in Getting Started

Taking developer-grade care of your developer laptop

Pimped out macbook

As an aspiring software developer, there’s a good chance you’ll be focusing a lot on the software side of your laptop, getting your environment properly configured, installing all the right software, tweaking your code editors, customizing your terminal app, etc.

But one thing that’s easily overlooked is the laptop itself.  If you think about it, as a developer, you’re completely dependent on your laptop for your job, often much more so than the average computer user.

These are some tips for helping keep your laptop healthy, and for being prepared should anything happen to it.

1. Maintain a full disk image backup

Damaged Macbook

If anything should happen to your laptop, from it being damaged or stolen to just plain breaking down for no apparent reason, you want to be able to recreate your current environment on a new machine as quickly as possible.

No problem, I’ve got all my files backed up on GitHub and Dropbox.

Guess what, if you’re a developer, that’s not good enough. You are likely doing some kind of installation or configuration or tweaking of your environment on a daily basis.  None of that is backed up to something like Dropbox.  This is why you should be maintaining a full image backup of your laptop, which basically means you are creating a clone of your entire drive, system settings and all.

If anything should happen, you can then effectively go back in time to the last point when you did a full image backup, and likely be up and running again within hours on a new machine. On OSX, I recommend Time Machine/Time Capsule for this.  I’m sure there are  similar solutions for other operating systems.

Macbook Time Machine

Now, every time I get home in the evening, my laptop connects to my local wifi and updates my disk image backup.  Then, when I’m out and about during the day I can be assured that if anything should happen to my laptop, I could if needed go out and buy a new one and be back and up and running within hours if needed.

2. Be paranoid about system updates

Anytime you install a system update or make any major configuration change to your environment, you are basically making changes to the foundation on which all your work rests.

Especially if it’s a major system update (eg. from OSX 10.7. to OSX 10.8) you are almost guaranteed to have incompatibility issues.

ruby-php-mysql-issues-cropped

So, before you do this…

OSX Mavericks Update

Be sure to first do this…

Always always always do a full disk image backup before installing a system update

Be sure to do that full disk image backup discussed earlier, so that you can revert to the older system should there be any major problems.

Try to hold off for a few weeks if it’s a major update

There are certain bugs that come out in the wash only after the software has been put through the wringer by thousands of users.  Very commonly, the publisher will release a version with bug fixes a few weeks after the major update.

If you can, save yourself the headache and wait for that bug fix release.

(Oh, and check out this Lifehacker post on if you should upgrade to Mavericks.)

3. Keep a backup charger on hand

Your laptop charger charger is one of those things you don’t think about until it stops working or you suddenly find yourself without one.  However, chargers undergo a lot of wear and tear and can suddenly break down.

worn-charger

If anything should happen to your charger, you have a few short hours, at most, to find a new one, or you’ll be visiting this fine location:
Upshitz Creek

So, plunk down the 30 bucks on a backup charger, like, today.

Pro Tip: Use your old Mac charger as a bottle opener…

Mac bottle opener

4. Keep your battery well conditioned

One of the most common mistakes I see laptop users make is to constantly keep their laptop plugged in.  Your laptop was designed to run on a battery.  Like people, batteries need regular exercise.  For a battery, the best possible workout it can get is to drain fully and then be recharged fully.  This will significantly prolong the life of your battery and the duration of your batter charge.

In other words, you should be seeing this message on your machine regularly.

Macbook running on reserve power

Make a habit of only plugging in your laptop when it hits the red mark, and then unplugging it when it is fully charged. Learn more about calibrating your battery and keeping your battery well conditioned.

5. Max out on RAM and Disk Space

The amount of RAM and free disk space you have on your laptop is basically equivalent to the amount of space your applications and operating system have to do what they need to do.

Cramped Office Space

If your machine is being sluggish, there is a very good chance the reason is that you’re forcing all your apps to crowd into a tiny space, making for lots of elbow-shoving. So, make sure you max out on hard drive space and RAM.

Macbook with 32gb of RAM

 

Lots of disk space

Ok, so 860 GB of free space is maybe a little extreme.  Basically, be sure to always have at least 10% free disk space.

6. Create a pristine Admin account

This last one is less critical than the others, but is worthwhile because it’s so easy to do.

Admin acct on OSX

Sometimes, when you are encountering a problem with your machine, you want to be able to eliminate the possibility that it is related to the specific settings of your user account.  This is why it’s a great idea to have a separate admin account on hand.

Having a separate admin account on hand can also come in handy if you need to make modifications to your main account that are not possible while being logged into that account.

More tips from ex-Tekserver and Flatiron School classmate Vinney Cavallo:

Avoid liquids like the plague

“I did so many spill cleans/repairs at tekserve. The tiniest amount of water touching any part of a computer can easily destroy it. My rule for open containers is to place it on a separate surface than your computer – preferably a lower one (altitude-wise). If you do get liquid anywhere (including and especially on the keyboard – there are millimeters between the keys and your motherboard), immediately turn off the computer and remove/unplug the battery if you can. If you can’t, bring it to a service place immediately. Every minute that a component is wet and has a trickle of power running through it (even while off) you are risking the metals corroding.”

Carry your laptop, lid closed, in a “statue of liberty” pose

“That is, held in hand and against body within a bent arm. This prevents easily dropping it and also prevents flexing the body of the computer in minor ways that can eventually build up to serious damage. On the older plastic macbooks, if you lifted it with one hand with the lid open and carried it around that way enough the CD-drive slot would eventually bend closed. We had to pry a lot of those open at Tekserve and then educate people on not carrying their laptop like that.”