Lots of new gear this time around in What I Use, including a desktop computer, Ultrabook, iPad, smart phone, Windows Server 2012-based micro server, and workout set up.
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.
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 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.
Don’t take my word for it: I track my software usage automatically with Wakoopa. You can too!
My previous What I Use article appeared in November 2011.
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
This month, I finally replaced my aging Core 2 Quad-based desktop PC with a new PC based on the Intel 3rd generation Core (“Ivy Bridge”) chipset, an HP Pavilion HPE h8-1220t. This is a tower PC design with a 3.5 GHz Core i7-3770K, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB Crucial SSD (plus a 2 TB 7200 RPM HDD), an AMD Radeon HD 7570 (with 2GB RAM), and a SuperMulti DVD burner.
As you can see, the Windows Experience Index (WEI) scores in Windows 8 are decent:
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
Earlier this year, I purchased 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 wonderfully thin and light but the keyboard is only so-so, and a newer model due soon will add backlighting to the keyboard. I’m looking forward to replacing this with a 15-inch Ultrabook of some kind.
I've been using a prototype Samsung 700T slate PC, on loan from Microsoft since the BUILD conference in September 2011, 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 3-4 hour range), and while it works well, it can be bit loud thanks to a noisy fan. Not recommended.
I use a number of other computers, mostly laptops, for testing purposes. Lately, this has meant the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. These machines include Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 420S, a Lenovo ThinkPad X300, a Lenovo ThinkPad SL410, an 11-inch Apple Macbook Air (2010), and a Toshiba NB200 netbook. I also have a Google Cr-48 Chromebook, which I barely use.
I have three servers at home. Who doesn't?
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.
Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials
I’m using a former PC, a Dell Inspiron 537s with a 3 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E8400 and 4 GB of RAM, as the primary server and domain controller for a Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials-based domain.
Note: My former daily-use PC, a Dell Optiplex 755 workstation tower system with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Processor Q6600 (8M, 1066MHz FSB), 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB boot/system SSD, will likely be repurposed as a server sometime soon.
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.
Other smart phones
I also have several other smart phones for testing purposes, including a Samsung Focus S (2011), a Samsung Focus Flash (2011) and Samsung Focus (2010), all Windows Phone 7.5, an Apple iPhone 4S (2011) with iOS 5.x, and a Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2012) with Android 4.
I use the iPhone 4S on the road as an iPod.
I use a 3rd generation Apple iPad (“the all-new iPad”) with 32 GB/AT&T LTE daily for reading (via New York Times app and Amazon Kindle software), and, while on the road, to watch movies and TV shows.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones
I always travel with Bose noise cancelling headphones and recommend them highly. For the past year, I’ve used the 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. The FIOS TV service is particularly good, with numerous non-compressed HDTV channels. 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.
Apple TV (1080p)
The new Apple TV (1080p version) is our go-to box for our PC-based music, photos, and videos (TV shows and movies). We sometimes rent movies from iTunes as well. Recommended.
Xbox 360 S
We don't use the Xbox 360 S as much as we used to, and the Kinect has come and gone. I'm keeping it in the living room for the occasional DVD and for testing Microsoft's new Internet TV service, including HBO GO. This is the high-end Xbox 360 S that comes with a 250 GB hard drive and glossy finish.
Roku 2 XS
The Roku 2 XS is a great Netflix player, and it supports numerous other online services. We don’t actually use it very often, however.
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 Consumer Preview build on most of my PCs. I do not recommend this for most people, of course: 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 application and Windows Live Mesh service to synchronize key files between my PCs and the cloud; both work well but have slightly different features. Most likely, I’ll standardize on SkyDrive as Live Mesh is discontinued.
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 primarily, plus 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 a single issue.
I use Apple iTunes as my primary digital media jukebox, but only because this software is still required to effectively use an iPod touch or iPad; I do not necessarily recommend iTunes to others. I still use the Zune PC software to sync photos from my Windows Phone to the PC, but am looking forward to not needing it ever again.
I purchase DRM-free music from Apple iTunes Store, Amazon MP3, and Zune Marketplace. I subscribe to and pay for three subscription music services for comparison purposes: Spotify, Zune Music Pass, and Pandora. Each are excellent, but I will presumably drop at least one of these in the coming year.
I have replicated my music collection to Apple iCloud using iTunes Match ($25 per year); highly recommended. I also backup my music collection to both Amazon Cloud Storage and Google Music. (And, of course, to Crashplan as well.)
I rarely purchase or rent TV shows and movies digitally thanks to improvements to the excellent Netflix streaming service. 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).
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 still back up my photo collection to the Google Picasa Web Albums service, and pay the company for additional storage yearly. That may be changing.)
I use QuickTime Player Pro and VLC Media Player to watch digital movies on the PC; both support soft captioning in H.264/MP4 files, but only VLC supports VobSub-style captioning. I generally prefer the iPad for this activity, however.
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.
Like most people, I very rarely need to edit digital movies. When I do need to do so, however, I use Windows Live Movie Maker, which is excellent (and free).
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, Techsmith SnagIt for screen captures, and 7Zip for file archiving. I use Visual Studio (various versions) for Windows Phone and Windows 8 software development.
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.
This year, I’ve done cardio every time that I’m home. I use a LifeFitness X3 Elliptical Cross-Trainer and watch movies and TV shows via a previous-generation (720p) Apple TV 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.