What I Use: July 2014

What I Use: July 2014

An occasional look at the technology I use regularly

It's been a while since the last What I Use, but there haven't been many major changes since late last year: Surface Pro 3 has become my go-to travel companion, I've added a third cellphone line for testing Windows Phone, Android and iPhone side-by-side, and have rotated through some new tablets and other devices. We've also switched from FIOS to Comcast and added to our set-top box collection.

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 (full) What I Use article appeared in December 2013. I also wrote a special What I Use: My Windows Phone in May 2014. With this update, I've switched most of the product links to Amazon links.

Note: Unless noted otherwise, I pay for all of the hardware, software, and services I use, mention, and recommend below. This isn't an opportunity for me to sell you on some vendor's products. This is what I really do use regularly.


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.

Primary desktop PC

I've been using an HP Pavilion HPE h8-1220t tower PC for a few years now, and aside from a mid-2013 warranty-fix for the motherboard, it's been solid throughout. This PC features 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. HP has obviously moved along model-wise since this PC was new, but it looks like a current replacement for this PC would be the HP Envy 810.

This PC is connected to a 27-inch Planar PX2710MW display running at 1920 x 1080, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop (which includes an ergonomic keyboard and mouse), Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers, and a Pluggable USB 3.0 Docking Station UD-3900 (NEW) for desktop expansion.

Primary notebook PC

NEW: I'm now using Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 as my primary travel companion. This thin, light and powerful tablet/laptop features a 1.9 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of SSD storage and a 3:2 12-inch display running at 2160 x 1440. I have a Cyan Type Cover and a Surface Pro 3 Docking Station on order, though the latter won't arrive until August. Surface Pro 3 is highly recommended (read my review). Microsoft supplied the Surface Pro 3 and Type Cover to reviewers, and I did not pay for those items.

Almost two years old now, but solid and reliable, my traditional notebook is a Samsung Series 9 15-inch Ultrabook, the NP900X4C. It features a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, a gorgeous 15-inch matte screen running at 1600 x 900, 8 GB of RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and a decent back-lit keyboard. It weighs less than 4 pounds. Samsung has recently replaced this model with a new version, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition, which features a 1080p screen and a "Haswell" processor. I suspect that is quite nice as well, but it's also very, very expensive.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials, MicroServer

Updated: After experimenting with a Windows 8.1-based PC "server" for the past year, I've returned to only using my Windows Server 2012 Essentials-based mini server. This is a HP Proliant MicroServer with an AMD Athlon II processor. This system was upgraded to 8 GB of RAM, and its single 320 GB hard drive has been augmented by six 3 TB HDDs (three internal, three external). Note that HP has since replaced this with an updated model that I have not used: The HP ProLiant 712318-001 features a more powerful Pentium product but is otherwise similar and likely pretty darn good. But my need for local storage is diminishing. It's possible that I'll "replace" my current MicroServer with nothing, and just using my main PC for local storage. We'll see.

Server and cloud backup

The server is backed up locally (to dedicated hard drives) and to the cloud-based Crashplan service. It works well and is recommended.

Portable devices

I use a number of portable devices, more so when I'm on the road.

Smart phones

NEW: I now have three phone lines to facilitate the move to mobile devices. My daily-use smart phone is still the Nokia Lumia 1020 (black, 32 GB, AT&T), which I upgraded to Windows Phone 8.1. But I also have a Samsung Galaxy S5 (white, 16 GB, AT&T) and an Apple iPhone 5S (white, 16 GB, AT&T) on the other lines. Each is an excellent smart phone, and recommended. The Lumia 1020 has a superior camera, which matters a lot to me.

These phones all run off my AT&T Wireless LTE subscription with a 4 GB/month Mobile Share tethering plan. I don't just use AT&T Wireless: I prefer and recommend it.

I also have other smart phones on hand for testing purposes, including a Nokia Lumia 635 (white, 8 GB, T-Mobile), a Nokia Lumia 1520 (black, 16 GB, AT&T), a Nokia Lumia Icon (gray, 32 GB, Verizon Wireless), and a Google Nexus 5 (black, 16 GB, unlocked).

MP3 player

NEW: After using a Lumia 520 as a media player for over a year, I recently switched to the aforementioned Nokia Lumia 1520, and often travel with it as well. I may use the Nokia Lumia 635 as a dedicated media player once testing is complete. (But I can't get it to work with any microSD cards for some reason.)


NEW: I use a variety of tablets around the house and on the road, but the two I use the most frequently are a white Apple iPad mini with Retina Display (16 GB Wi-Fi) and a Google Nexus 7 (2013, 16 GB). Both are excellent and recommended, and in both cases I wish I had paid extra for the 32 GB version.

I also have a Windows 8.1-based Dell Venue 8 Pro min-tablet (8-inch screen/32 GB) that I use occasionally. The Windows 8.1 ecosystem isn't as mature as that for iPad/Android, however, so it's not possible to use this device as a primary tablet or reader.


Updated: I use an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2013) to read books and two newspapers (New York Times, Boston Globe) daily. But I also use the white Apple iPad mini with Retina Display (16 GB Wi-Fi) noted above to read digital magazines and sometimes for rented movies on the road (though its lack of storage is always an issue. I'm springing for 32 GB next time). I use Kindle primarily—we've purchased about 500 books there, after all—but I've been using the Kobo app on tablets too and like it quite a bit.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

Updated: I always travel with Bose noise cancelling headphones and recommend them highly. Last October, I received the Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones (in-ear) and recommend them highly. I have completely replaced my previous usage here, and no longer use the larger Bose headphones.


Thanks to the superior cameras in devices like the Lumia 1020, Lumia 1520, Lumia Icon and others we no longer need or use a digital camera.

Internet, phone, TV: Comcast

NEW: After years of ever-increasing bills from FIOS, we finally pulled the plug and switched to Comcast, saving over $100 per month. The DVR is much better than the FIOS piece of junk, but the Internet speeds are slower, at least on the upload side. (We get 50 Mbps down and 12 up, compared to 18 up on FIOS.) We will continue to play FIOS and Comcast against each other going forward to ensure we always get the best prices.

Our TV is a 46-inch flat screen Vizio LED LCD HDTV, which is actually excellent and was a very inexpensive Costco purchase.

Set-top boxes

Updated: We have multiple set-top boxes in the living room, though only the Roku 3 gets used regularly. We also use (in descending order of time spent) an Xbox 360 S (since replaced by a newer model, the third-generation Xbox 360), an Apple TV, an Amazon Fire TV, and a Google Chromecast. Each can access Netflix, and provides some form of movie rental functionality.

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.

Operating system

Updated: I am of course using Windows 8.1 with Update 1 (various editions) on all of my PCs.


Updated: I use and recommend Office 365 Home, which includes subscription-based access to Office 2013 Professional Plus for 5 PCs and devices. I use Microsoft Word (hey, I do write for a living) and OneNote every day. I also use Office 365 Small Business Premium with a personal domain for work-related purposes, including my books.

Updated: I use Microsoft's OneDrive (now built into Windows 8.1) and OneDrive for Business (in Office 365 Small Business Premium) to synchronize key files between my PCs and the cloud. I used to pay for additional storage, but now I get a full 1 TB with each for free as part of my Office 365 subscriptions.

For email, contacts, and calendar management, I use a mix of Outlook.com (personal, with a Hotmail.com address) Exchange 2010 (work, via Outlook Web Access), and Office 365. I keep a custom domain on Google Apps and have various email accounts on numerous other services (Hotmail, Yahoo, iCloud, etc.) for testing purposes, but these are currently all being forwarded to Outlook.com.

Internet and communications

Updated: For web browsing, I use the latest versions of Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox in Windows, and Google Chrome on both Android and iOS. I use and recommend LastPass for online password management (it works in all major browsers).I use Skype for instant messaging with friends and family and to record podcasts and to chat with Rafael Rivera, my frequent co-author.

I use Skype for instant messaging with friends and family and to record podcasts and to chat with Rafael Rivera, my frequent co-author.

Updated: I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family only and Twitter to communicate with the world about tech topics; I still use and recommend the excellent MetroTwit for Twitter on the PC, but it's been discontinued and I have yet to find a replacement I like as much.


I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality. My entire family uses it, and its predecessor, Microsoft Security Essentials, and we've never had any major issues.

Digital media

I use Xbox Music as my primary digital music player on the PC, Windows Phone and Xbox. I subscribe to and recommend Xbox Music Pass, a subscription music service that works with Windows 8/RT PCs (including the Xbox Music app), the web, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Windows Phone, iOS and Android.

NEW: I've also been using the Google Music service with the All Access subscription, which is a similar service that works on both Android and iOS (and on the web).

When I purchase music, which is infrequent these days, I use Xbox Music Store, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, or Apple iTunes.

Netflix has emerged as one of the most valuable technology services we utilize, but we have been using the similar Amazon Prime Video streaming service, which doesn't have nearly as much content (but is free for customers of Amazon's Prime shipping service).

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 have been walking a lot since early 2013 and have actually increased my consumption of Audible content since that time quite a bit.

Updated: I manage my photo collection in the Windows shell, but use the free Windows Photo Gallery for acquiring photos from devices and light image editing. For work-related image editing, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 and Microsoft Paint. I backup photos to Google+ Photos with Picasa.

I use VLC Media Player to watch digital movies on the PC; VLC supports soft captioning in H.264/MP4 files, including VobSub-style captioning. (I also use Xbox Video for video playback on PCs.)

I very rarely use DVD ripping solutions. When I do, it's Handbrake + SlySoft AnyDVD.

Other applications and utilities

Updated: 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 Express 2013 for Windows to keep up on software development issues.

Windows Phone apps

I primarily stick to the built-in Microsoft and Nokia apps and experiences on Windows Phone since the platform is so integrated and complete. But I do use a handful of apps fairly regularly including Bing News, Bing Weather, Nokia Camera, Facebook, AP Mobile, Audible, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Facebook, Twitter, myAT&T and various Nokia apps.

Home Office

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...


I've been using the Xbox One + Kinect daily since it arrived in November. It is attached to a Samsung 24-inch LED LCD display (1080p) and a second set of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers. I also have a Sony PlayStation 4, which I really don't use very often.

NEW: I've been primarily playing Call of Duty: Ghosts all year but have also dabbled a bit in Wolfenstein: The New Order.


I walk for about 45 minutes almost every day and listen to Audible books while doing so, usually on my Lumia 1020 with the Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones mentioned above. I wear a Fitbit Force (now discontinued; the Fitbit Flex is perhaps the closest model) to monitor my activity.

When I can't get outside, I use a LifeFitness X3 Elliptical Cross-Trainer for cardio and watch movies and TV shows via an older Roku 2 that's attached to a wall-mounted Sony Internet TV (24 inches). I also play basketball in the fall and winter. People who work in front of computers (or otherwise sit all day) need to do something energetic. I'm trying.

Office furniture

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. Still no standing desk, but I'm working on it.

Podcasting equipment

Updated: I use a variety of hardware to record various podcasts. This includes a Heil PR 40 microphone with PL2T Boom Mount, a USB-based Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2x2 USB Recording Interface, and a new Logitech HD Pro WebCam C920 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.

If you have any questions about my gear, please email me.

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