I Am Not A Power User

My relationship with technology has changed a lot since high school. I used to be a power user. I preferred desktops to laptops and built them from scratch with parts I bought online.

Today I use a MacBook Pro with very few customizations.

From Gentoo To Ubuntu

College is a very interesting time for most people. A lot of people will leave home for college. For the first time, they’ll have to fend for themselves. I picked the University of Pittsburgh Bradford as my university because its was the Pitt campus furthest from my home town.

In college, I was searching for myself. Which is incredibly hard when you’re pretending you’re already perfect. I was friends with several other Computer Science students. The CS program at UPB was small, which meant that I hung out with a few upperclassmen.

The open source community has a lot of purity tests and none is more powerful than “which Linux distribution do you use?” In high school, I used Red Hat. But now I was in college and wanted to impress my new friends. I installed Gentoo. Gentoo isn’t an operating system as much as its a DIY project: depending on the type of install you could be compiling everything in the system.

I used Gentoo for a few months. During finals week, I had a big paper due. But my computer had a problem and I needed to reinstall the operating system and all my software. At the time, I used OpenOffice and would export my papers to Microsoft Word format to turn them in. Compiling OpenOffice took four days on my meager hardware. I ended up finishing the paper in the computer lab. But I learned a valuable lesson.

What I needed was a usable system. I didn’t need to control every tiny thing about that system. While on winter break, I switch to Ubuntu. The ability to get my work done was more important than doing everything myself.

From Ubuntu to macOS

I used Ubuntu for several years. I switched between window managers a lot, but eventually settled on KDE. When I was getting ready to leave college, I knew I wanted a laptop. I started shopping around, but at this time, there was very little hardware support in Linux.

I had another problem. Every few months, an Ubuntu update would break a bunch of drivers. The biggest offenders were the wireless card and graphics driver for my Nvidia card. I’d lose my internet connectivity and my windowing environment.

While looking for a new computer, I knew I had to solve these issues. I started looking for laptops based on the following criteria:

  1. Unix Stack
  2. Reliability
  3. Portability

This set of requirements brought me to macOS. Not having to compile these drivers every six months left me with a very productive workflow. Again, the need to get work done and the need to trust my tools pushed me away from being a power user.

From Custom ROMs to Stock Mobile

My first smartphone was the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon. I convinced my company at the time to let me pay for this phone on the company plan so I could get the phone I wanted instead of the Windows Phones the company typically purchased. This meant that I paid for the phone and would own it, but it would be attached to the company ‘splan and company device management until I left.

When I bought this phone I did much of the same customization I did on Linux. I installed an automation tool called Tasker that let me set routines. I installed a custom launcher where I could tweak all the behavior and get it dialed in just right.

I even unlocked the boot loader and installed several custom ROMs to get even more customization

All this tinkering and root access left my phone pretty unstable. And even though my phone had a replaceable battery and the extended battery, it still didn’t last through most days. The bluetooth on some of the ROMs would cut out and apps would crash a lot.

Eventually, I switched from that phone to an iPhone. I didn’t jailbreak the iPhone, but rather, I used it stock. When I switched back to a Google Pixel, I didn’t bother with custom launchers or weird power tools. Android had matured a lot, but even the things I wanted to customize didn’t matter as much as having a stable tool.

These Are All Just Tools

That’s the big lesson. These are all just tools. In a video touring his studio, Casey Neistat showed off his wall of cameras, many of which were broken. He goes on to talk about how he views cameras as tools. They aren’t precious and they aren’t toys.

Although the domain is much different, I identify a lot with this view point. What I need from my laptop and phone is a tool. These devices aren’t for me to show off how cool something is, or to have the latest shiny thing. They are for me to get work done.

I recently switched back to an iPhone 11 Pro. This switch wasn’t because I think iOS is fundamentally better than Android. I happen to think they’re fairly comparable in terms of features. I made the switch for one important reason: the iPhone battery life was longer.

Being a power user is great when that power lets you get more done. My developer tools are filled with power user extensions and customizations that have all earned a spot in my toolchain by improving my productivity. But I don’t need power user features for every tool that I use. Sometimes, I need an out of the box solution that lets me get work done.