As someone who works in the IT sector and does all kinds of tech stuff in his free time, having a proper working environment is of the utmost importance.
The term “Working environment” is a broad term with can be anything from the people you work with to the desk you sit at, but I am focusing on the thing I spend my time looking at for most of the day.
It’s the screen of my computer or more specifically: the graphical environment rendered by the operating system on my monitor. This environment means a lot to me.
It allows me to keep up with the latest news and communicate with friends, colleagues and family. It gives me access to more knowledge than I can ever consume in a lifetime.
It also allows me to do my work remotely. I can live with my parents in the countryside instead of being forced to rent an expensive apartment in the city.
It fascinates me how my choice of working environment has changed over the years and how my worldview and way of thinking changed with it.
The early days
The first computer I got my hands on was my dad’s. He had bought a new desktop system and he allowed me to use it from time to time. I can’t remember the specs since I was very young at the time.
It was one of those classical white-colored desktops with a small monitor and a noisy keyboard. It ran the Windows 95 Operating System and I thought it was amazing.
But we didn’t have internet back then, so apart from some games, there was nothing on it. It didn’t take long for me to get bored with the games and I started poking around in the system.
I started looking in system directories and playing with system settings. My dad wasn’t happy with my little adventures. I can’t remember how many times he had to move the system back to a previous restore point in order to undo my changes.
I got my own system much later. My dad had bought a new laptop and I was allowed to have the Windows XP desktop system we both shared at the time. The desktop was moved from the attic to my own bedroom.
I was very excited to be having my own computer, but immediately stumbled into the first hurdle: The thing was running on snail power. The system had an Intel Pentium processor and a whopping 512 MegaBytes of memory.
I also had a cheap wireless network receiver which would only work half of the time. Combine this with a modem which needed to be restarted once a week at best and once a day at worst.
The system took forever to boot up and web pages took ages to load. And this was at a time when Windows Vista was just released. Web sites became more complex and required more and more resources to load.
I did everything in my power to speed up my system. I disabled unnecessary services (and even some necessary ones because I obviously didn’t know what I was doing), removed unnecessary software, used the lightest virus scanner I could find (it was Panda Antivirus I believe) and even configured the system to use a USB stick to store virtual memory (in Vista it was called ReadyBoost, but XP already had something similar).
None of it had a noticeable impact, but it did teach me how the Windows operating system worked. This time had thought me two valuable lessons:
- Being bored from time to time is healthy, especially at a young age. It sparkles the curiosity
- Having limits motivates you to overcome those limits. I wouldn’t have known so much about the Windows OS if I hadn’t had a slow system
My studying days
I ended up studying Information Technologies (IT) at the local university in my town. This wasn’t however my first choice. I always wanted to become a police officer, but didn’t pass the fitness test.
In hindsight, I think it was for the best. I was in love with the idea of being a police officer and chasing bad guys, but didn’t have the right personality traits for it. I am too much of a thinker and not much of a do’er.
Apart from learning how to code (I was pretty much addicted to it), I also was introduced to an OS called GNU/Linux (or Ubuntu to be more specific). After running it in a virtual machine for some time, I felt confident enough to install it on my laptop and made it my daily driver.
I did a lot of Distro-hopping over the years, but mainly settled with Fedora and OpenSuse. I loved the openness of the system. Windows always felt like an overcomplicated black box, while GNU/Linux felt much more open and the system was easier to understand with its “everything is a file” design.
I spend many hours exploring the system by looking at configuration files and studying man pages, but this wasn’t always purely for fun. I had a lot of problems with my graphics card.
I can tell you that you’re not having a good day when you are desperately trying to fix a screen brightness control problem before the screen burns your eyes out.
These stability problems eventually made me move away from Linux. The biggest problems I had were graphical issues, such as problems with screen configurations and driver stability. I also had issues with putting the system in suspend mode.
I heavily relied on those features. I often had to hook up my laptop to a beamer or external screen to give presentations. We also moved from classroom to classroom throughout the day, so having a laptop that could properly go into and come out of suspension was essential.
I loved the OS, but the setup proved to be too unreliable in the end. I can still clearly remember an incident where my system froze while giving a presentation in front of my class. I was forced to reboot my laptop.
I can also remember another incident where my system started rebooting because it failed to come out of suspended mode. And it happened just before it was my turn to give another presentation.
I eventually had enough of it and decided to buy a MacBook Pro. I enjoyed this MacBook since I could run all my favorite Linux tooling on it without having the reliability issues that plague Linux Distros.
After finishing my studies, I accepted a job at a CyberSecurity company and had to move from the east of the country to the West. I rented an apartment and it didn’t take long before I was confronted with the negative aspects of living in the city. My precious MacBook had been stolen from my apartment.
I sadly couldn’t track the laptop since it was encrypted and wouldn’t boot up without the password. The recovery environment was also protected with a password. This however meant that the tacking software never had a chance to report on the location of the device.
I reported the theft to the police, gave them the footage of my IP camera and filed a claim with the insurance company. My claim was eventually approved and I received money to buy a new laptop. I thought about buying another MacBook, but decided to buy a Dell tablet running Windows 10 (x64 not ARM).
I did enjoy the MacBook but I also had another Windows laptop I used for gaming and wanted to be able to access all my data on both. This proved to be a challenge since both systems had their own ecosystems and finding something that worked for both of them was difficult.
Apple provides its users with a free office suite, but I couldn’t use it since I couldn’t open those files on my Windows system. I used Bitlocker to encrypt my external hard drives, but macOS couldn’t read those drives. I tried using a software package from a third party to read them from my Mac, but the performance was poor.
And since you can’t use a MacBook as a gaming system, I decided to make the switch back to Windows. I kept a bulky laptop for gaming and a tablet as a daily driver.
Using the tablet was fun at the beginning. I could do some coding at my desk and then detach the tablet from its keyboard to watch some Netflix on the couch when I was done. It however didn’t take long for me to notice the drawbacks.
I initially wanted to use the tablet like an always-on system, mostly relying on the suspend function and rarely shutting it down. I got used to this way of working when I still had my Mac. The ability to just start where you left off yesterday was something I highly appreciated.
My Windows environment proved to be too unstable to support this way of working however. Things just stopped working over time. I had times when the tilt sensor wasn’t working anymore or that one time when the touchscreen stopped being a touchscreen and turned into a regular screen.
Rebooting the device fixed all of the issues, but it required me to open up all my applications again. I was quite disappointed about this. I could keep my Mac running for weeks if not months only needing to restart it for updates. It was definitely something I took for granted.
Apart from this issue, there were some smaller issues and to give you an impression, here’s a list:
- The tablet was positioned at a fixed angle in its keyboard stand. Dell had an additional keyboard available where you could change the angle, but you needed to buy it separately.
- You couldn’t put it on your lap, since the tablet wasn’t locked into position when in the keyboard.
- It had this annoying issue where it would periodically reset the brightness to a fixed value (30%). And this was also in the time when Windows 10 didn’t have a brightness slider in the sidebar. You had to tap a button to cycle through the brightness levels. And off course it went from low to high, so you first had to burn your eyes out before coming back at the lower brightness level, only for the system to turn it up again after 5 minutes. I went mad over this issue. I managed to trace the issue back to a custom energy profile Dell had installed in the system. Switching it to the Windows default fixed the issue.
- The system was not able to detect the storage device after coming out of a suspended state. A normal reboot didn’t help. The Dell BIOS was essentially telling me that it couldn’t find a medium to boot from. After a long period of troubleshooting, I managed to trace the problem back to a feature called Link Power Management (LPM) which was part of the Intel Rapid Storage Technology service. Disabling this feature solved the problem.
- Windows 10 is equipped with a tablet mode feature. The idea was that the normal layout would be used when the tablet was connected to the keyboard, but would switch to a more touchscreen-friendly layout when disconnected. This didn’t work since Windows seemed to choose a layout at random. I had to manually make the switch by pressing a button in the sidebar.
Although this tablet was taking it to the extreme, all the Windows devices (including one Windows Phone) I owned had a multitude of problems. There are just too many parties involved in my opinion.
You first have different hardware manufacturers delivering the individual components and drivers. Then you have Microsoft supplying the OS which has to work with a wide range of hardware configurations. And then on top of that, you have the laptop (or desktop) manufacturer who adds their own special sauce to the mix.
All these layers of complexity don’t exactly fit on top of each other. Everything is a Windows upgrade away from failing. This reminds me of this issue I was having on my gaming laptop.
My laptop has these function keys. Most of these keys are handled by the Windows OS itself. I am talking about keys for adjusting things like the volume or screen brightness, but there was this one key for disabling and enabling the touchpad.
Then one day it stopped working and I can tell you, nothing is more annoying than touching the touchpad on accident when you try to sneak up on someone in an FPS game.
After looking into the issue I discovered that a certain “Control Center” application handled this functionality. The application was used to configure fan speeds but had this as an additional job. It however seemed to be removed during a Windows OS upgrade. Installing the application again returned the lost functionality.
Everything seems to be tied together with duct tape. The setup held itself together until a change was introduced. And these are also the type of issues that can’t be known beforehand since they only show themselves after months of extended use.
Apart from the state of the device as a whole, the Windows OS also isn’t what it used to be. I personally enjoyed Windows XP and Windows 7 the most. I even have a little love for Windows Vista. The Longhorn theme looked quite fancy. I even preferred it over Windows 7’s Aero theme.
But Windows 10 feels like an unfinished product. Like someone started moving features from the old user interface to a new one and decided to call it a day when it was only halfway done. The user experience is just terrible when compared to other Operating Systems.
I now was a view years into my first job as a DevOps Engineer. This didn’t mean that I actually followed the DevOps practices. I was just a dude who wrote code and kept the servers running.
Working in tech involves solving lots of problems. You spend hours debugging code in an effort to find the cause of an annoying bug. And then you also have to be able to switch to your operational role and troubleshoot a server that is acting up all of a sudden.
This process drains you psychologically as your mind tries to shift through a list of possible causes or tries to come up with steps that could be taken to narrow down the search area.
It is important to give your mind some rest when you come back home from work. I had to learn this the hard way. During the day I spend my time solving problems at work, came home and continued trying to fix my own stuff, sometimes until deep into the night.
I knew I couldn’t go on like this, but I just couldn’t properly relax until the problem I had was solved. This was especially the case when I was constantly reminded of the problem’s existence.
“Why spend all the manpower and resources to build something like this when it doesn’t work?” was a thought that often entered my mind when I was scouring the forums looking for a solution late at night.
This went on and off for a period of about 2 years before I had enough. I went to the local Amac store (an Apple reseller) and got myself a MacBook Air. I scraped the “everything must work on every system” rule and removed all the unnecessary software from my gaming laptop, leaving only the bare minimum I needed to play games.
The present day
My little Dell tablet is now safely stored away in one of my desk drawers. I have given it the name of “Loki” for all the mischief it had caused. I still can’t get the suspend functionality to work properly, but that’s okay.
I think differently about tech these days. In the past, I preferred the products which gave me the most functionality and flexibility. I wanted to get “the most bang for my buck”. Now I just want something reliable and simple to use even if I need to pay a higher price for it or have to accept certain limitations.
I would like to explain this stance with an example. It will be the last one, I promise. I will start wrapping things up after this one.
I would like to compare two note-taking applications: Standard Notes and Bear. Let’s start with Standard Notes. The application is supported on a wide variety of platforms including Windows, macOS, Android and iOS.
The user can choose from a wide array of editors to take their notes with. There is a plaintext editor, a rich text editor, three markdown editors, a special editor for creating to-do lists and even an editor for creating excel sheets. They even offer cloud file storage and everything is end-to-end encrypted. The functionality of the application can be further extended by the use of plugins.
Bear is only available for macOS, iOS and iPadOS. Notes are created in Markdown and are stored in the user’s iCloud storage. Created notes can be organized by the use of tags.
At first sight, you might be thinking that Standard Notes is the clear winner here since it clearly offers the most features. I however ended up switching from Standard Notes to Bear and I will tell you why.
The company behind Standard Notes has chosen to make its application available on a wide range of platforms. Creating native applications for each platform requires a lot of investment and comes with a high maintenance cost.
Companies therefore look towards cross-platform solutions such as Electron and React Native to get the job done. Aside from having a reputation for being slow and hungry for resources, these solutions don’t blend in with the design language of (all) the platforms they are available for.
This also was the case with Standard Notes. Their UI didn’t seem to fit in. The developers of Bear, on the other hand, could just create a native application for macOS, iOS and iPadOS since they wouldn’t support other platforms anyway. The result is a snappy application that blends in well with the Apple design.
Bear only allows you to write your notes in Markdown, white Standard Notes gives you multiple options. But because Bear Notes puts their focus on Markdown editing, they ended up with a high-quality editor which doesn’t hold a candle to the multiple Markdown editors available in Standard Notes.
The last thing I wanted to mention is the way both apps sync notes between devices. Standard Notes requires you to create an account with them in order to sync your notes. This means that you will have to create another account, which you will have to manage and secure. You will also need to go through the sign-in process on each of your devices.
Bear doesn’t have this inconvenience. You just download and install the application from the AppStore and your notes will be ready for you when you open the app.
Standard Notes tries to attract a large customer base by trying to please everyone. This approach however comes at a price. It makes their application feel generic. It doesn’t seem to offer anything special (in my opinion).
Bear takes a different approach. Instead of trying to please everyone, it focuses on a specific target group, which can be defined as “Apple users who like to use Markdown to take notes”. This gives them a smaller group of potential customers but results in a higher quality product.
The same can be said for Windows and macOS. Windows has always been a generic OS. It’s used in all kinds different of systems. You can find it on normal consumer laptops, business laptops, gaming desktops, rugged military-style laptops and many more types of systems.
Apple has however chosen to focus on normal consumers with its Air product line and professional business users with its Pro products. This strategy does mean that they miss out on a large group of potential customers, but it allows them to provide their existing customers with products that are more attuned to their needs.
It is my personal opinion that specializing offers better long-term prospects than trying to attract an as large customer base as possible by going the “jack off all trades” route.
Offering a generic product or solution might get you a lot of customers in the short term, but it won’t secure your position in the long term. It is easy for your competitors to come up with a similar product and start eating away at your customer base. It essentially requires you to be the biggest fish out there and this is something you can’t keep up forever.
I personally think that the Windows Operating System is already done for. Android has already beaten it when it comes down to market share and Microsoft failed to enter the smartphone market with Windows Phone.
People will be less inclined to buy Windows devices since the average Joe can do everything they need with their smartphone. You can even get a full desktop experience, if you have a high-end Samsung device, by making use of Samsung DeX. All you need is a docking station, a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse.
The interesting thing is that Windows Phone had a feature called “Continuum” which essentially did the same thing. It allowed you to connect your Windows Phone to a monitor to get a desktop experience.
I see a future where people will show up at the office, make their way to one of the available flex desks, put their phone in a docking station and start typing away on the keyboard. They would even be able to pull their phone from the docking station and continue working on their phone on the train ride home.
The sale of laptops and desktops will keep declining until only a small group of consumers are left. These will be mostly people who need more computing power than a phone can provide.
Ahh yes, I was supposed to tell my present day situation, but I got a bit too carried away. Let’s see, I have been using the MacBook Air for about two and a half years now and I still love it.
The device is still as fast and reliable as the day I booted it up for the first time. I haven’t had any problems with it. It’s a 2019 MacBook Air BTW. My employer also assigned me a MacBook Pro around the same time I got the Air and the Pro has been running fine too.
I was so happy with the experience that I bought an iPhone Pro (which would be replacing my BlackBerry Key 2) and an iPad Pro. And I must say that I have no complaints. Both devices are fast and responsive. The OLED displays are a feast to the eye and most importantly: none of them displayed any buggy behavior or had any problems.
And I think this is something special since every Windows and Android device I had, had at least something that didn’t work as it was supposed to. It is also noticeable that Apple focuses on providing its users with an environment where they can be productive rather than overwhelming them with options and other flashy things.
The system is geared towards reliability and simplicity. My two favorite features are the ability to group notifications in a planned overview and the ability to use the iPad as a secondary display for my MacBook by using SideCar. Oh, and I also like how fast and reliable Face-ID works and the password synchronization between devices also saves me a lot of work.
And I know these features sound quite boring. I sound like a dad who is excited about the new minivan he just bought and can’t stop talking about the armrest on the driver’s seat and how he can remove the back row of seats to create more free space.
But the thing is that these are the features I use every day. These systems should be boring and dependable, so you can focus on using them to do exciting things.
So you made it all the way to the end of this post? I must be an excellent writer or you must be very bored. I didn’t plan on making it this long, but it quickly became the dumping ground for all my frustrations, ideas, opinions and predictions. It has been quite therapeutic. It felt good to write it all down. I hope you learned something too.
As a final disclaimer before people start accusing me of being an Apple fanboy and a Windows and Android hater. I don’t care what system you use to get things done. If you are happily using Windows or Android, then I am happy for you too. Use the system that suits your needs best.
It also doesn’t mean that I agree with everything Apple does or like all the products and services it provides.
Contacting the author
I am always interested in the experiences of others. Maybe you had the same experiences as me or maybe something completely different? I would love to hear your view on this.
The easiest way to reach me is through Twitter. My username is @vharmers. I am also reachable on Keybase and on Matrix where my username is @vharmers:matrix.org.