My travel setup

My travel kit (for non-work travel) now consists of:

If I’m working I’ll also have my Surface Pro 4 with me, but apart from that I rarely travel with a laptop these days.

A few thoughts on Macs and iPads

I went in to the new Apple Store in Birmingham today. I’ve been meaning to go for ages, but as I’m not really in the market for anything new then I’ve not seen it as a pressing task. My main reason for going was to try out the keyboards on the new MacBook Pro to see if it’s something I could live with if I end up getting one at some point in the future. It’s very different to the keyboards I’m used to (the previous generation of MacBook Pro/Air, and also the Apple bluetooth keyboard and my Logitech solar powered keyboard). There is definitely less movement of the keys as I type, but my accuracy didn’t take a hit, and I think I could grow to accept it as a keyboard for everyday use. I also thought the screen was gorgeous, and that 8GB of RAM would be enough for most of what I use a laptop for these days, especially as the SSD is so fast. I’m not going to rush out and buy one, but I wouldn’t rule it out at some point in the future (although the touch bar still leaves me cold).

I also looked at the MacBook (small, similar keyboard, would make a decent MacBook Air replacement in a year or two), and the larger iPad Pro (huge, beautiful screen, surprisingly good typing experience with the Smart Keyboard). Neither of these are things I need, but I would happily use as my main portable device if the opportunity presented itself, and actually touching the iPad made me realise why so many people are saying they can use it as their main computer. I use my smaller iPad Air 2 for a lot of what I do online outside of work, and I can see how twice the memory and a much larger screen would help me leave my laptop behind forever (although I also want to wait and see what the next iteration of the device might look like).

I’m still hoping Apple bring out a desktop computer that excites me this year (because that is something I’ll need to buy soon as I fear my 2011 Mac Mini will be obsolete within a year or so). I would use anything they currently have on the market (with the right upgrades), but as I’ve not actually bought any of them then it suggests that there is nothing currently out there that is suitable enough for me to consider an upgrade at this point in time.

2017 plans

It’s 2017. It’s been 2017 for a while, but as I was ill for most of the Christmas holidays, today is the first time I’ve really thought about the fact that it’s a new year, and that I’m back at work tomorrow.

I don’t really make resolutions, but I think I may be kicking off some new projects in 2017.

Towards the end of December we bought year-long Cineworld unlimited cards, which means we need to see two films per month (at least), or something like 22 or 23 over the year. We have seen three so far (in three days). Seeing films as they come out gives me something new to blog about, so I’ll likely be writing about some of them, especially if I feel I’ve got something to add that I’ve not read elsewhere.

I started using my iPad more (and my computer less) a couple of months ago, and I’m finding that to be sufficiently liberating that I might want to blog about it. I feel slightly less enthusiastic about the Surface Pro 4 I use for work now, but I may also find that there are Windows 10/Surface Pro specific things I want to blog about as well.

I plan on buying a lot less music this year, and using Spotify for pretty much everything to do with discovering and playing new music. I have my existing collection available on all my devices anyway, but this year I want Spotify to be the default way I consume music (unless it’s vinyl of course). I don’t plan on buying much more than what I get with my Rough Trade subscription (11 records, plus whatever freebies I get), although I will be putting things I really like on my wish list around birthday and Christmas time (so June and December). My hope is that I’ll spend a lot less on music, and will also get to spend more time with things I do buy. As a. result of this I won’t be posting monthly lists of things I’ve listened to, but might start writing about specific things in more depth. Today I bought a new perspex box that will fit around 20 records in it, and that should be all my music-related storage needs sorted for this year (which is just as well as I’m running out of space).

I didn’t do a great deal of socialising for most of 2016, for a variety of reasons. I don’t really have a plan to fix this, although starting a new job a month ago has already shaken things up a little in that respect and it’s quite possible that it will sort itself out organically. If nothing else, I’m going to be going to the cinema a lot more this year, which is a step in the right direction.

I might of course do none of these things and do something else instead, but I thought it was worth a statement of intent at the start of the year.

Using an iPad as a primary computer

There’s been a lot of talk on the internet over the last couple of weeks from people who were planning on buying a new Macbook Pro who have instead decided to move most (or all) of their workflow over to some sort of tablet (usually an iPad Pro). While I’m not quite there yet, I do find myself using my computer less and my iPad more, and I thought it was worth exploring exactly what it is that would stop me making this sort of switch.

As far as I can work out, the things I still need a computer for are downloading and managing music, ripping/converting CDs/DVDs, converting markdown into .docx (and possibly some other formats, although I have solutions for html and pdf now), and web development/Wordpress work.

Of these, the first one requires macOS/Windows because of the integration with iTunes (and only because of that). I don’t want to stop using my iPhone/iPad though, and I buy new music very regularly, and want to be able to listen to it on the move.

The second one can be done on any computer that can be connected to a USB CD drive (which I already own), will run handbrake and that has enough storage space. I probably wouldn’t try this on a Raspberry Pi, but anything else would work.

The third one I can do on anything that can run Pandoc, so any computer that can handle the first two tasks will handle the third.

The fourth one I can do on any Mac/Linux computer. I already have a Linux solution working, and could even use a Raspberry Pi at a push (I’ve already set up a basic environment on a Pi II).

That’s actually not a lot. All my writing, blogging and social media works fine (in some cases better) on my iPad, and Microsoft Office also works well (and integrates nicely with both Sharepoint and Dropbox).

Right now my two most utilised computers are the iPad and the Pi that I use for watching TV shows. Nothing else comes close, and my desktop computers only really get any sort of serious use during weekends/holidays. Maybe there is more milage in this than I thought.

Musings on hardware

My next work machine will be a Surface Pro. I could have gone with a very nice looking Acer, but as I’m keeping my old Macbook Pro for a little while I thought portability should win out. I’m also spending a lot of time using my iPad, and I’m finding myself missing a touch screen interface when I don’t have one, and I’ll need to use enough Windows-only software in my new job to make using anything else an exercise in frustration.

The way I use computers is certainly changing. I’ll get the Surface Pro 4 in a few weeks, and whilst I love the look of the new Macbook Pro I don’t think I can justify buying one right now, which suggests I’ll not be using a Mac for most of my day-to-day computing for the first time since 2010. What I really need to go with the Surface and the iPad is some sort of desktop to manage all my music and do any non-work tasks that require heavy lifting. I’m disappointed that Apple didn’t announce anything in their recent broadcast, but I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on the refurb store to see if anything looks affordable (which of course they don’t right now because all the prices have gone up). My Mac Mini will do for now, but it’s 5 years old and everything else I use feels snappier, despite the Mac having 16Gb of Ram and a fairly new SSD.

I’ve written this blog post on my iPad using a full sized bluetooth keyboard (which I used as my main keyboard for a number of years). It’s even easier than using the tiny keyboard I carry around everywhere, and I think that with this keyboard and my iPad (or maybe the larger iPad Pro) then I could easily do the vast majority of my work-away-from-work without access to another computer. I’m typing this whilst sitting at my coffee table, so my posture isn’t great, but I think that once I’ve cleaned the keyboard up a little then I’ll look at trying this combo out at a proper desk as it’s certainly worth further exploration as my main writing device.

Whatever happens next, I’m already using a lot of different kit than I was a year ago, and I think I’m only half way through a fairly major change in the way I work. I start my new job on 1st December and I’m sure that will bring even more change.

First thoughts on new Macs, iPads and iPhones

I’ve been meaning to jot down a few notes about the latest product range from Apple for a while now, but work and travel got in the way. I now find myself with a largely free weekend, and I’ve also had time to visit the local Apple store and see a few of them first hand.

I’ll start with the new Mac Mini. Largely because I’ve been a Mac Mini user since they came out, and I’m probably due a new one. I was initially excited by what I’d heard about the 2014 Mac Minis, but based on the current range I might have to forgo buying one for the time being. My usual computer buying habits are fairly well established, in that I’ll buy the bottom of the range model, and then max it out with 3rd party hardware (memory, hard drives) to get the configuration I want. This time the base model is very underpowered, and because the memory is now not user-upgradable, I would have to spend quite a lot to even get something on a par with what I have now. Sure, I could spend £1000 and get a very nice machine that would meet all my needs, but for the same price I could get a significantly more powerful laptop, which would have the added benefit of being portable. I also wish Apple had not scrapped the server edition of the Mac Mini, because computers with two hard drives can be useful sometimes.

Next up is the new 27” iMac with retina display. It looks gorgeous, and it’s not as expensive as I’d feared. I still can’t justify one, but I think they have made all the right decisions with this machine, and I like the fact that it is possible to add 3rd party memory to get a really powerful configuration without breaking the bank. I’d like to think I’ll own an iMac again one day, and if I did then this is the sort of thing I’d go for. I’d also love to see a computer lab kitted out with these.

Both of the above come with Yosemite of course, which I’ve been running for a few months now. It’s a solid upgrade which hasn’t caused me any issues, and which looks a lot more visually impressive to my eyes.

I’ll now move on to the new iOS devices. This is probably the first year I’d consider myself a power user of iOS, and for a lot of this year I’ve left my laptop at home on short trips and done everything on my iPad and iPhone. I’m due a new phone soon anyway, and am also vaguely looking at iPads with more storage than 16gb, so I was particularly interested to see what Apple could come up with.

I very much like the look of the iPad Air 2. It looks like it could handle everything I throw at my devices, and there seem to have been hardware improvements around the area of recording video and audio, which I have found myself doing a lot of over the last year. I’m less impressed with the new Mini, and would have liked to see a smaller version of the Air, rather than something which looks like last year’s model with Touch ID tacked on.

I’m also quite torn regarding the new iPhones. I like the new features, but both models look a lot bigger than my 4S (and in the case of the largest one, not much smaller than my iPad mini). I have quite small hands, and as a result I’ve always tended to go for smaller phones, and I strongly suspect I’ll see if I can get a 5S next and then see what the upgrade options look like in a couple of years. I’m in no way an early adopter with phones, so I’m not too worried that I don’t particularly like these models as I’m sure there will be plenty of different options in two years time.

I’m liking iOS8, and especially the fact that I can manage text messages through my laptop. I have two factor authentication set up for a lot of different services, and it’s useful to get those messages on the screen of the device I’m actually sitting at. Apart from that it’s a solid but unspectacular update.

So yes, all in all not too bad, and I would not turn down any of these if I was offered them for free or on an existing contract. But I don’t think I’ll be buying any of them just yet.

10 things beginning with S

There is a meme going round where people are asked to name 10 things beginning with a certain letter that mean something to them. I was given the letter S, and will attempt to come up with 10 things that are not people I know ( I could probably add another 10 if I include people, and I’m always wary of missing people out).

1. Spotify – It’s revolutionised the way I listen to music, and also the way I discover music to a certain extent. Before Spotify I always had to own things I like, and now I find I am perfectly content with streaming music. I also like the fact that I can save songs to my phone/iPad for offline listening. Not that I’m ever offline for long, but the functionality is very useful for those times when I am.

2. Sennheiser – Both sets of headphones I use at the moment were made by Sennheiser, and I suppose I have a certain amount of brand loyalty. I particularly like times when I’m able to wear my huge over-ear headphones, but am increasingly finding that they are too bulky for anything but listening to music in the house.

3. Substance – Two great compilation albums from the 80s – one by New Order and one by Joy Division. Between them they contain some of the best music I’ve ever heard, and tell the story of one of the most interesting (and tragic) musical transitions.

4. Sunrise – I like the sun. I like it being light and being sunny. The sun energises me, and the rising of the sun (which I see all too often) is something that I really like to watch and occasionally photograph. Sunrise is also the name of the calendar app I use on my Mac and iPad to keep my life organised, as well as being the name of a New Order song I really like.

5. Slackware – Not the first Linux distro I installed myself (that honour goes to Debian), but the one that lead to me learning a lot about how computers work when I was cramming IT knowledge into my brain about 10 years ago.

6. Sonic Youth – A band that have been with me since I was at school. They were probably my introduction to American guitar music, but also to the avant-garde. I could probably also say the same about Swans, who I discovered around the same time.

7. Summer – My favourite season, and the season I was born in.

8. Sideways – I’m astrologically Cancerian, which I supposed to mean I’m good at moving forwards whilst appearing to move sideways. I can relate to that, and  very much see it as a viable way to move through life.

9. Study – I like to study new things, and have really never stopped learning new things since I left University. I also have a physical study now – it’s the smallest front bedroom in our house, and it allows me to have somewhere to read, write, listen to music, and otherwise interact with things in an environment that I can totally control.

10. Sleep – I’m one of those strange people who doesn’t really enjoy sleep. It’s not that I sleep badly, or have particularly horrible dreams, I would just rather be awake, upright, and doing something.

A few notes about iPads

I get asked for advice on iPads a lot, and as a fair few people I know have just bought an iPad (or are thinking about buying one) then I thought I would articulate the thought processes I go through when making a decision about what to buy and what apps to install once I have bought it.

There are only three real decisions to make:

  1. What size of device do you want?
  2. Wifi only or wifi and 4g?
  3. How much storage space?

Currently I have a 16gb iPad mini that I carry everywhere and use for reading, internet access, and writing blog posts when I do not have my MacBook Air with me. I also have a 16gb retina iPad provided by my employers, which I use for accessing work email on the go, and taking notes in meetings. Both of these are wifi only, and both were the absolute bottom of the range when they were bought.

These devices match what I need them for fairly closely, as long as I have my phone with me to use as a tethering device to get online. They are both under 4gb away from being full though, and my work iPad has very little storage space left because I have been using it to film footage for a video we are currently making. I can certainly see a case for me buying something with a lot more storage, which would mean I could carry a fair amount of music and films with me and not have to rely on hotel wifi to access entertainment when I am travelling.

I would consider a 4g connection more seriously if it was not that both home and work have excellent wifi coverage, and that I have the ability to tether my iPad to my phone. There are very few places where I can’t get a decent connection, so I don’t see it as a priority right now.

As far as size goes, I think it’s just a matter of preference. I prefer reading on my iPad mini, and it is a lot easier to carry everywhere. I do prefer typing on the full size iPad though, and I think that it is the right choice for taking notes in meetings.

I also get asked a lot about apps, and thought I’d list a few that I use quite a lot:

  • Evernote, which I use to record everything I do, make notes at meetings, and which acts as the repository for all sorts of useful information.
  • Gmail and Good, for personal and work email. I find myself doing most of my email on my iPad now, because the interfaces are so much nicer.
  • Twitter, Facebook and G+ for all my social media needs.
  • Kindle app, which is on every device I use, and which lets me read books and PDFs wherever I am.
  • Dropbox, Google Drive and Copy, which are all cloud storage systems, but which I use for different things. I find Copy to be good for PDFs that are too large for the Kindle app, and the other two allow me to access everything I’m currently working on elsewhere.
  • VLC for playing media files, both locally and streamed from my NAS.
  • Spotify – for playing music I don’t own, but want to listen to occasionally.
  • BBC iPlayer, ITV player, Amazon Cloud player and Netflix for catch-up TV and streaming films and TV shows.
  • Keynote, which I use to write and deliver presentations at work.
  • Sunrise – which I find to be the best calendaring app around.

There are other things, but I think this covers the (non-default) apps I use most.

What’s your backup plan?

This week at work we have been working on a video to promote backing up data. The tagline is “what’s your backup plan?” – which has made me think about how I back up my data, and how well what I actually do measures up to what we recommend.

The basic message is that for a file to be backed up, it needs to exist in an identical version in more than one location (and ideally three locations, one of which is physically separate from the actual machine the data is created on). I do try and adhere to this, although I think I’m still a step away from being as safe as I’d like.

I have two basic backup strategies. One is to ensure that any file I edit exists in some sort of cloud storage system (usually Dropbox, iCloud or Evernote). The other is to ensure that any computer I create data on is backed up regularly using at least two different methods/products. The combination of these two systems, plus the fact I use quite a few computers, ensures I always have several copies of everything, and can access historical copies of my data and bootable clones of my whole computer in almost all scenarios.

Most of this is now automated, in that all my machines back up locally through Time Machine on an hourly basis, and once a day to a bootable clone created using Carbon Copy Cloner. This works fine providing my house doesn’t burn down. I also back up my main home and work computers once a week to a disk that I keep with my at all times, but this has to be done manually, which isn’t ideal.

My iOS devices back up to iCloud, but also back up to my computer every time they are plugged in (with the backups then being themselves backed up as part of my other backups). I don’t have any unique data on them (at least not for long), but I still think it’s worth being able to restore them quickly and to have a second (and sometimes third) copy of all my apps.

So that’s my backup plan. It’s not perfect, but it covers most of the bases.

Easter Project : Setting up a new NAS

My project for this Easter was to set up some sort of storage solution for the vast array of music, films, TV shows and photos I have, and also to organise and catalogue them more effectively.

I asked for a few suggestions on Twitter, and there were a couple I liked the look of. The one that nearly won was the HP micro server, but I eventually settled for a Synology NAS device with a 4TB WD Green hard drive, which I’d read good things about, and which would also stream all my media to my iPad with minimal configuration. I still plan on getting some sort of Linux server at some point, but I think that’s a different project for another day.

Setting up the device was easy. Anyone reading this could do it, and there are plenty of guides on the internet. What was harder was coming up with a sensible way of organising my data, and making sure that I wasn’t just copying the horrifically complicated file structure from my old NAS without rationalising if it was still the best way of doing things.

Sorting the photos was fairly easy, once I’d tracked down where they were all stored. I created a directory, and then made a folder for each event, in a “year – event” format. That way everything will list in vague chronological order and I’ll remember what year things like weddings and holidays happened.

Films and TV shows was trickier, because I wanted to be able to access these more often, and in a way that allowed me to watch them easily. In the end I went with Synology’s default file structure, and made separate directories for films and TV shows. I then put each TV show in a separate folder, and made several folders for the films (by director if there were a lot by the same director, and then catch-all folders for English language films and those with subtitles). Copying the data was an overnight job, but it all went smoothly.

I then explored ways of accessing films and TV shows on other devices. Firstly I downloaded Synology’s iPad app, which is really pretty, and tries to find metadata and cover art for everything. When it works, it works really well, but it failed on a few of my more obscure films (especially the foreign ones), and whilst it played them fine, it gave them incorrect titles, which I think might annoy me in the long term. I also had to specifically point it at folders to index – it wasn’t quite intelligent enough to know where things were on its own.

I then fired up VLC, which I already use for offline playing of films when I’m travelling. It saw the NAS straight away, allowed me to browse the whole device, and pretty much just worked in the way that VLC has always worked for me. I’m not sure why I didn’t try this first, but it’s nice to see that software I’ve been using for 10 years still does the job I need it to do.

I already have all my music backed up in two places, so it wasn’t a huge priority to move it to this device straight away. But seeing as I had the space, I figured making a copy of my iTunes library wouldn’t hurt, so I at least have a snapshot of some of my music on this device. At some point I need to go through my old NAS and make sure there isn’t anything there that I don’t have in iTunes Match, but that is a job for another day.

As well as the music, I made a one-time backup of historical email and files. Both of these usually live in the cloud, but again I thought a local copy wouldn’t hurt.

Talking of backups. I also decided that now I have this new device I can probably afford the space to do Time Machine backups of my two laptops. Both currently back up to an external USB drive, which it reliant on remembering to plug the drive in, and so I am currently setting Time Machine up on both laptops with a view to being able to use the USB drives for something else soon.

I’m really pleased with the new NAS, and it has a lot of features I’ve not explored yet (like being able to run WordPress and Mediawiki and all the things I wanted a Linux server for). It’s taken a day and a half to set up, but the vast majority of that was copying data. The actual setup took minutes, and there was nothing that required being technical, using the command line, or understanding too much about networking.

And I still have half of the Easter break left to do other things, which is an added bonus.