In Praise of Disposable Computing

The days of keeping your data locked inside a big hard drive on one machine are over.

The new MacBook Air.

I was sold on Apple’s new 11-inch MacBook Air the moment the TSA announced that airline passengers will not have to remove them from their bags during security screening. Because the machine is smaller than a standard laptop, the TSA classifies it as something akin to an e-reader, tablet, or netbook. (This does not apply to the larger 13-inch MacBook Air.) For years, I’ve been searching for a laptop that’s as portable as a netbook but doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out while using it. The new Air is that machine; I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and it’s the best notebook computer I’ve ever owned.

Some readers might find this hard to believe. On paper, the entry-level $999 Air looks subpar. Its processor isn’t nearly as fast as that of a full-size machine, and its screen is too vertically scrunched. The biggest problem, though, seems to be its limited disk space—there’s only 64GB of room for all your files, less than any other computer Apple offers. (The Air uses solid-state flash storage, which is faster and smaller than a traditional mechanical hard drive. It’s also more expensive—for an obscene $200 more, Apple will give you a 128-gigabyte solid state drive.)

But these limitations don’t bother me very much. I was looking for a laptop as a secondary machine, not for getting a lot of daily work done. The Air’s portability and five-hour battery life were more important to me than its screen and speed (which are quite good for most tasks, I’ve found, and certainly better than most netbooks I’ve used). The fact that I can get that portability in a machine with a full-sized trackpad and keyboard—indeed, this is one of the most comfortable keyboards available on a laptop of any size—was a bonus. Still, there was the issue of disk space. How would I make do with a computer that offered less room than some iPods?

Actually, that didn’t bother me either. I store nearly every bit of important data in my life digitally—my photos, movies, music, years of audio recordings of journalistic interviews, all my columns and reporting notes, about a decade of e-mail, and other miscellanea take up many hundreds of gigabytes of space. Nevertheless, it’s been years since I’ve run out of room on a machine, and often when I’m done with a computer I’ve got very little to delete from it.

How do I do this? It’s a deliberate strategy, one that I call “disposable computing.” I manage each computer as if I’m going to throw it away tomorrow. This allows me to switch between computers easily; I can use many machines at the same time, and I can transfer all my stuff from an old computer to a new one without much hassle. This strategy takes a bit of work up front, but that work pays off. Because most of my data is accessible everywhere, I’m rarely at a loss for what I need—whatever computer I’m using, and wherever I happen to be. What’s more, I don’t need to worry about the storage space on any single computer I buy—I don’t need to shell out $200 to Apple for a bigger drive, because I’ve got that covered already.

The basic idea of disposable computing is to separate your data from your machine—to make all of your stuff easy to move and access. The main thing you’ll need is a good, fast, big external hard drive. I’ve got a 1-terrabyte USB drive that I keep connected to my main household machine, a fast Windows 7 desktop. The external drive houses most of my data; I keep my music, movies, photos, documents, and other large files there. There’s one major advantage to storing all this stuff on an external drive: It’s portable. When I get a new computer, all I’ve got to do is plug the drive into the new machine to get my stuff.

The data on my external hard drive isn’t just available to the computer it’s attached to. I’ve also configured my home network to make all the stuff on my external drive accessible to other computers in my house. Even though there’s only 64 gigabytes of local storage on my new MacBook, it actually has access to many hundreds of gigabytes of material whenever I’m at home. I’d be a fool, then, to ever pay for more space. (Here are some basic instructions on how to make your music and other files from one machine accessible throughout your home. You could also use “network-attached storage” if you don’t want to keep a single machine turned on all the time, but that tends to be slightly more expensive and a bit more complicated to set up.)

I also use several online services to liberate me from storing data locally. Because I use Gmail and Google Calendar for my e-mail and appointments, I can get at that data from any computer or other device that’s connected to the Web. This also reduces the chance of data theft—if someone steals my laptop, they won’t find any private e-mail. I use Google’s Chrome Web browser because it’s speedy and cross-platform, and also because it offers easy-to-use bookmark syncing. As I switch from one computer to the next, my browsing experience follows me; anything I save on one computer is instantly available on every other one.

I use Google Docs for collaboration—my wife and I, for instance, keep a Docs spreadsheet with our family budget. But the most important tool I use for document-sharing is Dropbox, an amazing app that lets you sync your files to multiple machines across the Internet. Dropbox—which works on the Mac, Windows, Linux, Apple’s iOS devices, Android, and BlackBerry—sets up a special folder on your computer. Anything you put in this folder becomes available anywhere else you’ve got DropBox. I use Dropbox to store all my Word and Excel documents and my reporting notes. When I bought my new MacBook, all I had to do to get all of my documents was sign in to DropBox.

This makes for a tremendously flexible working experience. As I’ve explained before, I store most of the important notes in my life in a giant text file—it contains notes on every interview I conduct, story ideas, to-do lists, grocery lists, and lots of other information that streams into my life. I used to have to e-mail that file to myself so that I could get access to it everywhere. Now I just store it in DropBox, and it comes in handy all the time. A couple weeks ago, I was writing a column while traveling in Austin and needed access to an interview I’d conducted months earlier. With Dropbox, it was right there—I just searched through the text file and got what I needed. (There’s a free version of Dropbox that offers 2 GB of storage space; you can pay $10 or $20 a month to get 50 or 100 GB.)

Disposable computing isn’t for everyone just yet. My way of using computers—trying my hand on many of them at the same time, and switching from old machines to new ones at the drop of a hat—is far from the norm. But that’s changing. The average American household now contains more than 2 computers (PDF), and with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices, that number is rising fast. The days of keeping your data locked inside a big hard drive on one machine are over; the future is portability and disposability. Just pretend you’re going to get rid of your computer tomorrow—you’ll be happy you did.

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