The journey is the reward

Patrick Rhone over at minimal mac led me to Frank Chimero’s writing on his digital tools: The Setup which got me thinking about my digital tool situation again.

Here’s a quote from Frank’s post:

I think tweaking the rig is a large part of being a nerd.

Agreed. As my friend Dale says as we hunt for the best camera/lens combinations: the chase (the process of hunting and considering) is part of the larger process of using, tweaking, and enjoying one’s gear. I generally take that a bit further as I rent and buy things, use them, then sell them as I figure out which gear doesn’t work for me. I can’t quite get it all figured out in my head; experience gives me the feedback I need. That’s my process with cameras and lenses. With computers I’ve stayed with the same type (PowerBook or MacBook Pro) for over ten years and this has served me well. I’m comfortable with the form factor and until recently I didn’t see a need to change things.

But, as the cloud has become a bigger part of my digital life (I use Gmail, Google Reader, and other cloud-based services) I have less need to have everything stored on a single computer, and because I’ve started using my iPhone and now iPad more, having multiple devices has become more comfortable. I thought it might be a good idea to have a larger desktop computer and a smaller portable computer for travel. I’m a touch typist so using an iPad for constructing a long piece of writing like this isn’t something I want to do, even with a bluetooth keyboard.

Minimalism is an idea, not an ideal
Frank is a professional designer who spends a lot of time in Adobe-land and now does this on a 13″ MacBook Air. This means he’s willing to make a tradeoff: horsepower and speed for simplicity and portability. Seems simple enough. Of course most people never consider this tradeoff yet they have little use for much of the horsepower they have in their computers. I’ve considered this tradeoff for most of my computing life (moving away from desktop computers over ten years ago) yet seem to have had a doubt about it recently.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to run one’s digital life off an iPhone (figuratively, the ultimate pare down) and as an exercise it might be fun (and frustrating for some) but minimalism is an idea, not a universal ideal.

The ideal ideal is whatever is right for you and you can only find out what that is by using your tools, paying attention, and “tweaking the rig” over time, not to fit someone else’s ideals of what constitutes the ultimate rig, but to fit your own life and style. There is no ideal or even an ideal direction, there is only the path and how you feel about your own walk (or run or stumble) down it. I know, very “zen” of me. I struggle with this in almost every domain I enter and reading Frank’s post was a nice kick in the butt for me to take stock and think out loud.

Here’s another quote from Frank’s post:

A person only flails around in regards to their rig when they don’t have a clear idea of what constitutes their work.

This is a bit harsh but its true and as we honestly look at what we do with our digital rigs over time the flailing slows down as we tweak the rig to fit the work. The problem is if you look at your work one day you’ll think you need a high end desktop computer, the next and you’ll be fine with a 13″ MacBook Air. How one constructs this overview of one’s work (personal sampling rate) is important because each task isn’t necessarily weighted the same. This is tough stuff with lots of room for flailing.

At times I use Lightroom to process 100 or more RAW photographs taken with my Canon 5D. The question is, is that “my work?” Well, no, not really, it’s a rare occurrence that happens a few times a year and my current 15″ MacBook Pro can handle it.

At times I use both Lightroom and Pages to put together a MagCloud project but I don’t do this very often and so far I’ve done it on this 15″ MacBook Pro. Is it ideal? No, but it does work.

The question is, if the 15″ MacBook Pro is working well for me in everything else I do and feels a bit constrained when I do these two tasks which I do infrequently, should I get another computer to do these two tasks (maybe then I’ll do them more) or do I live with what I have knowing that it’s right for me in every other respect?

Toward the end of last year I tipped into “get another computer land” and ordered a 27″ top of the line iMac and at the same time, a new 13″ low end MacBook Pro (to replace my 15″ MacBook Pro for travel), and an iPad. Yes, it was a huge splurge which I’d been saving up for for a while.

All the boxes arrived from Apple and before I opened any of them up I had a doubt about what I’d done. After all, this move was a rather large change in my digital setup and as I said above I’m not good doing these kinds of things in my head. It wasn’t the money that gave me pause, it was the change in tools and change in work process that would come with the new tools: having a huge computer on my desk that I might be pulled to do most of my work on because of it’s size and power.

Bigger isn’t always better
Frank got rid of a 27″ iMac and moved to a 13″ MacBook Air and one of his reasons was:

I’m the kind of guy who needs a clear focal point, so the vast expanse of 27” made me feel like I didn’t have full mastery over my tool.

I’ve never articulated this but I now know that this was one of the many things that bothered me about the move I’d made in ordering this big desktop computer. I’m ADD and while I like a bit of screen real estate too much and I’m swimming (more like drowning). Some people don’t feel comfortable unless they have a big screen (or two) to spread their stuff out on, some people, whether they know it or not, may think having more screen real estate is an ideal but in fact, they may get less done as they futz around with all the stuff on their big screen. Watching a Twitter feed crawl by while one is attempting to think and write a post gets in the way of thinking and writing the post, for me anyway. With a 27″ screen one can have a lot of things going on, potentially pulling one away from the focal point. I know, it’s useful to see a two page spread when laying out pages and useful to see one’s images on a big screen but how often one has this need varies from person to person and the fact is, I can live without it and have for many years. Somehow I thought I should have it but in the process overlooked my successful history with my current 15″ MacBook Pro.

The other thing I was pondering was an SSD upgrade to the MacBook Pro. I was very impressed by the solid state MacBook Air when it came out and knew Apple was moving in this direction (it’s now known that they’ve been buying futures in flash memory): solid state is definitely the future of computing storage.

The two computers and iPad stayed in their unopened boxes which sat on the floor of my office for a few days and I finally decided I’d made a mistake (a stumble in the path). I called Apple and returned the iMac and the MacBook Pro and kept the iPad. Apple was a pleasure to deal with and they even paid for the return shipping. I suddenly felt lighter although truth be told I was wondering how I’d explain all of this to my friend Dale who was discussing this buy with me and generally supports whatever I come up with (we’re both excellent rationalizers). We’ve discussed it since but I didn’t have the clarity reading Frank’s post has given me.

I love it when reading about someone else’s experience helps me explain my own.

What I have now
As those of you who follow this blog know I ordered and did an SSD upgrade on my MacBook Pro. Except for a single issue with sleep its been a terrific upgrade and I have no regrets to this day about having done it. It will give me plenty of time with this now three year old MacBook Pro to wait for Apple to come out with new MacBook Pros with more solid state options. My last MagCloud project was done on this SSD-equipped machine and it made a very big difference in the machine’s responsiveness working with large files. Of course an external monitor would have helped and like Frank I might go down that path in the future but given that most of my use of my MacBook Pro is doing things like this post I’m fine with it as it is.

I got the iPad less as a portable computer, more as a portable movie player for use on planes. I don’t travel like I used to but I do make a trip across country to Los Angeles every few months to visit my 95 year old mother and as I’ve seen more and more people on these cross country trips using iPads to watch movies and other video content it occurred to me that just getting one for this alone would make these trips bearable. So, this was my initial rationale for ordering and keeping the iPad and I’ve ripped numerous movies from my DVD collection and have them on the iPad and it’s great to watch them on flights. I wasn’t sure if I’d use the iPad for much more than this because it lacks a hardware keyboard and as a touch typist this is an important piece of a tool for me. However, there’s much one can do with an iPad sans typing as most of you already know and a little typing on the screen isn’t a problem.

Now that I’ve been using it for a few months, the killer app on my iPad hasn’t been the video player but a simple and elegant RSS reader called Reeder which syncs with a Google Reader account. Between Reeder and Instapaper I find using the iPad to read feeds and tuck things I’m interested in away a better experience than the same applications on the Mac (I’ve been using RSS newsreaders since NetNewsWire was in beta). I think I like the focus of full screen apps and even though Reeder on the Mac is still in beta, even after it’s done I think I’ll like the iPad experience better. Maybe Lion will bridge this with its full screen capabilities but for now the iPad as a tool for reading feeds and tucking the gems away in the cloud is fantastic. And, when I’m away from wifi I use the iPhone for this: same apps and they work fine over 3G.

This has been a surprise to me: I routinely carry both my MacBook Pro and iPad downstairs on winter mornings to drink my coffee by the wood stove and I use the iPad to read the news through Reeder rather than do the same on the MacBook Pro. If the iPad had a decent AIM/iChat like client I’d leave the MacBook Pro upstairs.

Another surprise: the iPad is so small and useful that it undoes my wanting a 13″ MacBook Pro as my main computer. I don’t pull my computer out on planes anymore and the iPad has killer battery life even watching movies so why not stick with a 15″ MacBook Pro which seems to have become an ideal size for me over many years.

Many years ago my friend David Clark pushed (pulled) me into using Gmail and that was the beginning of my move to the cloud. Gmail works flawlessly on computer/browser (or Apple’s Mail app), iPhone and iPad so I can get mail anywhere and not worry about syncing. Same with Google Reader (thanks Steve) and the Reeder client on iPhone, iPad, and Mac and I’m finding that Instapaper is a wonderful cloud container allowing me to toss things into it from any device knowing they’ll be there on the other devices. SimpleNote is the same thing for writing: do the writing on one device, find it on all devices.

So, my digital life is a 15″ SSD equipped MacBook Pro, an iPad, and an iPhone4, all connected via MobileMe (iCal and Address Book), Gmail, Google Reader, Instapaper, and SimpleNote. I back up the iPhone and iPad with iTunes a few times a week. I back up the Mac every day with SuperDuper! onto two different portable firewire 800 hard disks (rotated).

This setup is simple, powerful, elegant, and fits me like a glove. While I did some flailing on the way to it it feels quite comfortable to me now. As Steve Jobs (I wish him well) would say:

The journey is the reward.

Amen Steve. The process really is the product.

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