What I use in 2012, Part 1: Hardware

I like to see how people work; especially for those whose work is mostly on the computer. So in the spirit of Paul Thurrott‘s What I Use for Home and Office Technology, and Lifehacker‘s How I Work series, I present the following list of what technology I use at home.

Note: I don’t endorse anything here beyond the implicit “this is what I actually use at home.”


Hester: Lenovo ThinkPad T420 (Notebook)

Hester is my primary machine, and is named after the main character in my Guineawick Tales stories. It’s got a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5 CPU and 8GB of RAM. It boots from a zippy 80GB SSD, and has second 500GB hard drive for storage. It has a 14″ 1600×900 screen and a 9-cell extended battery; I like my machines light and easy to travel with.

I love and use the TrackPoint almost exclusively, only using a Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 when I want a mouse, since Hester has Bluetooth built-in and that means no USB dongle.

Hester currently runs Ubuntu 11.10 “Oneiric Ocelot”, and has never seen a copy of Windows outside of a virtual machine. But more on the software in Part 2.

Cortana: ASUS EeePC 1000HA (Netbook)

Cortana is my secondary “swings in to save the day” machine, named after the Halo character. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU and 2GB of RAM. It came with a 160GB hard disk, which I replaced with a 32GB SSD. The model didn’t offer Bluetooth when I bought it, but that didn’t stop me from installing the radio from another laptop anyway.

Cortana has a 10″ 1024×600 screen, which, along with the poor Adobe Flash support, is really its only weakness. When the original battery died, I replaced it with a monster 12-cell that gives me a whopping 14 hours battery life (only 8 with WiFi on).

Cortana spent its longest time running Ubuntu 10.10 “Maverick Meerkat”, but has also run Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”, Windows XP Home, Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate, as well as Windows 8. Last I checked it’s running Windows 7 Ultimate (I flatten this machine so much it’s hard to keep track).

I’ve won three NaNoWriMos on Cortana. It’s saved my butt at work on numerous occasions. This little machine has proved its worth so many times I’m probably going to bronze it when it finally dies.

Serenity: Dell Vostro 200 Slim (Desktop)

Serenity was my primary machine for four years until I bought Hester, and is named for the Firefly ship. It has a 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB RAM. It boots from its original 80GB hard drive, but has an additional 1TB drive for storage.

It powers two 22″ 1920×1080 Dell S2209W monitors with a GeForce 8400 GS video card, and I used a Logitech Trackman Marble Trackball along with a Logitech Classic Keyboard 200.

Serenity started its life running Windows XP Pro, but then moved on to a long life with Ubuntu, starting with 7.10 “Gutsy Gibbon” and surviving 8 in-place upgrades to 11.10 without a hitch. It is only after Hester became my primary machine that I put Windows 7 Ultimate on Serenity, namely as a joint machine for Anne and I. Unfortunately, I find my lifestyle doesn’t require a desktop these days (and the desk to support it), and so Serenity has migrated into the closet indefinitely.

Horatio: MSI Wind Nettop 100 (Server)

Horatio is my personal file/backup/utility server, named after Horatio Hornblower. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM. It has two low-power hard drives, for a total of 2.5TB of storage. As a nettop with green hard-drives, it uses only a miniscule 35W of power.

The primary purpose of Horatio is to be a backup server. All of my other machines backup daily to Horatio. I also store my entire media collection here, so that I can stream it to whatever machine I’m currently on.

Horatio runs Ubuntu 12.04.

Franklin: ASUS EB1007-B0410 EeeBox Mini (Server)

Franklin is my remote backup server, named after Benjamin Franklin. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU (gotta love those Atoms!) with 1GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive.

The primary purpose of Franklin is to store backups of my backups, off-site from my home. As all of my machines backup to Horatio on a regular basis, so does Horatio backup to Franklin. Because of the lack of storage space (I wanted a tiny, silent machine)  I only backup my personal data and music to Franklin. Movies and other video content only live on Horatio for the time being.

Franklin runs Ubuntu 12.04.


Right now I carry an HTC Trophy running Windows Phone 7.5, which is named Jacobi after a character in my upcoming Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King. I’ve got an extended battery so I can go two days with heavy use and not charge.

I moved earlier this year, and as an experiment I used Jacobi as my primary computing device for a little over a month, while everything else was packed away. Email, web browsing, gaming, music, movies and reading. The phone held up remarkably well- enough that if I wasn’t a software developer or a writer, I could live pretty happy with just my phone. (You believe me, right?)

My previous phone was an LG Optimus S running Android 2.3.3, and the phone before that was the ill-fated Palm Pre. In general I like smaller phones; I for one am against the trend of larger, flatter devices.

Portable Devices

SanDisk Sansa Clip+

This $50 MP3 player is the best I’ve ever owned, and that’s including the Cowon iAudio5 that survived my service in Africa. My Sansa Clip+ has 4GB storage built-in, and I’ve added a 16GB card so I can carry my entire music collection plus podcasts and audiobooks.

While the original factory software was pretty good, I upgraded to the Rockbox open-source firmware, which really makes this little player shine. It lives mostly in my car, mounted to the dash, but I also clip it to my pocket when I go running.

Pocketbook 360

I’ve written about my PB360. Twice in fact. I still think that, even years after its original release, it still holds its own very well against the latest crop of Nooks and Kindles.

However, I’ll admit that the hassle of carrying a second device around means I hardly use my PB360 any more. I just want to read way more often than I want to carry around an e-ink reader. I do the majority of my reading on my phone these days; it’s a lot quieter and works in the dark.

Dingoo A320

I’m a big retro-gaming fan, and while I appreciate the strides in touch-screen based gaming on phones, give me a Sega Genesis and a controller any day. My Dingoo A320, on which I’ve installed Linux, lets me carry around pretty much every retro game, on every retro system, that I could ever want to play, and do it really well. When I want to play old games, this is where I go.


It’s amazing how quickly this little step counter as become “attached to my hip”. (Pun way, way intended). I’ve only had a Fitbit for a few months, but I think I’ve only ever forgotten to carry it once (and believe me, it bothered me all day).

I don’t put too much stock into its numbers- mainly it serves as a physical reminder for me to take the stairs over the elevator, to get up and take breaks from my desk at work. It’s just a really geeky string tied to my finger, but it works too well for me to give it up.

Home Technology

Internet, TV

I get Comcast High Speed Internet and average ~60Mbps down, ~15 Mbps up. I pay for TV service because it lowers my Internet bill, though I’m a cord-cutter in spirit: I have no cable-box and I haven’t hooked up a TV to the cable in several years.

Xbox 360

I work at Xbox, so it’s no surprise that I have an Xbox 360 in my home. Two, if you count Anne’s. Nothing special about it, other than a 250GB upgrade, though I do have a MadCatz Street Fighter IV Fightstick that I replaced the guts with a higher quality joystick and arcade machine buttons. I use it mainly for playing Pac-Man though.

My Xbox is set up in my game room / office with an Onkyo 5.1 surround system and (for now) a Insignia 32″ 720p HDTV. My 40″ Samsung 1080p HDTV is currently serving the living room, along with the other Xbox, an LG soundbar, and an LG Blu-ray player.

We have two Logitech Harmony 610 remotes, one for the living room, one for the game room. They’re perfect, and essential for keeping everything in sync. Haven’t had to touch the original remotes for anything in years.

Everything Else

These are just the things that I think of when I think of “what I use”. Believe me, I have lots more hardware lying around, though I try to regularly sell off or toss what I don’t use any more. Everything except cables: you can never have too many extra cables.

I have a Wii that’s ostensibly set up for retro gaming, though I haven’t powered it on more than a dozen times in the past couple years. I have a digital camera that I religiously charge the batteries for trips and events, but always forget to take pictures with.

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Summary

I am a nerd with way too many toys and I’m rarely satisfied unless I’ve broken their warranty and made them do more than the manufacturer intended. Especially if it means getting a longer battery life. I prefer Linux over Windows, except with my phone.

And remember, this is just my personal stuff- none of this includes the tech I use for my work as an engineer at Microsoft. Hmmm, that might be an interesting post…


Update (9/22/12): Be sure to check out What I use in 2012, Part 2: Software.

P.S. So what do you use at home? Leave a comment below!

5 reasons the PocketBook 360 is a better ebook reader

My PocketBook360

I recently wrote an extended review of the PocketBook 360 ebook reader after having owned one for over a year. It wasn’t until after I posted it that I saw how long it was, so I’ve decided to summarize my love for the PB360.

Here’s the top 5 reasons the PocketBook 360 is a better ebook reader:

5. User replaceable battery

It’s a sad fact that having a user replaceable battery impresses me these days. It used to be a given that you could change a device’s batteries. Now at best you have to send stuff back, at worse you have a pretty brick. Not everyone belongs to the “replace your toys every 18 months” crowd.

4. Built-in cover

Ereaders have nice big glass screens that needs protecting. The PB360 has a hard cover that snaps on the back when in use, which means no ugly, bulky, heavy, “look it’s a book” covers.

3. It isn’t stuck in any one ecosystem

I don’t need a plate that only works at one restaurant. With my PB360 I can read a ton of formats, which means I can choose from a variety of retailers. There’s no special software either, I can plug my PB360 into any PC to copy books over. If Amazon’s prices get too absurd, what’re you gonna read on your Kindle? PDFs?

2. No superfluous hardware

I don’t want a keyboard that I need 0% of the time and takes up a third of the ereader. I don’t need it to play mp3s, or connect to a B&W slow internet. I want giant buttons that make it easy to turn pages, and I want something so light that when I drop it on my face I don’t get a concussion. Give me something elegant and functional that I actually can carry around everywhere. The PB360 delivers on all counts.

1. You own the experience

I can customize just about everything on the PB360. You can add whatever fonts you want. You can specify any size, and change it on the fly. You can set your margins, the aliasing, what stuff to put in the status bar, or if you don’t want a status bar at all.

You can reassign every button. You can set whatever screen savers images you want. You can organize your books as you see fit. Want to navigate by covers, fine. Lists? Fine too. Only want to refresh every 10 pages, making page turn wicked fast? You decide.

What it all comes down to is this: if you like others calling the shots, buy a Nook or Kindle. If you like to have everything just the way you want it, buy a PocketBook 360. You won’t regret it.


A year later with the PocketBook 360 (and why I still love it)

My PocketBook360

A year ago I purchased a PocketBook 360 e-reader, and after a month I wrote a review about the device on Amazon. It’s been my constant companion since then, and though I’ve tried most of the competiting devices, I still keep coming back to my good ol’ PB360.

The Hardware

Here are the specs, courtesy E-Readers Plaza:

5″ E Ink® Vizplex


Samsung® S3C2440 AL-40 400MHz

Operating system

E-Book formats

Image formats

Additional Software
RSS-News, Calendar, Notes, Sudoku, Games

Mini USB

RAM 64 Mb
Internal 512Mb
User-accessible 466Mb

Memory slot
microSD, microSDHC card

Li-Polymer (1000 mAh)

 Size with cover
4.6” x 5.5” x 0.47”
118 x 140 x 12 mm

Size without cover
4.6” x 5.5” x 0.39”
118 x 140 x 10 mm

5.3 ounces /  g

Ivory, Black

The Look

Over the years I’ve gotten kind of tired of black electronics, and the ivory PB360 looks great. I love the faux vine-engraving on the cover, and more than that, I love that it comes with a cover. Every other e-reader aficionado I’ve met has to buy a separate case, doubling or tripling their device’s weight, plus adding some useless flap you have to hold or fold back. The PB360’s included hard cover snaps effortlessly to the back when you’re reading, which is quite handy.

The screen is a comfortable 5in e-ink, and I regularly read in the sunlight, so no glare issues or eye strain. I can’t overstate how wonderful that is. Don’t let the smaller size dissuade you, you’ll never miss the extra inch from the the 6in. Kindle or Nook screen. Of course, if you’re reading large-format technical works (say a textbook), then e-ink probably isn’t your best choice anyways.

When it comes to page turns, forget other e-readers annoying flash to clear the screen after every page. The PB360 lets you specify how often you want to refresh (more on that in the software review below), which means the page-turn speed on this thing smokes other readers. Sure, eventually you need a full refresh, but I get by on every ten pages without the text getting ugly. I’ve read that the Kindle and Nook have finally added this feature, but they’re still slower and still refresh more often.

Finally, one of the biggest draws of the PB360 was its lack of keyboard. Call me crazy, but I want to read on my e-reader. A full physical keyboard looks dumb, and is completely unnecessary 99.9% of the time. Never in this past year have I regretted not having a keyboard. There’s an on-screen keyboard if you really need it, but it’s been more a curiosity to me than anything else.

The Feel

The PB360 is tiny, but even with my giant hands I’ve not had any problems. The buttons are large and exactly where they need to be, right under my thumb. I can use the device completely one-handed, without getting tired or having to leverage the device against anything.

I do most of my reading on the bus to and from work, or at night in bed. I can hold the device in one hand while the other holds the rail or defends my bags, or lay in bed and hold the device over my face without worrying about jeopardizing my beaut of a mug. I can slip it in my jacket pocket when I pay the fare, or while I’m paying for groceries. The thing weighs a measly 5.3 ounces, even with the cover! Even after year to catch up neither the latest Kindle (8.5oz) or Nook (7.43oz) beats that, and that’s sans cover.

Finally, I turned off the accelerometer almost immediately after purchase, because I don’t want the screen to turn when I’m laying down in bed. But since it’s just a menu click away to manually the change orientation, I can easily flip the reader for left-hand use, say while I’m eating lunch. Flip your Kindle upside down and try to stay looking hip.

The Battery

I’m not exaggerating when I say I can literally count the number of times I’ve plugged in my PB360 to charge in this past year. I’ve gotten by with the trickle-charge from copying over books via USB. This thing is a monster and I go months at a time without needing to plug it in to anything. I’ve never worried about its battery dying.

It’s also user replaceable, which is a big plus in my book. I’ll definitely get new batteries until my PB360 croaks.

The Memory

The PB360 has less internal memory than it’s competition. Doesn’t bother me. I’m carrying about 150 books on the internal memory, which takes up a grand total of 66MB. I still have 400MB to go. If in 10 years I finally fill her up, I’ll just pop in a microSD card. Done.

The Software

Here’s where the PB360 really shines, and at the same time highlights why it may not be the best e-reader for everyone.

General Feel

I’ve come to love the interface on the PB360, but I’ll admit that when I first starting using it I snickered at its “made in China” feel. At first I thought it lacked a little of the sophistication I expect from consumer devices, but I’m a software tester by day and it’s my job to look out for crappy user experiences.

But it’s been a year and my complaints are still minor, mostly that I read several books at once, and with only the two most recent on my home screen, I have to search through my collection more often. Using the Favorites list helps. And after trying the competition, I think it’s way more usable than the Kindle. There’s nothing really obtuse in the interface, it’s just not very flashy. Big deal.

Customize Everything

There are two broad extremes of software designs for consumer electronics:

  1. Manufacturer makes the decisions. The interface looks the way it looks, maybe you can change one or two things. You’re restricted to the service the manufacturer provides.
  2. Customer makes the decisions. You can customize practically everything. You can pick your own service.

The Kindle is closer to number one. You have a couple fonts and a half-dozen font sizes to choose from. You have to void the warranty just to put on custom images for your screen-saver. You’re heavily tied into Amazon for buying books. You can get books elsewhere, but it usually means jumping through hoops, and forget DRMed purchases from other stores.

The PB360 is closer to number two. You can customize almost everything. It comes with a few fonts, but you can add any regular True Type font you want and the PB360 can use it. Pick any font size. You can adjust the margins, the line spacing, every possible thing you could imagine about how the text looks, just like a word processor. I favor Gentium at 24pt, but you don’t have to, because the choice is yours.

You can pick a different style for the menus. You can set whatever you want to be the screensaver image. You decide how much info you want in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, or even if you want one at all.

You can even customize what every hardware button does, for both short and long presses. Saving bookmarks, adjusting the font size, skipping pages, every possible operation that you might want instant access to you can assign to a button.

Important Note: Most of the best customizations require a custom version of fbreader (the software it uses to actually display the books), which is a must-install to maximize the PB360’s power.

Reading Books

The PB360 gets reading books right, hands-down. I’ve already mentioned the fast page-turn and the ability to tweak the text to exactly what you want. With the fast page-turn mentioned above, a 10 second boot, and 5 seconds to open a book, I get in and reading right away.

Even better, and this feature is killer, but during those 10 seconds it takes to boot, you can set the PB360 to automatically show a still image of the last page you were on. That means I can continue reading the instant after I hit the power button. And by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the page, the device is booted up for real, and I can turn to the next page without skipping a beat.

I’m not putting the device to sleep, that’s on a cold boot. Which helps explain the monster battery life. I can afford to turn the device off completely every time, because of this feature alone.

Add the easy to use main context menu and the custom button assignments, and I have complete control over my reading experience.

Getting Books

Here’s where I think most people will have problems with the PB360, because there’s no obvious answer here, you have to decide yourself. With a Kindle or Nook you’re given a tightly integrated ecosystem where you’re never more than an on-device click away from getting new books. With an internet connection, you’ll be hard pressed to be left out in the cold with nothing to read.

The PB360 doesn’t have a dedicated store, and I find that to be a big plus. The device can read a staggering number of formats (see the table above), including the almost-standard EPUB, of which there are many online stores to choose from. Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc. The PB360 does support Adobe Digital Editions (ie. DRM), which means you can also get ebooks from your local library if they subscribe to Overdrive.

You have only the USB port and the microSD to get books onto your PB360, which usually means you’ll need to be around a computer. The PB360 will show up like a regular mass storage device and you can copy files over without any special software. Since I live in a multi-platform world, this is perfect for me.

I do use the cross-platform Calibre to manage my ebook collection, and it works wonderfully with the PB360. When I get books in other formats, Calibre makes short work of converting them. I keep the books organized by author on the device, which makes navigating my large collection pretty easy.

In short, I love the freedom of choice the PB360 gives me, but I wouldn’t give one to my Grandmother unless I plan on always being on hand to add new books. If the idea of having to copy files over manually scares you, give Calibre a try, but it’s still not as easy as just going to the on-device store and clicking “Buy Now”.

PDF Support

Yes, the PB360 supports PDF. No, I don’t use it often. It kind of works for fiction, and can reflow text reasonably well (with of course plenty of options to tweak it), but it’ll always look uglier than other ebook formats. If you’re looking at reading textbooks or anything with lots of diagrams or complicated layouts, you’re looking at the wrong device.

Other Features (That I mostly don’t use anyway)

The PB360 has a dictionary and can clip notes, set bookmarks, and the other things most e-readers can do these days. I’ve not needed any of it. Each book keeps it’s own place, and I’ve not needed to look up any words or felt the need to save anything for later.

There’s also a tiny selection of other apps, games like Sudoku, and a way to have news feed like content (like an offline RSS reader), but that’s not why I bought the device. If anything it’s my only real complaint against the PB360, that I can’t hide that stuff on the home scene and add say, a larger list of recent books. But usually I’m too busy reading to care.

I should note for completeness that the Kindle and Nook may offer other features like mp3 support (for a large awkward audiobook player maybe?) and text to speech, which the PB360 has no answer for.


I loved the PocketBook 360 when I bought it a year ago, and I still love it now. I’ve read a bunch of books on it, and I expect to read many more over the years. The price is much better than it was a year ago (I paid close to $240 for mine) but I don’t regret it at all. I’ve since bought a Nook Color, but even after a single day I was back with my trusty PB360, and now the NC mostly collects dust.