Shawn Blanc’s sweet Mac setup

Every week we post a new interview with someone about what software they use on their Mac, iPhone, or iPad. We do these interviews because not only are they fun, but a glimpse into what tools someone uses and how they use those tools can spark our imagination and give us an idea or insight into how we can do things better.

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Who are you and what do you do?

Hi! I’m Shawn Blanc. I type and drink coffee.

What is your current setup?

Let’s have a look.

(Wallpaper via John Carey.)

Conveniently, as I type this, I also happen to be sitting here with pretty much the same view as you see in the picture above (minus the arrows).

So, from left to right:

  • For Caffeine: A coffee mug which appears to be in need of a refill. Though I’m right handed, I always keep my coffee on the left side of my keyboard. Mostly because everything else on my desk is on the right hand side, and it’d be a shame to reach over there and knock the coffee mug over.

  • For Analog: Next to the coffee is my Field Notes journal and a Signo DX 0.38 pen (the best pen in the world, by the way).

  • For Clicky: Next to that is my Filco Ninja Majestouch-2 mechanical keyboard with Blue Cherry MX switches. I spent about 6 months typing and typing on half a dozen different clicky keyboards and found this one to be the best.

  • For Jams and Pixels: Behind the keyboard is a custom shelf I built. It sits about 3-inches tall and serves two purposes: it raises my monitor slightly to a more comfortable height, and it provides some extra storage (I can slide my keyboard and trackpad underneath the shelf to completely open up the desk space in front of me if I want).

    On the shelf are my Audyssy speakers and a Korean Grey Market 27-inch IPS display. The speakers, I heartily recommend — they look great and sound great. The cheap display, well, I bought it over a year ago because my old aluminum Apple Cinema display died and I needed a new display. I was certain that Apple would be updating the thunderbolt display sometime soon and so I bought this one as a stop gap. Now, who knows. But it’s still working so I’m okay still waiting.

  • The Brains: The brains of my setup is, of course, my Mac. It’s a mid-2011 model MacBook Air, specced out at the time with the 1.8 GHz Core i7, 4 GB of memory and 256 GB of SSD storage. Usually it’s after 3 years that a computer begins to show its age. Yet this machine still feels like new (most of the time). It must be the SSD, and the fact that Lightroom and Numbers are the two most CPU-intensive apps I run.

    My MacBook Air is in clamshell mode most of the time (I never got into the two-screens craze). And so I keep it off to the side with a 12South BookArc which not only saves on desk real-estate, but it also helps keep the Mac cool since the lid is closed.

  • For Audio (input): I record a daily podcast, and for that I use a Blue Yeti USB microphone. It’s a little funny looking, but it captures fabulous audio and is very affordable. I also used this mic to record the entire audio version of my book, Delight is in the Details.

What software do you use and for what do you use it?

My preference is to find apps which do, as they say, “one thing well” — fit and trim apps with a narrow scope and an excellent design. Apps like this, can, more often than not, afford to focus on the details of their design and experience. When an app’s feature set is an inch deep but a mile wide, all the focus and energy goes into simply maintaining all those features. Moreover, these bloated apps with a bazillion features also lug around a massive learning curve for the user.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule — Coda 2 and OmniFocus being chief among them. But you could argue that Coda 2 and OmniFocus are, in fact, apps which do one thing well, it’s just that their one thing isn’t a simple one. Coda 2 is the best all-in-one app for web development; OmniFocus the best software for those in need of a powerful and robust personal project management tool.

All that to say, there are a few apps I use here and there…

Foundational utilities

When setting up a new Mac, these are the apps I install straight away. Using a Mac without these is like bumbling around someone else’s living room in the middle of the night. I’m slowly moving through with great trepidation and more than likely will stub my toe on the coffee table.

  • LaunchBar: I Command+Space for just about everything and LaunchBar is my application launcher of choice. It’s also a bookmark launcher, clipboard history app, a pinch calculator at times, and more. I switched to LaunchBar back in 2009 when Snow Leopard broke Quicksilver. And it has become a central way for how I use my Mac.

  • Keyboard Maestro: This utility app is a computer power user’s dream. With Keyboard Maestro you can apply global keyboard shortcuts that can then be used to trigger just about any sort of macro, action, or script that you want.

    For example, I have a hotkey set to launch Mail upon a particular keystroke; I use Keyboard Maestro to help with bottom-posting replies in my emails; I use it to scoop up all of my Safari tabs and sweep them over into OmniFocus as a to-do item; and I use it to automatically launch the Doxie Go software and import my scans when I plug in my scanner.

    And let me tell you, that’s just the tip of the Keyboard Maestro iceberg. What also makes it great is that many of these scripts and macros are based on a graphical user interface — you don’t have to do any actual coding to use it, you just have to know what problem you want a solution for. Though, Keyboard Maestro can also execute AppleScripts

  • 1Password: The app that needs no introduction. I use it for probably the same thing you all do: storing a bazillion different passwords for the bazillion different websites I have a login on, and also for storing other secure notes and important bits of info.

  • Dropbox: My original use-case for Dropbox was as a real-time cloud backup of all my “currently working on” projects. And now, of course, I also use it to keep a lot of apps and other files in sync between my iOS devices and my Mac.

  • TextExpander: So many snippets, custom auto-corrects, and more. This app has literally saved me hours and hours worth of typing over the years. But more than that, it’s saved me the energy required to re-think-out common things I type. It’s not just a time-saving app, it’s an energy saving one as well.

  • Hazel: There is a lot I use Hazel for (such as automatically uploading my Shawn Today podcast files), but by far and away my favorite use-case is the automatic naming and filing of my incoming document scans. You see, once I’ve scanned a document with my aforementioned Doxie Go, I then save it to my computer as readable PDF. And then, Hazel can read the contents of that PDF, and assess if it’s a utility bill, a bank statement, etc. Hazel then names and dates the file appropriately and moves it to the proper folder. It’s made the whole “paperless office” think a piece of cake.

Mission Critical apps

These are the apps I rely heavily on to get my work done.

  • MarsEdit: I’ve been using this app for years and years, and it is one of the most-used, most-important, and most-beloved applications I own.

  • nvALT (+ Simplenote): All my quick notes, ideas, and who-knows-what-else bits of miscellaneous text live inside nvALT.

  • Byword: Rounding out my writing workflow trifecta, Byword is the third app in my writing toolkit (alongside the aforementioned nvALT and MarsEdit). It is my go-to writing app for anything longer than a few sentences (I’m using it right now as I type this). The app has a simple and clean design and it highlights Markdown syntax.

  • OmniFocus: Many of the task-management apps available today offer, more or less, the same fundamental functionality: the ability to add tasks, organize them by project, and assign a due date. Of the five areas of Getting Things Done — capturing, processing, organizing, acting, and reviewing — you want the least amount of friction. OmniFocus doesn’t just help you capture, process, organize, and review, but once you’ve captured and processed an idea, OmniFocus almost does the rest of the work for you. And this is why OmniFocus is different — it was built from the inside out. It may not win any beauty contests, but in my experience, compared to other to-do apps, OmniFocus handles your projects better than any other tool I’ve used.

  • Rdio: My music streaming service of choice. (Currently listing to the amazing new album, Awake, from Tycho.)

  • Mail.app: Apple’s Mail app on OS X has gone downhill a bit since Mavericks, but I’m still using it. I gave Airmail a try for a while and though it’s really nice, maybe I’m just too stuck in my ways. Also I spent some time with MailMate — it has some incredible power features and a lot of amazing potential, but boy is it ugly.

  • Coda 2: My app of choice for any and all code wrangling and website development.

  • Safari: My browser of choice.

  • Tweetbot: I’ve stopped leaving Tweetbot open 24/7, but even still I spend more time in this app than I should.

  • Instapaper: Technically not a Mac app, but I send a lot of stuff to it from my Mac, and I also tend to read through my queue at times (though I mostly prefer reading from the iPad app).

  • Pinboard: Again, technically not a Mac app, but I often access my bookmarks from my Mac.

  • Droplr: My app / service of choice for shortening links and sharing files and notes.

  • SuperDuper: Every night I plug in my external hard drive to create a clone of my MacBook Air.

  • Backblaze: My service of choice for off-site backups of my Mac. I’ve been using them since 2011 and am extremely happy.

  • BreakTime: A simple app that reminds me to get up from my desk and walk around every 40 minutes. I did spend about 6 months working at a standing desk, but I never liked it. For me, there is a bit of nostalgia and romance to writing. And I never felt that if I was writing while standing. I prefer to sit when I write.

  • Transmit: Say I’ve got a file on my Mac and I want to upload it to my Amazon S3 account, or to one of my website hosting servers? Well, Transmit to the rescue.

  • iBank: If you run a business, you’ve got to track expenses and income somehow. I like iBank. Also great for good-old-fashioned personal finances as well.

Additional faves

  • Bartender: for keeping my dozen-or-so Menu Bar icons all neat and tidy. Cleanliness is close to godliness.

  • AirFoil: In part so I can stream Rdio to my Apple TV-connected stereo, but also so I can manually adjust the EQ for Rdio, even when just listening on my computer.

  • Arq: My second-tier of off-site backups, I point my most vital folders that aren’t backed up by Dropbox already (such as my computer library and all my photos) to. And since S3 hosting is so cheap, it only costs me an extra couple bucks per month.

  • Day One: This is one fine app, and my favorite journaling and logging app, but I mostly use the iOS versions, if only because I try to do less and less “down time” in front of my Mac. And so when I am journaling it’s with my iPad or my iPhone and I’m somewhere other than my office.

  • Lightroom: What I use to do all my photo editing. When I bought my first “nice” camera in the fall of 2012, I wanted an app that would be easy to use like Instagram is easy to use, you know? I’m a hobbyist photographer at best, but I also didn’t want to just upload my out-of-camera JPEG files to Flickr. Turns out, Lightroom is incredibly easy to use. I’ve got many of the VSCO Film presets installed and I love them.

How would your ideal setup look and function?

In many ways, I already have the ideal setup. My home office is comfortable, I have a coworking space I can go to anytime I like, I rarely feel constrained by the power of my computer, I have two mobile devices — an iPad and iPhone — that I can do almost anything from, and the software I use day-in and-day out is the best in the world.

The biggest hurdles facing my work are not those of software or hardware. They’re things like how easily I get distracted and the day-in and day-out challenge of doing my best creative work.

But, since you asked…

I’d love a version of the CODE keyboard with Blue switches. I’m not a fan of the Clears, and the greens are too firm.

I’m also in desperate need of an ergonomic chair. There are oodles of good options out there — such as the Leap, the Chadwick, the Embody, and the Aeron. I feel compelled to sit in each one and test it out because an investment of $1,000-or-so into a chair that will hold your butt for hours a day over the next decade and help you to sit better, breath better, have better circulation, and not get headaches is a big deal. So, needless to say, because I don’t know yet which chair is right for me, I don’t have anything.

As I mentioned above in the software section, I do prefer to sit when I write. But it’d be great to be able to stand for other scenarios (like when doing email or reading etc.) Getting one of those awesome Geek Desks that can adjust would be nice.

And gear-wise, the most exciting thing I can really think of is a 30-inch retina display iMac with several terabytes of SSD storage that is in perfect sync with a 13-inch Retina display MacBook Air. Naturally, the MacBook Air would also have terabytes of SSD storage, a built-in LTE connection that was smart enough not to run my cloud backups when in use, and a battery that lasted an entire month on a single charge. And the hook here is that the two machines would be in perfect sync at all times — not just in sync like Dropbox, but literally in perfect sync down to the apps that are open and even the very work I’m doing in those apps.

And last but not least, my ideal setup would be located in a giant office that’s part of a cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.


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