As a graduate student, life is all about budgets. I have to budget my time, my space, my energy, and, most of all, my money.
I don't have any problem spending money when I need to. I dropped a good sum of money for Scrivener, OmniFocus, Sente, and other pieces of software without ever looking back. Buying an iPad was perhaps the best tech purchase I've ever made. Purchases like these help me be more productive and they support the developers behind the sort of software and hardware I want to see more of. It's the purchases that are merely fun or only moderately useful that I have to be careful about. Before I make a purchase I always ask myself why I want to buy something. If I don't have a good enough answer - and I often don't - I don't buy it.
When I am going to go ahead and make a purchase, I ask myself whether or not I can economize on it. When the iPad Air came out, I bought an iPad 2. When the iPhone 5 came out, I bought an iPhone 4s. When Apple "updated" iPhoto and caused disastrous problems with it, I bought a $9.99 alternative rather than a $79.99+ one.
This post is not about the best technology hardware or software. Rather, it's about how to economize while still using lots of technology to be more productive.
Going paperless presents some extra challenges when a 13" laptop is your only screen, as it is for me (an external monitor is cheap, but I don't have the physical space for it and I travel frequently). For the most part, I can still do paperless for everything in my personal life and for a great deal of the everyday organizational work in my professional life. My research and writing workflows, on the other hand, are still fairly paper intensive.
As I've written before, I use Scrivener for both take notes and writing up projects. However, I don't have enough screen real estate to make substantial use of its split screen view, which would let me put my notes on one half of the screen and my current writing on the other. When I'm writing up a research paper I often have physical printouts of notes I took in the archive. Sometimes I also turn my Scrivener notes into PDFs that I display on my iPad. It's not the most elegant solution, but it works. And frankly it is nice to be able to physically highlight and jot notes on a sheet of paper sometimes when you're engaging with it in a really rigorous way.
In many ways, the iPad plays the role of an external monitor or bigger laptop screen. I use it to display PDFs that I cannot easily highlight (e.g. photocopies of handwritten archival sources or 19th century books from Google Books that don't OCR well) while I take notes on my laptop - or vice versa. I also use it to pull up scanned documents from my Dropbox while I make a spreadsheet for my personal finances, do my taxes, or fill out a travel reimbursement form on my laptop. You can even make it an actual second monitor for your laptop using Air Display.
"Good enough" apps
List apps like Remember The Milk have some nice features that Reminders - the free, built-in Apple app - lacks. But Reminders gets the job done just fine. Apple's Calendar is no BusyCal, but it also gets the job done - especially with the recent update to it in Mavericks. It's fun and useful to have the latest and greatest apps, but it can also be expensive.
Here are some other free or cheap programs that are "good enough" when compared to their arguably better, but definitely pricier alternatives.
- Unbound (photo management). The latest update turned iPhoto into an unstable mess, but a photo library management program like Aperture is too expensive. At $9.99, Unbound does a good job turning a folder and file photo storage system into easy to browse albums.
- Apple's Podcasts app (podcasts). If you don't move back and forth from your phone to your computer when listening to a single podcast, then you don't really need something like Downcast. I've been very pleased with the basic podcast app for the past year or so; before that, it did seem to have some frustrating glitches and limitations.
- Skim (PDFs). This nifty app is probably the best Mac program for annotating PDFs. It doesn't handle forms especially well. Nor does it have some of the powerful under-the-hood features of expensive PDF apps like PDF Pen Pro. However, it does most jobs just fine.
- Genius Scan (scanning). A Scansnap scanner sounds incredibly convenient: you put your documents in a tray and it scans them in for you. However, the starting price at $250 (for the basic model) puts it out of my price range. Genius Scan requires me to take photos of documents myself, but it does a really good job processing them. It also has the advantage of not taking up any desk real estate.
Hardware from an earlier generation
The latest iPhone or Macbook Air positively beckons to you when you walk into an Apple store or go to the web store. But I'll let you in on a little secret: if you buy a new, but generation-behind iPhone it is shiny too. It also comes with all the trim and wrapping. It smells and feels new. And it's cheaper.
Adopting the latest generation of tech often comes with hidden costs. For instance, if you like to have car and office chargers for your iPhone, buying the latest version would require you to replace your older ones. You'd also need a new protector case, if that's your thing. Switching from a Macbook or Macbook Pro to a Macbook Air would probably require you to buy a CD/DVD external drive (which doesn't come with the Air), a USB port (if you want to use several USB devices at once), and possibly some new connector dongles. Applecare can sometimes also be more expensive for new generation devices.
In addition to cost, there is also the question of need. We've reached a point where low-end processors and graphics chip sets/cards are all most people need in a laptop or phone. The one exception is RAM: more of it does make a difference in laptops. Thankfully, RAM is a whole lot cheaper than most other computer components so it's something to splurge on without breaking the bank.
The costs for an iPad, iPhone, or Macbook Air mount really, really fast when you start to choose big hard drives. Having a 64 gb hard drive for your iPhone can be really convenient, but do you really need it?
I get by with the bare minimum storage space in my devices - including an 8gb iPhone and a 16gb iPad. Sure, I can only have a couple movies, half a season of a television show, and a thousand photos on my iPad at a time (alongside my apps). I also can't really have 1-2gb media-rich iBooks on there unless I take off a movie. But you know what, that's not a very big deal. It really isn't. All it requires is a bit of forethought before you get on a plane or go to visit some relatives so you can choose the media you want. Even if you have 128gb, you're still not going to be able to fit *all* your media on it - probably not even half of it - so you still face the problem of choosing what you want.
It's really not necessary to get a massive computer hard drive either. A 2 TB external hard drive can be had for $120 these days. Put your media on there and cycle what you need on to your actual computer. We're also getting a lot of our media via streaming these days (Netflix, Spotify, Flickr, etc.), so that renders big internal hard drives less necessary. Be sure to make a backup of your external media hard drive, however.
Not having the absolute latest and greatest technology can actually help to put you in the right mental space to work. Dealing with older hardware and mediocre software sometimes can remind you that you are a writer who happens to use (and, perhaps, to geek out over) technology - not a tech geek who happens to write.
[image courtesy of 401k2013]