Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Roaming without my iMac, without stress

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

This weekend my family went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where they saw a curious sight: A cheetah with his own companion animal—a dog.

Cheetahs are skittish, you see, and when they bond with dogs they can use the dogs as emotional lifelines. In moments of potential stress, the cheetah can look at the dog and be reassured that the dog feels that there’s nothing wrong. It relaxes the cheetah.

My children were really taken with the idea that a cheetah could have a companion animal of its own.

As is my wont, I immediately translated this into a technological context: The 11-inch MacBook Air, my primary work system for several years, has transformed into a support creature for my 5K iMac1.

I’ve traveled since I got the new iMac, but that was much closer to the date that I migrated my files from the laptop to the iMac, so the two devices hadn’t had very much time to diverge. Two months later, the devices are rapidly diverging. I can’t count on the same stuff to be on my MacBook as is on my iMac.

I realize this isn’t news to anyone who has always had a main Mac sitting on a desk somewhere and another Mac they use when traveling, but the change has made me notice just how much I relied on some tools to do my job during our recent family trip to southern California. Working on Six Colors means I can’t just take days off from work and know that other people will cover for me. So I was posting items from a hotel lobby packed with people dressed in Doctor Who costumes, and from my in-laws’ dining room table.

The tool I’m most grateful for when I’m traveling is Dropbox. Most of the files I use are filed away in Dropbox, and therefore available on both computers without any extra work on my part. Most of these files aren’t ones I use all the time—but I expect them to be available when I need them, and thanks to Dropbox, they were all sitting on my MacBook Air’s drive just where I expected them to be.

The only exception is podcasts—I generally don’t bother syncing them with Dropbox, because they’re enormous and I usually don’t need them to sync to another computer. But this means that when I left our house last week, I had to remember to copy a very large podcast project onto the MacBook Air to take with me. (It only took a couple of minutes to copy that very large project via a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.)

I would also have been at a loss without 1Password. At several points during the weekend, I needed to log into web services that I use to do my job—and every time, 1Password was there to autofill all of my credentials. I have 1Password set up to sync via Dropbox, so my passwords and other personal information are always with me.

Most of the collaborative work I do is done via Google Docs and Sheets, which of course live in the cloud, so they’re accessible no matter what computer I’m on. I also have the Google Drive app installed on my Mac, which automatically generates little reference files for every document I have in Google Docs. These files are, in turn, indexed by LaunchBar, so I can open them in moments just by typing a few letters.

And as I’ve written about before, if I do forget something on my iMac at home, I can use my online backup service to retrieve it out of my backup store. I’ve done that on more than one occasion, and it’s wonderful to have it as a safety net. (I suppose I could have left my iMac on all week while we were gone, but that seems insanely wasteful—and I knew that all the files I might need were already backed up when I left.)

Thanks to all of this stuff, relocating from a 5K iMac to an 11-inch MacBook Air didn’t feel like I was giving up much of anything. Except, of course, the obvious: screen space. Now that I’m using the 5K iMac every day, my space-saving habits to be used with an 11-inch display have atrophied. I had to remind myself how to lay out windows for maximum efficiency on the small screen, when it used to be second nature.

But still, small complaints. There was a time—the last time I had a dual-computer setup—when packing all the right files for my laptop was just as stressful as remembering to pack the right stuff in my suitcase. This time, there was no stress at all2.

  1. Yeah, I just likened my computer to a cheetah. I’ll get my coat and show myself out. 
  2. Just like that cheetah. No? You’re not feeling the extended metaphor? Alas. 

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