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Jason Snell’s sweet Mac setup

Every week we try to 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.

New setup interviews are posted every Monday; follow us on RSS or Twitter to stay up to date.


Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Jason Snell. I’m the editorial director at IDG Consumer, so I manage the editorial group that runs Macworld, PCWorld, TechHive, and Greenbot. In my spare time I also do The Incomparable, a weekly podcast about geeky pop culture that has somehow turned into a podcast network of its own.

I live in Mill Valley, California, with my wife and two kids. We’re just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The house (which we’ve had since 1999) is small, but you can’t beat the location.

What is your current setup?

My one and only Mac is an 11-inch MacBook Air (mid 2013), with a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 500GB SSD. It’s the “maxed out” system we used in our testing for these models, which I then snagged as an update for my prior laptop, which was a 2011-model 11” MacBook Air.

I carry it back and forth from home to work every day, and it’s only a laptop when I want it to be. At work it’s hooked up to an Apple Thunderbolt Display, and if I’m in my office at home it’s hooked up to a 24-inch Dell monitor via a Belkin Thunderbolt dock. I’ve got a Twelve South BookArc, Logitech keyboard, and Apple Magic Trackpad in both places:

Snell-work

Snell-home

(You can snag my wallpaper here, straight from NASA.)

(I realize we’re talking Mac here, but just as an aside, my mobile devices of choice are an iPhone 5S, an iPad mini with Retina display, and a Kindle Paperwhite.)

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

The usual, boring stuff is Apple Mail, iTunes, Calendar, Reminders, Messages, and the official Twitter app (because I am addicted to the Connect tab).

I do most of my writing in BBEdit, which I’ve been using since the early 1990s, I believe. A very, very long time. Most of what I do is text. I’m not creating business documents that are going to a laser printer — I’m writing words that will get poured into a CMS or perhaps printed on dead trees. As a result, all the trappings of the Microsoft Words of the world really just get in my way. I mostly write in Markdown these days, not because I don’t know HTML but because I find Markdown a bit easier to type and harder to make typos in, so the HTML I generate from Markdown tends to be cleaner than the HTML I’d type by hand. I’m also a big user of regular expressions (“grep”), and BBEdit’s got powerful grep support, so I use that a lot to transmogrify text.

I’ve written three (unpublished and in need of rewriting) novels, and did most of those in Scrivener, which is an excellent tool for longer work. If I’m writing something more than about 5,000 words long, I will switch to Scrivener so I can use its organizational tools, which allow me to switch between written segments and an outliner. I started my first novel in BBEdit and OmniOutliner, and that worked okay, but Scrivener combines the way I used both of those apps, and the combination works for me, so I’ve adopted it now.

For shared projects and collaborations, I use Google Docs. I keep track of my podcasts in a Google Sheet, and when I’m collaborating with colleagues on a story we’ll use a Google Doc for that.

I have Microsoft Office but only really use it when I need to exchange files with someone else at my company who speaks Excel or Word or PowerPoint. I make most of my presentations in Keynote when I can. I use Numbers to make pretty charts and graphs when I need to. I try not to use Pages for anything. I will sometimes use OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner to work on business documents. The people who use Microsoft Office look at those documents like I am speaking a different language.

I get around on my Mac with LaunchBar. I’ve been using it for years and I couldn’t work without it. It’s my app launcher, gives me quick access to bookmarks and Google Docs and various files on my Mac that I open often. It’s my calculator when I need to do quick math. You will have to kill me to pry it out of my hands.

My menu bar hosts Dropbox (I’m a paid customer – I love Dropbox and would not want to ever give it up), 1Password (which I also use every day), CrashPlan for online backups, and Fantastical (which I love using to quickly check my schedule and create new calendar events).

Other stuff I’ve got installed: Default Folder (which I’ve been using since I was in college—it was the first Mac shareware I ever paid for), SizzlingKeys (which I use to control iTunes with keyboard shortcuts I’ve been using since I used my Mac to play CDs during the ‘90s—that muscle memory is never going away), and Dragthing (another app I’ve been using forever).

Oh, and I still use Photoshop all the time. I keep meaning to spend more time with Acorn, but I’ve been using Photoshop for more than 20 years now! The muscle memory is strong. One day my employer will not pay for Adobe products and I will have to change my ways. But until then, Photoshop 4eva.

For my podcasts I use Skype with Ecamm’s Call Recorder plugin, and generally my guests use that or QuickTime Player to record their ends. I edit it all together in Logic Pro X, and do minor audio edits in Sound Studio. I broadcast live with Nicecast and read our IRC chat room with Colloquy.

How would your ideal setup look and function?

I kind of feel like I’m there. When I got my previous 11-inch Air (which was also an i7), I felt like I could do just about anything I wanted to do. The improved battery life of this new model just extends that feeling. The only thing I suppose I’d prefer is to have Retina displays everywhere, but honestly a lack of Retina does not bother me too much on the Mac. It would be nice, but I’m used to this lower resolution and it looks all right. We’ll get there.

I’m a bit frustrated by the fact that the current Airs only have one Thunderbolt port. We recently set up an office in our garage because our house was just too small and there was no room for an office—I was doing all my writing and podcasting at home sitting on the bed—and I got Ethernet wired out there, which was exciting. Then I realized that Apple’s Gigabit Ethernet adapter uses Thunderbolt, and my external monitor uses Mini DisplayPort, so I could literally not have my external monitor plugged in and use Apple’s Ethernet adapter. It’s just dumb. I ended up buying the Belkin dock, which gives me Gigabit Ethernet out and audio out and I’ve managed to get my plug-in experience in my garage to match the one at work — two cables, just power and Thunderbolt. It’s just sort of ridiculous that I had to make that choice. Also I’m occasionally sad when I need to read a camera’s memory card and realize that other Mac laptops have an integrated card reader. But all that said, I would not trade my 11-inch Air for a 13-inch model, not ever. I love it. Small laptops are my favorite, and always have been, and the 11-inch Air is my all-time favorite Apple laptop size and shape.

I wish we had easier ways to do group videoconferencing. Google Hangouts has a terrible UI that’s attached to Google+ in ways that make no sense, which is a shame since it’s a pretty good tool once you get it working. Most of the other group videoconferencing systems out there seem to be focused on business presentations with PowerPoint slides, which we don’t really do as a distributed editorial team — we just want to see one another’s faces! We do use Google Hangouts on Air for The Incomparable’s Dungeons and Dragons podcast, and an online map tool called Roll20, and it works great for that. I just wish it was easier to use.

So yeah, I think i’m in pretty good shape, barring the introduction of retina displays to my life. At 43 I’m rapidly reaching the point where super high quality displays will be lost on me, so maybe that’s a revolution that won’t matter so much to my generation. Damned kids, get off my lawn!


There are more Sweet Setup interviews right here.