What’s on my (alyx’s) desk?

Inspired by cb’s post earlier this week, and by the same friends’ musings, I felt it would be fun to go over what my every day equipment is. This probably won’t convince you to use it, but serves more as a clarification of why I use it. With that out of the way, let’s talk about what’s on my desk.

Cross-device software

To get it out of the way, here’s the software I use everywhere. While I’m pretty split up in operating systems, I’m very fond of finding software I can consistently use across many of my devices.

  • Web browser: Google Chrome. Not a popular choice, within the more tech-familiar community, but I’ve been using it since it first came out and it fills my needs in a browser. Consistently up to date with the web standards that they made so when doing web development, it works seamlessly, and Chrome’s integration with Google accounts for synced bookmarks, history, password management, etc. as well as its ability to send tabs between devices makes it a good enough choice in my book.
    I only use a handful of plugins, but the two I most consistently use are uBlock Origin (duh) and Web Scrobbler because I’m a bit of a Last.FM addict and even my in-browser YouTube views gotta count.
  • Music: Spotify. Another tool I’ve used for years, Spotify has a great library and its social functions (e.g. easy links to share songs with other people who use Spotify, Discord’s “Listen Along” functionality) make it great. Spotify doesn’t have a “hi-fi” type product yet, so occasionally I’ll load up Tidal and keep that going for a month or two, but generally Spotify’s “high” quality option is plenty good enough, and the integrations keep me going back.
  • Chat: In my personal life, I generally stick to three chat solutions; Discord, Telegram and TheLounge for IRC.
    • I’ve been on IRC for over a decade and used various GUI clients, terminal-based clients, and a few different web-based ones. TheLounge has one of the most polished interfaces I’ve used, and being able to pull up IRC from any device — laptop, desktop, phone or tablet — makes it incredibly convenient.
    • Telegram isn’t my favorite platform for groups, I feel like it’s done the least to polish managing groups, displaying them, etc., but damn is it good for one-on-one conversations. Telegram feels, to me, very reminiscent of iMessage — essentially traditional phone-like texting/calling, but on steroids, and it’s basically replaced texting for me. The flexibility for file sending is super convenient and stickers, while they can be big and obnoxious, are also just fun.
    • Lastly Discord is honestly, pretty great. I’ve got a lot of gripes with the company, and Discord the company has many policies I disagree with. But even with those, the actual product is incredible; the UI (to me at least) feels super intuitive and easy to use, groups (or servers/guilds/however you want to call it today) are very featureful with enough administrative power to keep things running smoothly, and the availability of bots or similar to help smooth out things Discord itself doesn’t do great keeps the platform a relative joy to use.
  • Development: Across both Windows, Linux and macOS systems, my go-to editor is Visual Studio Code. It’s free, very fast and relatively low on resource usage, and 90% of the time it can do anything I’d want it to do. Plus being cross-platform means I don’t need to memorize a whole different tool for each machine I want to work on, and how great that is can’t be stated enough times.

My desktop

Because, on some level, my laziness overpowers my sense, I use a prebuilt desktop. My HP OMEN has been powering my desk since late 2018, and although it’s definitely seen better days — especially with what I’d call a somewhat pitiful graphics card — it’s still powering through much of the work I need it do to. I’m a big fan of staying comfortable while I work and even with my desk setup, lounging on the sofa is often better, so my desktop is relegated to tasks I either want to be up for or need a bigger setup for. Those tasks normally fit into one of four categories: gaming, content production, content consumption or meetings/live chats.

My desktop runs Windows 10; given how much of my desktop’s usage ends up being related to proprietary products (e.g. video games, Adobe suite, Microsoft suite, various proprietary control planes for various peripherals) I found that sticking with Windows gave the best experience for my day-to-day usage.

The biggest downside I’ve had with Windows is its (in my “historically used Linux” perspective) difficulty in performing development work. There’s been a ton of strides in this, with freely available editors like VS Code being available, massive improvements in the command line experience with Windows Terminal and the ability to roleplay as Linux with WSL, but personally it still feels much clunkier — or at least, very different — compared to the development experience on UNIX-like platforms. Overall, this doesn’t hurt too much though, as I generally prefer my laptop for development anyway.

Desktop software

  • When I really need a local Linux system or something, I generally use VMware Workstation. I haven’t done a ton of comparing with other VM solutions in a while, but it gets the job done well enough.
  • For recording audio clips, voiceovers and similar, or for doing some edits to existing clips, I still use Audacity. While there’s been a ton of drama over Audacity last year, to me it still works just fine, so it’s a keeper.
  • If I’m just playing music, I’m using Spotify, but for local files or any sort of video, VLC is my go-to choice. It’s a solid, super minimal solution that plays everything I can throw at it, and can handle converting between formats when I need something in a real specific AV format.
  • On the topic of software that just handles everything I can throw at it, 7-Zip’s incredible, full stop. On the surface, what more can you say about a thing that extracts files than “neat”, but one free solution that handles ZIP, RAR, GZ, BZ2, TAR, etc. — it’s a quick, minimal thing that just completely solves the problem.
  • For a long time, I’d list Photoshop here, but after acquiring my MacBook Air, I almost exclusively do photo editing work on the Mac.
  • Even without Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom is one tool I still keep on the desktop (if for no reason other than sheer storage space). Lightroom’s a great tool for organizing photos and it comes out almost every time my dSLR does, and being able to do quick edits to tidy up something that needs a little cleanup but not the full Photoshop treatment is crazy helpful.

Desktop hardware

For hardware, my desktop itself is pretty mid-tier. It runs an Intel i7, has 16GB DDR3 RAM, an SSD boot drive and a spinning rust hard drive, and an NVIDIA GTX1060 3GB graphics card. I pair this with two 32″ LG 32GN650B monitors because, frankly, I’m pretty bad at the whole “having fully functional eyes” thing and a huge screen means I can comfortable use my desktop with my glasses off.

For peripherals, I currently use the Razer BlackWidow X Chroma keyboard, because mechanical really does feel better and the lights are pretty and the Logitech G502 Lightspeed Wireless mouse, because wireless on a mouse is incredibly comfortable and my previous experience with Razer’s mice left me less than a fan.

Webcams, for the most part, are not very good. Small sensors (so terrible background blur/bokeh), limited controls for focus, light temperature, color correction, and so forth. The best of the consumer webcams were very underwhelming when I was putting my video conferencing setup together, and the more interesting products were still pretty limited in customizability/extendability, and also pretty dang expensive for the limited power you got. Therefore in lieu of a traditional webcam, I handle video input through a Sony Alpha 6000 which I hook into my desktop through a very questionable, but surprisingly functional, $13 HDMI-to-USB dongle. There’s definitely better quality options available here, but the $13 dongle certainly does the work and has held up for over a year now, so, it works. Currently I’m running the kit lens on my A6000, which gives me decent enough background blur while letting me adjust the zoom to fit what I want to show.

For lighting I have a pretty wacky setup. I had originally used two GVM 800D video lighting panels but found that, especially later in the evening, even at minimum brightness they were far too bright. They were also annoyingly difficult to control remotely, which meant even turning them off and on was a bit of a chore — these lights ended up delegated to the back of the room, where they serve as cool background lights during my fun calls with friends, and get turned off when I need to look like a Serious Professional™. Now my on-desk lights are the excellent Elgato Key Light Airs. While I feel that, at times, they suffer from the opposite problem of not being quite bright enough, they’re more than enough any time past roughly 2PM and being able to control not just their on/off state, but brightness and color temperature from my PC makes them incredibly convenient to use and adjust.

To make my lights even easier to manage, amongst other things, I’ve hooked an Elgato Stream Deck into my desktop. While I feel like half the time, my Stream Deck functions as an excessively pricy light switch, I’ve also configured it to manage music controls for Spotify (Play/Pause, Back/Forward, even a button to add the currently playing song to my Liked Songs list!), added functionality to have it manage whether my PC’s audio is going out through my headphones or speakers, and have on-desk functionality for muting/unmuting my microphone, turning video on/off and leaving Zoom calls — you wouldn’t think “Physical buttons for Zoom” would be that big of a deal, but when I’m working with a conference call on my desktop, and two laptops in between myself and my desktop mouse, physical buttons make these calls so much more convenient.

I have my desktop configured to handle both speakers and headphones. I use the Audioengine A1 system for my speakers for their reasonably accurate sound signature while also being very small — after setting up everything else on my desk, the remaining space became a very real issue when chosing speakers. The A1 system does not have particularly great bass, but being in an apartment I generally don’t think of this as a bad thing; when I’m engaged in content that has bass that matters, I’ll switch over to headphones.

I’m a bit of a headphone collector, but currently the pair hooked into my desktop is the Audeze LCD-2 Classic. While they’re not the world’s most analytical or accurate headphones in terms of measurements, they deliver an incredible experience and help me to just enjoy what I’m doing or listening to, without nudging me to get too into just judging the audio experience like other headphones I own.

For audio input, my microphone of choice is the Shure SM7B. A bit of a cliché choice at this point, but the audio quality is excellent, and a dynamic microphone (plus a little bit of noise gating and processing) allows me to talk freely and sound great while also helping to block out the sound of my keyboard, my cat, and my air conditioning!

To put all the audio together, I run my speakers, headphones and microphone through the GoXLR audio interface. I love the GoXLR, and frankly it’s one of the best parts of my setup — and probably the #1 reason I’d struggle to leave Windows, since its software is Windows only for the moment. This interface handles my microphone (which is generally considered pretty hard to drive) with relative ease, and while the headphone out isn’t the most powerful, it’s strong enough to drive my headphones reasonably well. The built in mute button is a godsend, one that’s surprisingly hard to find in the world of audio interfaces, and functionality like the mini-soundboard is, while not super useful, still terribly fun.

My absolute favorite feature is how the interface works with the PC though — it provides Windows with multiple different virtual soundcards (e.g. Music, Chat, Game, System) and allows each one to have individual volumes. It takes a little work initially to sort applications to which audio output they need to use, but once it’s configured, being able to adjust my music’s volume when I’m playing a game, to mute a video I’m watching to pay attention to a call, or to drop down my call’s volume when someone’s snoring on the other end, all from hardware buttons I can touch without any awkward mousing or alt-tabbing, is incredible and easily makes the GoXLR one of the best things on my desk.

My laptop

Comparatively, my laptop setup is much simpler. Currently I’m using the base model (8GB RAM) M1 MacBook Air and it’s truly a joy to use. The M1 Air is one of the very few laptops I’ve used that fit what I want in a laptop: long battery life (the Air easily lasts me all day), stays cool and comfortable to the touch, and is lightweight enough that it’s easy to carry. I don’t personally take my laptop out very often with me — normally if I’m leaving the house, it’s to avoid doing anything online for a bit — but on the occasions I’ve needed to, I’ve never had a complaint about carrying the M1 Air around. On top of that, the M1 chip is ridiculously powerful in my opinion; while on older laptops I’d have to go to my desktop when I needed Photoshop or a similar “big” tool, I’ve had no problems using my laptop to get the changes I need done. My experience with macOS itself has been similarly great; at risk of having my effigy burned somewhere, I can best summarize my experience with macOS as “what Linux would be like if it wasn’t constantly being reinvented.” I have a full UNIX-like development environment constantly available, but also have a level of polish and consistency across the OS and built-in tooling that is rare to see on Linux.

Laptop software

Most of my actually productive work is done on my laptop, and with that, much more productivity software.

Whether I need to write a letter, build a presentation, or throw together a spreadsheet, I’m always using the Microsoft 365 suite. While LibreOffice is, technically, an option, Microsoft’s suite of products still just feels smoother, easier to use, and as if it makes me more productive overall. Plus, Outlook is without a doubt my favorite option for a local email client. It took me a minute to get used to Outlook for Mac’s new aesthetic, but once I got used to it, it feels clean and makes tackling my ever-growing inbox feel like slightly less of a cliff to fall off of — and (obviously) support for Exchange and Microsoft365 email accounts, even with more complicated configurations like 2FA, is a huge benefit when I have multiple accounts using those platforms. The downside? Microsoft Teams is there too. Ugh.

When it comes to my limited dabbling in multimedia creation, my two favorite tools are Photoshop and, unironically, iMovie. Photoshop goes without saying; while I’ve tried plenty of other tools, like Affinity Photo (coincidentally my favorite tool for photo editing on the go with my iPad) and the GIMP, Photoshop’s consistency, ease of access to information about how to use it, and overall broad amount of features keep it a mainstay on my laptop. iMovie feels a little out of place when listed next to more “big, professional” tools like Photoshop, but when it comes to doing quick video adjustments like glueing a voiceover to a screen recording for a quick and dirty screencast, or throwing some photos together with some music for a joke, iMovie is generally great at letting me get it done and get back to what else I was doing, without requiring much setup or special tweaking.

When I’m switching over to software development, my most used tool is still VS Code. More often than not, I’ve got VS Code pulled up with something I’m poking at for as long as I’m on my laptop. Outside of that, I keep IntelliJ IDEA installed for the handful of times I need to rethink my life choices hack on something Java or Kotlin flavored — while VS Code handles Java mostly fine, its functionality with Kotlin is still pretty bleak, and IntelliJ IDEA handles Kotlin beautifully … at only the small cost of all of my RAM and 30 minutes of my life spent watching it load. I also use Beekeeper Studio frequently when working on projects that end up pulling in a database. While I certainly could just dig into whichever SQL server’s bits through that server’s command-line interface, having it all laid out in a surprisingly comfortable GUI speeds things up a ton for me; it’s not a tool I need all the time, but when I need it, it’s a very convenient tool to have around.

Lastly I need to give a big shoutout to macOS’s own Preview.app. As cb mentioned in his post, Preview.app is basically magic. A very competent image/PDF viewer, with plenty of extra “niceness” like being able to sign/annotate PDFs directly in the viewer? It’s incredible, and in my opinion a perfect example of how to turn a “fine” app into an “incredible” app.

Laptop hardware

Given that it is, well, a laptop, and therefore meant to be moved around, my hardware accessories for my MacBook stay pretty slim.

On the rare occasion where I need to do some super serious work (or, more often, when I just want a USB-A port or two) I keep a Hyperdrive VIPER USB-C hub handy. It takes up both my USB-C ports, and the unit itself can get pretty toasty after a bit, but it lets me steal away my desktop’s monitors and most of the peripherals to let me essentially dock my Mac.

If I’m docked and I do need some better audio, I’ll hook my SM7B into an Audent evo4 and hook that into my docking setup. The evo4 isn’t nearly as featureful as my beloved GoXLR, but it works great in a pinch and its software is 100% macOS compatible.

When I need to be in a call on my Mac, but don’t want to be quite that fancy — or when I want to take a call from bed — I’ll use the Logitech G Pro X headset. While I don’t think the software magic Logitech provides works on macOS (or at least, I haven’t tried), the headset itself is pretty decent. Good enough mic quality and the audio output is, while not particularly insane, definitely good enough for a quick chat and some light music.

If I’m on my Mac, or my phone or iPad, and want headphones for a video or some music, I’ll generally use the Master & Dynamic MW08. For true wireless earbuds, the audio quality is very good, and while they’re not the world’s greatest noise cancellation, it’s solid enough to block out most of the drone from outside and from the air conditioning, which can make relaxing and working a lot more convenient.

Portables

Phone

Right now the phone tied to my hip is the OnePlus 7t Pro McLaren; although I’m slowly moving more and more to the Apple ecosystem, at the time (and honestly, still) it was a killer phone. Tons of memory and power, and the pop-out camera with bezel-less screen is super slick. While I lose out on a bit of the integration with my laptop that I’d get on an iPhone, Android’s provided a ton of benefits — super easy to run custom apps on the rare occasion I build something silly, and some nice flexibility (like software able to create different user profiles) that I’ve found a lot of value in. Also the 7t Pro’s OLED, 90hz screen and powerful specs make phone games feel pretty dang nice.

Accessories-wise, I don’t keep anything specific for my phone around. If I’m going to take a call on it, I’ll pull out the MW08’s I mentioned above in my laptop equipment breakdown, but that’s about it.

For software though, there’s a few apps I find super helpful to have around:

  • JuiceSSH is a perfectly serviceable SSH client. It has a handful of nice features, like remembering common connections, but overall it’s an SSH client that just works well and stays out of my way.
  • Snapseed is great. There’s tons of times where I’ll take a quick photo on my phone and it’ll be pretty nice straight out of camera, but could use a little touching up. Snapseed fills the gap pretty well between “the roughly 3 types of edits I can do in a generic Android Gallery app” and “time to pull out the laptop and open up Photoshop”
  • Island is lovely for keeping business and personal split up. There’s a pretty big handful of apps that handle this type of “profile management”, but this is the one I landed on. While I don’t use it nearly as often anymore after I spent time working to keep my work life active only when I’m being paid for it, it’s been a pretty handy tool for things like “Two different Outlook instances for business/personal setups”, “a second Chrome instance logged into the account I use at work”, and so forth.

Tablet

After COVID19 came into the picture, the tablet’s been mostly relegated to “excessively expensive AppleTV remote”, but especially in the Before Times, when I’d be working in an office or leaving the house more often, my iPad Pro 10.5 was practically my lifeline. Paired with the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil, my iPad functions almost like a full laptop plus more; handling content consumption (for loafing in bed and watching exactly too many episodes of one show or another), content creation (iMovie’s there and still rocking it), development work (with SSH and a healthy helping of Vim) and instant messaging.

For hardware, there’s a few things I keep handy:

  • As mentioned, I keep my Apple Smart Keyboard hooked into the iPad literally 24/7. It’s a decent enough keyboard when I need it to be, and a nice stand when I don’t.
  • I don’t pull out the Apple Pencil super often, but if I need to draw up a messy diagram, write some notes, or do some quick photo edits, the Pencil makes my iPad feel almost like an actual drawing tablet. Situational for me, but super handy.
  • For music, I keep a Lightning-to-USB adaptor handy and use it to plug in the Audioquest Dragonfly Black. While the iPad audio output is fine by itself, the Dragonfly adds enough extra power to let most of my headphones shine, even when plugged into the iPad — not strictly necessary, but really makes kicking back and listening to music extra great if I really want to enjoy my music.
  • On the other hand, if I’m out and about, my trusty MW08’s make an appearance again. I just can’t stress how nice good quality wireless headphones that fit in my pocket are.

On the software side of things, my favorite apps have to be:

  • The Microsoft Office suite; same reasons as why I love it on macOS, but on iPad so I can throw together a snazzy presentation from a Starbucks. What’s not great about that?
  • Affinity Photo is, without a doubt, one of the best photo editing solutions on an iPad. It’s worth pointing out that I haven’t personally tried Photoshop since full Photoshop launched for iPadOS but my experience with Affinity Photo before that was astounding; a full Photoshop competitor, which is hard enough to find in the first place, but completely usable on an iPad and compatible with the Apple Pencil. Super useful for anything from quick thrown together things to full photo editing work.
  • Prompt is great, full stop. It gets a lot of the same comments I gave JuiceSSH, some nice bonus features but mostly just a good quality SSH client that doesn’t get in my way.
  • And, lastly, iMovie (again!). Same notes I gave the macOS version, it’s a great solution for a quick “I need to those these together” video editor.

The desk itself

To quickly round out my desk setup, I use the Autonomous SmartDesk Core as my desk; while I don’t use it quite as often as I should, being able to stand up and continue using my computer like normal is a great way to change it up when I’m tired of sitting — and it’s pretty useful if someone needs to use my desk, which does happen on occasion.

And on the topic of sitting, after spending many years with a cheap Wal-Mart office chair, I currently use the Secretlab Omega, a great combination of comfort (Which, honestly, this thing is super comfortable) while still being, in my humble opinion, pretty dang sleek and stylish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.