In praise of slow computing

3 October 2011

Usually I work on a big, fast, smooth iMac. It can handle pretty much whatever I throw at it. Dozens of apps open. 50 browser tabs. 30 editor tabs. Half a dozen tiled windows. It’s got oceans of crisp screen space. It barely breaks a sweat even when I do.

But lately I’ve been working on a 10-inch netbook. It’s got a paltry 1GB RAM, a screen that’s 70% smaller than the Mac’s and a crummy hard drive that wheezes along if you have the temerity to open more than three apps and five browser tabs at once. By any objective standard it’s junk.

Yet since switching to the netbook I’ve never been so productive.

I was going to get rid of the netbook. I’ve hardly used it in years. The battery packs up after little more than an hour. The screen is horribly fuzzy compared with the sharp Apple kit by which I’ve been spoiled. The machine gets really hot on the bottom and the heat comes up through the keyboard making typing for any length of time quite uncomfortable. The pre-installed OS is Windows XP — not really my cup of tea. Occasionally I used it for trying out Linux distros but mostly it just sat in a drawer.

But then I thought it might be fun to have a spare machine for casual use. I installed the latest Ubuntu Linux and gave it a spin. Not bad compared with previous efforts but not a patch on the Mac for photos, videos, music and web browsing. On this old machine it was really sluggish too. Moreover, the netbook’s 80GB hard drive wouldn’t hold very much of my media collection.

Yet I still wanted to keep separate machines for work and play. Jack Cheng’s article on habit fields argues that digital devices make it very hard to make a psychological separation of things and tasks. Before mass-market computing each object typically performed one task: we made calls on the telephone, took photos with our cameras, read books and watched the TV. Now we can do all those things with the smartphones in our pockets. Likewise our computers are multifunction devices. For many of us, the computer we work with during the day is the same one we relax with in the evening. We end up not being able to concentrate as well as we could when we’re working and not really being able to switch off when the work’s over. The activity may be different but the physical context is the same.

So if the netbook is useless for entertainment, how about using it for work?

I write software. The only desktop apps I need are a browser, a text editor and a terminal. The rest of my tools run in the command shell. The netbook can handle that fine.

The netbook is still slow but it’s a good kind of slow. The text editor is just fast enough to keep up with my typing. There isn’t space to open more than five editor tabs but that’s enough. Any more than that and I’d spend too much time hunting through them for the file I wanted.

It’s the same with the browser. It gets really slow once you go over five or six tabs. But that pain of knowing that popping open an extra tab has a real cost keeps my browsing very focussed. Find what you want, close the tab and get back to coding. Sometimes I just fire up a text-only browser in my terminal and use that instead of my graphical browser. It’s faster and you can only have one “tab” at once. It’s good enough for most jobs.

I make one concession to comfort: I use a full-size Apple aluminium keyboard plugged into the USB rather than the netbook’s cramped built-in keyboard. Ubuntu has a keyboard profile for it that saves any messing around with custom key bindings.

It’s too early to say whether the quality of my code has improved but I know this: hasty code is crappy code. Writing good software needs a considered and contemplative approach. It’s not about bashing out code as quickly as possible. It’s about doing things right. A computer that forces you to slow down and think before you write is a definite advantage. If you’re looking for a tightly-focussed work computer that keeps you on track, your dream machine could be that old laptop tucked away in a cupboard that you haven’t quite got around to selling. Give it a go. You might find that less haste really is more speed.

The setup: