powers this baby. Do a barrel roll!
- NAS: Heimdall, my custom-built FreeNAS machine: My HTPC's hard drive got too small, my external drive for backups died, and I figured it was time to upgrade my life and stick all that extra data in one place. I cobbled together the cheapest parts I could find (seriously, $US35 processor and $US35 motherboard cheap) and turned into a networked backup, torrenting, streaming, Usenet-powered internet PVR with the awesome FreeNAS operating system. There have definitely been some bumps along the way, but now this thing runs great, giving me web access to everything I need to get TV on my home theatre PC, seed my torrents 24/7 and back up my windows machine over the network.
Phones, Tablets and Other Mobile Devices
I'll let you in on a little secret: I've developed a small hatred for mobile devices. I don't think they're easier to use than a desktop, I don't find that I want to use them that much when I'm out of the house (because I'd rather talk to the people I'm with), and if I'm at home, I'd rather be on my desktop. I use my phone for texting and getting phone calls, or Yelp when I need it, and I use my iPod for listening to music. That's pretty much it. Fiddling with them -- as I've been known to do with tech from time to time -- just isn't as worth it as it used to be, because they aren't a central part of my workflow. Here are the mobile devices I have lying around, though, and the occasional conveniences they bring to my life.
- HTC Thunderbolt: I finally upgraded from that old crappy Droid to the far more awesome Thunderbolt. I've rooted, flashed the gorgeous MIUI ROM, and use it pretty much to make phone calls, navigate me around the confusing land that is Los Angeles, and settle the occasional argument about the difference between apple cider and apple juice. I love its large screen and hefty frame, and I've stuck an HTC Rezound battery in the back for a bit of extra juice. I've also turned off 4G, because frankly, it didn't end up being worth the battery loss.
- 4th Generation iPod Touch: I use this to listen to music when I'm at the gym, on an aeroplane, or somewhere else I don't want to carry my phone/waste its battery. I use Panamp, the awesome playlist-and gesture-based music player, and am madly in love with it.
- First Generation iPad: I can't stand browsing on this thing. The web wasn't designed for fingers. However, it makes a pretty amazing comic book reader, not to mention Instapaper and Reddit reader. Plus, iPad-optimized apps are amazing. Have you ever used Yelp on this thing? It's awesome.
- Miscellaneous Old Devices: Don't ask me where they all came from, but I've got a few extra iPods sitting around that are pretty much battery-dead, single-use music players. I've got one in my Ford Sync-enabled car and one in my bathroom. I've also got that old Droid and some old flip phones, which I use pretty much never, but can't bring myself to get rid of in case nuclear annihilation rears its ugly head and somehow the Motorola Razr is the magic piece of tech designed to survive the apocalypse.
My favourite accessories are the ones I use at my desktop: A Logitech Performance MX mouse, which is still the best mouse I've ever used; the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard, because I like to hang out in the dark; a Logitech Pro 9000 webcam, for Skyping with my family now that I live on the other side of the country; a Nikon D90 camera, for taking pictures like the ones found in this post; two Acer P235h monitors, because... um, they were cheap; and some awesome Klipsch ProMedia speakers and brand new Ultrasone HFI-780 headphones for round-the-clock blasting of my metal, trance, dubstep, and Taylor Swift. And, pulling it all together are the DIY door stopper monitor stand and the rain-gutter-as-cable-management.
When it comes to my bag, I'm rocking this awesome, tiny, Grid-It case. It holds my iPad and my netbook, plus all the A/C adapters and mobile chargers that I could need for a week in the urban jungle with all my tech. None of them are really noteworthy, so I won't list them here like my coworkers have. Like I said, my favourite gear is the stuff at my desk, because I rarely leave the house if I need to work.
As I mentioned, I used to be a diehard Mac and Linux user, but about a year ago I did a complete 180 and switched to Windows full time -- and I'm absolutely loving it. It has much more freedom than OS X, without the pain that comes with Linux, and a bigger software selection than both. Plus, it performs really well, and doesn't make me restart to play my favourite games -- which is far more of an annoyance than I feel like it should be. Here are the apps I'm using.
On my Windows desktop, I'm using:
- Pidgin for instant messaging, along with many useful plugins
- Winamp for music (because it's so well-rounded)
- TweetDeck (AIR edition) for Twitter, but I can't wait until something better comes along
- Dropbox, because duh
- ResophNotes for plain text note syncing
- Notepad++ for writing longer articles, since it has that fancy HTML syntax highlighting
- GIMP to edit images, but I'll be switching to Photoshop very, very soon at Dachis' insistence
- PotPlayer for video, because it's awesome
- uTorrent for torrenting, though I do most of my torrenting on my Transmission-enabled NAS these days
- Launchy for launching apps quickly
- AutoHotkey for all sorts of awesome things
- Rainmeter to monitor anything and everything about my system
- F.lux, because like I said... I sit in the dark a lot
- Growl for creating a versatile, consolidated notification system for all my apps
- PhraseExpress for text expansion because it's free, but it's also kind of glitchy. I'm thinking about upgrading to Breevy.
- Switcher and Dexpot for bringing a few of my favourite Mac features to Windows
- EVGA Precision for overclocking my video card
- Console2 terminal, with Cygwin as my default prompt
- Todo.txt to manage my to-do list. After trying so many others, this is the only one that's made to-do lists simple and versatile enough to actually use them.
Browser, Webapps and Extensions
I use Firefox as my main browser (well, the Waterfox 64-bit optimised builds of Firefox). These days, it's pretty close to Chrome in terms of speed, and a lot more customisable. There are still a lot of things that make Chrome tempting, like extension syncing (what the hell, Firefox?), or a lot of little UI tweaks that just make it smoother -- like dragging tabs out of one window and onto a new one. But for now, Firefox is my partner in crime. I don't use a ton of extensions, but I couldn't live without the basics:
- Xmarks for syncing bookmarks and open tabs across machines
- LastPass for managing all my passwords
- Flashblock, mostly to stop things from autoplaying all the damn time
- Lazarus, because I've lost one too many carefully crafted unsaved articles to me accidentally closing my browser
- NzbdStatus, because I can send stuff to SAB on my NAS with one click!
- Progress Bar on Tab, because it's nice to see how much of a page has actually loaded
- Stylish, mainly for these awesome Gmail add-ons
I've also finally started giving up some of my desktop apps in favour of webapps, because the webapps have just become that much better. I now view Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Reader all on the web, and I also use Mint for budgeting my money, and Google Voice for texting from my computer. I also use Google Music when I'm away from home, to keep my library handy. It really does make a fantastic secondary player. Lastly, I've also switched to Bing Maps because Google Maps was driving me crazy. For some reason, it's always slow, laggy, or just doesn't load at all. Plus, Bing's Streetside View is way better than Google's Street View. Myfav.es is my start page.
As I mentioned before, I'm not really a mobile app hoarder. When it comes to using my phone, though, there are a few things that make it a lot more pleasant to use:
- Dolphin Browser, because it's just leaps and bounds above the default Android browser. Using gestures to visit a site is awesome.
- Swype. I've tried using other keyboards, and I always come back. It gets better with every update, and it's just so easy to use.
- Google Voice. I finally ported my number to Google Voice and use it full time, and it was a great decision. The mobile app kind of sucks, but like I said, it sure is nice to be able to text from my computer.
- Google Music, for the rare occasions that I actually listen to music on my phone. It's actually a pretty solid app, though.
- Plume for Twitter, because it's just so darn smooth.
- Todo.txt Touch, because it's the perfect touch-based interface for my text-based to-do list.
- TripIt, because somehow I've ended up travelling a lot, and TripIt makes it so easy.
- RunPee, because I hate missing all the awesome parts of a movie.
- gStrings, because it's even better than my actual guitar tuner, plus it's always with me.
Tips & Tricks Closest To My Heart
I can never remember the best ones when it comes time to list my favourite tips, because they've just become such an ingrained part of my life. But, if a few jump directly to mind, it's these ones:
- Program Your Day to Defeat Distractions and Stick to Your Daily Routine: Whenever I tell people I work from home, they always say "wow, I could never do that, I'd get so distracted!" I do get really distracted during the day, but not distracted from my work -- I actually get distracted by my work. I'll get really into researching a post or writing something and completely forget to eat lunch, or I won't shower until noon, or forget that I don't even have any food in my apartment in the first place. Scheduling my daily routine with little popups has made a big difference in cementing my daily routine, and not letting work get in the way when something like making breakfast will take five minutes. Similarly, I found that using a time tracker for a few weeks was a great way to make sure I'm using that work time efficiently, instead of wasting large amounts of time on small, unimportant tasks.
- Wean Yourself Off Your GPS Dependency and Actually Find Your Way Around: Moving to a new city is tough. Moving to LA is even tougher. I've never relied on my GPS so much, and that's fine when I'm going somewhere new. But after realising I still didn't know how to get to my best friend's house because I kept using my GPS, I decided it was time to make a more conscious effort to learn my way around. I'm still working on this one...but I'm proud to say that I can at least make it to all my friends' houses without the help of Google Maps. And when I do need my GPS, I have the absolutely incredible binder clip car dock to mount my phone to the dash.
- Trick Yourself Into Better Oral Hygiene by Flossing in the Shower: Comedian Mitch Hedberg once said that it's as hard to quit smoking as it is to start flossing. One tip from the tips box, and all of a sudden I'm flossing every day. My breath is better, my dentist doesn't yell at me anymore, and man does popcorn really like to get up in there. Perhaps it's just psychological, but I'm not about to argue, because I'm actually doing it.
- Eat Greasy Food with Chopsticks to Avoid Fingerprints: Those of you that know me or follow me on Twitter saw this coming. It's still one of my favourite tips on Lifehacker, if only because my love for potato chips is only equaled by my obsessive compulsive need to keep everything super clean. So how does a tech geek indulge in a bag of Ruffles while also trying to browse Reddit? By eating them with chopsticks, that's how. I'm not even a little bit joking.