My computer setup for grad school

I’ll be starting a Master’s program in Human-Computer Interaction this fall at the University of Maryland College Park. I’ll have more to come on that later, but I wanted to discuss the computer setup that I plan on using for graduate school, and I hope that you’ll share your academic computer setups as well.

Times have changed since I was last embarking on college in 2002. I went off to college with a PowerMac rocking OS X Jaguar (10.2). My computer had originally shipped with 10.1, and OS X was a much rawer OS back then, but it was still a big step up over Mac OS 9 and Windows (OS X has always been stable and beautiful). But you’ll notice that I had a PowerMac, a beast of a computer, large and heavy by even desktop standards.

There weren’t a lot of good laptop options in the spring of 2002 when I purchased my PowerMac (I bought it early so I could use it on my senior project, which involved myself and four friends building a new website for our township). At the time I made my decision I had felt that the PowerBooks and iBooks were not powerful enough for the work I would be doing: desktop publishing, movie editing, Web design, 3D animation, to name a few of the things that I did in college. It was a tough decision to go between power/expandability and portability. Today, laptops are incredibly powerful, and desktops are reserved for either the really low end of computing or the really high end that needs a lot of power.

In my last two day jobs, I’ve been given laptops. It’s becoming rare to even see desktops in the enterprise.

This time, I’ll be going with a laptop. Portability is paramount. When I was in college, no one brought a computer to class. Today, computers are in the classroom all the time — for note taking, for doing assignments, for communicating, etc. Just six years ago almost everyone took notes by hand.

I’ll also be working full time and continuing to edit the Interchange Project. I’ll be doing work from a variety of locations — home, work, campus, coffee shops, libraries, etc. — and need something light, something that can be carried around for a half mile walk and not break my back after lugging it around .all day. Battery life has also improved considerably, making laptops truly portable, where they once required a power outlet always nearby.

I’ll be going with a 13-inch Macbook Air. The ultrabook class of computers, of which the Macbook Air was the original, is probably the best computer choice for most people entering college today. The Macbook Air and its peers are very lightweight — easy to take to class and around campus — while also being very capable. I’m waiting for the new Ivy Bridge processors from Intel before I buy my machine, and I’m hoping that the new Macbook Airs will support 8 GBs of ram. If you are in the market for a laptop of any kind, wait until Intel’s new processors launch over the next few months.

The 13-inch Air has the perfect balance between power and portability. At under 3 pounds, it’s not just portable in the sense that you can throw it in your car and take it somewhere, but rather it’s portable in the sense that you can take public transportation and walk around campus or town a lot with it. It’s light enough that it can pretty much go anywhere with you.

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago wifi was not ubiquitous. The big thing when I was in college was adding ethernet jacks all over the library and into classrooms. Yes, a mere 10 years ago, ubiquitous ethernet jacks, not wifi, was considered the best way to allow students to access the Internet when they weren’t in their dorm rooms. I don’t know if those ethernet jacks are still around, but had my school, and others, had strong wifi networks, I might have been tempted to go with a laptop, however underpowered it was.

Today, wifi is everywhere. I have 3G on my phone that I can use to create a wifi network for my laptop to get on. The value of a portable computer goes up exponentially when you can connect to the Internet away from a desktop ethernet jack.

Below is the full setup that I hope to be rocking:

Hardware

This will be the core of my hardware configuration for the next several years.

Macbook Air — 13-inch model, because from what I’ve read and seen from other people, the 11-inch model is a great portable machine, but the screen can be too limiting for getting serious work done. I don’t want to do a two-machine setup. I want one machine that can handle all of my work. The biggest decision for me will be how big of a hard drive do I go with. Do I go with the standard 128 GB SSD (could be bumped up) and use an external drive to store music, photos, videos and other hard drive clogging files or do I go with the 256 GB SSD and try to fit as much of my stuff on it as possible? SSDS are blazing fast, but they are expensive. Even 256 GB won’t be enough long term. I’ll most likely be going with whatever the standard amount of hard drive space on the 13-inch Macbook Air is at the time that I buy my computer and then I’ll get a good, fast 1 TB external hard drive.

27-inch Thunderbolt display — The 13-inch Air has a big enough screen that it can be used as a primary display for getting work done. However, there are times when having more screen real estate really comes in handy. The 27-inch Thunderbolt display from Apple really makes the perfect partner for the Macbook Air, because it functions as a dock for Thunderbolt-equipped Apple laptops. The Thunderbolt display has USB, Thunderbolt and ethernet ports. You can dock in your laptop and have the display give you an external mouse and keyboard, several external hard drives and even a wired Internet connection for fast file transfers on your internal network. It also packs a pretty decent 2.1 sound setup and the ability to power and charge your laptop. It’s a great way to transform a very portable laptop into a full-featured desktop with minimal clutter. Thanks to Thunderbolt, external hard drives can be as fast as internal ones.

iPad — I’ll be using the iPad a lot for reading and doing research, and the new screen really makes it a compelling option for textbooks. I’ve used textbooks before on the original iPad, but the screen was a bit tiring to look at. Using a non-Retina Display iPad for reading books is a less than ideal experience. The new iPad, on the other hand, really offers a great book reading experience, complete with note taking, highlighting and dictionary look up. Any textbooks that I can get in ebook form will be run on the iPad. I’d rather not have to deal with lugging around textbooks that are as heavy as my laptop. It’s also great to have all of my textbooks with me at all times. On a Saturday, I could take my iPad with me to a coffee shop and do some pleasure reading. After a little bit, I can then open up a textbook and get some school work done.

iPhone — I currently have an iPhone 4. I’ll be using that until an LTE phone really catches my attention. What I like about the iPhone is that it has a great screen, much like the iPad. As someone who suffers from eyestrain, the quality of my computing screens matters greatly and helps to reduce and even eliminate eyestrain. The original iPhone really bothered my eyes after long use and most smartphones do too. I won’t get rid of my iPhone for an inferior screen. I hope the next iPhone maintains its strong batter life while also adding LTE, because I really want LTE for the hotspot function. There are times when wifi is far too slow to get work done, but 3G can be painful to use. Having the ability to use LTE with my laptop and iPad would be big.

External hard drives — I currently have one for hourly Time Machine backups. I’ll most likely add a second one as extra storage for my computer. I don’t need my photos, music and videos with me wherever I go, but a big external hard drive can give me a lot of extra space for not a lot of money.

External mouse and keyboard — When sitting at a desk, an external mouse and keyboard is much more ergonomic than what laptops offers. For long sessions at my desk, I really like having a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard (I prefer as few wires as possible). I highly recommend the same for everyone else. Find a keyboard and mouse/external trackpad that is really comfortable and set up your laptop like a desktop when you are using it from your main workstation. Your laptop should also be on something to raise the top of the screen up to eye level.

Software

I use a lot of different software, and I’m always trying new software. Below is some of the key software that I’ll be using to maintain my professional, personal and academic lives.

Dropbox — The best backup and syncing solution I’ve found yet. I’m writing this post in Byword on my Mac. It is being backed up and synced to Dropbox as we speak. I’m going to pick up my dog from doggie camp in a little bit. If I have a few minutes to burn while I’m waiting for her to come out, I can edit this post on my iPhone, and it will sync back to my Mac. I cannot recommend Dropbox any higher. It’s a must have.

Alfred — I don’t know how people use computers without task launchers like Alfred. By simply holding down control and then hitting spacebar, I can use Alfred to launch Safari by just typing in “Sa” or find a file or do a simple math calculation. Mice do make computing easier, but they are slow and cause RSI. The more you can do with the keyboard with less effort, the more efficient you’ll be with a computer and the easier you’ll be your body. Alfred makes computing fun and fast.

Byword — I do a lot of writing. I’m always looking for ways to make writing more pleasurable and efficient. What I really like about Byword is it lacks chrome, unlike word processors such as Word and Pages; it’s just you and your words. Byword is a text editor, not a modern word processor, and its intent is for writing words, not producing documents to print. It’s an important distinction, but most of the writing I do is for Web consumption. If I need more formatting, I can copy and paste this text into a Pages document, which I prefer over Word. Byword also syncs between OS X and iOS. I started this post on my Mac and edited it on my iPad. It’s hard to go back to using a text editor that doesn’t sync between my computer, tablet and smartphone.

Pages — Even though I really like Byword (and TextEdit and Google Docs and other programs), I still use Pages. It read Word files pretty well, and it’s a good program to use when I need to track changes or do a bit with layout. Pages would be a lot more useful if it synced with the iOS versions, which are quite good. Ironically, lots of third party text programs sync with iCloud between OS X and iOS, but Apple’s own program does not. With OS X Mountain Lion, this will be changing. When this changes, Pages may become a much more interesting and important program.

Sparrow — The best desktop email program I have ever found. Lightweight, great UI and fun to use. I highly recommend it.

Reeder — The best RSS app I have ever seen. I have to keep up with a lot of news sources. This is a must have, and it works on both OS X and iOS.

Coda — This is what I use for Web design. It’s a great program for writing HTML, CSS, PHP and other languages. It also has a built in FTP program. Other programs may be stronger for development, but I really like this program for Web design work.

Pixelmator — Photoshop does way too much and costs way too much. This is the image editing and design program for the rest of us. It also starts up way faster and is much less bloated than Photoshop.

Omnifocus — The best GTD (Getting Things Done) task management program I have found. It helps you stay organized and on top of projects, which is kind of a big deal both professionally and academically. This also syncs very well with its iOS brothers. In fact, the iPad version is the best version. If you are always with your iPad and iPhone, the Mac version of Omnifocus isn’t really necessary.

Omnioutliner — The iPad version is how I take notes in meetings, and it’s fantastic. The OS X version is a favorite of college students everywhere for taking notes. I used it in undergrad to make outlines of textbooks. It doesn’t support syncing yet, but Omni Group promising that the next version of Omnioutliner for OS X will sync with the iOS version. That’s a big deal, because if it doesn’t happen soon, I may have to use something else for note taking. I may take notes in class on my Mac, but I’ll most likely read them over on my iPad.

Numbers — I prefer Numbers to Excel because it’s A) less convoluted to use and B) makes much nicer looking charts. I’m not a spreadsheet jockey, so I have this luxury. You may not. For grad school I may have to bite the bullet and get a Office license, particularly for Excel and perhaps Word. Mostly for compatibility, but there may be data sets that I need Excel for.

TextExpander — I’ve recently added this program to my arsenal. It allows me to make little character strings and then have my Mac automatically expand them into a longer strings or several sentences. For instance, I have one snippet called — “msig” that automatically ads my signature to any program. My main signature, which is what “msig” stands for, is four lines long. This is a big time saver. I also have snippets for frequently used computer code. There is also an iOS version that allows snippets to work with some — but not all — iOS apps. It would be nice if TextExpander could work with all iOS apps, but that is beyond their control.

TextEdit — Despite having several fuller-featured text editors on my Mac, I still like to use TextEdit for taking quick notes or as a scratch sheet of paper. The program launches incredibly fast. It’s instantaneous. Combined with my use of Alfred for quick launching of apps using the keyboard, I can have a blank TextEdit document up in a second or two.

GarageBand — This is what I use to edit our podcast. I may one day switch to Logic Pro, but for the time being our recording and editing setup is Audio Hijack Pro and GarageBand.