Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
– Neils Bohr
The way I use computing devices is currently something of a mess. I regularly work in two different locations and have a desktop machine at each place, plus a high-powered desktop and a lower-powered media PC at home, which all run Windows. I have a MacBook Pro which runs OS X (and, occasionally, Windows through Parallels), plus an iPhone, and I sometimes use my Wife’s iPad (both iOS, of course) and will probably get one myself at some point (or maybe a Kindle, not sure). Plus, there are a couple of desktop machines which I use fairly regularly in different labs for running experiments (Windows). All told then, there are roughly eight or nine different computing devices which I regularly use, with three or four different operating systems. Managing files and data so that what I need is accessible on any particular device at any point in time is a massive hassle. What I’ve been doing for the last two years is an ad-hoc mixture of cloud-based solutions (GMail, Google Docs, Evernote, Mendeley) and carrying around a 500Gb USB hard-drive which contains all my documents and experimental data. Wherever I am, I plug in my hard drive and have everything I need, and I don’t store anything locally on any of the machines.
This solution kind-of works, but is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s insecure – I’m reasonably careful about doing regular backups, but I live in constant terror of my USB hard-drive being lost, or just breaking. Secondly, I still have to deal with different operating systems and environments – I tend to take my MacBook everywhere with me as there are some Unix applications I use for data analysis that don’t work well on my (desktop) Windows machines. This pretty much defeats the purpose of having all my data on the (much more portable) USB hard drive. Thirdly, getting data on and off the iOS devices is a mega-hassle because of Apple’s teeth-grindingly-awful sync-everything-through-iTunes system.
These days most university departments provide at least some basic computing facilities for their students, but most students also want to have their own computer for all-night last-minute essay-writing sessions and/or illegally downloading episodes of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ or ‘Jersey Shore’ (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on) outside their university’s firewall. Not that I would ever condone or seek to promote such activity, oh no. Anyway, computers are cheap nowadays, but they still represent a major investment for most students, so here is my advice on the matter. All opinions are mine alone, your mileage may vary etc. etc. Feel free to flame me in the comments if you feel I’ve unjustifiably dissed your favourite OS, or whatever.
The initial decision you need to make is which operating system takes your fancy most – and there are really only two options – Macintosh OS X or Microsoft Windows.* A lot of people get very excited by the Windows vs. Mac issue and Mac users in particular seem to have a genuine and somewhat creepy devotion to their chosen OS. My take though, is that the latest version of both (Windows 7 and OS X 10.6) are excellent, and either one will do everything you could possibly want. I regularly use both and have very little issue with switching between the two pretty much seamlessly. Nowadays, you can even install Windows natively on Mac hardware, so you could potentially buy a MacBook and use it purely as a Windows machine. If you were some kind of pervert. Read the rest of this entry