I’m starting a new series here called Desk Setups, where I feature interesting folks’ desk setups. There are lots of ways to organize your workspace and as nerds, we are always looking to improve upon that. So this starts with my friend, TJ Luoma (Website)(Twitter). TJ has been a frequent guest on Mac Power Users over the years, and he is among the many pastor-nerds I’ve met over the years. However TJ may very well be the nerdiest of them all. Show us your desk, TJ!
This is how my home office currently looks. It’s been quite a ‘work in progress’ since March, when the quarantine rules first went into place.
I was fortunate in that I had a spare bedroom which could be turned into a “home office”.
I was unfortunate in that I literally did not have anything that I needed for the “office” part.
Desk and Chair
By the time New York issued our “stay home” order, Amazon had been pretty well picked-over, and even our local Staples didn’t have much, so I didn’t have a lot of options. I found exactly one desk that I could use: an Easy 2 Go Student Desk with Bookcases. Staples’ website calls it “Gray” but … it isn’t gray at all, as far as I can tell.
Then again, they call the shelves on the left “Bookcases”. They’re just shelves.
I’ve seen simpler desks (just legs and a flat top) but this one is pretty basic.
A chair was even harder to find. They had lots of floor models, but almost nothing in-store. Fortunately I ordered it on Saturday and it arrived on Tuesday, which wasn’t bad, considering the situation.
I sat in a lot of chairs, and none of the “normal” office chairs felt “right” to me, so I ended up getting a Bonded Leather Racing Gaming Chair, Black and Blue which is a little silly looking (see link), but feels pretty good to sit on.
I was going to get a floor mat, but my son found something on Amazon that I had never heard of: Office Chair Caster Wheels. They’re just wheels that are designed not to ruin the floor. Instead of putting something on the floor, just change the wheels. I like it. No more rolling off the edge of the floor mat!
That’s how I worked for March and April.
A Better Desk
By the time we got to May, that little desk was really not cutting it. For one thing, it was too small. But I also found that I really did not like sitting all day. I was no longer getting up to go to meetings, etc., because everything was happening on Zoom.
I looked at a variety of standing desks, and finally settled on an Uplift V2 Standing Desk (black, 48″x30″). Pretty much the only “bonus” item was the Advanced Keypad which lets me store 4 preset height settings. If you’re going to get one of these desks, don’t skip this feature. It’s so much nicer to find “the right height” for sitting and standing once and then just be able to push a button, rather than having to manually select it each time.
I really hedged about spending $600+ on a desk, but I talked to several people, including Jason Snell (@jsnell) and Michael Tsai (@mjtsai), and everyone seemed to love theirs. Sure enough, this has been one of the best purchases that I’ve made in the past 5+ years, and I look forward to using it for many years to come. I generally switch standing and sitting several times a day. It also came with a mat to stand on, which is essential if you have a standing desk.
I now preach and record my podcast standing up, which makes them both sound and feel better.
TJ’s New MacBook Pro
Let’s start at the “top” of the picture above, and go around clockwise.
The primary item you are looking at is the most expensive Mac that I have ever owned: a Space Gray 16″ MacBook Pro with 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, 2.3GHz Intel Core i9. To be honest, I really wanted 32GB of RAM but couldn’t get it from Amazon in that configuration and also get the 1TB SSD.
What really made that purchase “sting” is that my previous Mac was not that old. It was a 2018 MacBook Air (1.6 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5 / 16 GB RAM / 500 GB SSD). However, it was not holding up to what I needed it to do, in terms of not only Zoom calls, but recording the sermon, encoding video, etc. I’m not sure why it was having such a hard time, but it was, and it was causing me daily problems.
The speed difference between the two machines is enormous. The CPU on the Air seemed to be always struggling to keep up with something I was doing. The CPU on the Pro never even blinks unless it is doing a Handbrake encode. Even then, what took the Air nearly 90 minutes to do in Handbrake, the Pro can do in 11 minutes. That’s a huge difference.
You know what else is a huge difference? Having four USB-C ports instead of two. Now, this is pretty funny considering that I used the one-port 12″ MacBook for 3 years before getting the Air, but, again, a lot has changed since then.
We are all now aware of how terrible laptop webcams are, but I was one of the lucky ones who was able to buy an external webcam back in March before they all went out of stock.
I am using a Logitech StreamCam Webcam Graphite. It’s nothing special, especially given how expensive it was. I am still annoyed that Logitech wants you to use the webcam in ‘portrait’ mode, so the ‘Logi’ branding is 90º when used in the proper landscape orientation. We all have our crosses to bear.
The Logitech is positioned over the actual webcam on my MacBook Pro (not because I’m paranoid, that’s just the best spot for it) and usually gets plugged directly into the MacBook Pro when I’m using it, because I assume it benefits from a direct connection as well.
Holding up the MacBook Air is a Griffin Technology iCurve Laptop Stand.
I remember when I bought this thinking “I can’t believe they are charging $30 for a piece of curved plastic.” But you know what? I bought this in 2004 (yes, 16 years ago), and it still works great. Think about that, I bought this 3 years before the first iPhone.
The funniest part about this is that the current picture on the Amazon page (which is, admittedly, clearly from a third-party) but also on many, many, many pictures you’ll find in a Google Image Search for “griffin icurve” will show the iCurve upside down. HINT: The curved part is what goes on the desk, and the “arms” are meant to go under the laptop, which should_ be obvious by the lettering on the “arms” but apparently people didn’t get it.
(You can also see my iPad Mini sticking out from under the MacBook Pro. It’s basically a glorified Kindle. I have nothing on it except things to read before bed. It’s usually in the bedroom charging on my nightstand.)
12.9″ iPad Pro as Second Display
Connected to my MacBook Pro is my iPad Pro (12.9″ / 2018 / 3rd Generation, 256 GB, cellular). Not visible is the Smart Keyboard Folio which is wrapped around the back.
On the ‘foot’ of the iPad stand you can see my Apple Pencil (2nd Generation), which I don’t use often, but I’m looking forward to trying ‘Scribble’ in iPadOS 14.
During the day my iPad serves as a second screen for the MacBook Pro. I am not using Sidecar, because it does not support using the iPad in “portrait” orientation (neither does Luna Display).
I am using Duet Display. Duet has been rock-solid and completely lag-free. I have the iPad plugged directly in to one of the MacBook Pro’s four USB-C ports, which means the connection is not going over Wi-Fi, and it keeps the iPad charged, so it’s my preferred way to use it.
(Note: Sidecar was another thing that made my MacBook Air’s fans run constantly when I tried to do this with my Air. Duet supports Wi-Fi connections via $20/year subscription, which seems like it would be a tough-sell versus using Sidecar for free.)
You know what else Duet lets me do that Sidecar doesn’t? Use the touch-screen on my iPad to interact with macOS without requiring the Apple Pencil.
Noise Cancelling Headphones are an essential WFH tool if you live with Other People
Our household is 3 people (myself, my wife, and our 18 year-old son) and 3 dogs (golden retriever, husky, beagle/Jack Russell mix). It’s not so much that it’s loud as much as there is almost always some noise happening.
Before COVID-19, I was used to having large swaths of time alone in the house (well, just the dogs). With us all suddenly living together 24/7, I found the constant sounds of the house to be enormously distracting.
As much as I love my AirPods Pro, I wanted something that I could wear for a longer amount of time, both in terms of comfort and battery life. Enter the Bose Noise Cancelling Wireless Bluetooth Headphones 700. These appear to be the successor to the very popular Bose QuietComfort 35 (although those are still for sale).
I love them. The battery life is fantastic. I think they claim something like 20 hours. I try to plug them in every night, but even if I forget, I can use them for two days without a problem.
Just behind the iPad stand and next to the headphones you can see the Anker Premium 60W 5-Port Desktop Charger which has one USB-C port (which I use to charge the Bose headphones) and 4 USB-A ports which I can use for charging whatever might need charging.
iPhone and AirPods Pro Charger
You can see my AirPods Pro sitting on a Samsung Qi Certified Fast Charge Wireless Charging Pad + Stand. I like having a Qi charger “stand” that makes it so that I can easily see notifications on the screen of my iPhone 11 Max Pro (not shown because I was using it to take these pictures). This charger isn’t particularly special in any way other than being a “fast charger” which I’ve never really tested. These days my iPhone spends most of the day idle, so I’m not using a lot of battery.
If I put my AirPods Pro case on the charger as shown here, they will charge via Qi, which is what I do at night when I go to bed.
I love my AirPods Pro. Yes, I wish the battery lasted longer (both in terms of overall life and also in time-between-recharging) but they are still really nice. I use them on Zoom calls instead of wired headphones, usually with the Samson Mic as the input device.
I highly recommend ToothFairy for quickly connecting AirPods to a Mac. For $5 you can’t go wrong. It’s also included in Setapp. Under its “Advanced…” options, ToothFairy has a setting “Improve sound quality by disabling input from device”. Since I am using my Samson mic for input, I can just use the AirPods Pro to listen, and get better sound quality.
There’s also AirBuddy which I own, but if I had to pick one, it would be ToothFairy, because it works for all sorts of Bluetooth devices, not just the AirPods.
Last tip for using AirPods Pro with the Mac: NoiseBuddy (free) will let you easily toggle between Noise Cancelling and Transparency mode.
Isolation is a big problem for people who are working from home, so I have two friends/co-workers with me all day.
First is Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, which was given to me by a member of my congregation.
A newer addition is “Baby Yoda” I mean, technically, his full-name is Funko Pop! Star Wars: The Mandalorian – The Child, but we all know he’s “Baby Yoda”.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I tried the Logitech Easy-Switch K811 which felt almost as good to type on, and it has one huge feature the Magic Keyboard lacks: The K811 can easily switch between 3 Bluetooth devices. However, I found that I really wasn’t using that feature as often as I thought I would.
I also tried the Logitech MX Ergo Wireless Trackball Mouse. I’ve always loved trackballs and this one can easily switch between 2 Bluetooth devices.
If you listen to the Cortex podcast, Myke Hurley and CGP Grey talked about this trackball not one, not two, but three episodes:
Myke has also talked about using the trackpad on the left and the trackball on the right. I think Stephen Hackett and Marco Arment might do it also (although I think Marco has the Magic Mouse). Marco said that it took him about a day to get used to using a Trackpad on the left and mouse on the right. I tried it, but I couldn’t get the hang of it.
Once I moved these two back in, I immediately felt/thought, “Yes, this is right.”
My Elgato Stream Deck XL – Advanced Stream Control with 32 customizable LCD keys has been getting a lot more use now that I have a desk at home. Trying to use it while sitting on the couch was just not very… useful. I brought it to my “office office” for awhile, but that was never really where I wanted it.
I recently updated my Relay FM Stream Deck profile which might be of interest.
I have an entire page setup for controlling Zoom (mute/unmute, start/stop video, start/stop screen sharing, etc) and my office Hue lights, and I have some buttons that I use a lot for podcasting (more on that below).
I’ve already talked about my main Stream Deck setup on the Mac Power Users discourse forum so I won’t repeat a lot of it here, but I’m very proud of and happy with the ability to see my meeting information on a Stream Deck button.
One important note: in my experience, I have found that the Stream Deck does not like being plugged into a hub, so it gets plugged directly into my MacBook Pro. I believe it’s a USB 3.1 Gen 2 device, which requires a lot of bandwidth (I’m not sure why it needs so much, but I tried via the hub and found that it was less reliable, whereas it is 100% reliable when plugged in directly.
Turns out that eve 4 USB-C ports isn’t actually enough, so I added the OWC 10-Port USB-C Dock. On the back it has 3 USB-A ports, a USB-C port (and another USB-C port for sending power to the MacBook Pro), Ethernet, and Display Port (it also comes with an HDMI adapter). The front has a headphone jack, SD card reader,and a “High powered” USB 3.1 Gen 1 “USB-A” port.
I plug my microphone into one of the USB-A ports.
Another USB-A port is used by a Western Digital 5TB My Passport which is, ironically, a USB-C device, but it came with a USB-C to USB-A adapter (which is the opposite of most USB-C adapters). 1 TB of that drive is a clone of my MacBook Pro’s internal SSD, and the other 4TB are designated for Time Machine.
(Not shown: a Time Capsule which also backs up my MacBook Pro, two other 1TB drives which are used for weekly and monthly cloning of my MacBook Pro drive. Those drives are attached on Sunday night (weekly) and the 1st of the month, and then disconnected and put in a drawer. I also have Backblaze backing up my MacBook Pro. Have I mentioned that I take backups very seriously?)
The last USB-A port usually has a lightning cable plugged into it which I use to periodically recharge my keyboard and trackpad, iPad mini, etc.
The USB-C port in the back is home to the Samsung T5 Portable SSD – 2TB which was previously very professionally taped to the back of the MacBook Air as discussed on Mac Power Users #515: Stephen Takes One for the Team. I know Stephen will be dïsappointed to learn that I no longer have a drive taped to my MacBook, but that was one of the casualties of getting a 1TB SSD vs the 512GB SSD in my MacBook Air.
I leave the front-facing USB-A port open for temporary usage.
I recently upgraded our original Eero system. My mom was using an old AirPort base station (the one that looked like a Mac mini) and AirPort Express, and it was starting to be flaky, so I brought my original Eero setup to her house, and upgraded ours to the newest “base” eero system that they offer.
One benefit is that these Eero units each have two Ethernet ports. My home office sits about half-way between the router and the garage. I have an eero in the garage because we have HomeKit garage door openers, but the speed from the garage is not great. It works fine for the garage door openers, but if my MacBook Pro connects to the garage Eero, it’s noticeably slower than if it connects to the router Eero unit. The obvious solution was “put an Eero in the office”. Since the OWC dock has an Ethernet port anyway, I have an Ethernet connection to the office Eero.
A Daily Podcast? In This Economy?
In April, I decided to start a daily podcast. Each day, I read the Daily Lectionary which are 7 readings from the Bible: 2 Psalms to open, 1 reading from the Hebrew Bible (a better name for what is often called “The Old Testament”), 1 reading from the New Testament letters, 1 reading from the Gospels, and 2 Psalms to close.
That’s it, just the readings, no commentary, no discussion. I wanted it to serve as a devotional podcast for those who could benefit from something like that, especially during this time. The daily runtime ranges from 10 to 20 minutes, usually around 13.
I have a Stream Deck button which will “split” the recording into a new file (so each reading has its own file) which I find easier for editing. I use Mic Drop to mute the audio unless I am holding down another button (either Control+Space on my keyboard or a Stream Deck button). Audio Hijack is set to pause the recording if the audio stops. This means that the audio is only recording when I am holding down the button, which saves me from having to edit out any times when I pause (usually to look up how to pronounce some Biblical name), or sneeze/cough/etc.
I alread had the Samson C01 Cardioid Condenser Microphone which Dan Benjamin recommended several years ago as a good, inexpensive microphone.
I then added these to get the mic “off my desk”:
which also has the added benefit that I can now position the mic over my laptop (but off-screen) for Zoom calls, including Sunday worship services.
I recently added an Eve Degree which tells me the temperature and humidity in the office. (One thing I didn’t realize in March: this is the warmest room in the house. And for someone who is always warm anyway, that’s not a great feature.) It works with HomeKit, so I can check temperature/humidity from the Home.app.
I also have – but have not yet installed – an Eve Door & Window – Wireless contact sensor. The primary purpose of this device will be to tell me when someone has opened my office door, because since my back is to the door and I usually have noise-cancelling headphones on, my family has a tendency to “unintentionally” sneak up behind me and scare the crap out of me.
As I am sitting at my desk, I have computers on 3 sides. My 2019 MacBook Pro is in front of me. To my left is my 2007 iMac, and to my right is my “late 2008” Black MacBook.
The iMac cannot run anything newer than OS X El Capitan (10.11.6) but that does not mean it is without its purpose. For one thing, it can run Audio Hijack Pro (version 2). Audio Hijack 3 came out several years ago, but it still lacks AppleScript support, which makes me sad. Audio Hijack Pro supports AppleScript, which makes it ideal for automation. I use the iMac to automatically record Relay FM livestreams and ATP Live.
It also runs QuickTime 7 Pro. One of the great features of QuickTime 7 Pro was the ability to make very precise edits in a video, not just trimming off the start or end, but in the middle, too! Unfortunately, it was a 32-bit app, which means that Catalina and later versions of macOS aren’t able to run it.
If I need to edit a video in QuickTime 7 Pro, I drop it into a folder which syncs between my MacBook Pro and iMac using Resilio Sync (so it doesn’t have to go through the cloud, it goes directly over the LAN). Then I’ll wheel my chair over to the iMac, make the edits, and save the edited file back to the save folder.
Last but absolutely not least the App Store.app in El Capitan was the last one which supported The Mac App Store Debug Menu, discovered by Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software. One of the things that the Debug Menu allows me to do is save an HTML page of my Mac App Store Purchases.
When that HTML file is saved, it syncs to my Mac mini at MacStadium via Resilio Sync, which triggers Hazel to run a shell script on the file and create several web pages at mas.luo.ma. That web page allows me to do several things. First, it’s just a lot faster than opening up the App Store.app and going to my purchases. Secondly, I can just search the web page for just my purchased apps, which I can’t do (or can’t do easily) in the Mac App Store. I can also sort my apps alphabetically, which can be handy when I’m trying to remember an app but can’t quite remember the name.
My web page also includes direct links to both the Mac App Store links or regular web page preview links, which makes it easy to share a link to an app. But the best part may be this: each app listed there includes its ID number, which makes it easy to install using the command-line tool mas, which requires the ID number to install the app. I’ve also written a script which allows me to say “I want to install ‘Some App’ and it will look up the ID number on the web page and give the proper ID for ‘Some App’ to mas automatically. All of which is very handy, as well as being very nerdy, but it requires an “old Mac” to work.
As for my beloved BlackBook, what can I say? I love this little guy. I still wish Apple would make a pure-black MacBook. (Maybe with the new “Apple silicon” Macs we’ll get some cool colors?)
Until recently, it was serving as my mother’s “Emergency Computer” for those rare times when she couldn’t do something with her iPad. We realized that it hadn’t been used in two years, since the last time she had to take an every-other-year course required by the State of Massachusetts which is a) primarily Flash-based, and b) looks like it was designed for 800×600 screens. I’m seriously hoping they will be updating that now that Flash is almost dead.
When I bought my MacBook Pro, my 2018 MacBook Air went to my son, which meant that my 2011 MacBook Air could go to my Mom. The 2011 MacBook Air can run High Sierra (10.13.6), the BlackBook could not run anything past Lion (10.7.5).
Once I got the BlackBook home, I realized that it needed a new hard drive, and so I did a clean install of Snow Leopard on a new 240GB SSD. What am I going to do with him? I don’t know, but I like having him around. You can’t run Snow Leopard in a virtual machine (only the Server version, which I don’t have), so now I can pop into Snow Leopard via Screen Sharing whenever I want.
The biggest challenge is that no web browsers are still supporting Snow Leopard. Safari is so old that it doesn’t support newer TLS/SSL. Google Chrome and Firefox both dropped support a few years ago, but they still work (for the time being) on most sites.
It can also run QuickTime 7 Pro, and BBEdit. Heck, it even has Microsoft Office on it – although I think I’d have to call Microsoft to get it activated, which isn’t something that I’m overly excited to try. “Yes, hello, I am trying to install an old version of Word on an ancient computer, can you help?”
Even the keyboard feels nice. The trackpad, well, compared to today’s trackpads, the 2008 trackpad isn’t great, but I have a second Magic Trackpad that I had bought to use with my iPad Pro once they added cursor support, so I also use it with the BlackBook. Because why not?
You often see writers on TV who have an old typewriter around, even if they don’t use it. Well, this is like that for me.
What would you like to improve about your setup?
I would love to have an air-conditioner that I can turn on/off via HomeKit, especially if I could use it with the Eve Degree to turn it on/off automatically. But when I checked they were all like $400 which is too much to pay for the convenience I’d get from it. If I was going to the office and could turn the A/C on before I got home in the evenings, that might be something else.
Along that same line, I would love it if my ceiling fan was HomeKit-compatible, but it’s not worth the money versus “just stand up and pull the chain.”
This is probably the actual answer: I wish Apple would release a cheaper HomePod for rooms of this size.
We have a HomePod stereo pair in our family room where we watch 99% of our TV and movies through the Apple TV.
When I first setup my office, I broke up the stereo pair so that I could put one in my office. That was great in the office (which also has a TV and Apple TV), but the family room is a large, open room, and since I knew what the stereo pair had sounded like, it never sounded as good with just the one HomePod.
So I reunited the stereo pair to get the best sound possible for our family room. Coincidentally (read: not coincidentally at all) that was right before Hamilton came out on Disney+.
I’m tempted to buy another HomePod, but they are even when they are on sale for $200, they feel overly expensive. I have a Google Nest Mini which I was given for free, although I’m not clear why they were giving them away, but I figured I might as well give it a try. Its only purpose is to allow me to control my Hue lights with my voice, but it’s obviously not a HomePod competitor, nor is it meant to be.
Considering I bought the Bose headphones, I’m trying to ‘make do’ with those for my office audio needs, but I’d really like something for listening to music / watching TV without headphones on. However, that’s not going to be an issue until after the summer, because right now the air conditioner is almost always running, so noise cancellation is a nearly-constant need.
If I was WFH full-time for the rest of my life, I’d definitely invest in a better chair, but the one I have is adequate for my needs, and not being too comfortable reminds me to stand-up.
How much time do you spend at your setup?
Oh lord, I’m not sure I want to answer that. Let’s say 8 hours a day, but it’s probably more. Recently it’s been very hot and we don’t have central air, so we’ve all been spending more time in our respective rooms with our window A/C units running. So add 2–4 hours that aren’t necessarily “work” hours, but “hey this is the room I like to hang out in because it has all my stuff” hours.
What do you like most about your setup?
The Uplift sit/stand desk with the memory presets. There’s almost no “friction” at all between changing modes, which means that I don’t hesitate at all to do it.
What made the biggest difference for you?
I’ve gone to an office 4–5 days a week, every week, since I graduated from seminary in 1998, so not going to an office has been pretty weird. (Not quite as weird as holding worship via Zoom, but pretty weird.)
Most of that time I’ve also had laptops, so when I came home at night I’d take my laptop to the couch to watch TV, etc. A by-product of both of those things is that I haven’t had a home office since my previous home office was turned into a nursery. Our son just turned 18, so that was probably sometime in 2000 or 2001.
What’s your favorite thing on your wall and why?
I have three framed paintings that my brother made for my dad, who lived with us for a few years before he died in 2006. I’m not very artistic at all, so I love having something unique that reminds me of my brother (who now lives fairly close to us) and my dad.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I hope all of this was interesting to someone. I always enjoy seeing other people’s office setups, especially actual working spaces rather than some ultra-clean / minimalist desk that looks like no one has ever actually done any work on it. (Although I will admit that I dusted/wiped down my desk before I took these pictures.)