State of the Tools 2020: Hardware

2020-03-01 ~1000 words

I spend a lot of time on meta-productivity: thinking about how to get work done better and faster. The majority of that thinking is around technology and specifically the tech tools I use. Maybe thinking about my workflow has returns large enough to offset the time it consumes in my life, but frankly it doesn’t matter too much to me since life optimization is as much a hobby as an objective.

2019 was a pretty good year. I picked up quite a few new tools, but not so quickly or so often that I didn’t get comfortable with the ones I cared about. Below is a fairly comprehensive list of the tech I use regularly. I hope to make State of the Tools an annual tradition, if for no other reason than to give my future self a record to look back on in future years.

This first post is just hardware. I’ll publish another (longer) post on software in the near future.

  • iPhone Xs Max – The obvious first item in this list. Screen time tells me I use it about 2 hours a day on average, a number which (I often say to my Walden-Ponding friends, winkingly) should really be higher. I love the big screen, and for a long time my only complaint was the difficulty of typing with one hand – an issue largely obviated by the introduction of swipe-typing in iOS 13. As I understand it, the biggeset improvements in last year’s iPhone (the 11) came in battery life and the camera; my battery remains very good – probably related to how much more battery space can fit in a Max phone – and frankly I can no longer see differences (or care about them) in camera quality at this point in phone camera technology.

  • 16" MacBook Pro, late 2016 – I bought the touchbar MacBook Pro just a month or two after its release. I’ve experienced most of the common annoyances: the touchbar is basically useless, made worse by the loss of a physical escape key; the keyboard feels not so much bad as just weird, which makes it very hard to switch between the laptop and normal external keyboards (which I use often); the lack of USB-A and HDMI ports is regularly frustrating and has probably resulted in me spending $100 in dongles. So it has some problems. But despite all that, this machine has been a workhorse and endured a huge amount of abuse – it comes with me everywhere, gets bounced around in my backpack, and serves as a testing-ground for all kinds of software tools I want to try out. It’s not noticeably worse in any way than the day I bought it, which was over 3 years ago. The introduction of Sidecar, the tool for using an iPad as an external display, has made me like my Mac all the more. I’ll probably upgrade the at the next major Mac update, but more out of curiousity than necessity.

  • iPad Pro, early 2018 – I have the last iPad Pro without USB-C, meaning it still has bezels and Touch ID. It’s much less integral to my life than my iPhone or Mac, but I’ve still loved having it. I use it mainly for reading and videos, and it seems like the consensus is that those are what iPads are good for. But, as mentioned above, Sidecar has led to me taking my iPad everywhere over the last few months. I’m dying to upgrade to a new iPad Pro, for the larger screen, Face ID, and better Apple Pencil, but am waiting for Apple’s rumored Spring event and the likely iPad Pro update with it.

  • Desktop Ubuntu Workstation, with Windows Dualbooted – Back in early 2018, I embarked on the somewhat scary challenge of building a desktop PC. It was fun and I learned a lot – but honestly this computer is much more of a toy than a necessity. I like using Ubuntu occasionally to force myself not to get too dependent on MacOS, as it still has a Unix-like command line and filesystem hierarchy. I use Windows mainly for the occasional video gaming, but as a teacher it’s nice to be able to test out certain workflows on the same operating system that most students have, so I have spent many hours trying to get Python and adjacent tools working properly on Windows. Needless to say, this has not endeared that OS to me.

  • AirPods Pro – Ridiculously good. Really. I was a diehard fan of the original Airpods, which achieved an impossible level of unnoticeability – at least once a day, I’d put my hands to my ears to determine whether I was wearing them. Unfortunately the Pros aren’t quite so perfect in this regard, but they’ve improved in every other aspect. The sound quality is great, the noise cancelling almost unbelievable for the form factor, and the comfort still excellent. These have become nearly as indispensable as my phone.

  • Lots of Raspberry Pis – Where would I be without Raspberry Pis? I have one original Pi, four Pi 3s, one Pi 4, two Pi Zeros, and a tinkerboard. Mostly the Pis are great for temporary projects: set it up, try to build something, and wipe and repeat when things go wrong. They’ve been great for learning about networking, web apps, and administering Linux. One Pi 3 is running RetroPie, a very cool retro video game emulator that was very straightforward to set up, and another is running Autodoist, a daemon Python program I set up to automatically manage some aspects of my to-do list.