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From Issue #4 November 22, 2012

One Computer Worked Better

A single machine is more efficient than syncing between two.

By Ben Brooks Twitter icon 

Recently, I mentioned in passing how I had moved from a one-computer setup to a two-computer setup: keeping one machine at work and one at home. I further differentiated the machines by only having work-related items on the work machine (so Mail.app only had my work email account on it, and so forth). My work-only machine was my MacBook Air, while the computer at home, a Retina MacBook Pro, had both work and personal stuff on it.

This seemed like an ideal split: I never sent email from the wrong account, I felt more efficient at work, and I only had to carry my iPad from home to work and back. But it was only a few weeks before the drawbacks set in and I reverted to a single machine that I always bring with me.

Before I divided my life into these two computers, I had predicted that the speed differences between them and the lack of a Retina display on the MacBook Air would bug me. But in fact, I didn’t notice these hardware factors most of the time. The real reason I went back to just one machine is that it remains too hard to switch seamlessly between two machines without missing a beat.

Yes, I can synchronize files using Dropbox and keep documents and other settings up to date with iCloud. Those services get you close, but they fall short of the seamlessness that I want while working. Every switch is jarring, reducing my efficiency and causing me to duplicate efforts.

For instance, I use Keyboard Maestro to handle macros. It neither has synchronization built in nor allows a straightforward way to keep sequences up to date across multiple computers. The support wiki notes, “So to sync the macros file you must ensure the Keyboard Maestro editor is not running on the target Mac, and you must explicitly ask the target engine to reload the macros after the sync.” This is exactly the sort of thing I didn’t want to have to manage.

If a Keyboard Maestro macro was only made on one machine, not the other, I couldn’t use that macro without remaking it. More often, I edited the macro on one machine and not the other, which is actually more annoying because I remember neither the small edit nor which one was edited, creating inconsistencies when working across the two machines.

I ran into a number of other problems that didn’t seem to be as significant at first. I’d find I had installed an app on one machine, but not the one I was using. I would forget to log out of Messages. I disliked having to take the time to install updates on two different machines when, in my working style, I wanted both to be identical, as if they were the same computer.

But what put me over the line was not being able to keep the “state” of both machines the same. Even though I use Coda 2 on both Macs, if I was working on a code change on one Mac right before I had to leave, I would need to:

  • Save all changes.
  • Head home or to work.
  • Open Coda 2 on the second machine.
  • Connect to the site.
  • Re-open every file I had open on the other computer.
  • Remember which file I was editing, and which line.

That’s not horrible, but it was a huge pain. With two machines, you simply cannot step from one machine to the next and pick up work where you left off. (You could argue that Coda 2 could make this easier, but then you’d need to consider that every piece of software should preserve state across multiple computers.)

From my working perspective, the two-computer setup was like having a malfunctioning magic desk. All of the papers would be transported from one desk to another, regardless of where it was, with no effort — except that, when I arrived at the new desk, all of my papers were mysteriously mixed up. Sure, the papers were all there and ready to use, but they weren’t where I left them.

I returned to lugging around a Retina MacBook Pro rather than having to deal with the constant “setting up this desktop to match the other desktop” routine. Until the precise working environment of a computer seamlessly shifts from place to place, one computer just works better.

Ben Brooks is a commercial property manager by day in Lakewood, Washington. He has a passion for talking about technology, and he writes with that passion on The Brooks Review.

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