Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

My setup

One of my favourite bits of technology porn is Shawn Blanc’s series on sweet Mac setups. It basically just gives dorks like me an opportunity to drool over other people’s kit.

But there’s another purpose to this, which is that it makes you think about the technology you use, and how it might be improved, in terms of fitting it in around the way you work.

Here’s my setup.

At home:

24″ iMac with another 24″ monitor (a Samsung SyncMaster P2450) on dual screen. Wired Apple keyboard and a Magic Mouse.

This is the beast which sits on my desk in my office at home and is where I spend most of the working day, when I am not on the road. It’s super fast and has plenty of storage (1TB hard drive) so it’s where all the electronic media the family owns lies – ie music, photos, video etc.

Having two screens is great productivity wise, though I do find myself wasting it at times, by having just Twitter on the second screen, for example. I often find myself wishing I had three screens, which is absurd.

Even just having the one big screen is a massive bonus though, just being able to easily have two documents open next to each other to work from is a revelation – especially compared to what I had to work with when I worked in government.

I also have a Kodak ESP 9 all-in-one printer and scanner thing, but I hate it like I do all printers. Frankly it only really gets used for printing boarding passes these days.

On the move:

My portable machine is a MacBook Air, with 2gb RAM and 120gb solid state storage. It’s isn’t particularly quick or grunty but is spectacularly light and small. I try to keep the number of applications and files stored on it to a minimum, and the Air does tend to slow down quite badly at times – especially when playing video for example.

As a travelling machine, though, it’s fabulous. Previously I had a 15″ MacBook Pro which could handle pretty much anything thrown at it, but was just too big and heavy to lug around all the time (maybe I’m just lazy).

The solid state drive is awesome too. No moving parts like a traditional hard drive, it’s quick and silent – and robust too. I should think every laptop I buy from now on will have this.

Other stuff:

Phone is currently a Nexus One, as described here. I also have a Dell laptop running Windows 7 and a desktop PC which dual-boots into either Windows 7 or whatever the latest version of Ubuntu is – this machine rarely gets turned on though.

Backup:

I backup both the iMac and Air using Time Machine on a 1TB Apple Time Capsule, which also acts as a wireless router at home. I’m not actually convinced this is working terribly well, however, but am too scared to fiddle with it in case it breaks completely.

I also backup the iMac to the cloud, using Carbonite, and of course important stuff sits on Dropbox too.

Software:

Here’s a list of the bits I am using most often at the moment.

  • iWork – Pages is a lovely word processor and Keynote a delightful way of throwing presentations together. I don’t do spreadsheets.
  • Chrome – My browser of choice since it became stable on the Mac – so much quicker than Firefox.
  • Evernote – I’ve written about this enough, I think.
  • Dropbox – a vital tool for anyone who regularly uses more than one machine, it’s also an awesome tool for sharing large files with anyone
  • Parallels – great bit of software for running virtual machines on a Mac. I use it rarely, mostly for running Windows XP for testing stuff in IE6
  • MarsEdit – A blog post editor that lets you compose posts offline before publishing them online. Nice keyboard shortcuts makes editing in source code view quick and easy.
  • NetNewsWire – I flip flop between this and Google Reader all the time. NNW is currently winning because of the lovely user interface.
  • iTunes – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my music and podcasts sit
  • iPhoto – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my photos sit
  • Transmit – an FTP client that works just fine
  • Pixelmator – I have Photoshop (Express) but find this cheaper alternative does what I want it to and quicker, too
  • TextWrangler – serves all my text editing needs. Would love to have an excuse to buy TextMate, but haven’t found it yet
  • Skype – invaluable for keeping in touch with colleagues, and I use it for most of my landline calling too, nowadays.
  • Skitch – screengrabs made easy
  • Screenflow – screencasting tool. Need to use this more often.
  • MindNodePro – mindmapping, simple and easy.
  • Tweetie – prefer this to the Adobe Air based apps.
  • Safari – find myself needing another browser open a fair bit, usually just to be able to use two Google accounts at once
  • MS Office – I do my best not to. But sadly, so many other people do that it’s almost imposible to avoid it entirely. Word in particular on a Mac is a total dog.

If I could have my time again…

Whilst this setup works pretty well, in terms of having processing grunt on the desktop and lightness on the move, it isn’t perfect.

The main problem is keeping software and files up to date across the two machines. Tools like Evernote and Dropbox help massively with this – in fact I think I probably would have gone mad by now if I didn’t have them.

For instance, having to buy two copies of every bit of software I use is a pain and an expense I could do without. Likewise, knowing there are some files on another machine – and not saved to Dropbox – that I need can be a real pain if I can’t access them.

So what would I do if I had some money to recreate my office IT? I think I would go for a one machine solution. Probably a high spec 13″ MacBook Pro which is still fairly small and relatively light, but which packs a bigger punch than the Air.

When at home, I would plug it into my Samsung screen and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse thus giving me the solidity of a desktop type experience. I’d probably get some sort of stand or riser for the MacBook so I could use it as a secondary screen without breaking my neck.

What’s your setup (Mac or otherwise!)? How would you improve it?

Bookmarks for July 3rd through July 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for June 7th through June 17th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Using a PC

I’ve had a pretty settled tech line-up for a while, which works really well for me. Essentially – 24” iMac on the desktop, MacBook Air for the portable and an iPhone for the really portable.

The iMac is fine for the grunt work, sitting at the desk ploughing through pretty much anything – with 4gb RAM and a 3.06ghz Core 2 Duo crunching through video doesn’t present too many problems (though I am at times tempted to up the RAM to the full 8gb).

The Air is not a performance machine, but it handles the web ok as well as basic stuff like Word, and is light enough to lug about and use on trains etc without too much bother. The battery life on it is disappointing, I only get between 2.5 and 3 hours out of a full charge. It’s limited to 2gb RAM, which isn’t that much these days, and things can slow down when you have a lot going on – Flash content can be a problem.

Some stuff you need Windows for, so on the iMac I have a virtual Windows XP machine, which I tend to use for testing stuff in Internet Explorer 6 and the odd bit of Office work which, for whatever reason, Office on the Mac can’t handle (sometimes it does very odd things with formatting).

This setup has done me proud, and with the brilliant Dropbox providing the glue that keeps all these machines stuck together, it’s been easy to work on stuff whichever device I’m using.

Sadly though, my Air has had to go into the Apple shop for repairs – the iSight webcam stopped working, and that means the whole screen-half of the machine needs replacing, and it will be gone for a week at least.

This left me laptopless, which given that I am out of my office a few days a week, would cause some major productivity problems. Luckily team Learning Pool came to the rescue and kitted me out with a new laptop.

It has Windows on it.

To be precise, Windows 7 running on a Dell Vostro v13. It’s a lightweight portable laptop, a step above a netbook, but no workhorse machine. My model has 2gb RAM and a 1.3ghz Celeron processor – plenty for web browsing, emailing and Office stuff, but not a machine you’d want to do any video editing on, for example. Also, if you have too many apps open at once things do slow down quite  bit. In other words, it’s a bit like the Air.

Like the Air, it’s also a lovely looking thing, thin and light and perfect to carry around a lot. I’m finding Windows 7 a real improvement on Vista, but it still takes too long to boot up, shut down and wake up after going to sleep.

The battery life on the Vostro is as awful as it is on the Air, if perhaps a little worse. 2.5 hours seems to be the best it can do. Carrying a power lead will be necessary.

Most of what this review on Engadget says is about right, I think. What I have found I miss most from the Air – apart from all my favourite apps (see below) – is the trackpad. Using multitouch has just become second nature to me, and as I tend to do a lot of scrolling – in Google Reader, for example, or on general web browsing – having to constantly switch between trackpad and cursor keys is incredibly annoying and counter-intuitive.

In terms of software, the Learning Pool guys installed Office for me, and Skype, which is handy to have. Of course, with the Windows version of Office I get Outlook and I’m giving it a go (we use Google to handle our email and calendar at Learning Pool, and it seems to play pretty nicely with Outlook. On the Mac, I stick to the web interfaces). It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

Bits of software I have added include my favourite RSS aggregator, FeedDemon which is superb, especially with the Google Reader synchronisation. NetNewsWire, the Mac equivalent, has nowhere near the richness of features sported by FeedDemon.

I installed Dropbox, so all the files I have shared using my other machines are now available on this one too.

I found that Live Writer was preinstalled, which is cool as it is a neat offline blog editor (I’m using it to write this post) and probably better than any of the Mac options.

I need an FTP client, and for that I downloaded FileZilla, a free open source cross-platform application that seems to work nicely enough, but doesn’t have the great usability of Transmit, which I use on the Mac. Any suggestions for a better app are welcome.

I’m using Notepad++ at the moment as a text editor, which is useful enough but I am yet to find a genuine equivalent to the likes of TextMate or BBedit on the Mac. If anyone has a recommendation, do let me know.

For Twitter, I installed the native Windows app by Seesmic, so as to avoid having to install Adobe Air, which can be a bit resource intensive on these less well-powered machines. I didn’t like it though, so also installed Air and Tweetdeck. Paint.net is a good little free image editor, and I downloaded Chrome for a browser – I couldn’t contemplate using IE, and I find Firefox is a bit slow and bloated these days.

Windows 7 comes with something called the ‘Snipping Tool’ which may replace Skitch on the Mac – if not then there is always the likes of SnagIt. The way Windows handles archive files like .zip seems really slow, and doesn’t match the speed that OSX seems to handle these things. I suppose something like WinZip would solve this.

Generally I would say Windows 7 is pretty good, probably the best version I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t come close to the ease of use of OSX. The system is often a bit sluggish to react and sometimes it isn’t terribly obvious to know what to do to accomplish certain tasks.

Bookmarks for April 19th through April 23rd

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • Open innovation, why bother? – 100% Open – "…if open innovation is to deliver sustainable business advantage then we need a better understanding of what motivates contributors to these initiatives, else there is a risk of a backlash against them…"
  • Docs.com – MS Office + Facebook beats Google Docs? Am not convinced!
  • TALKI – The easiest way to embed a forum – Embed a forum on your website – just like that! Users can sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts.
  • Government 2.0 Can and Must Save Money – "I think that the current shortage of resources and a sometimes dramatic budgetary situation can be a powerful incentive to make this change happen, to tap into the creativity of employees as well as external resources." YES!!!
  • Red Sweater Blog – Apple Downloads – VERY interesting – is Apple going to go down the App Store route for vetting Mac software now, too?
  • HTML5 presentation – "Slideshow-style presentation on HTML5 made using HTML5."
  • CDC Provides a Great Example of What Social Media Is About – "CDC’s strategy puts them in a better position to identify patterns where trust may be shifting elsewhere early enough to take action: many other agencies worldwide, which just care about publishing data and creating their Facebook pages, will be taken by surprise."
  • data.lincoln.gov.uk (beta) – Lincoln City Council start publishing data publicly – great work, and props to Andrew Beeken who must have driven this through.
  • Simplifying the social web with XAuth – "We think that XAuth can simplify and improve the social web, while keeping your private information safe. This is just one of many steps that Google is taking, along with others in the industry, to make the social web easier and more personalized."
  • Open Government and the Future of Public Sector IT – Great talk from Microsoft's Dave Coplin.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Pukka: an answer to my prayers

I’m making quite a lot of use of the social bookmarking service Delicious at the moment. Luckily, it is mostly using my own account, but on one or two projects I am using specific accounts.

This can be a pain in the neck. I’ve installed the Delicious extension for Firefox which makes bookmarking a dream – but that only works with my usual account. Logging in and out all the time is a faff and not really an option.

What I have been doing recently is using different browsers for different accounts. It’s cumbersome and sometimes tricky to remember which browser works with which account!

However, I’ve now found the answer to my multiple delicious account problem prayers. It’s called Pukka.

pukkaPukka is a piece of software from some guys called Code Sorcery which makes it a breeze to manage all your accounts in one go.

Effectively, it is a client for Delicious. You load it up with the credentials for all your accounts, which you can then choose from a drop down menu when creating a bookmark.

There is also a bookmarklet which lets you call up the application straight from the browser and which fills in quite a few of the details of the page you are viewing for you.

It isn’t perfect – I can’t find an option to be able to post a bookmark to multiple accounts, for instance – but for roughly a tenner you can’t really go wrong.

Sadly for Windows and Linux users, it is Mac only.

Mini

I treated myself to a new toy today, a Mac Mini. Here it is, next to the rather splendid curtains in our spare room:

Mac mini

To be honest, I really want a nice big iMac but can’t afford it. The Mini is a nice, relatively cheap alternative. Working on a MacBook all the time really isn’t good for the eyes – and with the Mini plugged into a 20″ monitor, that’s no longer a problem.

Mini and monitor

In terms of grunt, the Mini is slightly less powerful than your average MacBook, but seems to be fine with what I need it for. Editing video might be a struggle, though.

5 Blogger tools for Mac

Whilst technically all you need is a blog and a browser to start blogging, there are some other bits of software you can use that make your life a little easier.

Here’s a list of options for Mac users:

1. Skitch

Easily my number one choice, this is a phenomenally useful tool, which I don’t think is available on any other platform.

Skitch is simply a tool that lets you take snapshots of what is on your screen. Sounds pretty unremarkable, but Skitch does some cool stuff:

  • It lets you copy just a small portion of the screen by selecting with a cross-hair
  • It lets you do some simple editing within the application, so you don’t have to load up a ‘proper’ graphics package
  • You can save your image by just dragging it onto the desktop
  • You can post it straight to your Flickr account, a skitch hosted page or your own web host via FTP with a click of a button

For getting image snapshots quickly onto the web, it’s brilliant. And free.

2. Transmit

Transmit is a solid, well performing Mac FTP client. Why use one? Well, if you have a self-hosted WordPress blog, say, you need to upload plugins, themes and that kind of thing to your web host. And when it comes to upgrade time, having a solid FTP client is good for the blood pressure!

Transmit costs a few pennies, but is jolly reliable and so worth the investment.

3. NetNewsWire

NetNewsWire is a desktop based RSS aggregator. I used this for a long while before being won over by the advantages of Google Reader. Others still swear by this though, especially now it has its own iPhone app.

4. MarsEdit

I rather bemoaned the state of the Mac desktop blogging client in a recent post, but since then I have been giving MarsEdit another go. The main issue for me is the lack of a rich text editor, which is good for speed but not awfully user friendly.

Again, it costs a couple of quid but is worth giving a go, especially if you use NetNewsWire with which it integrates rather well.

5. TextWrangler

Sometimes you just need to edit text, and don’t want to mess about. TextWrangler comes from the same people that make the legendary Mac text editor BBedit, which is rather pricey but feature rich. TextWrangler is BBedit’s freebie little brother, and let’s you load up text, html, php or css files and edit them to your heart’s content.

What are your favourite blogging tools? Would anyone like to see a Windows version of this list?

MobileMe

MobileMe is a new version of pretty established service from Apple, called .Mac. Essentially, it puts bits of information that are stored on your computer or iPhone, and stores them online for you. This works, because it means that both your computer and iPhone can sync themselves using the online version, meaning they are both up to date pretty much all the time.

At the moment I am doing this just with my calendar and contacts, and just with these services, it’s really useful. Say I put a new entry in my calendar on my MacBook: within 15 minutes it will be on my iPhone too, without having to plug the two together, or having to press any buttons. Excellent!

There’s more, though, which I am going to explore – including hosting files online, thus making them accessible from anywhere. This is through the web interface, which allows you to see your files, calendar, contacts and email (if you use the email address supplied with MobileMe – I don’t bother, personally). I am having a few problems with the website at the moment – it isn’t letting me log in, which is a shame. But the fact that the syncing works is great for me.

MobileMe isn’t free, and if I can’t log into the website soon, I am going to be pretty annoyed. The cost is about £60 a year, which I think is worth it just for the syncing alone.