How To Set Up A Minimalist PC

Image: from supplied and Anthony Caruana

As I mentioned last week, I've purchased an 11-inch MacBook Air. I've got a soft spot for great tech that was superseded and I've been using the MacBook Air (dubbed The Flash as all my devices are named for members or parts of the DC universe) over the weekend and today. While it's a decent computer, even though it's a few years old, it was never made to be a primary workhorse. And that means making a few sacrifices in what I install on it. Here's my minimal set up.

The 11-inch MacBook Air I picked up for $400 via Facebook Marketplace came with an old version of OS X. Upgrading to the latest version of Mac OS required a two-step process. First, I needed to upgrade from OS X 10.7 (Lion) to a version of OS X or macOS that is later than OS X 10.8 and then move up to macOS 10.13.

Once that two-step process was done, I had to make some decisions about what I'd install. The easy stuff to forego was OneDrive and a local copy of Microsoft Office. I can use the cloud-based versions when I need those. That helps me save a nice chunk of the serviceable, but limited, 128GB SSD.

As this device is complementary to my main, desktop system, the only apps I really need are

  • Feedly - for keeping up with all the newsfeeds I check on throughout the day
  • Evernote - it's the app I use for most of my interview recording, writing and research
  • Pixelmator - a great alternative, and far less expensive, to Photoshop for image creation and editing
  • Slack and Hipchat - for keeping in touch with various clients and peer groups

Other than those programs, I've not installed anything else yet. I'm not loading photos into Apple's app and, while I prefer a third party calendar program over Apple's iCal, I can live with the default app, particularly as it now supports flipping between multiple time zones (you'll need to activate the "Turn on time zone support" option under "Advanced" in the Calendar app's settings). I'll probably need to install Chrome and Firefox at some point as there are some "interesting" bugs in the online systems for a couple of clients that don't play nicely with Safari.

All that has left me with a little over 90GB of free space from the 128GB SSD.

What's the smallest set of apps you need to be productive? If you use a second computer when you travel, what are your must have apps?


    When I travel, I can't rely on having an Internet connection - so "cloud" based apps are useless.As a windows user, that leaves me with a plethora of "portable apps" that can run from a USB Thumb Drive.

    My Chuwi 10.1" tablet has a mere 64GB SSD, but I've added a 64GB SD card and apps seem to run from that with no dramas so far.

    Libre Office gets the most work, followed by Notepad++. Firefox, Chrome, Veracrypt for security come next.

    For me, I am happy with a linux distribution running on a netbook ( (pick your favorite one, I like one that can support the wireless card of the laptop I use. On an apple based laptop, the right clic button is still a never ending subject of conversation, it's doable, and there are ways to make it work, but think about it before you install it, otherwise you can still carry a mouse with you )
    When the size of the display and computing ressources are an issue I'd take fluxbox as window manager (it's very basic, and very tunable, all the settings are simple text files ).
    Then my essential apps are:
    - tmux (a terminal multiplexer)
    - mosh ( a UDP based remote shell access client that uses ssh authentication, the automatic session recovery is a killer feature for me )
    - git (version management )
    - thunderbird ( email, rss, calendar, with GPG )
    - fbreader ( for ebooks )
    - pidgin would be a good aggregator for slack and hipchat, IRC, XMPP communications in general

    libreoffice is a built-in for most of the default installations, so I didn't put it in the list, as Firefox and Chromium are also part of a "normal" linux distribution .
    Also I'd like to add a note regarding my favorite text editor, vim. there is a built in tutorial, it just takes 20 minutes to learn the basics, you just have to invoke "vimtutor" and then you feel like you can take over the world.

      Thanks for that. I'd forgotten about Pidgin.

      With the Mac right-clcik - two fingers on the trackpad is a right click. That's pretty easy and is the same gesture on all the Windows systems I've played with recently. I haven't carried a mouse with a laptop in a very long time - probably since the days when an integrated pointing device was a feature reserved for premium models back in the 1990s.

      But that's an interesting array of apps - clearly a specialised set up that works for you.

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