Virtually everything I do for work and a good portion of what I do for fun, I do with a computer. It occurred to me a couple of days ago that whether I’m working or playing, aside from the occasional stressful bug-fix situation I get into while programming, I really, truly enjoy using my computer. From a lot of things I’ve personally heard other people say, as well as the apparently common idea that people really hate their computers for one reason or another, it seems I may be in the minority. Or, if I’m not in the minority, there are at least a lot of people who feel differently.
That’s a shame. Really.
Computers are incredible tools, and they are certainly capable of making a lot of things easier, faster, and even more fun for us. I know that not everyone is in the same situation with respect to technology, and lots of people don’t depend on their computers nearly as much as I do on a daily basis. I work from home as a web application developer, so my PC is an integral part of my job (and hobby, which happens to be a personalized version of my job). If I have sub-par hardware or software, I am measurably losing efficiency, which isn’t just an inconvenience–it’s lost income for me or my employers.
Using unreliable hardware or poorly-written software is like trying to use a slotted screwdriver in a really shallow screw head. Even though you know very clearly how it’s supposed to work, you have to try really hard to get anywhere, you end up with a ratted-out screw half the time, and the other half the time just makes you want to grab a hammer and beat it into submission.
Also, I know that not everyone is quite as “at home” with computers as I have become. When you start tinkering with software when you’re eight and hardware when you’re ten, lots of things seem more intuitive by the time you’re 25 than they would otherwise. Learning how to use the hardware and software you have at your fingertips is certainly its own challenge, and I won’t discount the importance of that learning process. If you feel technologically challenged, take some classes, or read a book, or even just type or click randomly and see what happens. Most systems have an “oops, fix that” feature of some kind if you need it, and it’s a lot more likely that you’ll learn by making educated guesses than that you’ll accidentally start a nuclear holocaust by clicking the wrong button.
If you’re stuck using a poorly written piece of software for work or something like that, you might be out of luck trying to improve it if it’s mandated by your superiors. But more often than not, if you feel like the programs you’re using don’t work right, there is at least one alternative that will work better for you, and thus make things easier, faster, and more enjoyable. I’m not saying that using your computer will become one of your favorite activities of the day (though it might), but every little bit helps, right? Also, some of my suggestions below aren’t suitable for certain users because of hardware or software limitations (like a university computer lab) or your current proficiency levels in certain programs. If you’re a wizard with Microsoft Word, switching to Google Docs probably isn’t an efficient change. There is no one-size-fits-all set of tools that will work for everyone.
That being said, here’s a list of stuff that I use that enables me to actually enjoy using my computer.
- A clean desk.
I love a clean desk. This is incredibly important to me. It isn’t as critical to some people, I know, but I think the general consensus is that working around mess increases your stress at least on a subconscious level. When things are clean, it’s much easier to focus on only what’s important. Would you rather work at this desk or this one? That’s what I thought. Whenever I let my desk get anything on it beyond the bare essentials, it distracts me until I clean it off. Maintaining a clean desk isn’t really that hard, if you clean it off once and then make a point to keep it that way.
- A good chair.
I enjoy sitting in my chair. It’s comfortable. This is one of those things that’s easiest to ignore if you’ve never had a good chair in the first place. You know those weird-looking ergonomic chairs that cost $500? There’s a reason people actually buy them. If you’re going to spend all day sitting in a chair, you better make sure it’s not going to make you sore by the end (or the middle!) of the day. Think about it: if you work 40 hours a week at a computer, you spend about 2,000 hours in your chair every year. It’s worth getting a good chair. It’s even worth $500 if that’s what you have to pay to find something that you’re really comfortable in. I got my chair for $130 from Best Buy. There are better chairs out there, sure, but I don’t ever feel sore at the end of the day. The bottom line is that it’s worth spending a lot of money to get a good tool, if you’re going to use it all the time.
- Multiple monitors.
I love having a lot of screen real estate. It seems like everybody at least heard this one by now. Flat panel displays are cheap, even big ones. I got two 24″ Asus displays for $175 each from Newegg a while back when they were on sale. Those things are monsters: huge, crisp, bright, full HD (1920×1080), and big enough that regular-size fonts don’t seem tiny. I eventually added a 3rd 19″ display for even more usable area. I can’t imagine going back to a single display for my primary workstation. I use all the available space on all my displays all the time. If I had the desk space, I could probably even make use of a 4th…but we wouldn’t want to overdue it, now would we? Now, this point in particular doesn’t make sense if you only use one program at a time (which many people do, and that’s fine). But if you find yourself constantly switching back and forth, you would probably benefit from at least one more display. You can find a 19″ or 22″ display for under $200 any time, and sometimes even under $150 if you go small enough. I wouldn’t get anything less than 19″ though; it’s not really worth it on the price curve.
- Bias lighting.
I enjoy my bias lighting. If you don’t know, bias lighting is where you have a source of light behind your display. Some new TVs have this feature built in. The basic idea is to avoid the stark contrast you would otherwise have between the edge of your bright back-lit display and the deep darkness that surrounds it. This is less visible if you have a very well-lit desk, but quite obvious if you don’t, or if you like to work in the dark. My bias lighting is two $7 fluorescent lights from Home Depot stuck to the back of my TFTs with a $2 strip of velcro cut to fit. It looks awesome and relieves some eye stress. Instructables.com has some info here if you are interested.
- Wireless mouse and keyboard.
I love having no cables on my desk. I didn’t realize this until I actually got a set of wireless peripherals. They work wonderfully and I haven’t had to replace the batteries once since I bought them more than six months ago. I’m a sucker for the old IBM-style layout (very particularly placed backslash key), so I got this set from Newegg. Lots of others will work just as well. In a situation where cables are often many and messy, switching to wireless is a simple improvement that can have a nice visual impact. This goes along with having a clean desk.
- Lots of RAM.
I like running lots of stuff at the same time. This is only really important if you do that. But if you do, it makes a huge difference. If you don’t have enough RAM, your operating system has to use the hard disk to store information that it needs quick access to. This is a problem because a typical hard disk is about 1,000 times slower than typical RAM. Having enough RAM has an obvious effect. I have 8GB of RAM (in a 64-bit OS, which is also a requirement if you want to utilize more than about 3.5GB of RAM), and I frequently use over 80% of it at any given time. The ability to have 15 things going on without a noticeable performance loss is really great.
- Easy software.
I really love the software that I use for everything I need to do. Every time a find a great new software package to accomplish something I need to do, I get excited about it. I just discovered Balsamiq for web application mockups. It’s amazing. I use Gmail for all of my email. I use Google Docs for almost all of my documents. I use Google Reader for RSS feeds. I use Picasa for photo organization. I use Evernote for note-taking (it integrates with my Android phone, which I also love). I use PhpED for development. I use Goplan for project management. I use Chrome for regular browsing and FireFox for web development and debugging. All of these tools are a joy to use because they do exactly what they are designed to do, and they are simple and intuitive. These are, of course, only some of the tools that I use, but you get the idea. Also, I realize that “easy software” is a very arbitrary term, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. But the idea is simple. If you find yourself struggling to accomplish something, it often doesn’t matter whether that’s out of ignorance or because the program isn’t made well; you can usually find some alternative that is easier for you.
The short version is that you should find a set of tools to use that won’t turn your computer into something you hate using. At worst, you should say “I wish I didn’t have to do this” instead of “I wish I didn’t have to use my computer to do this.” At best, you might actually enjoy some things you didn’t previously like. It will be more like using a perfect-fit socket wrench on a bolt instead of that slotted screwdriver on the shallow screw head. WAY less stressful.