When I was hired as the Managing Editor of TidBITS in May 2013, I was excited to be working from home, where I’d be able to spend more time with my family and less time on the road. Plus, I’d be able to choose the tools I use for my work. But every silver lining has a cloud: I was suddenly responsible for equipping my own home office.
Here are the tools I chose, why I chose them, and how I use them. Needless to say, I don’t expect that you’ll all blindly follow my lead — that would be nuts — but I hope you can take some of the thought I put into my choices and apply it to your own situation as you equip or update your work environment.
Computer -- I actually purchased the laptop I use here at TidBITS almost a year before I was hired: a 15-inch MacBook Pro from late 2011.
It was my first Apple computer since the trusty iBook G4 I used in college, which I replaced in 2008 with a custom PC I built with gaming in mind. While the PC still worked great for games in 2012, it no longer suited my needs. I found myself needing the tools available on a Mac, the PC was both loud and power hungry, and all the wires and blue LEDs, which seem to be a requirement in most consumer electronics, were driving me crazy.
I’m something of a minimalist. My bedroom at the time didn’t even have a proper bed. Instead, I slept on a Japanese futon. I wanted something self-contained — either an iMac or a MacBook. The design of the iMac appealed to me, but there’s a big problem with it: the hard drive is a nightmare to access. I’ve learned over the years that if there’s one part that will fail or that I’ll outgrow, it’s the hard drive. So that ruled out the iMac and MacBook Air.
The basic 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s most popular computer, but it’s not a great machine. I know, my wife owns one. It’s slow, the screen is cramped, and the video card is weak, making it frustrating for even occasional gaming. The 15-inch model is the sweet spot — fast processor, decent video card, decent screen, but it starts at $1,799, which is $600 more than the low-end 13-inch model.
But here’s a bit of buying advice for Macs. Refurbished models purchased from Apple are less expensive, are in like-new condition, and feature the same warranties and AppleCare options as a new machine. If you want the best deal, keep your eye out for a refurbished model right after a new model debuts. There’s even a site that will notify you by email when the refurbished product you want is on sale. I purchased my refurbished 2011 MacBook Pro just after the 2012 model and Retina display models were introduced for only $1,359 — $441 less than I would have paid the previous month. Since being able to use Mac software turned out to be essential to getting this gig with TidBITS, it was worth every penny.
Something I like about the non-Retina MacBook Pro is that the RAM and hard drive are user-serviceable, without voiding the warranty. The first thing I did was upgrade the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB. That upgrade cost only about $40 at the time, but made a massive improvement in performance — any time you can take a Mac into the 8–16 GB of RAM range, you’ll appreciate the difference.
SSD -- After the RAM upgrade, my MacBook’s day-to-day performance seemed great… until I started working for TidBITS. Working on my Mac all day made me painfully aware of any performance lags, especially when switching among the dozens of windows I have open at any given time. The worst was the long, long delay when I woke my Mac up from sleep. Ironically, since OS X dumps the contents of RAM to the hard disk when the computer sleeps, my RAM upgrade probably made this worse. (There is a workaround — see “SmartSleep Solves Safe Sleep Situation,” 15 March 2008.)
Hard drives are the main bottleneck in a computer’s performance, especially the slow, yet power-efficient 5400 RPM drives included with many Macs. It doesn’t matter how fast your processor is if it takes forever to access your data.
One option was to replace the unused optical drive with an SSD, like Jeff Carlson did (see “SSD Optical Drive Replacement Speeds a Sluggish MacBook Pro,” 20 July 2012), leaving the factory 500 GB hard drive for secondary storage. I decided against this approach for a few reasons, none of them particularly major. One, I would have to buy a bracket and mounting hardware. Second, it would have voided my AppleCare warranty, while simply replacing the hard drive does not. Third, it would have meant keeping track of multiple internal disks, which complicates usage a little.
When choosing my SSD, I turned to The Wirecutter, a fantastic site that focuses on picking the best product in any given category. (Full disclosure: I sometimes write for their sister site, The Sweethome.) Their SSD pick at the time was the Samsung 840, which also happened to be the cheapest 500 GB SSD I could find on Amazon. Say what you will about Samsung smartphones, but I’ve always had good luck with their components and consumer electronics. The 840 isn’t as fast as some competitors, but it’s far faster than a spinning hard disk, and is relatively cheap for its capacity. (Note that The Wirecutter now recommends the Samsung 840 EVO SSD.)
I also ordered a toolkit to perform the swap. It was intended for mobile phones, but the set of screwdrivers and spudgers was perfect for opening my MacBook.
Before cracking open my MacBook, though, I had to transfer over 200 GB of data from my hard drive to the SSD. For that, I purchased an external USB enclosure from OWC, inserted the SSD, then used Carbon Copy Cloner to clone my hard drive to the SSD. SuperDuper is another popular tool in this space, but Carbon Copy Cloner can copy OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion’s Recovery Partition, while SuperDuper can’t. The entire process took about eight hours. But once that was done, I just had to remove the SSD from the enclosure and install it in my MacBook, following a handy iFixit guide. The actual installation took no more than 30 minutes.
The only drawbacks were that I lost my Boot Camp partition, as Carbon Copy Cloner can’t clone that, and I had to reactivate some of my software after booting from the SSD. But these small snags were worth it. Almost everything on my Mac is instant now, even waking from sleep, which used to take several minutes.
Monitor -- My second major upgrade was an external monitor. It’s a simple equation: more screen space means more productivity.
Ah, but which one? The Apple Thunderbolt Display would seem to be a natural — it’s a gorgeous monitor and includes a built-in Thunderbolt dock. However, John Siracusa has spoken at length about the problems he’s had with his Thunderbolt display. Also, it costs nearly $1,000.
I considered the inexpensive and well-reviewed Monoprice monitors, which use the same panels as Apple’s display, but as Shawn Blanc points out, since they don’t have built-in DisplayPort, you’re left to rely on flaky adapters.
Again, I visited my friends at The Wirecutter, who recommend the Dell UltraSharp U2713HM. It sports a 27-inch screen, a non-glossy matte display, and has multiple input ports — even DisplayPort and HDMI. Better yet, it cost only $585 at the time — almost half the price of Apple’s Thunderbolt Display, leaving room in the budget for other devices.
I’m not a fan of Dell products overall, but this monitor is fantastic. Out of the box, it was easy to set up, the screen is bright and crisp, and the color is fantastic. Also, it allows for audio pass-through from the DisplayPort cable, so you can plug in headphones, speakers, or even a sound bar.
I do have one concern: the built-in USB 3.0 hub. In theory, it’s great, but if you turn the monitor off, it cuts the power to the USB ports. If you were to plug a hard drive into the monitor, you’d risk data loss and corruption if you turned the monitor off rather than letting it go into power-saving sleep mode. Fortunately, the monitor goes into sleep mode quickly, so you never really need to turn it off. Worth keeping in mind, but as a monitor, the U2713HM is fantastic.
What did take getting used to after the relatively small MacBook Pro screen was juggling windows on the massive 2560-by-1440 desktop. Fortunately, the free BetterTouchTool enables Windows 7-esque window snapping to the sides of the screen. I usually keep Chrome on one side and BBEdit on the other.
Microphone -- When I wrote my first TidBITS article, I was taken off guard by having to record an audio version of the article. My first few recordings were rough — I had no idea how to edit and I was recording with the EarPods that came with my iPhone 5. While the EarPods weren’t terrible, as a podcast fan, I was adamant about improving my sound quality.
But microphones are expensive! The Rode Podcaster is the podcast standard, but costs over $200. A kit with the shock mount and stand costs over $300. I asked for recommendations, and went with the Blue Yeti that Glenn Fleishman was using at the time. The Yeti can be had for around $100 — still not cheap, but is decent enough for professional work and less than half the price of the Podcaster.
I record into Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro, monitoring my recording with an old pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones, which are professional quality, inexpensive, and built like a tank, and then I transfer my recordings into GarageBand for editing.
Data Ports -- As I said earlier, I hate wires. But for some applications, Wi-Fi just isn’t enough. In particular, our staff Google Hangouts tend to stutter quite a bit over Wi-Fi. An Ethernet port in my office was essential.
I had an unused phone jack in my office, which was the perfect spot to install it. I picked up a three-hole Keystone jack from Monoprice and inserts for a Cat6 Ethernet coupler, a phone jack, and some HDMI couplers. The couplers let me run pre-made cables without having to crimp my own. I then ran an Ethernet cable from the AirPort Express in our living room to the hall closet that sits on the opposite wall from my desk, widened the existing phone cable hole with a utility knife, then plugged the Ethernet cable into the back of the coupler. On the office end, I ran another Ethernet cable from the port into my MacBook.
All in all, it took less than $15 and less than an hour of labor to install a plethora of data ports in my office. I have yet to use the HDMI or telephone ports, but they were so cheap and easy to install, I figured, “Why not?” One day, I may route an HDMI cable from the Playstation 3 in the living room to the Dell monitor in the office — just because I can.
Desk and Chair -- All this hardware was great, but it has to live somewhere. When I started, I was using a cheap plastic desk borrowed from my brother in-law. When he finally asked for that back, I switched to a small, tall table that we kept in the music room. Standing desks are popular these days, and at Adam’s urging, I gave it a shot. The table even had a matching tall stool for when I wanted to sit down.
But after a few weeks, I decided that a standing desk isn’t for me. While our own Glenn Fleishman and Macworld’s Lex Friedman are racking up the miles on their treadmill desks, I’m lucky to walk to the mailbox without twisting my knee. Plus, I found standing distracting. Like many writers, sitting helps me concentrate.
But the problem is that I can’t use just about any desk I find in a furniture store. They’re either too tall, which hurts my wrists, or don’t offer enough leg room. Many folks suggested Ikea, but from where I live in rural Tennessee, the closest Ikea store is four hours away in Atlanta, Georgia, and their shipping costs are outrageous.
Fortunately, I was able to hire a friend’s dad to build a desk for me out of solid oak — to my precise specifications. I used an ergonomic calculator to gauge the ideal height, and took multiple measurements to ensure that it fit cleanly in my office corner. The top of the desk is smooth as glass, yet dark, so I have no need for a mousepad. I excluded drawers and other frills to maximize leg room. (You can see it in the picture at the top of the article.)
Having the desk built wasn’t cheap — around $350 — but it was a worthwhile investment in the spot where I sit for hours every day, and still a bargain compared to many high-end desks. But what can’t be measured is the satisfaction it brings me. It feels great to sit at something so nice.
As for my chair, I would have loved to buy something as nice as the Steelcase Leap, but I couldn’t stomach spending $800 on a chair alone. Instead, I tried dozens of office chairs in local stores, and settled on the Staples Ackerley. It comes with a five-year warranty and its recline suits my slack posture well. I wish it had a little more padding in the seat, but for under $100, I can’t complain too much.
Magic Trackpad -- Sitting at a computer for nearly 17 years has done a number on my wrists. I’m plagued with RSI problems. My wrists click and crunch when I rotate them, and my forearms are often painfully strained, especially when I click a mouse.
However, after setting up my new desk and monitor, typing on the MacBook became impractical. Its screen blocked part of my Dell monitor, and its extra height off the desk strained my wrists. I switched to an Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse I had laying around, but clicking the mouse bothered my forearm. I tried using the MacBook’s trackpad in conjunction with the keyboard, but that was also not an ideal solution.
So I bit the bullet and picked up an Apple Magic Trackpad, and I couldn’t be happier. Moving my fingers instead of my wrists to move the cursor is less painful, and with tap to click enabled, I put less strain on my forearms.
I love how responsive Apple’s trackpads are. They’re sensitive enough that I can even use them for first-person shooter games. If you suffer from RSI, I would strongly encourage you to try the Magic Trackpad.
Coffee -- One of the things I looked forward to most with moving to a home office was a return to fussy coffee, as opposed to the burnt motor oil popular in offices across the country. I already had a trusty AeroPress, which is sort of a coffee syringe that’s popular with coffee enthusiasts. But to get the best coffee, you have to grind your own beans, and cheap grinders don’t cut it. Blade grinders burn the beans as they smash through them, and cheap burr grinders are just junk.
So I splurged on the least expensive recommended burr grinder: The Barazta Encore, which retails for $145 and which I snagged from an Amazon Warehouse deal for $115. Not cheap, but I use it every day, so it feels like a worthwhile investment. Also, Barazta’s support is top notch. My grinder came with a cracked hopper, and Barazta promptly sent me another one, no questions asked.
I also splurged on a subscription to Tonx, a subscription coffee service. They scour the world for the best beans, roast them, and then deliver them to your door within three days. It’s not for everyone. Two 12-ounce bags cost $38 per month, and you get no say over what beans or roast you receive. Also, I’ve found that top-level beans are tougher to brew. If your grind isn’t right or your water is too hot, you can wind up with sour, undrinkable coffee. But after a few months of using the service, I find it indispensable. Tonx is now a sponsor of TidBITS, and if you sign up for a free trial through our link, you’ll help us out!
I know, I know… Some of you are rolling your eyes at me right now, but here’s how I justified this minor extravagance: I spent $60 each week on gas while I was commuting to my previous job. I decided that with all the money I was saving, I could afford a bit of a luxury, and my car doesn’t appreciate the gas nearly as much as I like my coffee.
Final Thoughts -- Hopefully this guide has given you some ideas about how to equip or update your own home office, even if you’re on a tight budget. My overall advice is to pick the best equipment you can afford, especially if it’s something you’re going to use every day. The best doesn’t have to be out of reach. Identify your priorities carefully and watch out for great deals. Focus on only the things you need, and you’ll be able to afford the best of the necessities. Being surrounded by things that work well, are well made, and have a definitive utility brings an indescribable feeling of satisfaction. You can’t buy happiness, but you can invest in things that give you pleasure and improve your everyday experiences.