What I Use

With the understanding that the reality of my daily computing repertoire changes on a regular basis because of the nature of my day job, I have gotten an unusual number of requests lately about the hardware and software I actually use. So what the heck, here's the list. I'll try to keep this up-to-date, but again, my testing requirements often cause me to change things up.

Hardware

While I have a number of PCs and servers dedicated to storage, gaming, and testing, I'll just focus on the machines I sit down in front of regularly and actually use on a daily basis. There are two: A desktop machine that is currently serving as my family's Media Center PC (and thus, the front-end to our TV experience via a networked Xbox 360) and a notebook computer that houses my email and goes with me on trips. There's also a third machine, a Mac, I use for testing and digital media purposes.

Desktop PC: HP Pavilion m7690y Media Center PC

Dating from late 2006, this desktop PC has a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 processor, 2 GB of RAM, a DVD-RW-DL optical drive, and a 400 GB SATA hard drive. I've upgraded the pathetic built-in video card with a mid-line ATI Radeon X1600 with 512 MB of RAM. Thanks to its Media Center duties, I've also added a mainstream Hauppauge TV tuner card, which is connected to an RCN set-top box. The display is a Sony PremierPro SDM-P234, a 23-inch LCD that runs at 1920 x 1200. (The ThinkPad, below, and an Xbox 360 are also connected to this display.)

Notebook: Lenovo ThinkPad T60 2623

Dating from mid-2006, this ThinkPad includes a 2 GHz Intel Core Duo T2500 processor, an ATI Mobility Radeon X1400 video card with 128 MB of RAM, a 100 GB hard drive, and a DVD Multi-Recorder optical drive. I've upgraded the RAM from the stock 1 GB to 2 GB. I've also added a Lenovo Advanced Mini-Dock so I can use the Thinkpad at home with the Sony display (see above).

Notebook: Apple MacBook

Dating from June 2006, this is a white, first-generation Apple MacBook with a 2 GHz Intel Core Duo T2500 processor and a DVD-RW SuperDrive. I've upgraded both the RAM and the hard drive: The machine now includes 2 GB of RAM and a 160 GB SATA hard drive. I use the MacBook to keep up with Mac OS X and other Apple software and hardware, to maintain the master copy of my music collection, to sync with my iPods, and to order photo books via iPhoto.

Portable devices

I use a number of portable media devices. I have two Apple iPods I use fairly regularly: A 30 GB iPod with video (late 2005), which I keep in the car and use with an iPod-friendly Alpine stereo) and an 80 GB iPod with video (late 2006), which syncs with all my MacBook-based TV show, movie, video, audiobook, podcast, photo, and music content. I also travel with a late 2006 2G iPod shuffle, which is sort of a backup of sorts and includes just my favorite songs.

I travel regularly with a Microsoft Zune as well. This is synchronized via the ThinkPad and includes my entire music collection, a subset of the podcasts I enjoy, and some videos.

I use an Archos 604 portable media player to watch movies while on the elliptical trainer at the gym. This device features a much bigger display than the Zune and iPod and is ideal for this use.

My digital camera is a Sony DSC-W55/B, which is a 7.2 megapixel device. I keep a spare battery on hand and use a 2 GB Memory Stick PRO Duo memory card. This camera is new as of this writing and I'm not sold on it yet. My previous camera was a Canon PowerShot SD550, also 7.2 megapixels, which worked well until the red-eye flash stopped working. I can recommend Canon cameras generally.

Software

I have a collection of software that I regularly install on each of my Windows-based machines. I'll break these down into logical groups, and I recommend all of these solutions.

Operating system

I use Windows Vista Ultimate because I don't have to pay for it. If I did, I'd run Windows Vista Home Premium.

Digital media

Media jukebox: My primary jukebox is Apple iTunes 7, but I also regularly ensure that my media collections are up-to-date in Microsoft Zune (which syncs with the Zune player) and Microsoft Windows Media Player 11 (Vista, which syncs with the Archos 604). For media compatibility reasons, I install the Combined Community Codec Pack rather than a lot of separate audio and video codecs. I also pay for Apple QuickTime Pro 7, which is useful for Web videos and can do simple conversions. BTW: I stopped using Nero because of incompatibilities with Windows Vista, which led to numerous annoying error dialogs.

Online services: I download music from online services that offer high-quality files, such as MusicGiants or Napster, but never from Apple iTunes Store (sorry, 128 Kbps does not cut it). I copy all purchased songs to CD-RW and then rip them back to the PC in MP3 format. I do use Apple iTunes Store to purchase TV shows (when I miss them somehow), some movies, and audio books. We rent movies occasionally from MovieLink via the Xbox 360's Extender and a Vista-based Media Center PC: It works flawlessly but the selection is limited. We utilize the Blockbuster Total Access service, and not NetFlix, because you can return DVDs to local stores and get free DVD rentals each time. (Blockbuster also sends free DVD and game rental coupons regularly; it's almost ludicrous.)

Digital photos: I acquire and manage photos with Microsoft Windows Photo Gallery (Vista). However, this application isn't perfect, and I also utilize Google Picasa 2 for some editing purposes and, to a much greater degree, Adobe Photoshop Elements 5, which I also use for all the graphics on this site. I also use the Editor application in Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 for certain digital image editing functions: It's particularly good at cropping and resizing and could easily replace Photoshop for most people. I upload some pictures to the Web with Flickr Uploader, but haven't really settled on an online photo archiving solution.

DVD: Windows Media Player 11 works fine for DVDs, but I prefer Cyberlink PowerDVD 7, which performs extremely well and offers additional functionality. Every Windows user should grab a copy of Slysoft AnyDVD, which is a critical DVD tool. It adds two important features: First, it lets DVD apps automatically skip all the ads and junk that most DVD movies have and jump right to the movie or main title menu whenever you insert a DVD. Second, it makes copy-protected DVDs appear to the system as non-protected, so you can back them up or rip them to the hard drive for use in portable devices like the Archos 604. I use Slysoft CloneDVD to backup DVD movies and Slysoft CloneDVD Mobile to rip DVDs. Note: I do not steal DVDs; I do, however, make copies of my own DVDs so I can watch them at the gym on the Archos.

Digital movies: I use Microsoft Windows Movie Maker 6 (Vista) to edit AVI and WMV-based movies, and Media Center recorded TV shows. (I use Apple iMovie HD on the Mac to edit MPEG-4 movies.)

Watching and recording TV shows: Microsoft Windows Media Center (Vista) is incredible, and we have a Microsoft Xbox 360 connected to our TV, from which we access Media Center content over the network. Absolutely superb, though I'd like a quieter Extender than the Xbox 360.

Internet

My primary Web browser is Mozilla Firefox 2, though I use Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 (Vista) regularly as well and don't fear using it, as I did with IE 6. I use the antiquated LeechFTP for my occasional FTP needs, Windows Live Messenger to keep up with friends throughout the day (though I abhor instant messaging in general) and Skype to record podcasts. Interesting note: Skype appears to perform better on the Mac than it does on Windows, and I often use it with the MacBook for this reason.

Office productivity

I use Microsoft Office 2007 extensively, especially Outlook and Word. Outlook 2007 is my primary email, contacts, and calendar client, though I've been experimenting with alternatives (Google Calendar is a particularly interesting calendar solution and could eventually trump Outlook.) My primary email account is provided through Google Gmail, which has been very reliable. However, if you prefer Web-based email (and not an application like Outlook), Yahoo Mail Plus Beta is the best solution. I have an account for testing purposes, but rarely use it. I also have a Windows Live Hotmail account of course, primarily for Windows Live Messenger and various Passport-based online sites and services.

I use Microsoft OneNote 2007 for note-taking and love it. I use Microsoft Windows Mobile Device Center 6 to sync my Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q smart phone with Outlook and Verizon VZAccess to use that same phone as a high-speed (EV-DO) Internet connection while on the road.

Security

Since switching to Vista, I've given up on bulky security suites, and even OneCare Live seems too resource-intensive for. So I'm using Microsoft Windows Firewall (Vista) as my only firewall and Microsoft Windows Defender (Vista) as my sole anti-spyware solution, though I've got a hardware-based firewall on my Internet router, of course. I'm using AVG 7.1 Free for antivirus. It appears to work great, and it's not particularly big or resource intensive.

Utilities

I use a number of other software utilities for various reasons, including Adobe Reader 8, Techsmith SnagIt 8 (screenshots) and Camtasia Studio (desktop recordings), Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 (OS testing), WinRAR 3.62 (with RefreshCL 48x48 theme) for file archiving, ImgBurn for burning ISO files to disc, and uTorrent for occasional BitTorrent downloads.

Web development

I'm currently using Microsoft Visual Web Developer 2005 Express for Web development, but I don't really like it. I'll probably switch to Microsoft Expression Web soon if I can get it to install on my desktop. (It works fine on the ThinkPad.) On the other hand, Visual Web Developer is free and does at least get the job done.

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