I switched in 2002 and have written probably way too much on my relationship with Apple computers, including one piece grandiosely entitled How To Use Mac OS X. Well, I use one for several hours a day almost every day and while I feel a little humbler now, I still thought it would be worthwhile writing down the practices that serve this particular experienced and intense user well. It crosses my mind that there might be a useful minor meme in this if a few others did too.
A few others: Bill Clementson. Well, that’s one.
I think I’ll try to keep this up to date as time goes by and I change my work habits.
Disclaimers · I’m not claiming that any of you should do things this way, just describing what works for me. Quite likely your history and usage patterns are radically incompatible with mine. I’m an old Unix guy, as in comfy with bash incantations. I’m a programmer who puts in a few hours every week working on code. I’m a writer, obviously. I’m a voracious over-the-top news-hound, it’s a key part of my job to know what’s going on out there. I’m a photographer. And I travel a lot.
Disk and Backups · Maybe the most important decision you have to make about your computing environment is where you put your data. These days, it’s very easy to arrange that a lot of the important stuff is on the Net, with the help of source-code control systems, IMAP, and Webmail. This is good because the Net is less likely to lose it than you are.
The next question is, do you spread your stuff across multiple computers, and if so do you use an outboard disk, and how do you pump information back and forth?
In my case, I always have one notebook which is my primary master computer, and all my data is on it. The current iteration has a 180G drive with 60G free. The only reason a heavy photographer like me can get away with this is that I’m ruthless; I discard all the pictures except for the ones which are good enough to publish, or document the life and growth of my family.
I recommend this ruthlessness; most serious photographers I know burn huge amounts of storage with throwaway shots that nobody will ever look at or care about. I end up keeping up about a hundred a month.
Oh, it also helps that I use the last-but-one computer (currently a G4 PowerBook) to keep all my music on and reload iPods; the main machine has almost no music.
The convenience benefits of having all your data on just one portable machine are not to be sneezed at.
For organizing my files, I’ve ended up using almost entirely date hierarchies. I have one YYYY/MM/DD tree for ongoing, and two other YYYY/MM trees, one each for my work materials at Sun and my photographs. The little picture at the right is my Finder sidebar; it gives me quick access to this and last year’s Sun data, to this and last month’s photo directories (“2008-10” and “2008-11”) and this and last month’s ongoing work (“10” and “11”). I have to rejigger the sidebar around the first of each month.
Maybe there are better systems, but this one saves an enormous amount of thinking about where to put things, and doesn’t seem to get in the way of finding them.
I also have a big honkin’ Mac Pro that I use for image and occasional video editing. I keep the photo directories and Lightroom database in sync between the two using rsync in a sort of brute-force way. I should really switch to something more sophisticated.
I back all this stuff up using a Terabyte Apple Time Capsule. Recently I’ve adopted Time Machine Editor; I schedule backups to happen every 24 hours, and then I launch one manually most evenings after dinner while I’m doing child-care.
Hardware · Since I travel a lot, I care a lot about weight. I can’t use a netbook because I need to do some image editing and coding, but I don’t need high-end performance, because for serious work I have the meat-grinder at home. Thus, I pick the lightest Mac notebook with a drive that I can squeeze all my data onto. Currently that’s a BlackBook, but it’s getting a little long in the tooth; I suspect that by the time I need to switch, I’ll be able to get a MacBook Air with enough storage; failing that, it’ll be one of the current MacBooks.
Photo Workflow · I use Lightroom for pretty well all my serious photo processing. I’ve got Photoshop Elements around, but I find that I hardly ever use it any more. I don’t, however, use Lightroom for camera downloads; I prefer the lightweight “Image Capture” utility that comes with OS X. So I dump the RAW files into the directory-of-the-month, and then use Lightroom to discard most of them and pretty up the keepers.
I did make the effort of going back to the beginning of digital time, 1998 in my case, and keyword-tagging all the photos. It was several evenings of solid work, but I’m glad I did it, particularly for family stuff.
I always use Lightroom in full-screen mode with the sidebars and bottom-bars and film-strips hidden; with the single exception of the Develop module’s essential right-hand sidebar where all the controls are.
Dock · It’s at the right. On every Mac notebook, horizontal screen space is ample and vertical space is precious. Right seems more natural than left because that’s where the Finder wants to herd the desktop icons.
I don’t auto-hide, because lots of Finder icons tell you useful things like unread mail counts. Well, except for when I’m working on something serious or complicated.
I’ve organized the Dock by categories, with icons locked in place, from top to bottom. First, sysadmin stuff: Finder, Preferences, and Terminal. Next, read-the-world stuff: Newsreader, browser, IRC client, IM client, and Twitter client. Next, in the middle of the Dock, contribute-to-the-world stuff: Mail, photo editor, text editor, IDE, and office suite. Next, biz stuff: calendar and address book. Then it gets miscellaneous: iTunes, Time Machine, VPN client.
The only launcher I use is TigerLaunch; it’s minimal but it suits me because usually I launch each app once then leave it running, except for Lightroom, which is too heavyweight to have around when I’m not using it. The key point: All these things are anchored; thus, everything in the Dock is a running app and it’s always in the same place. I don’t have any directories or files or dividers in the Dock.
The Screen · At work and at home, I have huge 23-inch-or-greater outboard screens. I used to work with the laptop open, thus with two screens, but I eventually found it simpler just to have everything on one big one, so I leave the laptop closed; I only really use its screen when I’m on the road or loafing in front of the TV.
Sidebar: Working in Top-Down Mode · If you’re working with a closed notebook, you’re probably using a USB keyboard/mouse, and there’s a problem because if you put the notebook to sleep, then it’ll wake up again when you unplug the USB. So you can lift the lid, unplug the USB, and use the laptop’s trackpad to shut it down. Or, there’s this incantation:
sleep 5; osascript -e 'tell application "System Events" to sleep'
That’ll give you five seconds to pull the USB before the notebook starts snoozing.
I don’t use Spaces, because the big heavyweight programs that it’d be handy to sequester away, like Lightroom and NetBeans, seem to interact toxically with it. Eventually I may start doing that. But really, I’ve just got used to having my desktop background almost entirely obscured by a messy clutter of windows. It doesn’t seem to get in the way, and the screen is big enough that I can usually arrange to have the things I care about all visible at the same time.
For similar reasons, I don’t ever use the little orange “minimize” button that’s in between the red and green buttons at the top left of each window. If I really don’t want to see something, command-H for “hide” makes it go away. More often, if I really need to focus on something, I’ll hit “Hide others” so it’s the only thing on the screen.
As for my Desktop folder, it’s a mess. I’ve never figured out a good way to organize it. It has a random clutter of things I’ve downloaded but not got around to dealing with, and a few folders that I’ve not found a better place for. Maybe someday I’ll think of something better.
Finally, I never use Dashboard. I think I’m in the majority here; I occasionally see people flipping over to check a stock quote, but not that often. Silly thing.
Security · For maximum security, you should turn FileVault on and set your computer to require a password when waking from sleep. Both of these options, however, carry a significant performance penalty, and FileVault has cost me a whole disk’s worth of data when it went bad (I had backups). I keep changing my mind on the cost/benefit trade-offs.
If you’re using FileVault, you should have a privileged secondary account on your computer even if you’re the only person who uses it. If your FileVault gets corrupted (it happens), you’re going to want to be able to log on to repair the damage.
Terminal · Most Mac users aren’t old Unix hounds and aren’t software developers and thus don’t use the command-line much at all. Which is perfectly fine. I do, though.
I don’t use iTerm and I don’t use tabs and I don’t use screen. I just keep as many Terminal.app windows open at a time as necessary, and rotate among them with command-`. This is usually only a couple but sometimes lots and lots.
I use a nice pale bland background color and Courier New Bold 12.
When in the command line, I use OS X’s
open command a lot,
it’s wonderful. Also command-F to find things to cut and paste.
Mail · At the moment I’m using Mail.app for my email@example.com email, and GMail (wrapped in the excellent Fluid) for the address on the front of XML 1.0. I wish each could be more like the other in some ways. I’ll probably switch to Thunderbird for one or both eventually. Why, after all these decades, isn’t there One True Email client?
Calendar · Despite my repeated kvetching about iCal, I still use it; it syncs with my phone and I like the smart-appointment thing that Mail.app does, and it’s become somewhat more reliable and performant over the years. Keeping my work and family calendars in sync is still a major pain in the butt; there’s lots of room for progress here.
Other Clients · NetNewsWire for feeds, Colloquy for IRC, Adium for IM, Twitteriffic for Twitter, OpenOffice.org for biz docs, NetBeans for Java/C/Ruby coding, and Aquamacs Emacs for Perl coding and writing ongoing.
In each case, I’ve tried the serious alternatives. In most cases, the alternatives are good too. Well, except for NetNewsWire, which stands alone.
Characters and Keyboard · You can really do a lot without taking your hands off the keyboard. If you learn all the Option-key-based shortcuts you’ll be able to say things like “17ºC” and “reëxamination” without having to go looking. When you do have to go looking, make sure you’ve got “Show Character Palette” as an option under the little flag menu at the top right; it gives you a handy Unicode-based selector for when you need things like ☮ and ぽ.
Also, using the helpful keyboard-remapping preferences, I’ve turned the silly caps-lock key into a control key, and turned off all of the special meanings for function keys so I can use them in Emacs. It means I have to use the “fn” key if I want to change the volume or brightness; so be it. I have the useful Exposé actions tied to various screen corners.
Browsers · My main browser is Camino. This is such a minority choice that maybe it’s becoming untenable. I was originally driven to it years ago because Safari wasn’t stable enough (and was a memory hog), while Firefox just wasn’t Mac-like enough. I gather both of those have improved, but I have to say that Camino is damn fast and damn smooth and damn nicely Mac-integrated.
I actually keep Safari open most times too; I use it for online banking and other high-value transactions that feel out of place nestled in among the twenty or thirty Camino tabs I usually have open.
Fink/Ports · I used to use Fink but now I use Ports. Maybe if I revisited the decision now it’d go the other way. Doesn’t seem a big deal.
Notifications · I hook a ton of stuff up to Growl and use its “Music Video” display mode; for me, it’s the ideal mix of, on the one hand, easy to take in with a glance, and on the other, easy to ignore.
Ch-ch-ch-anges · Looking back over my six years in the Mac world, I don’t think I’ve ever gone six months without a setup change. I’m sure there’ll be more.