Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Need For Speed

November 2005

By Mike Gould

I play a lot of Scrabble, and we have this little Franklin word calculator jobbie that checks words for Scrabble-ness. When it hits a word it doesn't know (which is therefore illegal in Scrabble), it blinks a message: "Working…Working…Working". Then it gives the no-go sign. A lot of computers on a lot of desks are like this; you hit the enter key and the sands of time start trickling down or the little spinny thing happens and you sit there drumming your fingers and trying not to think about the fast-approaching deadline looming in your rear-view mirror. The one that says "Due dates in the mirror are closer than they seem".

So here are some hints for keeping up with the demands placed upon you and your keyboard.

The Obvious
By now you are hopefully on broadband. If you don't have it, get it. Modems don't cut it in today's business environment, period.

Modern hardware is also a given. If your computer is older than 3 years, replace it. This will solve any number of speed-related problems, but may also cause a few, if you fail to also update all your applications and utilities. Yeah, yeah, this gets expensive, but deal with it. Constant change is the one constant in today's business landscape, especially in the arena of technology.

One advantage of modern hardware is faster peripherals. If your computer is talking to those little boxes next to it (your zip drive, external hard drive, scanner, CD burner, Flash drive holster, whatever) with USB I or, worst-case scenario, some old flavor of serial connection, it's time to switch to USB II or, better, FireWire 800. All modern Macs come with this, and most PCs have at least USB II; just make sure your peripheral is USB II as well, otherwise your computer will talk to it via the slower speed, even if plugged into a USB II socket.

Editor-Mandated Tech-Time Explanatory Digression: USB = Universal Serial Bus, a digital means of communication and a flavor of connector found on most computers these days. FireWire is another flavor of communication for peripherals, which comes in 400 and 800 speeds these days. I always recommend FireWire over USB, but not all digital doodads come with it.

And all the speedy wires in the world won't help you if your peripheral itself is slow. Case in point: CD and DVD burners. I burn a lot of CDs for clients, and a metric boatload of DVDs of big honking camera RAW files. I used to spend a lot of time waiting for burns to finish, until I got a 16X Firewire DVD burner (I like the LaCie brand). Now CDs finish in a couple of minutes and DVDs in less than 5. Life is good. I am, however, waiting for a FireWire 800 version of this…

Newer computers sometimes come with faster versions of internal connections; the faster your logic board can talk to your hard drive, the zippier your workflow will go. My Mac G5 has SATA (Serial ATA, as opposed to old-fashioned parallel ATA) drives installed, which are ever so much faster than the plain ol' ATA variety, my previous computer had. Given a choice, go for SATA.

The Not-So-Obvious
Learn to type. Not a day goes by that I don't say a thank you to Mr. Bigelow, who taught typing at Tappan Jr. High School, which I attended back in the day. If you weren't so blessed, pick up a Mavis Beacon Typing Tutor program or some such and brush up on your QWERTY skills.

Learn some macros. Macros are little utility features that are built into most applications these days. These are shortcuts that concatenate (computer-ese for "join together") a series of procedures into one easy key click. In FileMaker Pro, for instance, instead of searching for everybody on the party list, sorting by second name, and switching to the mailing labels layout, you can record the above and code it to an Fkey. Then whenever it's party time, you hit the Fkey and away you go. (Disclosure: I know how to do this but haven't quite gotten around to it, as I discovered last night when getting our Halloween party invites out. But I'm gonna do this Real Soon Now…)

I do use the Actions feature of Photoshop all the time to automate complicated image-tweaking. Any graphics artist out there really needs to learn this in order to compete in today's high-pressure media market.

Keyboard Shortcuts. I am a fanatic about this when training my Mac clients. In the Mac OS, you hold down the Command key with your thumb and all the keys within range of your index finger will elicit shortcut behaviors that are just this side of miraculous. Anytime you don't have to take your hands off of the keyboard to grab the mouse for a trip to the menu bar you have saved some time. Do this with most common computer events you perform during the day and you have saved hours during the week. Command-P to print, Command-S to save and Command-Z to undo. Learn those 3 shortcuts and you are on your way to way better productivity.

De-fragment your hard drive. This is not as big a deal as it used to be, but if you work with large files and your hard drive is nearly full, you need to do this. As you work with your computer, your files get scattered around on the hard drive, and as you load them into your system to work on them, the hard drive has to find all the scattered pieces and stitch them back together. When you save a big file, the computer has to find an empty space big enough for the file, which can take some time. There are a number of utilities out there such as Norton Disk Doctor that will do this for you.

Get a bigger/second monitor. Any time you need to shove a window to one side to find another working window, you are wasting time. A bigger monitor = more real estate for windows and less shuffle time. Ditto a second monitor; one for your source documents and one for the master doc you are cutting and pasting into, for instance.

As they say, Time = Money, so any time you can save in doing mundane tasks is money in your pocket. And the sooner you get your work done, the quicker you can go out and play.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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