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What I Use: March 2013

What I Use: March 2013

After a few months with Surface Pro, it's back to normal

Lots of changes since November, including a new PC-based home server running Windows 8, several new smart phones, new PCs and tablets, new cloud backup, Office 365 Home Premium and a nice doubling of my Internet speeds courtesy of Verizon FIOS.

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 November 2012.

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

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

My notebook is a Samsung Series 9 15-inch Ultrabook, the NP900X4C that I recommend highly. 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.

PC tablets and devices

I use Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT (64 GB with Type Cover) while traveling for entertainment purposes.

NEW: I also have a number of other tablet devices on hand for testing purposes only. These include Surface with Windows 8 Pro (128 GB), Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T, and Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T, each of which is a compromise of some kind but generally recommended.


I maintain two “servers” currently, one of which is really a Windows 8 PC.

Windows 8 “home server,” PC tower

New: In December, I brought an old PC—a Dell Optiplex 780 tower with a Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB data drive—online as a server. (See Repurpose an Old PC as a Home Server for details.) This server is used for photos, music, some videos, and SkyDrive sync only.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials, MicroServer

I’m using the small business-oriented Windows Server 2012 Essentials on an 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).

Server and cloud backup

NEW: Both of the servers are backed up locally (to dedicated hard drives) and to cloud backup services. The Windows 8 home server is backed up to Carbonite, while the MicroServer is backed up to Crashplan. Both servers work well and are recommended.

Portable devices

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

Smart phones

NEW: I’m currently testing a Nokia Lumia 920 (yellow) with a variety of Nokia accessories that I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.

Updated: I also have several other smart phones that I keep on hand for testing purposes and for writing new books like Windows Phone Book and Xbox Music Book. These include my favorite Windows Phone handset overall, the HTC Windows Phone 8X, a Nokia Lumia 820, a Nokia Lumia 620, and the Android-based Google Nexus 4. Each of these devices is recommended (the 8X and 820 highly so) except the Nexus 4, which has a surprisingly terrible camera.

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.

MP3 player

I use an original (2010) Samsung Focus, which has been updated with 16 GB of additional storage (for a total of 24 GB) in the house (and attached to a nice Tivoli Model One radio) and on the road as an MP3 player for music and podcasts.


I use an Amazon Kindle Fire HD to read books and two newspapers (New York Times, Boston Globe) daily.

Updated: For testing purposes, I also have an Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9, various Apple iPads, a 5th generation iPod touch, and other related devices.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

I always travel with Bose noise cancelling headphones and recommend them highly. I use and recommend the bigger and more effective Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. (I also use them while mowing the lawn and even when sleeping sometimes on the road. Hearing is precious.)


Our digital camera is a Panasonic Lumix ZS20, a 14 megapixel point and shoot with 20X optical zoom, a 24mm wide-angle lens, and GPS. It’s a bit large and heavy as point and shoots go, but it’s a great camera.

Home technology

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

Updated: 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, and it’s terrible. Our TV is a 46-inch flat screen Vizio LED LCD HDTV, which is actually excellent and was very inexpensive. The Internet connection now is 50 Mbps down and 18 Mbps up.

Set-top boxes

We have three set-top boxes in the living room, each of which gets used pretty regularly: An Xbox 360 S (250 GB hard drive; Xbox Video Marketplace, Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Go, and more), a Roku 2 Streaming Player (Amazon Video, Netflix, more; soon to be replaced by the recently-released Roku 3), and an Apple TV. Each is highly recommended. (In addition to the Roku 3, I'll be looking at the WD TV Play soon as well. Stay tuned.)

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

I am using the final shipping version of Windows 8 (various editions) on all of my PCs.


NEW: I use and recommend Office 365 Home Premium, 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 testing purposes.

I use Microsoft's SkyDrive app to synchronize key files between my PCs and the cloud. I also pay for additional SkyDrive storage.

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

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use Google Chrome (latest version) and Internet Explorer 10. I use and recommend Last Pass for online password management (it works in all major browsers).

I use Skype forinstant messaging with friends and family and 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 excellent MetroTwit for Twitter on the PC.


I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8 now 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 Amazon Cloud Player as my primary digital music player on the PC and on Android and iOS devices.

I subscribe to and recommend Xbox Music Pass (currently called 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. The music on my primary phone comes only from Xbox Music Pass.

Updated: When I purchase music, I use Xbox Music Store, Amazon MP3, and Apple iTunes. My music collection is backed up to Amazon Cloud Player. (And to Crashplan via Windows Server 2012 Essentials and to Carbonite via the Windows 8 home server.)

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 typically use Xbox Video Store, 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 Photo Gallery 2012 for acquiring photos from devices and light image editing. For work-related image editing, I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Microsoft Paint.

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 use Xbox Video on the Surface RT.)

For DVD ripping, I use and recommend Slysoft AnyDVD HD (which removes DVD copy protection but is expensive) and Handbrake (free), which is used for the actual ripping, to H.264. 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. My need for this activity has dropped dramatically in recent months and I’ll likely remove this software from What I Use soon.

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 8 and Visual Studio 2012 Express for Windows 8 to keep up on software development issues.

I subscribe to Microsoft’s TechNet Standard service to keep up to date on the software giant’s business software.

Windows Phone apps

I primarily stick to the built-in apps and experiences on Windows Phone since the platform is so integrated and complete. But I do use a handful of third party apps fairly regularly including Facebook, AP Mobile, Audible, Amazon Kindle, and myAT&T.

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...

Xbox 360

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.

This year, I’m primarily playing Call of Duty Black Ops 2, but I’ve been intermittently playing the Walking Dead series of games and recently purchased Crysis 3.

Workout equipment

I use a LifeFitness X3 Elliptical Cross-Trainer for cardio on a 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.

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.

I’m considering getting a desk that can change between sitting and standing modes.

Podcasting equipment

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.

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