Background (skip this if you just want the main story; see Main Story, below)
I change my computers annually, usually. I like to use the best technology, for aesthetic and efficiency reasons and, because so much of my working life revolves around airports and being away from home, I have specific needs for computing hardware and softwares.
I am a photographer, so need colour-accurate screens; I make all our YouTube clips, so need real number-crunching power (high definition video, at 25 or 50 frames a second, when being output, uses most any CPU capacity you can throw at it and Final Cut Studio takes over the machine as it does these intensive tasks), and then there’s the much lesser demands of writing and emailing, which can be done on a machine of any power or size, especially now in the cloud era. Weight, transportability, and screen legibility are essential on the travel machine, but it must be able to do the ‘heavy lifting’ while on the road: this means it must run Final Cut Studio and Aperture, as well as the Microsoft Office Suite, Ultra Edit, Photoshop, and Transmit, among others.
Speaking now about the latest advances in the Apple ecology, I have found that the high-resolution screens of the newest Apple computers have reached the ‘diminishing returns’ point: the latest Retina display 15″ MacBook Pro (MBP), for example, did not move me enough to buy it, simply because the 15″ MBP I already had features the matte, higher-resolution screen (a special order, for the photographic work)—and when I did a side-by-side comparison, I just did not see the Retina screen advantage any significant improvement for my needs; the CPU speed increase was negligible; and my present 15″ MBP has a DVD player/burner as well which has been dropped from the Retina 15″, to decrease thickness and weight.
Last year’s 15″ MBP features quad-core processing and that, too, is approaching the diminishing returns point (assuming a fast SSD is fitted, which mine has, and better technology that Apple’s, and maximum RAM). This last point is significant: if the SSD is fast, it can be used as virtual memory when necessary; the differences in opening another app and in saving are very significant over any speed Hard Disk Drive (HDD).
Up until now, I have run a 13″ MBP alongside the 15″ MBP, both fitted with the same Mercury SSDs; using both means I can keep working while the bigger machine crunches the most recent 1,000 image shoot, or is rendering and sending a HD video out to a FireWire drive, for uploading to YT. This dual-machine system has worked very well for a year or so. I did not keep these machines synced; I simply copied the ‘main’ machine’s Documents folder over onto the 13″ MBP from time to time. More on this below.
Coincidentally, when the latest MacBook Air 13″ surfaced, the 13″ MBP started developing possibly terminal hardware problems (faulty logic board, we think), so I went off to the Apple store near the Uni (thanks Tristan!) to check the new Air out. I have owned earlier iterations of both the 11″ and 13″ MBAs, but sold them both and replaced them with the now-ailing 13″ MBP: the earlier Airs were, I felt, too compromised on the performance side) while definitely ticking the portability box), and the Solid State Drives they incorporated were not the best; are not able to be changed by the owner and, the worst aspect, the glass screens were virtually unusable in any airports: reflection city. The 13″ MBP, on the other hand, has no such limitations (apart from its shiny glass screen), and I had fitted a Mercury SSD that was both less expensive and a faster, longer-lived, performer (anyone wanting to know more about this performance aspect over time, check out the term load-leveling).
And looking at the latest MBA’s glass screen in the Apple store, I realised that my #1 complaint about the earlier MBAs was moot: the new model has an extremely effective coating that reduces reflections to a completely tolerable level; not quite as effective as the made-to-order matte screen on the 15″ MBP, but very close. Further, using Geekbench, the new top spec MBA (with the i7 chip), max. RAM and a 256GB SSD, scored 7,500; and despite the extra cores, my quad-core 15″ MBP scored only 10,300—the Air’s real-world performance that is definitely in the same ‘ball park’. No DVD SuperDrive, but I do have the external version for the MPA, for when needed.
If one runs two computers, instantly a major potential problem arises: how do you (or do you?), keep them in sync? And, if so, are we talking softwares and data (documents) or does the on-the-road machine have a lighter software suite, but with the same documents? I decided the latter, but the problem of how to keep the documents synced remained: one’s memory is just not reliable enough to recall which articles/notes spreadsheets one wrote or updated while away. Copying 15GB of Document folder back over the other machine takes quite a while, too. So, I started to investigate the software options.
Before I begin this thread, though, I should mention that I am running Mountain Lion on both machines, so Contacts, Mail, Bookmarks in Safari and so on are all synced automatically. When I say “documents” I am talking everything you can priduce on a computer, from a new YT clip to edited images in Aperture to written (word processed) documents and spreadsheets—I need these to be the same on both machines, and for this to be a simple easy process, because I used to sometimes take the bigger machine on the road if I anticipated a lot of editing (and the bigger screen makes this a little easier, too) but I always resented the weight.
ChronoSync won me over (you can trial, for a month, the full version; you need to really test a software before buying, in my view, and it has to be a full version at that—why don’t more software developers understand this?). Anyhow, I had been working on the MBA, and wanted to update the Documents folder on the 15″ MBP, using the MBA as the source. So, using the nifty Thunderbolt–FW800 connecter, I fired up the 15″ machine in Target mode, and ChronoSync went to work. It blazed away (it seems to have very clever algorithms that know whether a file is changed, or is new) and within five or six minutes, the sync was complete. Much faster than brute copying the whole folder. Most of that time was spent actually copying, too; excellent software design. Checking revealed a large number of files I had forgotten I had changed or created were now, in fact, identical on the MBP. I used the “Synchronise Bi-Directional” mode (there are many others) because its use achieves two identical versions on the two machines, including deletions (after the first sync); it operates in both directions across both machines, and thus automatically makes a faithful backup as a consequence as well. I do run TimeMachine on both computers, too (but you can’t be too careful in this regard).
One final part of the puzzle remained: wanting better security for internet passwords (my natural nervousness in this regard having been moved to DEFCON 5 by THIS article on Ars Technica), how could I implement better passwords and usernames and keep these in sync over both machines—because only the nature of the day’s work determines which machine I choose to take out the door?
I tried all the options suggested in the Ars Technica article, and settled on 1Password: an elegant interface that not only has the best security the industry can offer presently, it also has a random password that can be configured (length, number of number characters, etc. to better fit any password restrictions on particular sites), all the usual potential problems about needing to enter a current password while generating/changing to a new one have been anticipated and solved; and the “Vault” (the super-secure place all this info is kept) has one other unexpected and wonderful other feature, the “Wallet”.
This is where you keep all credit card details: and, identically to the “Logins” window, you can copy and paste from there to a shop site easily. No more miss-types of 13+ account numbers: do it once properly, and you are good to go. I spent an afternoon one day, and a morning the next, and not only was all the info. entered, I had re-checked it, all is now accurate AND all my usual logins feature 20-character versions, randomly generated, including some numerical characters.
One last problem remained: how to have the Vault on both machines? I went back to the 1Password’s on-line user’s manual, and found that DropBox is perfectly integrated with it, and I had installed DropBox on both machines already. All I needed to do was to go in to 1Password’s preferences and tell it to use DropBox—and immediately it began syncing the plist file that contains all the Vault’s encrypted data with its cloud.
I loaded up 1Password on to the 15″ MBP (I bought the Family Pack so Olivia’s passwords can be made more secure), and Dropbox loaded the data file into the second machine’s version of 1Password as soon as the software was started. I then spent the morning on the second machine, still a bit worried about whether all the new passwords I was generating on the 15″ machine would sync back to the MBS, but the worry was needless. As soon as I opened the MBA, Dropbox went to work and synced the 1Password date file back the other way—and opening the Vault revealed the morning’s work. I was impressed, frankly.
So: the upshot? I take whatever machine I want out the door, either to a photo job or to the airport, and I know that any new passwords that I might need to create will sync automatically, as soon as the other machine is connected to a network. And all I need to do to sync documents and videos (more on this below) is to do the Bi-Directional sync using ChronoSync when I get back home.
The final note I want to sound here is that, against expectations, the MBA with a USB3 drive attached is perfectly capable of editing 720p HD video. A MacBook Air: small and light enough to fit in an envelope! Before I edited the most recent YT clip, I did not think this would be possible (first, because I did not know if USB3 would work for HD and Final cut Studio; it’s a fickle beast in this regard), and because the Thunderbolt port is needed to run the 30″ Cinema HD display in my setup in the studio, meaning that I could not run the usual FW800 external HDDs via this port). But now I can say this tiny system works perfectly: I have a high-def video editing suite that weighs practically nothing.
I will write another blog on the other part of the video-creation on-the-road puzzle: what to shoot the video with? Stay tuned.