My laptop is my indispensible companion. It has most of the pictures that I have taken in the past few years, and most of my digitized music files. Because it ‘wakes up’ instantly I can easily show someone pictures of my kids, or pretty much any visual that I’ve collected over the years. Or, if I’m travelling I can pop in some earphones and listen to any of the thousands of songs I have stored on the computer, many of which I have bought online from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. If I’m not travelling, I just hook my computer up to the stereo system and set it to randomly play from my entire collection, or perhaps just from a particular genre of music (say, Jazz or ‘holiday music’).
Like many people, I use the computer to organize my finances with Quicken (I didn’t used to until recently and I’m much happier now that I use my computer to keep the financial stuff straight). Quicken is great if you bank online because you can have it automatically download the latest financial transactions at set times. And, of course, you can immediately get a sense of how you are spending your money, which makes budgeting a lot easier.
My laptop has a wireless card so if I got to a coffee shop I can quickly get online (for free) and surf the web and check my email. If I’m concerned about security in these open spots I can simply use my HotSpotVPN account and that guarantees the security of my communications. I keep a separate Firewire hard drive handy (it’s small and powers off the computer) so that I can do regular backups in case any of the important data on my computer gets corrupted or in case the hard drive fails.
Speaking of important data, I’ve made it my practice to scan important documents and I have pretty much all of the important paperwork, which most people keep in file drawers in their house, on my computer’s hard drive. I scan everything into PDF, and I back it up regularly (see above). I also burn off the data to CD-ROMs that I keep stored in a secure location away from my computer.
My computer’s operating system (Mac OS X) lets me encrypt data on my hard drive so in the event the laptop is lost or stolen it will be fairly secure from most attempts to uncover the data (it’s stupid to think anything on a computer can be completely secure; after all, the NSA still has a few tricks up their sleeve, right?)
Recently, I discovered Skype, a free VOIP program that lets you make free phone calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world (for an extra fee you can call out to non-Skype phone numbers). All you need is a computer with a sound card and microphone, which my laptop has built in. I’m in the process of moving to a new house and I don’t plan to have a traditional landline phone; I have a cellphone.
But I’m going to try Vonage, which will allow me to have a regular phoneline that uses my broadband internet connection. Why would I do that? Well, a regular phoneline would cost too much and be too inflexible. For $15/month I can make 500 minutes of calls to anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. For an extra $9/month I can get a ‘software phone‘ that allows me to have a phone # associated with my computer so I can make and receive calls anytime my computer is connected to a broadband internet system (which is almost always). So if I go to Japan and people call me on my ‘local’ number the phone would ring on my computer in Japan and the person who called would have no idea I wasn’t in the States, and I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get off the phone to avoid exorbitant international long distance rates.
One cool thing about Vonage is that you can configure the system so that if you get a voicemail message you are alerted by email. You can even have the system send you the voicemail message as an attachment so you can listen to it on your computer and keep a copy of it there.
You can add a line for a fax machine, but why do that? If you use eFax you can send and receive faxes right from your computer. eFax will give you a local number and when people send you a fax the eFax system just E-mails it to you as a PDF attachment. Again, you just read the fax on your computer and then you can save it to your harddrive if you want. I signed up for eFax to try it for free for a month and decided that I didn’t want to pay $13/month for the limited faxing I do these days. So when I went online to cancel my free trial they offered me a deal where for $5/month I can receive up to 50 pages of faxes per month (after which I’m charged .15 cents per page). After chatting with a sales representative by instant messenger (yeah, you read that right!) I took the offer.
So, in sum, my computer is a photo display device, a stereo system (with massive storage capacity), a document file cabinet (where the documents are text searchable), a web-publishing system (how do you think this blog post got here?), an Internet research tool, a phone and an ‘answering machine,’ a fax machine, and other things too numerous to mention (like a CD burner, a DVD player, a DVD burner, movie editor, and even–if you can believe it–a word processor).
What more could a man want? Well, okay, there are some things that you can’t use computers for.
Update: Read Wired Magazine’s Her So Called-Digital Life