By Careerplan consultant writer 

In this digital age, we have too many hardwares and softwares in the market to choose from. We face enormous challenges to be able to learn and stay up to date on the use of digital technologies. Here, I want to share some lessons I have gained after nearly two decades of active digital life, hoping that this might be of some help to avoid the kinds of mistakes I made.

Flatlay of gadgets on black background

Let me first share some details about my digital life. I bought a 486 black-and-white desktop PC in 1999. This was the first computer I owned, though I previously had the opportunity to use computers in colleges and university labs when I was a student. A couple of months back, I bought a 2016 model MacBook Pro, which is the latest version of Mac so far.  Between the 486 PC and 2016 Mac, and  over the span of nearly two decades, I bought or used over two dozen devices – laptops, tablets, smart phones, and desktops. I am sure many of you also have similar experience – of buying and using such products – as we all are the active participants of the digital revolution.

At the risk of boasting myself, I think I am well above average among my peers – such as academics, researchers, and writers – when it comes to using new softwares related to the kind of work I do. This is the reason why I thought I should share my digital insights with you. Moreover,  such non-specialist but user insights are not well circulated in the technology review media.

Here are my eight insights.

1. Latest is not the best, and old is not always gold either

When Windows 8 came into the market a few years ago, I was quite attracted to the fancy user interface with touch facility. At that time, I had been using a Macbook for a few years, and my Mac was getting a little outdated. So I decided  to go for the new Windows. I got my employer to buy a new HP laptop for me and I chose the model with i7 fourth generation processor along with 16GB RAM. That time I was also thinking of using some research analytics software such as NVIVO and SPSS, and I thought the high end computer would be perfect. However, it was a disaster. The Windows 8 had huge issues relating to functionality and the laptop had repeated problems.

It might be that my laptop had unusual problem, but I heard others also face  similar experiences. I had no choice but to come back to MacBook Pro again.

This doesn’t mean Mac is absolutely superior to Windows PCs. People have different preferences when it comes to laptops, and some people are simply more attracted to Windows than Mac. In addition,  version 7 of the Windows has had a brilliant impact on users. Sometimes though, new versions come with too many bugs which frustrate users before they are cleared along the way.

That being said, I didn’t have a great experience with Apple either. Apple has  changed its products  too frequently as part of its regular ‘improvement’,  forcing us to buy its new products, even when the older versions are still working. A few years back, I decided to buy an iPhone 4 when I still had working iPhone 3, as iPhone 3 was made incompatible with the new software upgrade. Apple imposed a feeling of ‘missing the train’ among users owning older devices, by making new applications incompatible to the slightly older devices,  hence leaving no choice but to upgrade to a newer version. My iPhone 3 then became a gift to an elderly relative who just needed a phone to receive and make a call.

In my MacBook portfolio, I also had an interesting experience. I first bought the 13 inch MacBook in 2011 and after a couple of months, I found the screen size too small for me. One of my friends overseas wanted it and I sold it to him. I then bought a 15-inch Mac  (2013 model – it was in fact covered by a research project I was leading) – it looked just great in terms of size and stability! After some time, I began to feel the weight of the machine – it was really heavy compared to thinner options coming into the market. Again, Apple’s rapid improvements created temptations.

After two years, the MacBook had some unprecedented problem and I had to buy a new one. I became interested in the 13 inch MacBook with Retina display. I visited a Sydney Apple store and found that the retina feature looked brilliant. I bought the retina model. This worked very well. But I missed two great features of the old 15 inch model: screen size and the elevated typing keys. Apple is making newer versions thinner and slimmer – like all window based laptops have also done – and it looks like the worst impact of this thinness  is on the keyboard. You have to forego the comfort of using the elevated keys found in the 2013 model when you switch to the newer model. And to be frank, the 2016 model of MacBook Pro is much worse on keyboard experience, despite massive upgrades in internal features and functionality. Apple might say ‘you guys don’t understand our major improvements inside the Mac’. As manufacturer, they maybe right but as users, we value the features that we use most.

2. Minis are a waste of money 

The digital world is full of options, and one of the strategies companies have used to lure customers is to release ‘mini’ models. I have found myself buying mini versions of the the laptops as  they looked so handy and portable. I bought two mini laptops – one Acer (around 2005)  and another Del mini (2009). I bought these as extras while I had a functioning main laptop with me. To tell you the truth, these minis never worked for me – and they turned out to be a waste of money.

After iPad 1 lost its touch in the market and became vintage, I bought a mini iPad, unable to resist the temptation of the latest device in the market. My wife didn’t like me investing money on small devices  as she was pretty clear it would never do the job properly. I resisted and kept buying these, but now I realised I wasted money on useless things. I donated these to NGOs since I had no use for them.

3. Don’t jump into new products that are not fully tested and validated 

When my stock of PDFs was growing, I looked for a software with a facility to store, manage, retrieve, read and annotate. I began using an application called Papers.app since 2013. By late 2016, I had gathered nearly 10,000 papers in that application. When I opened the application one morning in December 2016, I found most paper attachments missing. I was prompted to download again, a stock which I had gathered over the past 4 years. It was relatively a new app in the market, yet it looked promising so I bought it and also upgraded it for an additional fee. I found it better than Endnote – another bibliography software now with PDF view capability. But now I am back to Endnote, which has a longer history of providing reliable service. I still miss some of the features Papers.app provided but I cannot afford to lose the library anymore. The app may be trying to improve and could still be a useful app, but I will be hesitant to come back to this again.

Such issues are not unique to new and specialised apps. I also had an issue with MS office 2016 when I started using in 2015 soon after its release. The Office 2011 for Mac was quite stable but I could not resist trying the latest version of MS Office. By now, I find the application much improved stable, but earlier I lost important data, as it crashed repeatedly in the middle of work.

4. Tech companies make you mad – you must make better judgement 

In 2010, my wife and I  each had an iPAD 1, and I was attracted to it for its keyboard with a doc that Apple had advertised. I came across these docking keyboards in a European airport shop when I was travelling. I bought two of these – one for me and another for my wife. However, they were neither  handy nor easy to use, so they became another addition to the growing pile of gadget junk in my home. After a few months, Apple introduced new iPAD versions and the docking keyboard became incompatible.

5. Going for new options is good, but be prepared to manage the challenge of using multiple applications

Over the past six years, my digital toolbox has become quite messy. I have multiple applications installed for word processing – MS Word, Pages, and Scrivner. Each has some unique features and I could not resist using each of these. MS Word is common and we all have used it. Sometimes, I prefer Pages (Mac) because it is more stable than Word but has far less functionality than the former. When Word crashes due to bugs, I resort to Pages. But when I feel limited by the functionality of Pages, I switch back to Word. Scrivner is a fantastic application for writing large documents, with multiple sections and when you also need a handy reference material review facility. I use Scrivner when I need to write a long document but it does not have Endnote integration functionality. The challenge is that I end up by migrating a working document from one app to another, too often wasting time.

One good thing in my digital life is that I have not lost my much of my stored data. I have always backed up my data in 2-3 external hard drives. More recently, I have used various cloud drives – Dropbox, Google Drive, Onedrive, and iCloud drive – to save documents. I hardly use local folders such as ‘my documents’ to save documents. This has allowed to instantly save files to cloud drives, and this has been possible due to unlimited internet connectivity almost everywhere I go. One challenge of using such cloud drive is the difficulty to locate and retrieve due to the use of multiple cloud drives. Again, different locations have different advantages and it looks like you cannot rely on one cloud system.

6. Syncing across devices – nice to hear but does not work as good as you want in practice

Apple got me locked into its ‘apple ecosystem’ – as i loved Mac, used iPad and also iPhone. One of the reasons why I wanted to use the apple ecosystem – though reluctantly as I hate such exclusive business ecosystems – is to benefit from the syncing ability across devices. I have been particularly keen on sharing reading documents but this has not always worked well. Earlier, this facility was not that developed but it has come a long way  improved a lot now. Now syncing services are common to many apps and also working well – from Evernote to Camscanner.

7. Declutter your stuff regularly 

Your computer as well as your whole information system is bound to be cluttered with unnecessary stuff. I have had experiences of slow laptops, and embarrassing moments of not being able to locate needed files in time. Maintaining a good system of storing information is crucial and so is the need for regular updating, decluttering and cleaning. Several Mac cleaning software options exist and using one of these has helped. But there is also a lot that can be done manually without using an extra app.

8. Going entirely digital can compromise your creativity – keep some level of paper works and print versions.

Looking at screens can jeopardise your creativity, while working on the paper and pen can stimulate creative thinking. So my advice is to maintain that balance between paper and screen. But it is very tempting to go more and more digital given the tempting features that we find in the digital marketplace.

If you want to send your comments, please write to: info@careerplan.com.au

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