What I Use: Germany 2010

About three years ago, I created the What I Use page because of the number of messages I received about my own computing set up. It's a fair enough question when you think about it: Sure, I may recommend a software, hardware, or services product. But do I actually use the thing, and continuing using it over time?

Because of the nature of my job, my list of current technology changes from month to month, and while I try to stay on top of it, I do miss the occasional monthly update on What I Use, and it's always interesting (to me, anyway) to see how quickly things can change.

This month, I'm in Germany with my family for a three-week home swap. This is the fifth year we've done this, and as I write this, the family that owns this home is staying in my home in Massachusetts. There are many issues around doing a home swap, but the big one from my perspective concerns the technology I need (or want) to bring with me while we're away.

That is, there's a set of technology I use and have on hand at home, sure. But when the need really arises, and I have to take it on the road for an extended period of time, what technology can I really not live without?


Computers

I desperately want to be a normal person with a single computer. But the truth is, I do a lot of testing, and I often need to be able to install or download something huge on one PC while I'm doing something else on another. Until almost the last moment, I planned to bring just a single laptop computer to Germany. But at the last second, I caved, and brought a second. I'm glad I did, however, as I'll explain in a moment.

My primary PC here in Germany is a late 2009 Lenovo ThinkPad T400S. I choose this machine almost purely for the display: It's relatively high resolution (1440 x 900), which I prefer, and it has a 14-inch multi-touch display, which is crucial for using the Windows Phone 7 emulator I need while writing "Windows Phone Secrets." I also happen to own a second battery that fits in the device's UltraBay, so it gets killer battery life.

Lenovo ThinkPad T400S

My secondary PC is a Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 13. I haven't needed to use this myself, but the home here has a great HDTV with a spare HDMI port and an extra-long HDMI cable. So my kids have been using it to watch their TV shows and movies (stored on a portable WD hard drive). It's a really nice set up, actually. (The family here also has an Xbox 360 and Popcorn Hour media player, but the PC has just worked out better for us. My son did bring his Xbox 360 hard drive to Europe, so he can play their games here, using his account.)

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 13

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 13

My kids both have 10-inch Toshiba NB205 netbooks, and my wife brought her Dell Vostro V13 laptop. They're all on Windows 7 and Office 2010 (Home and Student edition for the kids), and protected by Microsoft Security Essentials.

Storage

I brought along a number of small, portable, WD hard drives, some of which date back a few years. The newest one is 1 TB and includes my entire video and music collections, and I have separate drives with various parts of my home server backed up for local use.

Portable devices

I've been using Windows Phone exclusively out here, with a 200 MB international data plan I purchased from AT&T before I left. As a result, I've been able to pretty much just leave the data connection on the whole time. It's worked our really well, and we've used the Maps app a lot to figure out where we're headed on road trips.

My kids both have first generation iPod touches which they use to play games. My wife is using my iPhone 3GS as a spare phone. I jailbroke it and purchased a 10 Euro voice SIM here so she can make and receive calls; it works great.

I also brought the iPad and watched a few movies on the way over here. It remains a disaster of reflection, however, and I'm surprised more people don't complain about that. Since getting here, I've used the iPad to read a few PDF-based developer books around .NET, C#, and Silverlight. My kids have played a few games on it as well.

My wife and I both brought our Kindles for books and newspapers.

Headphones

I always use--and strongly recommend--Bose noise-cancelling headphones while flying. I also brought a cheap pair of over-the-ear headphones for the few times I've needed to listen to something around the house. For the podcast, I've been using a USB-based Logitech headset with mic. It's not as good as the home set up, but it's more portable.

Camera

I purchased a Panasonic DMC-ZS7 point and click camera before the trip. It satisfies my previous camera needs--widescreen shooting mode and amazing (12x) optical zoom--and adds a GPS for geo-tagging. It's worked well so far, but when the GPS is on you get about 3/4 a day of battery life.

Backups

I've been backing up regularly to three locations: External USB hard disks, Google Picasaweb (photos), and my home server, which I access remotely with LogMeIn Pro. So I should be good there.

Software

Windows 7, Office 2010 (various versions of each), Windows Live Essentials, and Microsoft Security Essentials. Google Chrome 6 beta, IE 8, and Firefox 4 beta. Zune 4.7. Apple iTunes 9.2. Visual Web Developer Express 2010 (for my web site) and Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone. Windows Live Writer 2011 for blog posts. Photoshop Elements 7 for web site graphics. Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011 and Google Picasa for digital photos. I've used VirtualBox to install the latest SBS "Aurora" and WHS "Vail" releases in VMs, though I have both on physical machines back at home. (For some reason, Microsoft asked reviewers to hold off writing about them for a few weeks.)

Services

Gmail is called Google Mail in Germany for whatever legal reason, but works identically. Most web services work fine, but some, like Google Search, want to default to German. (Bing is smarter in this regard.) Major web sites (New York Times, CNN, whatever) seem to work fine.

Gmail is Google Mail

Some entertainment services--iTunes Store, Zune Marektplace/Zune Pass--work just fine when abroad, but some--Netflix, Hulu--do not.

Etc.

I have a small bag for gadgets, cables, and whatnot, and an even smaller bag for our many European power adapters. I carry a backpack on the plane with the laptops, devices, and a few other things. It's a bit heavy with two laptops, of course, but manageable.

European power adapter

And I think that is most of it.

When I get home, I'm going to wipe and replace my main desktop PC and start thinking about where I'm going with Windows Home Server. I may use Aurora for user/data management and Vail for digital media sharing; it's a bit redundant, but they both have some unique features that I think will be valuable.

But that's for the future. See you back in the States.