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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Wed. Apr 25, 2007

My Essential Software, 2007

It’s been a month shy of three years since I wrote “My Essential Software.” Much has changed since then, both in my life and in the world of software. And the process of setting up a new computer seems a perfect time to update the list of software that matters most to me. In fact, let’s go through this in the actual order that I loaded them on the new computer, as that’s the true definition of what’s “essential.”

I’ve already gone over my status as a neutral double-agent in the Mac vs. PC wars (“How Reid Buys A New PC”), my rather stark preference for XP Pro over Vista, and the fact this unit showed up with a bare bones XP install sans “craplets” (”Not Your Daddy’s Dell, No Vista In View”). So let’s move on to actual setup.

On first boot, I was really only interested in a few things; uninstalling any unrequested software delivered on the machine (only two items, Google Desktop Search and Google Toolbar for IE), setting a restore point, and doing the dreaded Windows Update. While I’m sure Dell and/or Microsoft could deliver some entirely rational explanation, there is simply no excuse for sending out a machine that … right off the bat … needs 48 updates.

I know, Sony does it, HP does it, Dell does it, they all do it, and their hands are likely tied by Microsoft and their dictated setup process (hell, even Macs arrive needing updates). Don’t care. They are all wrong. It’s insane to send out a machine that is, by default, at fault. With a brand new machine somehow still vulnerable to long known exploits, most folks plug up the Da Innerwebs like an innocent virgin thrown into the prison yard.

I know some people might buy a boxed PC that’s been sitting at an Apple Store or in a warehouse or at Walmart for 10 or 11 months. Short of building Ethernet ports into shipping boxes, there’s no way to update those. But I ordered a custom built machine seven days before it was delivered. I can look in my Windows directory and see it was setup between 1:59 and 2:17pm on 4/3/07. Four days later, I’m downloading a huge number of updates. That’s nuts.

And here’s the kicker. I’ve long hated Windows Update, and the damn popup boxes it’s always throwing up from my taskbar. But I’d decided this time to be a Good Boy. So I do my 48 updates, reboot the machine, and proceed to get on with my software installations. Nine minutes later, I get that first popup box saying there are new updates available for my computer.

And at that moment, I decided they make being a Good Boy too much of a pain in the ass. Brand spanking new machine, plus 48 updates, and it lasts nine minutes before it tells me it’s once again out of date. A few muffled grumbles later, I set another restore point, and set about my fun. First step, um, where’s my list, my order of battle here? Why, it’s a plain text document! That means the first install is…

Notetab Pro v5.2 — Much more than just a plain text editor, with customizable clipbars and user-writable clipbooks, I’m able to set up a very personalized environment. In addition to the standard HTML toolbar, I’ve added a clipbar with my own custom HTML tags/snippets and CSS attributes, as well as Textpattern and Expression Engine tags. In one click they are in the document. This app is where I probably spend most of my time on the computer. HTML, CSS, templates, writing drafts, saving quotes, etc. If I’m typing more than a sentence, I’m usually doing it in NoteTab.

Firefox 2.0 — I had to use Internet Explorer to do the Windows Update Thang, but after that it is banished in favor of Firefox. Firefox is a “work environment” for me as well, with many customizations, bookmarklets, saved passwords, etc. And I do mean many. Two Firefox extensions made it much easier to recreate the environment that exists on my previous machine.

Google Browser Sync — By setting this up on the old machine and allowing it to fully synch, and then installing it on the new machine, I was able to seamlessly move over all my cookies, saved passwords, history, and bookmarks. While I’m not comfortable with leaving it running all the time, when you need to move from one machine to another, it’s a real life saver.

Extension List Dumper — I try to trim my list of Firefox extensions. I really do. But there were still dozens of them to be written down and then searched so I could add them to the new beast. Pain in the patootie. Until I found this extension. Which will happily list all installed extensions with a link to their install page, making my setup tasks considerably easier. So here’s my current list of extensions:

I realize that list might seem excessive to some, but it’s part of the evolution I’ll talk about more below.

Filezilla — Excellent open source software for FTP or SFTP access to web sites. All of my Site Manager info was easily transferred from old PC to new, giving me quick access to any client site.

SftpDrive — This nifty app allows me to access an online server via SFTP, as if it were another hard drive in Windows Explorer. Through my TextDrive/Joyent account, I have a ridiculous amount of online storage, and this makes it even more usable. When I open up Windows Explorer, in addition to my three local drives, I see three more. Drive R is my 100GB of space at Joyent Connector. Drive S is my Strongspace account (25GB, soon to be 100GB). Drive T is my multi-domain account at TextDrive (25GB, soon to be 100GB). Of course, moving files about is sluggish compared to your regular hard drives, as it is limited by your upload/download speeds, but it is a great way for me to access potentially 300GB of online space.

Synergy — This allows me to control both my PC and my Mac using one keyboard and one mouse. It’s wicked. Go read the write up in Lifehacker. Then find a geek friend to impress when you Ctrl + C a web address in Firefox on your PC, then move your mouse to the Mac screen and Alt + V to view the same page in Safari.

And at that point, I stopped for the night. I had not yet installed any of my pricier work apps from Adobe/Macromedia, but I already realized how things had changed. With just three apps (Notetab. Firefox, Filezilla) that represented a total investment of $29.95, I was already a pretty dangerous guy.

Though I still lacked any graphic capabilities other than MS Paint, I could access and edit the HTML/CSS on any of my client sites, as well as my own. I could send and receive email, as well as search over 30 months of archived email. My contact list, “To Do” list, and calendar were all one click away from my home page. So were the 92 RSS feeds in my newsreader. All were exactly as I left them on the old computer.

Because they’re not really on “my computer” at all, they are “out there.” I intend to write another article someday soon detailing what I’m doing with my browser’s start page now, but it is all the result of applications and data moving to the web. In this case, the biggest and most obvious change from three years ago is that I didn’t have to load up Outlook on my new PC, and spend time importing all my contacts, calendar items, tasks, old emails, etc., and then layer another program on top of Outlook to make it all reasonably searchable. But today, two different web services (Gmail and Scrybe) plus one simple customized Textpattern installation handle all of that.

As I said, the details are for later, but over the past three years, I have increasingly “pushed” my information out onto the web. The applications have popped up to support it (and continue to, like Scrybe and 30Boxes), the availability of online storage increases, and our connection to the Internet is stable and ubiquitous enough that it seems a reasonable and safe thing to do. I can show up 300 miles away at my Mom’s house with just a USB thumbdrive full of files, and know that between her DSL connection and my copies of Notetab, Filezilla, and Firefox on her computer, I can do most anything I need to, plus access 200GB+ of online storage space.

That’s the biggest lesson from “My Essential Software, 2007” ... I have less of it, and much of it is now on the web, not my PC. The browser has become my interface for not just viewing the web, but also for email, calendars, contacts, task list, and RSS feeds. It’s also clear that if it wasn’t for the substantial requirements I have to handle digital photography and web design, I could get by with a very bare bones machine of any flavor, as long as it had a decent plain text editor and the ability to run Firefox.

So let’s move on to those “substantial requirements,” as getting the machine ready for full-scale work was the first task I took up the next morning.

Photoshop CS2 — Of course, the 800 pound gorilla gets first dibs. And though I immediately copy over all my presets and actions, it generally takes me a week or so to get “settled in.” It’s my most customized environment, and a very deep application, so I keep running into situations where I hit a keyboard shortcut, and get an unexpected result, resulting in more tweaking. I also install an older version of Mask Pro, just because I’m used to using it for masking.

Adobe Bridge CS2 — It’s installed along with Photoshop, but I mention it independently because I recently tried out Adobe Lightroom (which I note they are now branding as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom), but ending up uninstalling it. It’s a nice application, and I think it would be ideal for anyone who’s had trouble developing and maintaining a workflow for their digital images. Lightroom lays it out right there in the upper right corner of the interface. But I found it got in the way of my already well established workflow in numerous ways, plus was a real hog for RAM. So I’m sticking with Bridge, and looking forward to the improvements in Bridge CS3

Macromedia Studio 8 — That link now points to something called “Adobe Creative Suite 3 Web Premium” (hereafter referred to by the snappy acronym CS3WP) which I’ll be making a mortgage payment on in mere days. For now, I have its pre-merger equivalent, Macromedia Studio 8. Fireworks is probably my favorite application of all time. Seriously. Dreamweaver is the industry standard, though I find more and more that I use it for its site management capabilities more than anything else. Flash kills brain cells, but so do a lot of things that are fun. Studio 8 has Freehand, but in CS3WP I’ll be tripping around in Illustrator. It’s a very expensive, extensive, and complex set of apps, but if you want to play on this court we call “The Web,” that’s how you suit up.

Downloader — I don’t have the latest version, but this little app makes downloading images from flash cards into the folders you want a stress free breeze.

AllNetic Time Tracker — Their site needs help, but the product works great. A simple time tracker I use for work projects, as someone must pay for all this expensive software.

Multiple IE’s — One of those 48 Windows Updates was the upgrade to Internet Explorer 7, but I need to be able to check web pages in older and more broken versions of IE as well. This nice little app allows me to do that … “Important Notes: The installer isn’t working under Windows Vista” Gee, too bad.

Opera — For when I’m feeling really thorough.

Cool Ruler — That page seems to have no actual download (weird, eh?) but these folks do. It’s a simple “stay on top” screen ruler that I’ve used for a long time.

Tortoise SVN — A Subversion client that ties in nicely with Windows Explorer. Used mainly to access the latest development version of Textpattern.

Skype — Used very occasionally for client communication, but mostly for webcam visits with Princess Caroli.

That’s pretty much it for work related apps. That leaves some system utilities and apps for media/fun.

Syncback — A superb freeware app for doing backups (there’s also a paid version with added features). I’ve used it for years, and once you spend time getting it set up, it is hassle-free. On the old system, I was unable to get it to run via Windows Scheduler and had to start it manually (two clicks). On this new system, it now happens automagically every night while I sleep. And, yes, I sleep easier knowing the work I did just before bedtime will be backed up on an external USB drive by the time I get up.

7-Zip — I’ve played around with various commercial programs over the years, but my needs for zip/archive capabilities is pretty low, so I went with this open source alternative. So far it’s done everything I need.

Sam Spade — They’re suffering from a server meltdown at the moment, but normally this is the home a nifty “integrated network query tool.” It has Ping, traceroute, can find the owner of an IP block, etc. It’s great for those times someone comments on your site from a house.gov address. Provides clear evidence.

Merriam Webster Dictionary — I know there’s dozens of online dictionaries, but this is one case where I want a local app. This one fires up in one second and gives me what I want. Then it’s gone.

Media Player Classic — A replacement for Windows Media Player, which simply gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Flickr Uploader — Easy drag and drop uploading to my Flickr account.

iTunes — To play any MP3’s that somehow end up on the Windows box (my 23GB of music is on the Mac).

Agent — For the rare times I need Usenet access.

Google Earth — The ultimate map, filling my 24” monitor.

ArtRage — Purpose: play. It’s hard to buy this much fun for $20.

And that is pretty much it, other than the usual hardware drivers required for various devices. So what is missing from this list?

Geeks will note I have not listed any app that allows me command line access to my server. I know. I’m just not a command line guy, and when I have to be, I’ve got Terminal on the Mac.

Where is Microsoft Office? Well, Office 2007 is still at Dell, unordered, and my old copy of Office 2003 is still on the CD, unloaded. As I’ve noted, I’m a plain text kind of guy. I rarely have the need to open a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet. When I do, it’s almost always because a client emailed me one. And right there in Gmail next to their attachment is this lovely little link that asks if I’d like to open it in Google Docs. It is admittedly an experiment, and I imagine I will reach the point I have to load that copy of Office 2003. But it’s working for now.

What else is missing? I can hear someone screaming “virus protection!” No need to scream, I’ve got this red X is my system tray that tells me on every reboot how I am endangering life on this planet by not having any virus protection. But I’ve come to believe I’m better off without it. You may not be:

  • Do you use Internet Explorer, or Outlook, or Outlook Express? You need virus protection.
  • Are you the type who clicks on every attachment someone emails you? You need virus protection.
  • Do you like to try out every little freeware app that comes along, or even worse, download cracked apps because you’re too cheap to pay for the license? You need virus protection.
  • Do you frequent portions of the Internet that contain, shall we say, “dicey” content? You need virus protection.

I do none of the above. I think the best virus protection is between your ears. And it’s also about choices, just as it is in many areas of life. If you want to be sexually promiscuous, well, you better wrap that rascal. Maybe double wrap. But there’s no reason for the Pope to wear a condom all the time.

With all the Windows systems I’ve owned and operated since 1996, I have only had two infections I would qualify as a virus or trojan. One was named Norton, and the other was named McAfee. They regularly intruded on the normal and safe operation of my system, and caused installers to cry “turn that crap off!” I gave up on them around the turn of the century. In my case, I think they are far more trouble than they are worth. Your mileage and conditions may vary. Widely.

And that’s it. 28 apps. That’s what I count above. As I was deciding what to load on this new computer, I tried to keep it strictly to the things I actually use (my old system had gathered a lot of “I might need this someday” installations). I’m sure the count may grow over time, but right now, it’s everything I need. No more. No less.


Peanut Gallery

1  rturner wrote:

I recently discovered Google Browser sync. Prior to that, when installing a new os, I had my Firefox .profile (forget what it is in Windows) folder stored on a lan drive and just copied it over to get all my stuff, but I have two work spaces, 3 floors apart. I found myself emailing new bookmarks from one floor to the other. Browser Sync ended all that. Very neat app.

I basically agree with your AV assessment, and I especially agree that anything Symantec is pretty much a virus. Except for one time. I had bought a new Dell (which my biz partner subsequently commandeered) and decided to click on the free month or whatever with Earthlink (at the time, the choice was AOL or Earthlink, no selection for “neither”). After installing that, I fired up Agent to connect to the Mindspring newsgroups. The instance I started downloading headers from one of those groups, my AV software caught a virus like an outfielder snags a fly ball.

I’m now using NOD32 after reading about it in a security forum. It has an extremely small footprint, is cheap and pretty much catches anything. Probably won’t interest you, but I’ll mention it anyway. Should anything unexpected ever happen, I’ve got links to software that goes after rootkits and boot sector virii.

Interesting read. Thanks.

2  Noah wrote:

For what it’s worth, I’ve been using AVG for the past year – it’s lightweight, does a good job and (best of all) it’s free. I think you’re right that common sense will keep you safe from 99% of the bad stuff, but with any number of incidental holes/exploits out there (even coming from “legit” companies, re: Sony), it gives me peace of mind for the other 1%. (That, and I’m stuck on Vista, which I’m still a little uneasy with – I had to come back to the states and get a new computer in-store quickly under trying circumstances, and XP wasn’t an option on anything you can buy around here.)

Anyhow, thanks for the list, you’ve given me some great stuff to try out there. I already love ArtRage – I’ve been looking for years for something that combines the feel and interface of Sketchbook Pro with the, uh, painterliness of Corel Painter, and so far it’s fitting the bill perfectly.

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