Building an office for writing – the computer

Some lucky people can survive on laptops alone. I’m not one of them. I get involved in a lot of work that involves a desktop and a big screen.

For most of the last thirty odd years I’ve been writing on a Mac. I daren’t think how much money I’ve put Apple’s way in all that time. That journey is now at end.

Here are a few good reasons for dumping the Mac.

  1. It’s expensive. While everyone else’s prices go down, Apple’s seem to go up for some reason (which is why they have so much money in the bank). I was happy to pay this price when it seemed better than the opposition. It’s not any more.
  2. It’s horribly closed. Only when you remove Apple from your life do you realise how much. iPhoto doesn’t cough up its pictures easily, nor iTunes some music I’ve bought and paid for. I’ve a box full of video connectors from past Macs, everything from mini DVI to weird things I can’t even remember, all of which cost a fair bit of money and are now totally redundant.
  3. There’s not much choice. Want a desktop? You can fork out for a Mac mini, an iMac or a phenomenally expensive Mac Pro. That’s it.
  4. Apple’s version of cloud computing – iCloud – is junk when it comes to storing and sharing office documents. Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s Skydrive must be laughing themselves silly at Apple’s pathetic attempt to attack the important issue of how to store work files in a cloud location easily accessible from other devices and locations.
  5. Macs may be great for everyday computing – web and email, photos and Twitter. For professionals in graphics, music and video they may be pretty good too. But writing? Er, no. Microsoft Word on the Mac is a flaky joke. Apple’s own word processor Pages hasn’t been updated in years. The alternatives I don’t find appealing. I’ll deal with this in another post in more detail but in a nutshell: if you can write in nothing but Scrivener, say for ebooks, then the Mac may be fine. If you have to work through Word and a conventional publishing process it’s a pain. Of late I’ve been developing first drafts in Scrivener on the Mac and finishing them on Word in Windows – and I’m not the only professional writer who’s been doing this. It’s ridiculous.

So it’s Windows. Windows 8 in my case, which I happen to like. It’s fast, easy to understand once you’ve learned a couple of new things, and as we’ll see later it has both a good version of Scrivener and a fantastic beta version of the next version of Word. Now comes the next question…

Desktop, all-in-one or hooked-up laptop?

For the last few years I’ve used an iMac. It’s a well-designed if pricey all-in-one, relatively quiet until you plug in a second monitor in my experience, fast and capable. The new iMacs do away with the DVD drive while upping the price, a typical Apple ploy (look how slim your new desktop is – who cares?) I don’t fancy the idea of plugging in an external DVD drive when I need one, just to up Apple’s already exorbitant margins. But actually on reflection I think I don’t like all-in-ones at all.

If you’re short of space and want something simple and convenient, I can see they make a lot of sense. But for someone who spends most of the working day in front of the screen they have some big drawbacks.

  1. They can get noisy. You have a computer stuffed inside a monitor. There can be cooling issues with some models, fans that kick into action for no obvious reason. The iMac was quiet but it wasn’t silent. A desktop I can bury on the floor at the far end of the desk. The iMac and any other all-in-one is right in front of my face day in and day out whirring away.
  2. You always seem to be scrabbling round the back for something. Most desktops come with USB ports and camera card slots on the front. All-in-ones invariably tuck them away and it can get tedious looking for them.
  3. They’re bigger and bulkier than an ordinary monitor.
  4. If something goes wrong you’re usually stuffed. If a desktop dies you haven’t lost your monitor and vice versa. It may not be the same with your all-in-one.

Here, from a home office point of view, are a few advantages of an old-fashioned desktop and monitor combination.

  1. They’re cheap.
  2. They’re mobile. You park the box anywhere you like, the floor or the desk, until you’re happy with it then run a long cable to the screen.
  3. If you want to add a second screen you can just by having the right graphics cards – all-in-ones aren’t always as amenable.
  4. Depending on the model you buy you can upgrade memory, hard drive, sound, fiddle around with the insides to your heart’s content. This won’t appeal to many people, but for some it’s an important consideration.

A few years ago when I dallied with Windows 7 I bought a £350 mini tower from Comet and put in a graphics card that let me drive my then Apple Cinema 24-inch monitor (with adapters of course to get the right cable). A week ago I pulled it out of the cupboard, dusted it off, put Windows 8 and Office 2013 on it, and the thing runs like a dream. It updated without a problem, downloaded lots of new drivers, runs quietly and can sit tucked away in a corner.

You don’t need much of a desktop for writing. It’s not like running heavy games or doing movie editing. Any run of the mill Windows 8 desktop from a big manufacturer ought to do the trick (I happen to think HP do pretty good kit but so do lots of others).

Cost? If I were buying from scratch now I’d probably set aside £400 for the desktop. The Asus monitor I wrote about yesterday cost £340, though you can get cheaper equivalents for under £200. Say less than £800 for something with a top class screen for editing and very adequate performance. Scale down your ambitions  a bit and you could still plonk a proper resolution 24-inch screen and desktop in your office for less than £500.

My first real computer was a Mac 512. It cost more than £3,000. You can’t buy a 24-inch iMac. It’s either a 21.5 inch which starts at £1,099 or a 27-inch which starts at £1,499. Or you could buy the new Mac mini which starts at £499 and would hook to that Asus (though it doesn’t come with keyboard or mouse).

Since I do this for a living price isn’t my primary consideration. I want something that works for me. I don’t think that’s Apple any more when it comes to dealing with words. A simple Windows desktop, a long cable and a decent monitor do the job much more proficiently.

But… there’s one final solution worth considering too. I have quite a nice laptop, a slim 15-inch Samsung. How about using that as a would-be desktop hooked up to the monitor? I’ve tried this before and never much liked it. I never felt comfortable with the idea my data would go on location with me. What if the laptop was nicked or smashed?

But that was then. As I’ll discuss in greater detail tomorrow we now have the cloud. My files are automatically stored online using Microsoft’s Skydrive service. I work only with a handful of common apps. I could lose my laptop and lose no data at all.

With this in mind I ran an hdmi cable from the Samsung to the Asus monitor, hooked up a keyboard and trackpad, adjusted the resolution, stopped the laptop shutting down when I closed the lid and sat back to think about the results. The Samsung has a 128 gb SSD which is very fast. It also has USB 3.0 which is nippy too so I can hook my small one terabyte external drive to it through the monitor if need be. This gives me a lot more space for media files if I need it and will also back up copies of working documents using Windows 8′s new file history feature.

You wouldn’t run games off this. But it’s fast for Word and everything I need, dead quiet and takes up little desk space.

The old, quiet HP mini-tower remains an option. But right now as I type… I think I like this. And if I wanted I could just open up the laptop and have a second screen (which I don’t mostly because it’s a bit of a distraction).

We’ll see. It’ll be one or the other.

Tomorrow, the software.

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