How I Save Time with the Right Shortcuts, Handpicked Apps, and Finetuned Hardware [2021 update]

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 about specific products, I hope you’ll get some broadly applicable help out of this entry, as technology adoption is a madness that requires method.

1. General advice: Know Your Needs & Don’t Chase Fads

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. There are many fishy reviews even on Amazon.
  • 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 that are often marketed based on branding projection rather than intrinsic value (high pricing then becomes a feature!). 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.

2. PC hardware & OS

2.1. Learn the Fundamentals

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 6 or 8-core CPU and you’re good to go for 5+ years. Don’t bother going down the overclocking rabbit hold unless you have specific needs that justify the unavoidable hours of reading, testing, and finetuning. After years lagging behind the market leader, in 2017 AMD came back as a credible alternative to Intel for desktop CPUs.

I’m still using a custom-built desktop computer bought from IbuyPower in 2009. Though swapped out most of its components since then. With its original Intel I7 920 processor, it was the first time since my first 8086 PC 30 years ago (dual 5 1/4″ floppies and 20MB hard drive baby!) that I didn’t the need for CPU upgrades every 18 months. I eventually replaced it with a Xeon X5675 I bought on Aliexpress for $20, which is unbelievable bang for the buck.

There are many other components worth paying attention to:

  • Get an SSD drive to run your operating system and apps. This is the biggest single upgrade for people who haven’t already done so. 1TB is at a price/capacity sweet spot for that purpose. Newer M.2 drives are the size of a memory stick and provide awesome performance if your motherboard support them. You can even set up between two and four of them in RAID (0, 1, or 5) for even faster performance and optionally some data protection.
  • For storage, pick SATA drives between 8TB and 14TB depending on current deals. For the best prices you can chuck external drives.
  • Get plenty of RAM since it’s such a big contributor to performance. 32GB does it for me, my next PC will probably have 64GB.
  • It’s hard to recommend a specific GPU model as there are plenty of alternatives. I tend to gravitate towards entry/mid-level products around the $250 mark as I don’t need the more expensive models.
  • Get a big, brand-name power supply (500W+) for good system stability, behind a UPS as blackouts can easily kill components (trust me on this).
  • Get good air flow in and out of your case, otherwise your components will eventually fry.
  • Pick the best mouse that feels comfortable for long use. I’ve had a Logitech MX518 mouse for 10 years or so, set up at 1800 dpi. When it eventually started to fail I replaced it with a Logitech G203. In my opinion $70+ mouses are a waste of money.
  • Get a mouse 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. All good stuff for their intended purposes. Mechanical keyboards are back in fashion, I used to like the old IBM Model M stalwarts but the $100+ price tags on new fancy models scream fashion statement.
  • Windows 10 is a mature and stable OS, though I don’t like that settings live in two places.

2.2. Form factors: So Much Choice!

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 cheap 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, crushing the once-booming netbook market in their wake. 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 liked my Nexus 7 (2013 vintage) until I broke it, these days I go for Fire 10 HD for cheap but effective tablets.

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, though I could see a 12″ premium tablet by my bed side for evening reading, provided they get light enough.

Android mini-PCs then emerged as an option for affordable “side” PCs that are well worth paying attention to. Years I 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 was really a nice way for our kid to play / watch Youtube / read Wikipedia or whatnot. However these no-brand Chinese devices didn’t age well for lack of Android updates. Since 2016 the Nvidia Shield established itself is a strong contender as an all-around TV-connected device.

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.

2.3. Monitors/video: You’ll Be Staring at it All Day

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:

  • My central monitor is a 43′ Samsung NU7100 TV, which offers great value for the price and works well for work. 4K TVs are cheaper than monitors and adequate as long as you don’t have high-end color calibration requirements or are a hardcore gamer who wants 120+hz refresh rates. (If you want to switch countries with a recent Samsung smart TV to the US, here’s the procedure, which involves pressing Mute + Return + VolUp + ChUp + Mute on the remote. This is useful to be able to run the Emby client which is not available in Tizen worldwide.)
  • My side monitors are 24″ monitors bought years ago and set in portrait mode (achieving a 3-monitor layout looking like the letter H). Multi-monitoring is a great way to lengthen the useful life of older monitors.
  • DisplayFusion has a bunch of quality-of-life features to handle multi monitors, worth the $25. I use it to automatically move and resize programs at launch so that everything is neatly organized and aligned.
  • 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, to business tasks, to web development, to media and games. All of these groups of applications (organized by type of task) are neatly compartmentalized in their own virtual desktops. Note that Windows 10 has its own virtual basic desktop capabilities, so this is not strictly needed.

2.4. 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 OneDrive (via O365) and Google Drive (via Google Workspace), they’re both solid options.
  • 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 used to be a decent option but that’s no longer the case.
  • For more on desktop-integrated cloud storage, see Mount, Backup, Sync: Flexible Cloud Storage Options for Windows Users.

Besides PC-based storage, I’ve had a good experience with NAS storage from QNAP and Synology to store our massive media collections. These devices used to be fairly complicated to set up (i.e. Linux command line knowledge recommended) but it’s gotten better with decent web GUIs now available to administrate them. With the rise of Docker containers they’ve also grown beyond strict storage. See: Getting the Most Out of Your Synology Networked Attached Storage: Did You Know It Can Do That?

As a simpler option, 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.

2.5. Office Furniture

Make sure to have a desk, seat, screen layout, and lighting source, that all contribute to good posture. I bought a DX Racer Valkyrie chair which is significantly firmer than your average office chair, so in my experience at least this specific gaming chair is not just marketing. I use it with a footrest while my keyboard is at just the right height relative to the chair’s armrests.

3. Telephony

For personal purposes I’ve been using Localphone, as well as Callcentric as a fallback service. 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. These two services work well for me and tend to get good review from many other customers.

I was a Vonage customer between 2003 and 2014 and have been 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 ditched Vonage to move 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. I’m still using Skype on my tablet since I really like to have a variety of options and get single points of failure out of the way.

I’ve also used VirtualPBX for a prior venture, which is inexpensive and overall OK though the admin interface could really use a makeover. There’s a bunch of other small/medium business providers such as OnSIP, Spoke, or RingCentral, with slightly different pricing and feature sets.

My desk phone is a Panasonic KX-TGP550, which doesn’t have the most intuitive interface but is solid hardware. Grandstream seems to make good SIP phones too, though I’ve never owned one. On PCs, Google Hangouts/Meet might be the only thing really valuable out of the whole Google+ death march, and it took a lot of market share from Skype for good reason. Then Whatsapp, Zoom, and Teams came up through the ranks, so it seems this market never settles down for very long.

4. 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 used to be partial to Netgear but have been disappointed by their long term support and now use a dual WAN Synology as our main router. I’d avoid Linksys or cheapo no-names: A router is not a router is not a router: it’s worth spending an extra $100 and get something really stable.

It’s also better to avoid using your usually under-powered cable modem as a router, better get your ISP to set the box as a bridge and, again, use your own router. Or google around your modem model/ISP and you may find how to do so yourself.

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.

To access remote servers via SSH (or Telnet, etc.), MobaXterm is a much better option than the oft-mentioned Putty. Meanwhile WinSCP and CuteFTP are pretty good for SFTP file transfers.

For more, see Home LAN + NAS Administration & Security 101 and Beyond for the COVID Era.

5. System Apps

Here are good general utilities to have at hand:

  • Ninite is a good way to install several of the apps below in one swoop. See also Chocolatey if you need to install a lot of apps.
  • Windows Explorer is just not that great, instead Directory Opus is the file manager you need (features and tips). It’s a bit pricey though, xplorer² is also decent and cheaper.
  • Bandizip is in my experience better than Peazip (can’t drag and drop into an Explorer/Dopus window) or 7zip.
  • Funduc’s Search and Replace is old school but works well, there’s also 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.
  • WizTree finds large files relatively quickly.
  • SnagIt is a real time saver if you often take, comment, and share screenshots.
  • I love Excel but sometimes all I need is a calculator, and Windows’ own calculator is pretty basic (though better than it used to be). Launchy has a basic calculator, and for more complex calculations SpeedCrunch is a nice option (keyboard shortcuts).

You can set up these tools in their portable, 64-bit version whenever that’s an option. I use PortableApps in combination with OneDrive so I don’t have to install again and again the same core apps across each of the household’s PCs. This lets me get up and running faster whenever I have to reinstall my PC after hard drive upgrades or critical crashes, but unfortunately portable support is hit and miss, so this is only a partial solution.

6. 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 nice way to avoid constant back and forth movement between keyboard and mouse. Be smart, don’t launch apps with the mouse. It’s not been updated in years but works. Make sure to set up Weby queries for your favorite websites/apps (provided their search displays query parameters in the URL) and install Chromy to launch Chrome bookmarks. See my tips on how to send several parameters to apps and web sites with Launchy. I like the Bowlerhat skin.
  • Some Launch bar alternatives such as FARR or Executor don’t seem to be actively maintained either. Wox is a good-looking alternative with a pulse, but it was buggy when I tried it in May 2016. I tested Listary, and I like its Quick Switch feature, but it didn’t quite gel for me. And there’s also Keypirinha and SlickRun.
  • 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! If you have a second keyboard and want to go crazy on macros, you can assign macros to a specific keyboard using LuaMacros as explained in this video.
  • ElevatedShortcut: lets you create shortcuts that launch any given application as an administrator without a UAC prompt. Very convenient for a few applications such as launching an elevated command line from Launchy.
  • Learning: ShortcutWorldShortcut Foo, Keyrocket.
  • Focus follow mouse à la X Window? Read this, or try KatMouse. I use XWindow Controls with a 0.5s delay (otherwise vanishing dialog boxes get old very fast).
  • To force Cortana to search the web using Google in Chrome (vs. Bing in Edge), get the tools in this article: EdgeDeflector and Chrometana.

7. 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 used to own an ESI1010 (video review) that provided 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. However when it died after a blackout, I bought a Scarlett 2i4 and am quite satisfied with it.
  • (PC) Digital audio workstationReaper (video review) is seriously good value. I use this with my Roland TD8 edrums triggering Toontrack Superior Drummer via MIDI.
  • (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.
  • (PC/Box) Movie/TV managerPlex is where it’s at.
  • (PC/Box) Personal photos and videos: Plex/Emby are OK for this. People with really large collections mention Adobe Lightroom, Lightzone, and Digikam.
  • (PC) Ebook managerCalibre. The best software if you’re managing a big ebook library, but you have to put time to put into it. We use Kindles and tablets as ebook readers.
  • (PC) Comics manager: I switched from ComicRack + Ubooquity to Komga.
  • (PC) PDF reader: PDF-XChange Viewer. Fast, free, supports comments and highlighting.

8. Search

I wrote a separate entry on desktop search tools, covering cloud/desktop integration, fast and deep search options for everything from PDFs to mp3s to ebooks.

9. Cloud Virtual Machines

Instead of upgrading my PC, I used for a couple of years an Azure Data Science Virtual Machine. The 28GB RAM / 120GB SSD configuration I chose costs at the time $0.8/hour (charged by the minute) with a free static IP address. I takes a couple minutes to power on/off and gives me extra power when needed. Make sure to choose a data center with low latency from your location.

You need to stop/deallocate the VM from the Azure portal (or PowerShell) to stop allocation billing when not using the VM (you will still get charged for storage). It’s a shame that there’s no support for hibernation though.

Also I like that if something goes wrong with my PC, or when I’m on the move, all a need is a basic machine that can run RDP, a decent monitor and internet connection, and I’m back in business since the apps I need to work are already installed on the VM, and my files are in the cloud.

I also tested Google Cloud’s virtual machines, and in my anectodal experience they were faster to spin up than on Azure, and they’re cheaper for comparable specs.

10. Web Dev

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

11. Good Resources for Further Reading

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