28 Apr

How I Save Time with the Right Shortcuts, Handpicked Apps, and Finetuned Hardware

Over many years I’ve found a lot of good hardware and neat apps that work well together. In the spirit of the setup and how I work interviews, here’s my advice on picking desktop hardware, some of my favorite software, and various productivity shortcuts, all of which may prove useful to other multi-monitor Windows users who work with a wide variety of applications. Warning: this is a relatively geeky entry, but these recommendations are the fruit of years of hard-won experience! Beyond advice above specific products, I hope you’ll get some methodological help out of this entry, as technology adoption is a madness that requires method.

General advice

I’ll elaborate for each product category, but generally speaking:

  • Know your requirements: what are you trying to accomplish, what are your must-haves and nice-to-haves. There are many fads in tech, and newer doesn’t always mean better, at least for someone’s specific needs and constraints.
  • Don’t buy the latest brand new widgets based on shiny, shallow reviews that don’t tell you anything about interoperability, stability, security, or whether a brand tends to stick to its products over the long run. Many “reviews” on “tech blogs” are neither proper reviews nor “technical”, they’re just thinly disguised infomercials.
  • Take your time for upfront research before buying, this will save you aggravation and money in the long run. On the other hand at some point you need to pull the trigger and start finding out for yourself what will work for you, as it’s easy to fall prey to analysis paralysis given the wealth of available options and daily new releases.
  • Avoid dirt-cheap products (especially no-brands made in China) and very expensive ones (often marketed based on branding projection rather than intrinsic value). There are exceptions. Best value products are not necessarily those that are best known or most advertised, but they will have fans out there. That means you need to learn how to parse customer reviews and find those that are credible and apply to your own requirements.
  • Favor products with an active user community and a track record of support from its supplier. This is essential to troubleshoot issues and get the most out of your investment.
  • Learn to master your hardware and software. Constant hopping for the new flavor du jour will kill your productivity. Better make yourself comfortable with a set of well-known tools, and replace only a few here and there when there’s something clearly broken with them, or clearly superior out there.
  • If it ain’t broken don’t fix it! When something works well and does it job, it is often a good idea not to mess with it if you value your time at all. Accept that technology, and your use of it, is always a work in progress. Just don’t create more work for you than you have to.

PC hardware/OS basics

First off, and perhaps counter-intuitively, a PC’s central processor is not its main performance bottleneck for most applications anymore. Get a good mid-range Intel quad core CPU and you’re good to go until the end of the decade. Don’t bother going down the overclocking rabbit hold unless you have specific needs that justify the unavoidable hours of reading, testing, and finetuning.

I’m still using a custom-built desktop computer bought from IbuyPower in 2009. Though I made several upgrades to it since then, its original Intel I7 920 processor has proven a winner over the long term. It’s the first time since my first 8086 PC almost 30 years ago (dual 5 1/4″ floppies and 20MB hard drive baby!) that I haven’t felt the need for a CPU upgrade after 18 months. But there are many other components worth paying attention to:

  • Get an SSD drive to run your operating system. This is the biggest single upgrade for people who haven’t already done so. In 2013/14, 128GB is at a price/capacity sweet spot for that purpose.
  • If you let your PC run 24/7, additional drives for storage should be NAS-specific drives. Circa 2014, 3-4TB drives are cheap enough.
  • Windows 8.1 is the new Vista, i.e. it’s not as half bad as people say it is. Just get rid of the absolutely stupid Metro UI – Classic Shell does the job – and underneath you get a fast, stable operating system.
  • Get plenty of RAM since it’s so cheap and is a big contributor to performance. 16GB does it for me.
  • Get a big, brand-name power supply (650W+) for good system stability, behind a UPS.
  • Get good air flow in and out of your case, otherwise your components will eventually fry.
  • Pick the best mouse and keyboard that feel comfortable for long use. I’ve had a Logitech MX518 mouse for 8 years or so, set up at 1800 dpi. They don’t make them anymore but apparently the G400/G400s are adequate replacements. Get a pad that doesn’t stick or slow you down. It’s a matter of personal preference, I’m partial to metal mats sold for gaming. They do help being fast yet precise, which carries from games to multi-app work spanning a triple screen setup. I’ve settled on this Rocketfish pad because it’s durable and larger than most.
  • Your keyboard is even more important than your mouse. I have a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 for work, a 2nd gen Logitech G15 for gaming, and a bluetooth Logitech K810 for use from my drums or with a tablet.

Desktop vs. laptop vs. netbook vs. tablet vs. phone vs. mini PC vs. NAS vs. media box vs. consoles – Oh My!

There’s plenty of gear that I’ve had for almost a decade, and with good care, I intend to keep using it for years more. Computing hardware doesn’t have to be throwaway junk if you’re picky and careful, nor does it have to be overpriced luxury (e.g. most of Apple’s hardware). It’s hard to preserve that value though if you stick to laptops which tend to offer much less power for the buck. For this reason I tend to buy $400 laptops that get passed along through the family and which we can afford to lose/break/get stolen/whatever always eventually happens with laptops.

I think of the desktop PC as the versatile workhorse that you can build upon for the long term, which makes it worth spending more on. It is however clearly a home office/den device.

By 2013 tablets, in conjunction with a bluetooth keyboard, were becoming good replacement for entry level laptops, and the waning netbook market seems to reflect that. In just a few years huge progress has been made since the odious Ipad1 (probably the worst device I’ve ever used). At the moment I quite like my Nexus 7 (2013 vintage) and I’m trying to steer away people from cheap dual core tablets which tend to feel unresponsive.

Of course if you’re working away from your desk all the time and/or money is not an option, then go and spend 2 grand on a fancy Mac or Alienware laptop. I just don’t find them to be great value for my own needs. I like the 7″ form factor most, which has put such a dent into my phone use that I haven’t felt the need to upgrade my Galaxy SII. But then I don’t make many cell phone calls.

Android mini-PCs are a newer option for affordable “side” PCs that are well worth paying attention to. I recently bought for my son an RK3188 quad core mini PC, which bundled with an Rii i8 keyboard cost the princely sum of $83. We hooked the device to a TV and that’s really a nice way for our kid to play / watch Youtube / read Wikipedia or whatnot.

Then there’s the dedicated devices for storage, media consumption, and gaming. In my experience they work best as complements to PCs and tablets, but in the end there’s room for a lot of types of devices, each with their strengths and weaknesses. More on these further below.

Monitors/video

First, a caveat, you need to have good discipline and not try to multitask like crazy, which has been known to be inefficient because of task switching costs for more than a decade. That being said, to the extent you set up your screen real estate in a way that is task-oriented (more on that below), I personally really like having more. I currently run a triple screen setup with the following:

  • A single Nvidia GTX 760 runs the 3 monitors, your mileage may vary on the exact card (depending on what kind of games you want to run, if any) but get a card with 4GB of VRAM. I used to be an AMD/ATI guy in the 90s/early 00s, but I think they’ve lost steam a while ago.
  • DisplayFusion has a bunch of quality-of-life features to handle multi monitors, worth the $25.
  • Dexpot works well with DisplayFusion and lets you manage several virtual desktops. This is key when you rotate through widely different “task sets” or “work modes” through the day. I go from reading/writing (email / Yammer / Netvibes / Tweetdeck…), to running the business (Gmail / Gdrive / Yammer / Excel / PPT / Salesforce+desk.com…), to web development (Aptana / Brackets / Conemu / Chrome+dev tools) to media and games. All of these groups of applications (organized by type of task) are neatly compartmentalized in their own virtual desktops.
  • My central monitor is one of these 27″ Korean IPS monitors that have been all the rage for the last couple of years. The lowdown? Amazing value, just do it. My side monitors are 22″ and 24″ monitors bought 8 years ago.

Storage

Aside from the advice above on hard drives, I recommend the following:

  • Make sure to put your critical personal files into a cloud-based service from the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box et. al. I  use Google Drive because we work with plenty of big PDFs to research defense programs and budgets, but your mileage may vary depending on your specific needs. Google Drive has some very good features as well as some aggravating drawbacks, I think all these products need to continue to mature.
  • If you have less than about 600GB worth of files you want to save, Amazon Glacier seems a very inexpensive way to have mass cloud storage backup, though I’ve never used it. Above that threshold, CrashPlan is less expensive, which is what I’ve been using for the past couple of years. I’ve put way too much work into my music collection to lose it all to a hard drive crash, and I’ve had plenty of bad hard crash drives in the past.
  • I’ve had a good experiences with NAS storage from QNAP and more recently Synology. These devices used to be fairly complicated to set up (i.e. Linux command line knowledge recommended) but it’s getting better with decent web GUIs now available to administrate them. I’ve set up a friend with a WD My Book Studio for his Mac and he’s been fairly happy with it as a “no touch” option. In any case, if you want to store a bunch of media files this is a cost-effective way to do so, especially thanks to their lower electricity consumption.

Telephony

I was a Vonage customer since 2003 and a Skype user since 2005, and millions of people still use them because of brand recognition and inertia. However these services have not aged well, whether in terms of value for money or technology. I’ve (mostly) moved out of these proprietary solutions towards SIP, a standard that gives you access to many more options. It is not the most user-friendly market, which explains some of the inertia, but you’ll get better voice quality, much better pricing, and more control/features from a variety of SIP providers and devices.

We’re  using VirtualPBX for work, which is inexpensive and overall ok though the admin interface could really use a makeover. There’s a bunch of other providers such as OnSIP with slightly different pricing and feature sets. For personal purposes I’ve been using Localphone  lately, though I have yet to try their smartphone software. In the end there is no perfect service, it really depends on your needs. We for instance maintain US phone numbers, a French personal number, and we make outbound work and friends/family calls worldwide.

My desk phone is a Panasonic KX-TGP550, which doesn’t have the most intuitive interface but is solid hardware. On PCs, Google Hangouts might be the only thing really valuable out of the whole Google+ death march, and it’s been taking a lot of marketshare from Skype for good reason.

Networking

If you have a cheapo router provided by your ISP (say from Linksys) and wonder why you have to reboot it twice a week, seek no more: it’s time to get your own networking equipment. I’m partial to Netgear (our main router is an R6200) though they can be a little weird to set up as an access point. But a router is not a router is not a router: it’s worth spending an extra $100 and get something really stable.

In larger houses you’ll want to learn basic networking concepts – DNS, DHCP, NAT… – so that you know how to set up extra routers / wifi APs. I keep extending our coverage (we have five floors), sometimes a simple gigabit switch (from Trendnet for instance) is all it takes, I have also started looking into Power over Ethernet for extras such as outdoor security cameras. Here’s a good supplier of PoE injectors. It’s hard not to become somewhat of a network administrator when you have north of 15 IP addresses on your home network.

If you’re cabling your house, use Cat6 ethernet cable so that bigger and bigger video files can be streamed smoothly. Here’s a good article on how to do so.

System Apps

Here are a couple good general utilities to have at hand:

  • Ninite is a good way to install several of the apps below in one swoop.
  • Windows Explorer is just not that great, instead Directory Opus is the file manager you need (features and tips).
  • Funduc’s Search and Replace is old school but works well. I haven’t checked their Replace Studio product.
  • Unlocker lets you get rid of these pesky system locks that prevent you from deleting files.
  • Do you need to bulk rename files such as music downloads? Flash Renamer is it.
  • CCleaner takes care of a lot of the cruft that inevitably accrues over the life of a Windows install.

Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts: learn them, use them, love them. In complement to knowing a bunch of Windows and Chrome shortcuts (what, you don’t know how to paste text without its source formatting?), I roll with:

  • Launchy: really, really nice to avoid constant back and forth movement between keyboard and mouse. Be smart, don’t launch apps with the mouse.
  • AutoHotKey: nowhere near as easy to get started with as Launchy, but a strong complement. Are you still manually typing addresses, URLs or phone numbers that you use all the time? Crazy!
  • Learning tool: Shortcut Foo.
  • Focus follow mouse à la X Window? Read this, I use the Ease of Access method so I don’t have to click on Windows to change focus.

Media

  • (PC) Soundcard: if you’re into music, get a dedicated card, not any of the integrated crap or anything with Soundblaster written on it. I bought an ESI1010 (video review) 8 years ago, amazing value with 1.4ms latency at 64 samples (which is vital to play electronic drums). They don’t sell them anymore but there’s a PCIe replacement now.
  • (PC) Digital audio workstationReaper (video review), seriously good value. I use this with my Roland TD8 edrums triggering Toontrack Superior Drummer via MIDI, and put together a similar set up for my kids to play guitar and keyboard on their laptop (an old Tascam US 224 still does the job to run VSTs, but I don’t recommend the brand as they don’t release new drivers for their old gear and getting the US 224 to work Windows 7  required research, experimentation, and jumping through hoops).
  • (PC) Music managerHelium. The best for large collections (as in beyond 1TB/10,000 albums), which involves running MS SQL Server locally (don’t be scared, they make that easy). Trust me on this, I have a humongous music collection and I’m fairly obsessive/compulsive.
  • (PC) Music playerFoobar 2000, with a few plugins. Are you seriously still using Winamp?
  • (PC/Box) Movie/TV managerPlex Media Server (with media spread between PC and NAS) and a WDTV Live. Not always super stable, but feature-rich. Enabling plain old directory sharing is a good fallback whenever your media server and player refuse to collaborate.
  • (Box) Music streamer: ?? Since Logitech killed Squeezebox I’m unsure what to do that’s going to be reasonably future proof. Generic media players such as the WDTV don’t work so well with large local collections, and I don’t like streaming services for a variety of reasons. I think there’s a gap of the market at the moment, relative to the needs of collectors who don’t want to spend too much on products from the likes of Sonos.
  • (PC) Ebook managerCalibre. Good but I still haven’t spent the time to get it set up in a networked way that works from our various PCs and tablets. They say it doesn’t work with Google Drive, I might have to use Box. Another thing I haven’t fully figured out “at scale” (i.e. for a whole family, wherever, from whatever device.)

Web Dev

This is a matter of endless debates, but I’ve found the following to work well for me:

Some Good Resources

  • Increase Productivity by Building Your Muscle Memory: “normal” people seem sluggish to experienced computer users, whom in return look somewhat supernaturally fast to the untrained. It’s nothing magic, you just have to apply yourself, one step at a time. People of all walks of life spend so much time using technology – even if it’s not nominally their job – that they might as well get good at it.
  • Tom’s Hardware frequently updates their market surveys for PC components, giving good assessments of value/money at any given time (example: CPUs April 2014).
  • SmallNetBuilder know what they’re talking about – don’t rely on mass market “tech” (aha) blogs (the Endgadgets and Gizmodos of the world) for serious product information.
  • Graves on SOHO technology – good blog, especially on VOIP.
  • The Wire Cutter – not as technical as the above, but I really like how they think and produce their content. This will give you a good framework on how to approach the purchase of widgets so they don’t end up collecting dust in a closet.
  • LifeHacker: quality is unequal because of Gawker churnalism, but there are some good entries with equally good comments.
  • SuperUser: from the invaluable StackExchange stable of websites.

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