Every now and then I think it might be helpful if I outlined here the various tools I use to get my job done. Aside from acting as a form of recommendation to others, it’s perhaps a helpful set of disclosures as well. I hope this proves useful. I’ll probably update it periodically to add or change things. This first version was written in November/December 2014.
You’ll notice right away a serious bent towards Apple products – both hardware and software. I first began experimenting with Apple products back in about 2005, when we bought a Mac Mini for our family, and we began buying iPods around the same time. Several MacBooks followed, and iPhones started showing up in 2008. I find Apple products to be highly reliable, beautifully designed and high-performance devices that do the jobs I need them to do well. They also run all the software I need them to (mostly as apps downloaded through Apple’s various App Stores). The other thing with the Apple ecosystem is that it’s self-reinforcing – the more (and the more exclusively) you use it, the better it gets, because the parts work together well. However, because I have to regularly use other devices for testing and reviews, I try not to over-commit to Apple’s various products so that my workflow doesn’t break down entirely when I switch to something else!
My main computer is a pretty maxed-out “Mid 2010” version Mac Pro I acquired a couple of years ago when we were starting a small video production company and I had to do a ton of video editing. Here are the basic specs:
This thing is my workhorse and it’s plenty powerful to do everything I need to do and then some. I never have to worry about running too many programs at once or having too many tabs open. It’s running Yosemite, and in fact was running the Public Beta right from when that first became available.
When I’m traveling I currently use a 13″ current vintage MacBook Air that’s on loan from Apple as a review unit. I’ve found this to be the perfect traveling computer – small and light enough to fit easily in my backpack or a briefcase without slowing me down, starts up instantly when I open it up, runs for hours and hours, and just the right size to use on an airplane or on my lap.
When I’m traveling I also always take an iPad, and when I’m attending a conference where I’m going from one meeting to another, the MBA tends to stay in my hotel room or my car while I carry an iPad Air with a Logitech Thin Keyboard for typing on. I find I can take perfectly adequate notes, do email and the other things I need to do during such a day on the iPad without any problems. And of course the battery lasts all day, even if I occasionally need to use it as a hotspot to provide connectivity to another device.
My main smartphone is an iPhone, and has been since the iPhone 3G came out. At present, I’m using an iPhone 6, also a review unit from Apple, though before that I was using an iPhone 5S I bought last year. The iPhone is running the latest version of iOS 8, and I generally keep my OS and the various apps on the phone religiously up to date. However, I regularly switch devices and use many Android and a smaller number of Windows Phone devices during the course of the year as various vendors send me review units. I’ve found the recent higher-end Android devices to be very good, and particularly enjoyed the second-generation Moto X recently.
Software and services
The following software and associated services are critical parts of my daily and weekly workflow:
Browsers – Chrome and Safari
I run two browsers, though on the two main computers I use I have different defaults set. On my Mac Pro I use Chrome as my default browser, so it fills up quickly with lots of tabs as I open various links during the day that I often don’t have time to read right away. I use Safari as a secondary browser for more focused work such as email, writing blog posts and the like. I find it’s easier to find the right tab when it’s one of only a handful rather than one of dozens. Towards the end of the day, if I have time, I’ll clean out Chrome by dealing with the plethora of tabs I’ve opened during the day.
On the MBA the situation is reversed, with Safari the main browser (a legacy of an experiment I ran while writing an Apple profile earlier this year, when I tried to rely as much as possible on Apple’s first-party software rather than third-party alternatives). I decided not to install Flash on the MBA, so every now and then I have to fire up Chrome to run certain sites well. In general, I find both browsers to be perfectly workable, and I have few issues with either. Both are fast, both now sync bookmarks, usernames and passwords and histories across devices, which I find very useful.
Twitter and Tweetbot
I use Twitter a great deal as a way to connect with people and share my work, and find it indispensable. In the year or so since I left the firm I worked for previously and started my own firm, my Twitter followers have risen from around 2,000 to almost 5,000, and it’s been a big part of how I’ve promoted the work I do here on my blog and elsewhere, and has also been a big part of building relationships with a wide variety of people. When I’m using Apple devices, my client of choice is Tweetbot, which I find fantastically useful, and which also has the pleasant side effect of not showing me any ads. I’ve been happy to pay for it, even at the increased prices introduced when Twitter started limiting user numbers. My only complaint is the iPad version, which hasn’t seen a big update in a couple of years and still feels very much like a pre-iOS 7 app. The functionality, though, is still fine for most purposes.
Feedly and Reeder
I used to rely very heavily on RSS feeds to stay on top of tech news, and I relied heavily on Google Reader, with Reeder as my client of choice on iOS and OS X (I use Press on Android, which I’ve found to be the closest equivalent there). Since the demise of Google Reader, I’ve switched the back end to Feedly, though I never actually use the Feedly interface, and I’ve stuck with Reeder as my front end. I highly recommend all of these. However, I’m relying much less on RSS as a way to stay on top of things as I find Twitter keeps me informed on most topics that are relevant to me. I mostly use RSS as a backstop to make sure I don’t miss anything and for coverage of some of the less high-profile stories that are still of interest to me.
Evernote is a critical part of my daily routine, both for work and in my personal life. I use it for all the notes I take, and I have Evernote’s apps installed on every device I use, so they’re constantly synced and available. I pay for the premium service in order to remove bandwidth limits and view my notes offline on mobile devices as well as other features, and it’s well worth the money.
I also use Dropbox to keep all my files in sync between devices, and to make those files available on mobile devices when I’m out and about. I just checked and I have a little over 125GB of data stored in my Dropbox account, so naturally I’m a Pro subscriber there too. However, I’m finding that as I use Apple’s productivity suite more and more exclusively for documents, spreadsheets and presentations (see below), iCloud Drive is becoming a more tempting option, as it will keep files in sync even when they’re edited on mobile devices, something I can’t easily do with Dropbox. I’m not sure I quite trust it yet, especially because it won’t allow me to easily use another backup service for redundancy, but I’m starting to head in that direction so my allegiance to Dropbox will be tested.
As I mentioned just now, I’ve transitioned to using Apple’s productivity suite almost exclusively now for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Though it’s less fully-featured than some of the equivalent Office functions, I’ve used most of that missing functionality very rarely if at all, and the pros way outweigh the cons. The biggest single reason for using iWork over Office is that it’s so much easier to create good-looking, visually customizable content using iWork than Office. Across the suite, I’ve created my own templates that make use of my preferred font (the various weights of Avenir Next) and my Jackdaw Research color scheme. I’ve slowly moved almost all my numerical and financial analysis into Numbers from Excel, because generating the charts is so much easier. People regularly ask how I create the charts on the blog, and the answer is always the same: Numbers. My one frustration is the process of exporting charts for use on the blog, which is still highly manual, using screenshots. I’d much prefer to be able to export charts from Numbers directly at the right size and in the right format for use on the blog, and I’m hoping Apple will add this function at some point.
Both this blog and the Jackdaw Research website are self-hosted WordPress sites, and I’ve used WordPress for years for various things. It beats anything out there in terms of usability, flexibility (in its self-hosted version), extensibility and templates. I know just enough HTML and CSS to be able to customize things here and there, but love that I mostly don’t have to worry about that stuff when I’m using WordPress. I also find WordPress’s stats feature very useful in tracking usage.
Office, Windows and Parallels
Occasionally, work requires using the Microsoft Office suite and occasionally Windows as well, and when that happens I’ve typically relied on Parallels running on OS X to allow me to run Windows 7 alongside it. I’ve found Parallels and Fusion to be roughly similar in their functionality and performance, and used to use Fusion in the past. I switched to Parallels at some point for some specific functionality (can’t remember what) but the two are broadly similar. There are occasionally problems with accessing peripherals and such, but for the most part this setup works fine, and I usually run the Windows VM in a second screen on OS X, so that I can swipe to it as needed but ignore it when I’m not using it. I run Windows relatively infrequently, however, and as such I often end up downloading and installing a ridiculous number of updates when I do run it. Recently, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Lenovo Yoga running Windows 8, just so I could have a native Windows machine for certain things. I haven’t decided yet whether to keep it, but Windows 8 remains a jarringly poor and confusing user experience.
Google apps for email and calendar
For work and personal email, calendar and contacts, I use Google services. I use a basic Gmail account for personal stuff, and use the Google Apps suite for work email, calendar and contacts. Although it doesn’t play as nicely with some third party ecosystems as it used to, I find it perfectly usable on all the various devices I use, and the various apps I use too (and of course they really shine on Android). I use Airmail and Apple’s Calendar and Contacts app on OS X; I use Fantastical as my main calendar app along with the Gmail app and the Apple Mail and Contacts apps on iOS. I love the search functionality, both on the web versions and the mobile apps, which I find to be far above anything else in this department.
Connectivity and Communications
AT&T for wireless
My wife and I switched to AT&T from Verizon Wireless back in 2008 when I got my first iPhone, partly for that device and partly for the rollover minutes AT&T offered, and we’ve never switched back. I wouldn’t be tempted to switch to any other carrier except Verizon, because I’ve consistently found these two to have the best combination of coverage and speed in the places I find myself, and AT&T’s use of 3G standards and SIM cards makes switching devices (something I do a lot) very easy. At this point, we have my wife’s phone and my phone as well as two iPads on an AT&T Mobile Share plan with a pretty hefty data allowance that’s shared between the four. I find AT&T to be generally very good, though it performs worse in New York City and San Francisco, often draining my battery rapidly. Our new home is in an area where AT&T coverage is a little poorer than I’d like, and so we’ve installed a Microcell to boost the coverage when we’re home, which helps keep battery life up.
Comcast for home office broadband
We recently moved to a new house, and in doing so signed up for non-fiber-based broadband for the first time in many years. Over the ten years we’ve lived in the US, we’ve had some sort of fiber-based broadband for at least eight, mostly with Verizon FiOS in both Boston and New Jersey, and then Veracity and later Google Fiber in Provo, Utah for about a year. I’ve become accustomed to very high and very consistent speeds during that time, and when we moved to our new home, our options were somewhat limited. The local telco is CenturyLink, which doesn’t offer anything but fairly basic DSL, there are some wireless options around here but nothing too high-speed, and then there’s Comcast. We’ve ended up with Comcast, which has so far performed reasonably well, delivering 35-40Mbit/s pretty consistently and supporting my home office just fine. I haven’t had any of the customer service issues others often report with Comcast, but so far my relationship has been fairly straightforward.
Vonage for home office phone
For the last seven years, I’ve used Vonage for my home office phone service, and I’ve found it to be a good deal for what I get, which has included unlimited calls to various countries (I used to work for a UK-based firm, so this was more relevant then than it is now). For much of the past year, I was unable to use it because my home office was a long way from the router, and so I came to rely heavily on my iPhone for calls, and I’ve had various technical issues since moving to the new house which mean I haven’t relied on it heavily here either. But it’s powering all my call forwarding regardless, including a virtual San Jose-area number.
Skype for international calls, video and podcasting
I also use Skype somewhat regularly, partly as a backup to the iPhone for international calls and 800 numbers, and partly for video calls and podcast recording. I pay for SkypeOut so I can use it for calls to real phone numbers, and find that useful on occasion.