Site recommendation: The Wirecutter

This isn’t always the case but it nearly is. And it’s worth trying every single time. If you want to buy some new computer or other hardware but you don’t know what’s the best thing to get, go to The Wirecutter.

It just tells you. This is the best – and why. This is the best for that budget, this is the best at this or that. It’s very straight and straightforward so the only problem I’ve found is that it’s American. If you’re visiting it from the UK as I am, the site recognises that and offers to swap all the links to be instead of That’s very smart and nicely done.

But sometimes you’ll find things it recommends just aren’t available here. So it’s not a guaranteed route to get everything, but for narrowing choices, for seeing what options there are, for judging what features are worth what to you, it’s good. For the many times when it does have exactly what you need and you can get it here, it’s excellent.

The 5 tools you need for writing, definitely

Actually, you could do this with three and those would be:

1) Computer
PCs are cheaper, Macs are better. I vote Mac because I put a big value on the time I no longer have to spend piddling about getting Windows to damn well work. But Macs don’t suit everyone; if you like piddling, save yourself some bucks and get more geeky enjoyment with a PC.


If you’re buying a PC, you have a million options and every one ends up with you having to make a choice between models that have some clear and obvious difference like a 1Mhz speed increase or something. Ignore salespeople, they will – seriously – just read you the spec sheet you were already puzzling over. Instead, ask a friend who has one, get their recommendation and then see if you can find it on the end of this Amazon UK link. That way, if it all works out for you, I get some pennies from your having bought this way and if it doesn’t, it’s your friend who gets your support calls. Everybody wins and it costs me nothing.

If you’re buying a Mac, you’ve fewer options and they always end up with you needing to make a choice between two very similar models. In all cases, save money by buying the cheaper processor speed and spend money on extra RAM and extra storage space. You’ll thank me later, which is nice as I am going to suggest an Amazon link – here it is, do check this out – but I also think you should go into an Apple Store and ask there.

If you’re looking at me like that for the bit about processor speeds and RAM, Apple Store staff will just tell you straight what Macs are good for and not so good for. They’ll ask what you expect to be doing with Mac: be honest. Tell them straight that you should be writing but you’re going to distract yourself with a photography habit that you only do to be social, that you can stop any time.

They will translate processor speeds – actually, no, they won’t bother translating, they’ll just tell you what it means in terms you can use. And Apple Store staff are not on commission so they’ll push this stuff but it’s more from genuine enthusiasm.

Last, if you’re havering between a laptop, desktop or tablet computer, they all work, they all do the job. You will just typically get more done on the desktop, you will be substantially freer with the laptop and the iPad will do everything, everywhere but you need to think about it more as you go.

2) Word processor
Microsoft Word if you have to, if it’s already on your computer or if you know you like it. Google Docs is fine, if a bit clunky looking. If you did buy a Mac, you’ve just got yourself a word processor called Pages and the odds are that you may never need anything else.

3) Email
How else are you going to deliver work? It’s also great for pitches. Just for god’s sake make sure you get a sensible email address.

Get and use these three and you’re away to the races. But I’d recommend two more:

4) Somewhere to track what and where and when your work is
I track invoices in the Numbers spreadsheet and jobs in Evernote. I track tasks in OmniFocus and I keep an eye on my week with Calendar in Mac OS X.

So this would be one of the five tools and I’m saying it’s – wait, counts on fingers – four different applications. Yes. You could do it all in your word processor though. And the time it would take you to pick up and figure out all these applications would probably be better spent at first on learning what your word processor can do. You’re smart, you can use anything but they all have nooks and crannies that are worth exploring for how they may be able to speed up your work.

When you know your word processor well, though, then start branching out into these others.

5) Kettle
Enough said.

But I hate computers

Writers tend to think I am very technical. Every technical person I know thinks I'm an idiot. I'd like to say that the truth is between the two, but that suggests it's in the middle whereas I suspect I'm only a pixel away from the idiot side. But it's a significant pixel to me because whatever I am capable of ever understanding technically, I did also choose to walk away. I chose to leave computing and go into first media, then journalism, then drama. And I wouldn't change that.

But you don't forget any dabbling you do in technology, just as you never really forget anything if you were raised Catholic. And it is certainly true that I spend my days surrounded by this stuff and might even be said to wallow in it all.

Except it's not technology. It's not computing. At least, it isn't to me.

There is a very easy way to say that, for instance, this morning I have been heavily using iTunes Radio, Pages, Numbers, Excel, Word, Mail, OmniFocus, Editorial, Final Cut Pro X, iMessages and possibly more. Reeder. That's another one. Pocket, a bit.

But I had to think about that. If you had asked me what I'd done so far today I'd have told you I cooked breakfasts, drafted a radio proposal, emailed a lot of people about a lot of things, done my regular financial stuff, got up to date with everything I'm supposed to be working on. I put the bins out and emptied the dishwasher. I would never imagine, never conceive of telling you the make and model number of my dishwasher. It's my dishwasher and I cannot remember what type it is, I just know dirty plates in, clean plates out.

When I like technology, it is enabling me to do something more interesting than play with technology. Yet telling you any of this always sounds like a list of software and hardware – usually iPads more than dishwashers, but there you go – and I'm thinking that's a barrier.

Yes, if you use all these tools they will help you stay creative yet become more productive. Guaranteed.

What I can't guarantee is which tools will help you: for something as abstract and technical as software, applications are vividly too personal to make grand recommendations or rules. I know this, you know this, but in the talking about it all and what might help you most with what, I end up sounding like a geek rather than a writer. I'd be okay with that if I thought I were and if I knew it would be of use to you, but I geek out and imagine every real technical person I know stepping away from me.

Use this stuff. Start with whatever you've already got: you're a writer, you write on a computer, there is no question but that it can do more for you than you realise or you let it. And when you've poked around a bit with that, then start looking into other applications and tools to help you more. You will find them, at some point you will become addicted to them, and you will find that they are not just useful, they are transforming.

I'm not kidding.

Ten months 0% finance offer at Apple

Apparently only available in some parts of Europe – I just checked, the UK is one of the parts – this is a nice deal from Apple. I bought my office iMac through a similar deal last year and it was handy to keep my capital and only pay out a portion each month.

Mind you, it was also nice when the months ended and I could call the iMac my own. Just about the day my ten-months interest-free payment ended, though, Apple brought out a new iMac. It's as if they knew. The cunning rascals.

There are terms and conditions on this deal and you should eye them up carefully. See for details.

But the key points begin with the fact that you can only get the deal on hardware (seemingly you might include some software through the store's attempts to upsell you). Next, it's 0% financing for ten months and this is separate from Apple's longer-term financing deals. I don't know anything about those. But they don't get any of this 0% lark.

Last and maybe a killer point: you have to spend over aproximately £450. But then this is the Apple Store, you can do it. The iPad Air that I raved about here the other day starts from £399 but I would (and did) spend more by getting one with greater capacity. The new iPad mini with Retina display starts at £319 but bung in more capacity or a Smart Cover and you're away


If you only buy one productivity aid this Christmas, make it…

…an iPad Air.

I used to think I relied on my old, original iPad but it was a toy compared to the new iPad Air. Mind you, I did give my old one to my mother about two months before the new model came out so I had a lot of time to notice how much I was missing having one. Actually, my OmniFocus work fell off badly: if you don’t know OmniFocus, I should tell you that it’s a kind of bionic To Do manager that pretty much completely runs my life. If you are now intrigued by OmniFocus, I have to warn you that it only runs on Apple gear. It’s also comparatively expensive – well, it’s expensive when you compare it to all the free To Do apps; it is not in the slightest bit expensive when you contrast it to how much use it has been for me.

One of the things it does is let you focus only on what has to be done right now and what can be done right now. It does that by hiding away everything else but that only works, that can only be allowed to work, if you periodically review everything on your list. There’s a thing called Review. It’s not wonderful on the Mac version of OmniFocus, it doesn’t exist at all on the iPhone version, but it is gorgeousness incarnate on the iPad one. So good that you are fooled into thinking it’s an easy thing to look at all your tasks and then as you go through everything, it’s so remarkably easy to see what you’ve got to do that you tend to just go get it done. I timed myself once for The Blank Screen book, just finding out how long a typical review took me and I was astonished that it was two hours.

In those two hours, I reviewed about fifty different projects with a total of, I don’t know, a couple of hundred tasks. I found I’d already done a lot of them – I want to say thirty, I’m not sure now – and as I went through them all and saw ones like “Email Bert to ask for your spanner back” I’d email Bert to ask for my spanner back. By the end of the two hours, I’d marked off many more tasks as done. And most importantly of all, I knew where I was with every project.

And could immediately forget it all. Forget it, knowing that it was all in hand and that it was all in OmniFocus. Knowing that if it wasn’t something that would come up in the next couple of days, I would at least see it during the next review. I could concentrate on now. The fact that you can park the thinking and churning and worrying about things you can’t do yet and instead put all that engine effort into what you can, it’s life-changing.

Except it fell over completely when I gave away my iPad.

So the first thing I installed on my new iPad Air last month was OmniFocus. I swear to you that I breathed out. And I thought that would be something to tell you, I thought that would be enough to tell you, all by itself.

Except you may already know that iPad Airs have a ten-hour battery life. What I did not expect is that I would use up that battery life almost every day. The ten hours is true, actually the ten hours is conservative, but I use the iPad so much that I have had to charge it up again nearly every night. Don’t take that as a criticism of the battery, take it as a gulping assessment of how very, very much I use this machine.

Most of what you may have read on The Blank Screen blog was written on that iPad Air. I’ve written thousands of words on it in just the three or four weeks I’ve had it. 

And yesterday, Angela needed my bag as a prop for a play and that meant I couldn’t carry my iPad around with me all day. (As sturdy as it is, it’s also so light you can’t believe it’s strong so I’m looking for a case but haven’t found one I like yet.) I swear to you I got itchy. 

And that’s when I realised I am now life-support-dependent on my iPad Air. 

Have a look at them yourself. If you happened to choose to go through this Amazon link and then bought an iPad Air or maybe a car, I’d see some cash coming my way. But check it out on Apple’s own store instead: they have a lot more detail and some particularly well-made videos about the product.

Go to a real-life Apple Store too: just walk in and pick one of these up. I was working in Paris the day they came out and I tried one in a store there but wasn’t all that impressed with the apparent lightness. I was by the speed and the gorgeous display. Now that I have one, I’m very impressed with the display, the speed and the lightness too. Maybe I was wearing thick gloves that first time. I don’t kow.