My Computer Setup

Some information about what I consider to be the “perfect setup” for writing books about computers.

I’ve been writing computer how-to books since 1990 (13-1/2 years at this point). I just finished #55 the other day. Do the math and you’ll see that I average about 4 books a year. (My biggest year was 10; my smallest was 1.)

I write all of my own books, with a few exceptions here and there. For example, I didn’t write the Unix or AppleScript chapters of my Mac OS X Visual QuickPro Guides — I lacked the expertise and didn’t have time to learn. I also co-authored two of my books. But other than that, I wrote them all and will continue to do so until I find someone who has skills that meet my standards.

As you might imagine, my writing setup is an important part of what makes me so productive. I like to tell people that I have it “down to a science,” and I think I do. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to earn enough money over the years to build what I think is the ideal setup.

I have three computers that I work with with when I’m writing a book: my “production machine,” and two “test mules.”

Currently (November 2003), my production machine is a Macintosh G4/866 minitower. It’s about two years old at this point. It has 512K of RAM and a 40GB hard disk. It also has a built-in modem, SuperDrive (that’s a drive than can read and write CDs and DVDs), and Zip drive. It also has all the standard Mac OS ports (USB, FireWire, Ethernet, etc.), as well as a SCSI port, which I thought I’d need but never have used. The computer is connected to a 21-inch Sony monitor and an array of USB and FireWire devices, including a scanner, Epson photo printer, digital camera, graphics tablet, iSight, digital video camera, and iPod (original).

I have two test mules, one for my Mac OS books and one for my Windows books.

My Mac OS test mule is an eMac 800 with a SuperDrive, built-in modem, bunch of RAM and 80GB hard disk. I’m really fond of this machine — it’s a great machine for someone with limited space who doesn’t need a lot of expansion or bells and whistles. And frankly, it’s a lot more “normal” looking than those ridiculous ET-looking iMacs that Apple is selling like crazy. It has a 17-inch monitor and can be hooked up to all the devices I need to write about in my Mac OS X books. It’s about a year old now.

My Windows test mule is a Dell Dimension 933Lr (or something like that). What can I say about it? It’s a Windows PC running Windows XP Home edition. It has a built-in modem and networking card and some kind of Pentium processor. Enough RAM, although I can’t remember how much. And enough hard disk space. It’s hooked up to a 17-inch Gateway monitor that I kept from my last Windows test mule, a Gateway PC. I think this Dell is about three years old now.

All of my computers, as well as my LaserJet 2100TN printer, are hooked up to an Ethernet network. They do file, Internet, and printer sharing using the built-in networking tools in Mac OS X and Windows XP.

My Internet connection comes from my old G3/300, which was my last production machine. It’ll soon be my Web/E-mail/DNS server, connected to the Internet with a cable modem. It feeds Internet to my three desktop computers, plus my PowerBook (when it’s added to the network) and Mike’s Sony Vaio (when he’s in town).

Here’s how it works. Suppose I’m writing a book about Mac OS X. I fire up the eMac test mule, reformat the hard disk, and install the Mac OS X software on it. I also install Snapz Pro, which is the best screen shot software out there for Mac OS X. Then I fire up my production G4 and open the file for the chapter I’m revising or the template for the chapter I’m writing from scratch. When I’m writing a Visual QuickStart Guide, I use InDesign 2.0; otherwise, I use Word X. As I work with the software on the eMac, I write about it on the G4. The two machines are sitting right next to each other and I can swivel in my chair to work on one or the other. I take screen shots on the eMac and copy them from the pictures folder, which I’ve opened on the G4, to my manuscript folder. If the screenshots need editing, I do it with Photoshop 7.0. If I’m doing layout, the screenshots get copied into the manuscript file. I add captions and callouts as necessary. Using this technique, I can turn out a completed manuscript page for a revision in as little as 10 minutes, if very little editing is required. For brand new titles, it takes 30 to 60 minutes for a page. On a good day, I can whiz through a chapter in a day or two.

The whole thing works pretty much the same when I’m writing a Windows book, except I use the Dell test mule and don’t reformat the hard disk before starting. I have to use two different screen shot software packages, because neither one does everything I need: Collage Capture and HiJaak Pro. And the shots always need to be touched up a little in Photoshop on the Mac. The process is generally slower, but not by much. Frankly, I don’t like writing Windows books, but my setup doesn’t have that much to do with it. I just don’t like working with Windows.

I believe that some authors write computer books with only one computer. They write, then switch to the program they’re writing about, fiddle around with it, take screen shots, then switch back to the program they’re writing in. (A very well-known author that I’ve often traded stories with confessed to me that he once wrote a book about Windows software by running the software under SoftPC on his Mac. Is he nuts?) With computer prices being well within the realm of affordability these days, there’s no reason an author should subject himself to such abuse. Two computers — one to work on and one to run the software on — are required, along with a network connection between them. I have three because I write about two different platforms.

By the way, if you were to peek into my office these days, you’d find quite a collection of computers. In addition to the G4, eMac, and Dell, you’d find the G3 that will soon be my Web/E-mail/DNS server and the old 8500/180 that’s currently my Web/E-mail/DNS server, still running on an ISDN connection. The 8500 was my production machine before the G3. (Before that was a 7100/66, which my sister now has. Before that was a Mac IIcx, which is long gone.) On my desk, you might also find my 12-inch PowerBook G4, which replaced my iBook SE, which replaced my PowerBook 3400c.

A production Mac lasts me about 2 years, although the G4 will probably last me another year — there’s no reason right now to replace it; it’s doing its job quite well. I replace each production machine with a current model Macintosh that isn’t top-of-the-line, but has enough RAM, speed, and hard disk space to last a few years. Test mules are good for 3 to 4 years. I replace them with low-end models that can run current operating system software and connect to the hardware I need to write about. I usually pump up their RAM enough to ensure that they operate smoothly. Laptops are good for about 3 years; I hope this PowerBook lasts longer because I really like it. My average annual expenditure on computer hardware is about $5,000, which really isn’t bad.

I don’t buy the latest and greatest gadgets unless I need to write about them. The iSight camera is a perfect example. I needed to write about iChat AV, so I bought a compatible camera. My AirPort wireless network, which lives at home when I’m not writing about it, is another good example. I bought it to write about it. Once or twice a year, I disconnect it and bring it to my office, where I reconnect it and write about it. Only one of my computers — the PowerBook — has AirPort networking built in. I don’t mind wires in my office, but its kind of nice to connect to the Internet at home from the kitchen, living room, den, bedroom, or back patio — without needing a really long cord.

The other thing I need to mention is that I don’t spend long hours “playing” with my computers or surfing the ‘Net. I have a life away from my computers that I enjoy. Computers are tools I use to make a living. Although I find them interesting, I think the other things I do with my life are far more interesting and fulfilling. My PowerBook is the only computer I spend non-working hours with. It’s my notebook, my tool for writing. And since I occasionally do that for pleasure, it makes sense to keep it handy, even when I’m not working.

Like right now.

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