Downsizing Computing

After going from the extreme of having too many computers at home to manage (I think people underestimate the “management overhead” involved of having more than a desktop and notebook), I’m finally approaching a more reasonable state.

Just a few days ago I shut down a Windows notebook (Thnkpad T61) whose only apparent purpose was to drive my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 for dealing with bills and stuff. Since it was hooked up to a dedicated monitor and had its own desk, it consumed way more space that a notebook normally would. All I really used it for was scanning documents into my Dropbox folder.

This all happened because my main “work” computer at home, a Dell Optiplex 760 with dual 1600×1200 displays decided to eat its own hard disk. According to the date on the disk, it’s not very old. But it stopped working. And faced with the prospect of setting it back up, I asked myself why I REALLY ran Linux on that machine anyway. So much of my work is remote, and I could always install a little Linux VM on there using VirtualBox anyway.

So after a week or so of on and off deliberation, I decided to drop a spare 3 year old 750GB disk in the Optiplex, install Windows 7 using a spare license I had, and attach the scanner to that machine. This allowed me to free up that ThinkPad, retiring it to a small stack of notebook computers on the shelf that I no longer use.

What I realized in doing this is that after installing Windows 7, there really aren’t that many other applications I need to be productive.  I installed Mozille Firefox, Google Chrome, PuTTY, IZarc, WinSCP, VIM, VLC, iTunes, SumatraPDF, PDFCreator, Picasa, Dropbox, Skype, and VirtualWin. That really doesn’t take long.

Since I’d been putting all my important data (aside from Photos and Music, which are about 110GB combined) in Dropbox anyway, it’s not hard to move from one machine to the other. The only thing remotely tricky was migrating the Picasa databases correctly so that all the face recognition training came along.

This means that my real “working set” of computers is down to 3 or 4, which is another way of saying that I’d like to remove one more machine from the list. Now I have a desktop running Windows 7, a home “server” running Linux, a personal notebook running Windows 7, and a work laptop running Linux.  (I’m not counting our “TV Computer” which is used almost exclusively for Netflix and watching other videos we’ve archived.)

If I can find a good way to combine the two notebooks, I’ll be quite happy with this arrangement. I’ve done some experiments both ways with that so far but am not sufficiently happy with how any of them have turned out yet. If I hit upon a winning combination, I’ll be sure to document that.

It’s interesting to note how many of my problems could be solved by some good file syncing tools and apps that natively “get” that their file may be synced between multiple machines. I suspect that this push toward data in the cloud may be the thing that gets people designing stuff that in the mindset, except that I won’t be running the app on my computer anymore. What’d I’d absolutely love in the meantime is an option in Dropbox where I can sync certain folders among my computers WITHOUT a copy in the cloud. I really have no interest in paying for 100+GB of storage to keep my music and pictures synced. (I’m more than happy to have an offsite backup of my scanned documents, however.) Windows Live Sync used to be pretty good for that, but it’s been replaced with something that is, in my experience, slower buggier, and less transparent. I don’t understand what happened there.

About Jeremy Zawodny

I'm a software engineer and pilot. I work at craigslist by day, hacking on various bits of back-end software and data systems. As a pilot, I fly a Flight Design CTSW and high performance gliders in the northern California and Nevada area. I'm also the original author of "High Performance MySQL" published by O'Reilly Media. I still speak at conferences and user groups on occasion.
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20 Responses to Downsizing Computing

  1. Roger says:

    My scanner recently started playing up and I’ve switched to using my Android phone and the CamScanner app on it for my scanning needs, especially turning bills/rebates etc into PDF which it seems is exactly what your scanner does. My scanner was not sheet fed and required far too much babysitting per page while doing it with the phone is very quick and easy. Maybe this kind of approach would work for you too?

  2. If my ScanSnap wasn’t so great at scanning a pile of paper quickly, that might be a good route. I suspect that I’ll not change that until it dies, which could be many years. It’a a great little machine.

    Thanks for the tip. I had no idea such an app existed!

  3. Uwe says:

    I suggest Unison for the file syncing.

  4. Chad Walker says:

    Why PuTTY *and* WinSCP? Why not just use PuTTY’s pscp? It can use your defined PuTTY hosts and keys in the agent…

  5. I never really used PuTTY for transfers–not sure why. I should give that a try. It’s probably because Windows has such a bad CLI that I try to stick to the GUI if it all possible (which is exactly the opposite of what I do on Linux).

  6. Chad Walker says:

    Maybe that’s why I always have a bruise on my forehead since I try to stick with CLI whenever possible…

  7. Yeah. You gotta use things the way they were intended otherwise it can get really annoying quickly.

  8. Cardin Lee says:

    Maybe you could get one of those home network devices that is essentially a wireless media storage hard drive, so you can access and sync it from anywhere in your house across multiple computers. Not sure about the remote accessing part though.

  9. Riaan Stander says:

    I’ve read about AeroFS (http://www.aerofs.com/learnmore.html)
    It uses peer-to-peer technology to have a distributed file system without any cloud storage. No idea if it is any good.

  10. Tom says:

    I’ve made the switch from windows live sync to windows live mesh, and it works great. In particular, the remote desktop functionality is much improved. I don’t notice any difference, for better or worse, in the file syncing capability. I use it both with and without cloud synchronization.

  11. GatesVP says:

    Windows Live Sync used to be pretty good for that, but it’s been replaced with something that is, in my experience, slower buggier, and less transparent.

    Are you talking about Windows Live Mesh? I’m happily using this (with 5GB of free storage) for all manner of docs across multiple computers. I use it to tote around PowerShell scripts and commonly-used files. It doesn’t work on Linux boxes (yet), but it works really well on my Windows boxes and it is accessible from the web.

    It’s probably because Windows has such a bad CLI that I try to stick to the GUI if it all possible

    Thanks to PowerShell and Chrome’s “gleebox”, I’m actually spending lots of time comfortably working with the keyboard in Windows.

  12. Hmm. Maybe I should try Live Mesh again. I don’t know why but it seemed really slow, pigish, and had a real lack of transparency about what was going on.

    GatesVP: thanks for the PowerShell tip. I haven’t touched it (yet).

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  14. Jason says:

    You might want to look at Syncrify. Free for 1 personal user, or $25 per commercial. They recently added 2 way sync. I use it for backups, but am considering the two-way sync feature for other uses.

  15. Flavio says:

    Since for work you use Linux and home W7, i’d dual boot the home or work computer (depending which is powerful).

    You wrote about having several notebooks to spare, would you be interested to give them up to an NGO operating in Namibia, Africa?

  16. Matt says:

    The best tool I’ve found for syncing, though it’s manual, is Microsoft’s SyncToy. It has a “preview” feature which I really like. I use this to sync my music collection (too big for SVN) to my NAS when I’m home and have ripped new music while on the road.

  17. Pavel Merdin says:

    I’m not sure what you exactly do with the scanner… But I just wanted to share my experience with a printer and scanner device in one. It works via Wi-Fi.
    I found it convenient to use its web interface for scanning. This way I don’t have to search for proper scanner software (included HP software just fails to start and their support was at no help). And it is possible to avoid connecting and installing software, I can just use it from any machine.
    Unfortunately, I still need to install printer drivers everywhere. But it seems like it’s a less hassle than the scanning stuff.

  18. Hector says:

    Have you thought about “recycling” or donating your old computers? they take up space and could possibly still be useful to someone else for a while…

  19. Blessed Geek says:

    You should consider donating your stack of unused notebooks to a 3rd, 4th or 5th world country, instead of letting them sit there. And in a few years’ they would all be obsolete — perhaps some already are and are no longer helpful even to a kid in Timbuktoo. Or, perhaps, list them at ….. tada ….. craig’s.

  20. It’s interesting to note how many of my problems could be solved by some good file syncing tools and apps that natively “get” that their file may be synced between multiple machines.

    Depending on your needs, you might consider CrashPlan for this.

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