Thoughts on being a “power user” (1/3)

Every so often I come across the term “power user”. It’s used to describe people who are more knowledgeable and capable than the casual or regular users are. Now it’s pretty obvious that this definition leaves a lot of room in considering somebody a power user or not. People seem to generally agree you don’t become one by just memorizing a couple of hotkeys. However it doesn’t require anyone to reach perfection if you ask me. Anybody being clearly way above average qualifies.

Oh, and of course you can be a power user in one field while remaining a complete novice in other areas. I’m somewhat familiar with *nix operating systems and have invested quite a bit of time in becoming a better user. If I’m to do graphics manipulation however, it doesn’t make so much of a difference for me whether I use the GIMP or Tux Paint as that simply isn’t my field of expertise at all…

In this three-post article I’ll write about some of the things that might matter to anybody who would like to make more of his or her PC-related skills. A lot of that depends on what you are actually doing, so not everything that I mention might apply to the same degree for you. I’m a sysadmin by profession, but I know a bit of a programmer’s perspective, too. Still I think the interested hobbyist or people who work with computers all day will find some tips on how to increase efficiency in their workflows. Especially the points in this first post are pretty general and should apply to just about anybody since it’s about hardware.

1) Touch typing – and considering your layout

An obvious activity to improve your skills in using a computer is to learn touch typing. I recommend to learn it as early as possible: It’ll help you through most of your life after you start doing it. Also it’s not as hard as it might seem. Decide that you want to do it and practice for a few weeks. That’s all. It’s completely sufficient to learn to type without looking at the keyboard. Even if you stop practicing there, your speed will improve as you keep typing. If you enjoy it, by all means do practice speed at least a little! There’s a lot to be gained here. But basic touch typing is enough to be counted as a valuable skill. You’ll get faster just by doing it anyway.

There is free training software out there (I recommend klavaro). But before you run off to learn it, do a little research on the net first! Learning QWERTY (or whatever the default layout in your country is) certainly works. But it’s not actually a good layout at all. If you already learned QWERTY, well, too bad. You might consider re-learning touch typing with a different layout, but there is less gain to it than a lot of people would say is worth the effort. I was a QWERTZ (German standard keyboard) typist and went through the ordeal of re-learning. It took time. It definitely was hard. And it required quite a bit of resolve. However it means that I can type without pain in my wrists again and that alone was well worth it. In fact it feels a lot better so that it’s more fun to type, too.

Would I recommend getting used to an alternative layout if you already know a standard one? It depends. I’d certainly not recommend it to everybody. If you are typing a lot and you feel that you’re young enough to benefit from the change, then go for it! Otherwise stick to what you already know and do well.

But if you’re just planning to learn touch typing, please look at what ergonomic layouts are available for your language. People whose native language is English might want to take a look at Colemak or Dvorak. For the German-speaking I can really recommend NEO² (and also for people who need a lot of special characters and e.g. the whole Greek alphabet in both upper and lower case). Just learn it properly (i.e. not QWERTY!) right from the start.

If you’re at all interested in why QWERTY is not a good layout for us today and how it came to be, I recommend the DvorakZine. They offer a PDF that explains it all with a very nice and informative comic.

2) Input devices

In case the previous paragraph was not for you (i.e. you don’t touch type and you don’t want to learn it either), you can skip this one, too. It doesn’t make sense to determine which keyboard and mouse is right for you and invest a nice sum of money if all you’re ever going to do is typing with a couple of fingers only anyway. You won’t profit from the ergonomic principles applied to the device design. Get anything that you’re comfortable with and be happy that you saved the expenses.

If you do touch type however, consider your options. A lot of people swear by their mechanical switches. Especially if you’re a fast typist do yourself a favor and think about using ergonomic devices. Yes, they can be expensive. And yes, it takes time to do research, too. But it might be well worth it. Here’s why:

It’s an important investment not so much in further increasing your speed (there may or may not be a small improvement there, too) but in maintaining your health and thus keeping up with the efficiency that you reached. Fast typing puts considerable strain on your fingers and wrists. I knew this for a long time but chose to ignore it with a “surely won’t hit me” attitude. But then it did. So let me assure you that RSI and the like can cause serious pain. I’m not a very thin-skinned guy, but there were days the pain was strong enough to be a real problem, forcing me to wear some kind of splint.

Today with my ergonomic keyboards (one at work and one at home) I can type mostly without problems again. Still I encourage you to be smarter than I was and don’t get there in the first place. It’s not cool to have your small child on your arms and with the constant fear of dropping it because you cannot completely trust your wrists after a busy day…

I do not regret the investment for the Truly ergonomic keyboard (the old one) and I’m looking forward to try out the new split Cleave model as it becomes available. There are cheaper and more expensive devices. If you’re looking a the cheap ones (like those from Microsoft that I used before): It’s probably better than nothing. But I have to add that it didn’t really help me that much.

You probably wouldn’t consider the very expansive ones before you’re having problems with your hands. Just take a look at e.g. the Maltron 3D – it comes at the cost you might even get a very old car for (depending on where in the world you are)! I’d be curious to try one out, but I don’t have that much money to spare and chances are that I’d still like my TEK better anyways.

Are you working a lot with the mouse? You’d probably be shocked by how many kilometers you move the mouse each week (there are programs that record statistics like that). For mice there are so-called vertical mice that are meant to be ergonomic alternatives to the common devices. There are some cheap ones available. One that I tried out had some flaws that cheap mice have (low precision, awkward buttons, etc.) but was ok to try out working with a vertical model.

At work I’ve been using a more expensive model for a few months now. It works pretty well and I’m happy with it. At home I’m having a more common horizontal model and won’t buy a vertical one. Why? Because I’m actually trying to eliminate the mouse from my workflow as much as possible (more on that in the following parts of this article) and thus it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Whatever you decide on keyboards and mice – it’s important to know that there are ergonomic alternatives.

3) Multi monitor

In most workflows you’ll have multiple applications open and in general it makes sense to keep an overview and avoid unnecessary switching between your programs: Minimizing your IDE to go to the browser so you can look something up works, but it’s not ideal. If you’re working on a somewhat complex problem, it would also certainly help to have both your IDE and your browser visible at the same time.

Of course you can resize both applications so that you’ll have them on the screen at the same time even if you use just one monitor. While that generally works, it’s extra work (which will sum up), you won’t see as much as if you had the applications in a full-screen window (probably not all of the relevant code in your IDE will fit, forcing you to scroll). Let’s be honest: You can work around this situation, but a workaround is not a solution.

You might think that one monitor totally suffices. I thought so, too. Then I got two at work and became used to them in just hours. Now I wouldn’t want to go back for serious work. At home most machines have still just one monitor, but my main workstation totally needs to have two. I suggest that you try out working with two monitors a couple of days. If you find that you can go back to using a single one and don’t miss anything, that’s fine of course. But chances are that you don’t actually want to.

There are people who say you should use three or even more monitors. There certainly are workloads where that makes a lot of sense. Workspace on the screen is precious and more is generally good. But there’s the point when you just have enough and adding more will not be beneficial anymore. In fact adding more is becoming less and less useful the more you are approaching that point. Adding a second monitor to your setup is revolutionary. Adding a third one is not likely to make as much of a difference already. And while some people have special requirements that mean they can make good use of even more screens, that really is not too common.

An example: As a sysadmin I need to keep an eye on our monitoring system so that I can react quickly if something happens. There’s a lot of information in there and even though it’s color coded, making more things fit on the screen is a win. I also frequently need our communication channel, so I usually have the monitoring system and the IRC client open on my second screen. The other is for terminal emulators, a web browser and stuff like that. By making good use of my window manager’s (more on that important topic in a future part) virtual screens I get along pretty well. Still I often have to send something over to the second screen for a while, covering the monitoring system. While that’s not a big problem (I’ll get an on-screen notification about critical events, anyway, but I won’t see things in warning state) it is an example of a situation where a third monitor might make sense.

Try out working with dual-monitors – graphic cards that support two are nothing that uncommon. Before you try out three, think about what your daily tasks are. Chances are that the expenses and the effort required for that kind of setup are higher than what the additional monitor might be worth for you.

What’s next?

The next post will switch gears from hardware to software. But what’s with other hardware? Sure, there’s a lot that could be written about it, too. But this post is definitely long enough already and I wanted to focus on the most important things here.

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