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My Tools – the laptop

by Stuart McIntyre
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My tools – an occasional series of posts on the tools of my trade – the technology that I couldn’t live without…

A rather obvious start to proceedings, but probably the most important item in my kitbag – my laptop.  

Like most of the folks in this industry, I’ve spent most of my working life sat in front of a Windows PC – I was on an IT placement from University when Windows 3.1.1 for Workgroups was released, then had just started at my first proper full-time job when Windows 95 became available.  The company I started out with, Dyadic Systems, were a Microsoft development partner, and so I played with most of the Windows betas as they came along, then adopted the gold versions as soon as they were available.  So, I can almost mark the key moments in my working life my the beta or gold code I was running at the time – scary that Microsoft has had such an influence really.  

However, as Dyadic was inherently a Unix shop – we designed, implemented and supported high-end IBM RS/6000 (and then pSeries) systems running AIX – I spent a lot of time sat in front of a Unix command line too.  I always liked the ease of use of Windows, but adored the power of the Unix command line – I still think in terms of greps, pipes, redirects, awks and seds even now.  That lead me into playing with Linux, right from the early 0.99 kernel days, through many versions of Redhat, SUSE and now Ubuntu.  I’m comfortable on that platform and push it as our server platform of choice, particularly for smaller businesses, but have never truly adopted it as my desktop during all these years, mainly because of lack of application or device support.


Then, of course, there is the Mac. I first spent time on the Macintosh platform back at school, probably c. 1989/90, writing up my A-level reports on MacWrite and adoring the Wysiwyg interface when everyone around was still fighting with text based word processors. However, I then didn’t touch another Apple product until a colleague, David Hiley,  joined Dyadic back in 2003. He had an adorable Powerbook 12″, and proceeded to show me the OS X user interface, the great Mac apps that were out there, and why this really was the client platform of choice.  While there were certainly some major issues with using the Mac in an IBM BP environment (Notes 6 for the Mac anyone?), it certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities.  When my wife needed a new laptop later that year, I bought her a Powerbook G4 15″, and since then we have had many more Macs through the household.

So, the point of this story… When I came to set up Collaboration Matters at the start of this year, I needed to buy a laptop that would be with me for the first 2 years or so of running the business, consulting for my customers, designing solutions, testing new products, blogging, developing new ideas and generally as my main sidekick whilst earning my living.  What would it be?

To be honest, even after evaluating a lot of the options, there really was only one choice:

My Macbook Pro 17″ with 2.5GHz CPU, 250GB disk, 4GB RAM, high-resolution 1920 x 1200 screen.

Why? Well, of all the time I’ve spent on Windows, Linux and OS X, there is really only one choice when it comes to my overall productivity.  I simply get more done, more quickly and with less stress on the Mac.  It’s a fast machine no doubt, but I could have got a fast machine from Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba or any of the others.  What really makes it right for me is OS X. It really does “just work”.  It doesn’t crash, doesn’t have a load of unnecessary functions and features (and 3rd party add-ons) that I don’t need, doesn’t need any time to manage or keep up-to-date, but does support my ways of working brilliantly well.  The tools I need are either part of the basic OS/iLife package (things like Garageband for producing podcasts) or else are available free or at small cost elsewhere.  Underneath the great UI, there is the power of the BSD-based Darwin Unix kernel – hence I still have the ability to get to the command line and script my way through any tricky problems.  I have VMWare Fusion installed with images of all the Windows and Linux environments that I do need access to, so there is really nothing that this machine won’t do that I need on a daily basis.  

The 1920 x 1200 screen was a no-brainer for me too – the screen real estate is these days more important than ether CPU or RAM – so many of the interfaces I use daily are now “peripheral vision” – Twitter, FriendFeed, Sametime etc. – and you really can’t beat those extra pixels.  The 4GB is advisable, particularly when running VMs – as many others have said, don’t buy it from Apple – mine came from Crucial and was only 50GBP for the full 4GB.

This spec sounds pretty high-end, and as Macs are generally thought to be expensive anyway, surely this must have cost a fortune?  Well actually, no. Firstly, when you really compare apples with apples (particularly w.r.t the screen resolution), the MBP quite often comes in cheaper than an equivalent Lenovo or Sony system. Secondly, Apple do some great leasing deals for small businesses, and so this system costs the company less than 50GBP  a month – about the same as a single cappuccino a day – a worthy trade if you ask me!

In addition to the technical aspects, and in some ways this is just as important, this machine helps to create the right impression. As a consultant, particularly one who deals with Web2.0 and social software regularly, I need to be ahead of the game, moving along with (or preferably just that one step ahead of) my customers.  I am seeing these organisations adopting Macs (and to a lesser extent, Linux) at an ever increasing rate.  Unless I am using, abusing and living with these products and technologies day-in, day-out, then there is no way I can properly advise them of the possibilities, issues or implications of making these investments within their businesses.

Lastly, there is nothing better (except perhaps the iPhone 3G this week) at starting conversations in an open plan office!  Get the MBP out, and it’s amazing how many folks wander over to have a look, or to ask how I do X, Y, or Z on the machine.  These conversations often turn into discussions about their work environments, issues with the applications they use, or areas where things could be improved.  Perfect information for any consultant 😉

So, my first tool – the Mac Book Pro.

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