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I, Gearhead (Part 1: Hardware and Software)

“One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop.” — G. Weilacher

“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” — Albert Maslow

As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading every new post at “The Setup.” I find it infinitely fascinating to hear about what tools people use to forge their paths in the digital world. Since I have neither fame nor notoriety I’ll never be on The Setup myself. But people ask me surprisingly often about what hardware, software and other equipment I use. In a way, I think this harkens back to kids comparing Lego sets or Magic cards. But I’d like to imagine that the question also expresses a deeper curiosity rooted in the growing realization that we ought to take seriously our tools as digital workers, similar to the way craftsmen and artisans respect theirs. (For an excellent, but only peripherally related discussion of work that involves tools to master the real world, take a look at Matthew B. Crawford’s brilliant Shop Class as Soulcraft.)

Here, then, follows an encyclopaedic and meandering discussion of the equipment and software I use. For convenience, I’ve divided this post into sections handsomely illustrated with open source icons from the Open Icon Library.

Let’s start off with my various computers. My main work machine is a late 2008 aluminum unibody 13″ MacBook 2.4 GHz (MacBook 5,1). After discovering — to my delight — that it unexpectedly became capable of supporting 8 GB of RAM after an undocumented firmware update released in 2009, I shelved any plans of upgrading to a newer model for a while. Recently also decked out with a splendid 240 GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD hard drive, it’s now screamingly fast and wonderfully quiet. The only issue one could possibly have with it is that its battery life is somewhat lacking compared to the newer MacBook Pro models, but I get between 3.5 and 4 hours on a full charge, and I think I’m okay with that for the time being.

My main ‘home’ machine is a Franken-PC DIY desktop clone running Windows 7. It’s been built and rebuilt so many times that it really doesn’t have any sort of brand. It sports a (beige! & discontinued) Antec case, an Asus P5QC motherboard, an Intel 3 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, an NVIDIA GeForce 8400 GS graphics card (primarily because it has no moving parts/fans and helps keep the noise factor to a minimum) and 4 GB of RAM. It also sports an older Samsung 19″ LCD monitor that’s getting a bit dated (dim and small when compared to its newer, more luminous and bigger descendants) but is definitely good enough for general computing. Since this computer is used largely for ingesting and managing digital music, it has lots and lots (and lots) of hard disk space. I don’t quite remember off the top of my head, but there are three disks in this machine for a total of at least 3 TB of storage. Franken-Clone also has a Cherry keyboard and a classic Microsoft Wheel Mouse Optical in blue (which I’m quite fond of). For more about audio interfaces, see Part 2 of this post (to follow).

Recently, I inherited a Samsung R530 consumer notebook (Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 and 15.6″ glossy LED screen). Since I got it, it’s been upgraded to 4GB of RAM (its maximum) and a 500 GB Hitachi hard disk. It’s found a permanent place in my living room as a dedicated music server/movie watching source connected to my stereo via a high-quality DAC. The main thing about the Samsung is that it’s simple, doesn’t require a lot of bloated or poorly written OEM drivers to make it work and has a fairly nice screen. I can respect a modest but capable workhorse, even though it’s not as pretty as my MacBook and I wouldn’t want to lug it around.

Next up: software. On my Mac, I run OS X 10.6.7 (currently at least). My browser of choice (all platforms) is Google Chrome with the Google Mail Checker, Google Reader Notifier, Mailto:Gmail, Rapportive, RSS Subscription, Shareaholic and Xmarks Bookmark Sync extensions (Xmarks is only to keep my bookmarks bar synchronized across all my machines; I actually use Delicious to maintain my bookmarks).

I also use Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, which I think is a great product (it has actually enabled me to be productive on my Mac in a Windows-only office). In addition, I use Microsoft Communicator for Mac to connect to our digital telephony and messaging infrastructure at work.

I also use Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac. In it, I primarily run a Windows 7 Professional virtual machine for work. Now that I have 8 GB of RAM on my Mac, I give it 4 GB to run in, and my SSD makes firing it up and operating it a joy. It’s basically almost as fast as running it on the bare hardware. From a software perspective, there’s not a lot on the Windows 7 VM other than Office, Internet Explorer, the Microsoft Lync client and Microsoft Visio and Project 2010 (not available on the Mac, and I don’t feel like paying yet more money to buy-and-try the Mac equivalents, which I’m aware of). Once in a while, I think about switching from Parallels to VirtualBox because it’s free and said to be good, but then I balk at how much work switching would be — and the fact that VirtualBox now seems to be “Oracle”-branded, which somehow calls into question the whole ‘open source’ label for me.

To round out my Mac software list, here are the smaller apps I use on a day-to-day basis: TweetDeck, Skype, FileZilla, Evernote, Preview (truly an awesome thing), iTunes, Balsamiq Mockups, SharePlus (a SharePoint client for the Mac), SnagIt, Carbon Copy Cloner, Cinch, Clocks, Dropbox (the best thing since sliced bread), Cocktail, Coconut Battery, Deeper, Expod, Handbrake, MenuMeters (to put the blinking lights back into computing), Simply Burns, TotalFinder, TextWrangler, Time Machine (another inspired piece of Apple software), Transmission and VLC.

My two Windows machines both run Windows 7 Ultimate. The Samsung R530 notebook literally only has iTunes and Kaspersky Antivirus installed — it’s meant as a pure music playback machine, so I try to limit what else gets to be on it to minimize digital clutter and the possibility of inadvertently loading up the processor with tasks it shouldn’t be doing when I want it to play back music. I generally recommend Kaspersky for anyone who is serious about protecting their Windows machines from malicious software (I don’t recommend their “Internet Security” product which I think is bloated and unnecessarily slows down unsuspecting users’ PCs).

The Franken-Desktop runs Microsoft Office 2010 with Visio and Project 2010, Google Chrome, Evernote, Dropbox, TweetDeck, winLAME, a really old version of Helium Music Manager for tagging and re-tagging MP3s, the really amazing Beyond Compare 3, IrfanView (a little piece of software I miss daily on my Mac… wish that someone made something like it for OS X), the BitTorrent client, Medieval CUE Splitter, Burrrn, VLC and Kaspersky Antivirus.

Files (other than music and movies) on my two work machines (the MacBook and Franken-Desktop) are synchronized using Dropbox whose virtues I cannot stress enough. Also, all my machines pretty much permanently have Evernote and TweetDeck open.

In Part 2, I will discuss my mobile and music equipment. Stay tuned!

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