What I Use: December 2013

What I Use: December 2013

An occasional look at the technology I use regularly

Lots of changes since July, including the return of my desktop PC tower, a new keyboard and mouse set, many new tablets, new phones, Windows 8.1, new noise- cancelling headphones, the Xbox One and much more.

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 July 2013. I also wrote an On the Road edition of What I Use back in April.

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

Updated: With my desktop computer getting fixed under a surprisingly liberal warranty by HP, I'm back to using the HP Pavilion HPE h8-1220t tower PC day-today. 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.

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, NEW), Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers, and a Pluggable USB 3.0 Docking Station for desktop expansion.

Primary notebook PC

My notebook is a year-old 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

NEW: I use a variety of tablets around the house, including the Microsoft Surface 2, Nokia Lumia 2520 (still evaluating), and Google Nexus 7 (2013). I use the Nexus for entertainment on the road and recommend it highly.


I maintain two “servers” currently, one of which is really a Windows 8.1 PC.

Windows 8 “home server,” PC tower

Updated: I’m using a previous 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. I have iTunes and Amazon Cloud Player for PC installed so that my music collections will all be synced through Xbox Music as well. It was recently upgraded to Windows 8.1.

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

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 work well and are recommended. Carbonite probably makes more sense for PC users.

Portable devices

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

Smart phones

Updated: My daily-use smart phone is the Nokia Lumia 1020 (black) but I have two lines and am also using a Nokia Lumia 1520 with Protective Cover.

Updated: I also have several other smart phones that I keep on hand for testing purposes and for writing books and articles. These include the Apple iPhone 5S, the Google Nexus 5 (excellent, recommended), and many, many others.

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 now use a Nokia Lumia 520, which has been updated with 64 GB of additional storage via micro-SD (and attached to a nice Tivoli Model One radio) and on the road as an MP3 player for music and podcasts. The 520 is my favorite tech device of 2013, and an incredible bargain that I highly recommend.


NEW: I now use an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2013) to read books and two newspapers (New York Times, Boston Globe) daily. As noted above, I also use a Google Nexus 7 (2013) to read digital magazines and sometimes for rented movies on the road.

NEW: For testing purposes only, I also have an Apple iPad mini with Retina display, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, Dell Venue 8 Pro, and other related devices.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

NEW: I always travel with Bose noise cancelling headphones and recommend them highly. In October, I received the Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones (in-air) and recommend them highly. I also use and recommend the bigger and more effective Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. (These are particularly effective while mowing the lawn and even when sleeping sometimes on the road. Hearing is precious.)


NEW: Thanks to the Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520, we no longer need or use a digital 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

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: A Roku 3, an Xbox 360 S (250 GB hard drive; Xbox Video Marketplace, Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Go, and more), and an Apple TV. Each is highly recommended, but the Roku 3 is used the most frequently by far.

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

NEW: I am using the final, shipping version of Windows 8.1 (various editions) on all of my PCs.


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 work-related purposes, including my books.

I use Microsoft's SkyDrive (now built into Windows 8.1) and SkyDrive Pro (in Office 365 Small Business Premium) 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 Outlook.com (personal, with a Hotmail.com 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 Outlook.com.

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use Google Chrome (latest version) and Internet Explorer 11 in Windows 8.1. I use and recommend Last Pass 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 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 8.1 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, an excellent 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 Anrdroid. The music on my primary phones come only from Xbox Music Pass.

When I purchase music, I use Xbox Music Store, Amazon MP3, or Apple iTunes. My music collection is backed up to Amazon Cloud Player and Apple's iTunes Match. (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 Amazon Instant Video, Xbox Video Store, 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 have been walking a lot lately and have actually increased my consumption of Audible content this year quite a bit.

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 11 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 use Xbox Video on the Surface RT.)

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 2012 Express for Windows Phone 8 and Visual Studio 2013 Express for Windows to keep up on software development issues.

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 apps fairly regularly including Bing News, Bing Weather, Facebook, AP Mobile, Audible, Amazon Kindle, 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...


NEW: I've been using the Xbox One daily since it arrived in November. My Xbox 360 is an S model with 4GB and an added 250 GB hard drive. Both are attached to a Samsung 24-inch LED LCD (1080p) and a second set of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers. I also have a Sony PlayStation 4, which I'm testing head-to-head against the Xbox One.

NEW: This year, I’m primarily playing Call of Duty: Ghosts but I'm looking at Battlefield 4 as well.

Workout equipment

I now walk for 45 to 60 minutes every day and listen to Audible books while doing so. When I can’t get outside, I use a LifeFitness X3 Elliptical Cross-Trainer for cardio and watch movies and TV shows via an Roku 2that’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. 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. Still no standing desk, but I'm working on it.

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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