My Favorite Work Computer Ever

There’s a lot of hubbub about the state of Apple notebook computers these days. Here’s a fine list for those who want the details.

I have a job. Many people I know there rely on a notebook computer to get things done. I see plenty of shiny modern MacBook Pro models around the place. I can’t get excited about it.

  • Here’s a $2,500 computer that manages to be a half pound lighter than the previous model, but requires a two pound DongleBag™ to be useful for many people in a work context because there are no USB-A or HDMI ports.
  • I agree that Blu-ray was (and still is) “a bag of hurt”, but stable, reliable USB-C interoperability appears from my sideline view as a literal DongleBag of Hurt™. Maybe you have what you need in that bag, and maybe it will work most of the time.
  • The butterfly keyboard is prone to being damaged by dirt or just generally failing, causing a multi-hundred dollar repair because it’s not very serviceable. How this remains a topic of debate at this point is hard to understand. Nice design, bad in practice.
  • Don’t get me started on the Escape key. I use the Escape key all the time. I want an Escape key.

What I Want From a Work Computer

  • It should always work. No force quitting things all the time, and I should have restart it only when updating the system software.
  • It should allow me to start working within five seconds of touching the keyboard, without ceremony or multi-step incantations.
  • I like to walk around and be productive with just a notebook computer. Light is good.
  • I never ever want to plug my computer into power during a meeting. In my view, this would be an admission of personal failure and a sign to my colleagues that I do not have it together.
  • Most of the heavy work I do runs in a very nice data center with very nice computers in it. I need to get to those things with near-100% reliability. Wireless must be frictionless.
  • It should have a physical Escape key.
  • I like macOS because it lets a suit be a suit, and a geek be a geek.

My Favorite Work Computer Ever

My absolute favorite computer I’ve ever used for work is the one I use every day for all of the above. It is the 13″ MacBook Air (Mid-2013). It features a cruddy plastic third-party shell I bought with my own money, being held together with dark grey duct tape. I have dropped it more than once. It still works.

The 13

I am a computer guy, and I could get a newer computer, right? Sure. I’ve been asked if I want to upgrade. But why? This is working, and the new models require me to give up things I want for things I don’t want.

The scene in Star Wars were Han Solo says, 'She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.' “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”

After five years, I believe I have plugged it up to power in a meeting room perhaps four times. You would not believe the number of meetings I attend. The battery life remains magical. I don’t carry an AC adapter with me.

Side note: when I’m at my desk, I use a Mac mini (Late 2014) with two external monitors. I have lots of things happening all at once on that machine, and it is never the reason I can’t get work done.

Things I Might Change About the Five-Year Old Allegedly Obsolete Notebook Computer I Use Everyday for Work

I regret getting 512 GB of internal SSD storage. It’s about 400GB too much for me.

It does not have a Retina display. I have those on my personal devices, and it’s very nice, but I don’t really need it. I would take a Retina display if battery life remained amazing, even after five years.

It has a constrained screen resolution. I agree more would be better. If I had a Retina display, I would use it for more real estate, not crisper images.

I would like an HDMI port for the rare occasions I need one, because I am not going to carry around a DongleBag of Hurt™ 100% of the time just in case. I would trade the SD card slot for this.

Performance: Not much. There was a short period where I was getting intense PDFs to review, and this computer could not handle it running Preview. I just held my nose and started using Adobe Reader for those documents, and that short-lived problem was solved.

Yes, I Know

This is one of the many bits of writing these days about Apple notebooks and how they meet (or don’t) the needs of an individual. I know I’m just me, and I am different from a lot of people.

I think writing this has helped me decide what I need to do about my work computer situation. Nothing. It’s fine.

OS X Mirroring and External Displays

I have a not-superfancy 21″ iMac at home. It’s got an old Dell 24″ DVI display attached with a Thunderbolt adapter. I’m generally a big fan of multiple displays on any computer I’m using, and this works out well when I want it, especially if I’m doing something with VMware Fusion that could use a full extra screen. But here’s the thing: In this particular setting, I don’t need or want the external display all the time. It’s connected via VGA to an old Mac mini that we occasionally use, which complicates things a bit more because of input switching. The display is from something like 2007, so it does nothing automatically.

No problem: If I don’t need it, I’ll just turn it off. However, the Thunderbolt adapter means that OS X always sees the display as present, even if it’s powered off. I find this annoying, especially when I launch an application that remembers it has windows on the external display. I have to turn the display on, make sure it’s on the DVI input, blah blah, just to move the window. It’s a small thing, but the grumpy accumulates.

Today, the obvious solution finally occurred to me: Just turn on display mirroring when the external display is unwanted. Command-F1, or Command-fn-F1 if you have media keys disabled.

This gathers everything to the internal iMac display and means OS X (and I) can just ignore the second display. Easy.

My Favorite Small Mac OS X 10.7 Features

As usual, some of the most interesting (to me) new features in the next release of Mac OS X are in the cheap seats, not on the highlight reel.  The following items are excerpted from http://www.apple.com/macosx/whats-new/features.html after today’s WWDC announcement of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion:


[Address Book] Yearless birthdays

You can now add birthdays to your contacts without including a year.

[FileVault 2] External drive support

FileVault 2 supports encryption of external USB and FireWire drives.

[Finder] Merge folders

When you try to combine two folders with the same name, the Finder now offers to merge them into a single folder.

[Internet Restore and Utilities] Built into Lion

OS X Lion includes a built-in restore partition, allowing you to repair or reinstall OS X without the need for discs.

[Networking] Low-power wake

In OS X Lion, your Mac can wake up for services such as file sharing, backup, and more without the need to turn on the monitor or attached USB devices.

[Networking] NFSv4 support

Lion includes support for NFSv4. // Not that I’ll use it, but anything that helps NFSv4 is a good thing in my book.

[QuickTime Player] Rotate clips

If you open a video and it’s upside down or sideways, just rotate it to make it right.

[Safari] Drag-and-drop downloads

You can drag downloaded files from the Downloads list to your desktop for easy organization.

[Screen Sharing] Per-user screen sharing

You can remotely log in to a Mac with any user account on that computer and control it, without interrupting someone else who might be using the computer under a different login. // This is going to be a Really Big One for some people.

[System] Windows migration

With OS X Lion, you can migrate all the information from your old PC to your new Mac. Lion automatically transfers your documents, contacts, calendars, email accounts (Outlook and Windows Live Mail), and photos stored in Picasa, and puts them in the appropriate applications. // Family IT guys, REJOICE!

[System Preferences] Custom desktop color

Now you can create a custom solid color from the color picker. // Solves a longstanding embarrassment, which is always good news.

[Time Machine] Local snapshots

OS X Lion lets you take the Time Machine experience with you when you’re away from your Time Capsule or backup drive. Time Machine keeps a spare copy of the files you create, modify, or delete right on your Mac. Now if you accidentally delete a file while on the road, you can recover it from a local copy.

[Time Machine] Encrypted backups

Keep your Time Machine backups secure by backing up to an external USB or FireWire drive encrypted with FileVault 2. // This is a Really Big One in general.

[Other Features] Resize from any edge

You can now resize a window from any side or corner. // Solves another (and more annoying) longstanding embarrassment.


I’m looking forward to the big stuff like Versions and Mission Control (not to mention the kinda-amazing Lion Server deal), but these little things are always my favorite part of a new Mac OS X release.

I Did Not Know: networksetup -setairportpower

I sometimes want to turn off my MacBook Pro’s Airport wireless to save battery, even though its battery capacity is kinda awesome.

I fiddle with the icon in the menu bar and get grumpy because that’s the way you make this change and ugh, I’m tired of that.  But guess what:

$ networksetup -setairportpower en1 on
$ networksetup -setairportpower en1 off

I Did Not Know: pbzip2

I just learned about pbzip2, which lets your multicore computer use more than one core when using the bzip2 compression algorithm.

On my Mac Pro at work, I installed it with MacPorts (`sudo port install pbzip2`). It is this kind of awesome:

$ ls -lh original.tar
-rw-r--r--  1 jmcmurry  staff   2.4G Feb  4 13:47 original.tar
$ time bzip2 -k -v original.tar
original.tar: 36.215:1,  0.221 bits/byte, 97.24% saved, 
2604288000 in, 71911733 out.

real	13m3.313s
user	12m50.536s
sys	0m3.773s
$ mv original.tar.bz2 bzip2.tar.bz2
$ time pbzip2 -k -v original.tar
Parallel BZIP2 v1.0.5 - by: Jeff Gilchrist [http://compression.ca]
[Jan. 08, 2009]             (uses libbzip2 by Julian Seward)

# CPUs: 8
BWT Block Size: 900k
File Block Size: 900k
-------------------------------------------
File #: 1 of 1
Input Name: original.tar
Output Name: original.tar.bz2

Input Size: 2604288000 bytes
Compressing data...
-------------------------------------------

Wall Clock: 119.369207 seconds

real	1m59.612s 
user	14m39.090s
sys	0m44.840s

Sweet. 6.57x faster by adding a “p” to my command line.

The resulting compressed .bz2 files aren’t exactly the same according to md5 (the pbzip2 output is a little larger, which makes sense due to the splitting of the work), but when they decompress, they’re both identical to the original .tar file.

See also: mgzip.