Lots of changes in a short time, thanks in part to an overdue decision to remove Apple products from my home. Plus, a new (if temporary) Ultrabook, a new Kindle, a repurposed Windows Phone used as an MP3 player, a few Windows 8 Metro apps, and Xbox media services.
I get a lot of questions about the hardware and software I actually use. With the understanding that the reality of my job requires me to change my daily computing repertoire on a regular basis, 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 with little notice.
My previous What I Use article appeared in May 2012.
Note: With the exception of some Microsoft software such as Windows and Office, I've paid for all the commercial software I use and mention below. Unless noted, I have also paid for all of the hardware, software, and subscription services listed here, and I do pretty much recommend it all. This isn't an opportunity for me to sell you on some vendor's products. This is what I really do use regularly.
Note: This roundup is a bit less exhaustive than previous versions as I wanted to focus on what I really use and not also on the technology I have lying around the house.
Note: Some of the changes here from previous months will be discussed further in upcoming articles, specifically around using the SkyDrive app instead of Live Mesh, removing Apple products from my home, and switching to Xbox media services and compatible devices and apps.
While I maintain a wide range of laptop computers for testing purposes, most of my day-to-day computing occurs on a small range of "core" machines, which typically consists of one desktop PC and one notebook computer.
Primary desktop PC
My desktop computer is an HP Pavilion HPE h8-1220t tower PC with a 3.5 GHz Core i7-3770K (third-gen Core “Ivy Bridge”) processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB Crucial SSD, a 2 TB 7200 RPM HDD, an AMD Radeon HD 7570 (with 2GB RAM), and a SuperMulti DVD burner.
This PC is connected to a 27-inch Planar PX2710MW display running at 1920 x 1080, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, Microsoft Explorer Mouse (Blue-Track) (I highly recommend both), and Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers (also recommended).
Primary notebook PC
I’m temporarily using a Samsung Series 9 (2012 model) Ultrabook, a Microsoft loaner for Windows 8/multi-touch trackpad testing, and it’s wonderful. This amazing portable computer features a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, a gorgeous 13-inch matte screen running at 1600 x 900, 4 GB of RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and an excellent back-lit keyboard. It weighs less than 3 pounds. I’m so impressed by this machine, I may buy one soon or get its 15-inch brother.
(My own notebook is an ASUS Zenbook UX31 Ultrabook, which features a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-2557M processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 13-inch (1600 x 900) glossy screen, and 128 GB of SSD storage. This machine is also wonderfully thin and light but the keyboard is only so-so, and lacks backlighting on the keyboard.)
I've been using a prototype Samsung 700T slate PC, also on loan from Microsoft, exclusively for Windows 8 testing and for writing my next book, Windows 8 Secrets. This machine features an 11.6-inch (1366 x 768) widescreen, multi-touch display, a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5 i5-2467M processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of SSD storage plus a 32 GB micro-SD card I added. Battery life is not exceptional (it's in the 3 hour range), and while it works well, it can be bit loud thanks to a noisy fan. Not recommended.
I have various servers at home for testing purposes. Currently, only two get regular use:
Windows Home Server 2011
After years of using various (and excellent) HP MediaSmart Servers, I am now using Windows Home Server 2011 on a Dell Optiplex 780 workstation tower system with a 3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E7500 (3M, 1066MHz FSB) and 4 GB of RAM. This system features about 4 TB of storage and 4 TB of Server Backup storage, plus cloud-backup via Crashplan (recommended) for data duplication.
Windows Server 2012 (pre-release)
I have a test Windows Server 2012 domain running on an HP Proliant MicroServer with an AMD Athlon II processor. This system was recently upgraded to 8 GB of RAM, and its single 320 GB hard drive has been augmented by two 3 TB HDDs. I’m also using this system for Hyper-V 3.0.
I use a number of portable devices, though more so when I'm on the road.
My current smart phone is a Nokia Lumia 900 running Windows Phone 7.5. It’s running AT&T Wireless LTE with a 5 GB/month tethering plan. Highly recommended, though the camera is only average.
I use an original (2010) Samsung Focus, which has been updated with 16 GB of additional storage (for a total of 24 GB) on the road as an MP3 player for music and podcasts.
I use an Amazon Kindle Fire daily for reading books and the New York Times, and while on the road, to watch rented movies and TV shows. (I still prefer the traditional Kindle devices for reading but like having one very portable device that does everything.)
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones
I always travel with Bose noise cancelling headphones and recommend them highly. For the past year, I’ve used the bigger and more effective Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones somewhat exclusively. (I also use them while mowing the lawn. Hearing is precious.)
Our digital camera died the last day of our most recent vacation, so I’ll be replacing that before our summer vacation in late July. I’m currently researching this, but it will most likely be a thin and light point-and-click of some kind.
One of the big advantages of storing memories (photos and movies) and music and video collections on a PC or home server is that you can then share them to other compatible devices around the house.
FIOS Internet, phone, TV
We were lucky enough to be among the first in the Northeast US to get Verizon FIOS Internet service a few years back, and since then we've upgraded to their phone and TV services as well. We use the built-in DVR to record TV shows. It's not as good as Media Center (what is?) but it's more integrated and it works fine. Our TV is a 46-inch flat screen Vizio LED LCD HDTV, which is actually excellent and was very inexpensive.
Xbox 360 S
We now use the Xbox 360 S semi-exclusively for digital media services such as Xbox Video Marketplace, Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Go, and more, though the Kinect has come and gone. This is the high-end Xbox 360 S that comes with a 250 GB hard drive and glossy finish, and it’s replaced the Apple TV as we move to eliminate Apple products from our home.
Software and Services
Like many people, I have stock collection of software that I install every time I reinstall Windows or get a new PC.
I am currently using the Windows 8 Release Preview build on most of my PCs. I do not recommend this for most people, of course, especially given a pair of very serious issues in this build: Windows 7 is a much better choice at this time.
I use, rely on, and recommend Microsoft Office 2010 Professional Plus, primarily Microsoft Word (hey, I do write for a living) and OneNote. I use Microsoft's SkyDrive app to synchronize key files between my PCs and the cloud. (I’m moving off of Live Mesh.)
For email, contacts, and calendar management, I use a mix of Hotmail (personal) Exchange (work, via Outlook Web Access, and Office 365). I have email accounts (Hotmail, Yahoo, iCloud, etc.) on numerous other services for testing purposes, but these are currently all being forwarded to Hotmail.
Internet and communications
For web browsing, I use Internet Explorer and Google Chrome. I use and recommend Last Pass for online password management (it works in all major browsers).
I use Windows Live Messenger for instant messaging with friends and family only, and don't really like it at all. I use Skype all the time to record podcasts and to chat with Rafael Rivera, my Windows Secrets co-author.
I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family only and Twitter to communicate with the world about tech topics.
I use and recommend the free Microsoft Security Essentials, though this technology is now integrated into Windows Defender in Windows 8. My entire family uses it, and we've never had any major issues.
I use Xbox Music (Windows 8 Metro app) as my primary digital music player on the PC. (I still use the Zune PC software to sync photos from my Windows Phone to the PC because there’s no other choice, but am looking forward to not needing it ever again.)
I subscribe to and recommend Zune Music Pass, an excellent subscription music service that works with Windows 8 PCs (including the Xbox Music app), the web, the Xbox 360, and Windows Phone.
When I purchase music, I use Xbox Music Marketplace, Amazon MP3, and Apple iTunes. My music collection is backed up to Amazon Cloud Storage, Google Music, and Apple iTunes Match. (And, of course, to Crashplan via WHS as well.)
Netflix has emerged as one of the most valuable technology services we utilize, but we have been using the similar Amazon Prime streaming service, which doesn't have nearly as much content (but is free for customers of Amazon's Prime shipping service). When I rent or purchase TV shows or movies, I use Xbox Video Marketplace, Amazon Instant Video, or just the On Demand feature in FIOS.
I use and recommend Audible for audio books. (Yes, Audible advertises on both of my podcasts now. But, I would use and recommend this service regardless.)
I manage my photo collection in the Windows shell, but use the free Windows Live Photo Gallery for acquiring photos from devices and light image editing. For work related image editing, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Microsoft Paint.
I use Xbox Video (Windows 8 Metro app) and VLC Media Player to watch digital movies on the PC; VLC supports soft captioning in H.264/MP4 files, including VobSub-style captioning.
I use and recommend a few Slysoft products related to DVD copying. These include Slysoft AnyDVD HD (which removes DVD copy protection) and SlySoft CloneDVD (for creating backup copies of DVDs). I rip DVDs to H.264 format using latest version of Handbrake, which is both free and excellent (and can create videos with soft captioning). This utility can also convert existing videos to H.264. Note: I do not steal DVDs; I use these products to create digital copies of my own movies so that I can watch them on devices at home and on the go.
Other applications and utilities
In addition to the aforementioned applications, I regularly use a number of other apps that don't necessarily fall into neat categories. I use Adobe Reader for PDF files and Techsmith SnagIt for screen captures. I use Visual Studio 2012 Express for Windows Phone and Windows 8 software development.
Windows Phone apps
I primarily stick to the built-in apps and experiences on Windows Phone 7.5 since the platform is so integrated and complete. But I do use a handful of third party apps fairly regularly including Facebook, Audible, Weatherbug, Amazon Kindle, myAT&T, and Nokia Drive.
When I'm not on the road, I spend most of the day in my home office, where I use my primary PC, Xbox 360, and some other stuff too...
My own Xbox is an Xbox 360 S 4GB with an added 250 GB hard drive. It's attached to a Samsung 24-inch LED LCD (1080p) and a second set of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers.
I use a LifeFitness X3 Elliptical Cross-Trainer for cardio on a near-daily basis and watch movies and TV shows via an Xbox 360 S that’s attached to a wall-mounted Sony Internet TV (24 inches). People who work in front of computers (or otherwise sit all day) need to do something energetic. For me, this is it.
I've gotten a number of questions about the furniture in my home office. I have a Herman Miller chair, which is at least 10 years old now but still works well. My desks various desks are all in the IKEA Galant workstation series.
I use a variety of hardware to record various podcasts. This includes a Heil PR 40 microphone with PL2T Boom Mount, a USB-based M-Audio Fast Track Guitar/Mic Recording Interface, and a new Logitech HD WebCam C525 web camera, all of which are excellent.
Our main printer is a network-attached Dell 3130cn Color Laser Printer, which is huge and power-hungry, but quite capable.
My favorite espresso, Guglielmo Espresso Classico, is now broadly available in the United States! We buy it locally at my favorite Italian specialty store, Tutto Italiano and brew it with a Lello 1375 Ariete Cafe Prestige espresso maker. It's inexpensive, but it works well. We may be replacing it soon, however, since it’s getting old and cranky.
If you have any questions about my gear, please email me.