How I'm doing my personal computing these days

In the last couple of years I've changed how I do my personal computing. The changes have been motivated by increased risks (or rather my perception of risk). It feels appropriate to catalog it, in the hopes it might give you some ideas.

Back in the early 2000s, my first truly personal computer was a Dell desktop. I managed to keep this thing running in some shape or form for a decade, running just about every Linux distro at one point or another. During these years, I was basically broke, earning what little money I had between various hourly contract gigs, internships, and side jobs.

In college I also managed to save up enough money to buy an HP laptop. This thing ran the earliest releases of Ubuntu until it began to physically disintegrate. I had to rely on the Dell desktop for the most part. This laptop was not a great purchase.

By the time I got my first "real" job, I was relying on my work-provided MacBook Pro for my personal tasks. This was the first time I ever used an Apple computer, and it blew me away.

I bought myself a new MacBook Pro to replace my aging desktop. The MacBook was amazing. I still hold it as the best computing device I've owned. I was able to upgrade its storage and memory with minimal work, and without voiding a warranty. It lasted me about seven years before Apple's OS updates became too much for it to handle.

This was also around the time that smartphones started being a thing. I went through a string of cheap Android phones before upgrading to an iPhone SE, first generation, which is still the best phone I've ever owned. It had a decent battery life, sharp screen, and a single big physical button in the middle of the device. Most importantly, it was small and could easily fit into a pants pocket.

Without really meaning to, I had become an Apple user.

Then over the next decade or so, I saw the quality of Apple products decline. The company also adopted some policies I don't like.

In 2018 I had to replace my MacBook Pro and opted for a MacBook Air. This laptop had lots of issues from the beginning. The keyboard was subject to well publicized flaws. The memory and storage could not be upgraded or repaired.

In 2020 I replaced my iPhone SE with a second-generation iPhone SE. The second-generation phone has a very poor battery life, and no longer has the ideal 4 inch display model.

Apple badly botched the rollout of their Apple Music service. By signing up for a trial of Apple Music, the software decided to index all my music files, delete my files from local disk, and upload them to Apple's cloud servers. This is completely unacceptable user-hostile behavior.

Apple also began scanning content on their cloud services, meaning that Apple's software would decrypt customer data and send information about it to law enforcement. I am a boringly law-abiding person, but this rubs me the wrong way. I do not like my sensitive personal data being in the hands of a company that thinks this is a good idea.

After going through these experiences, I realized a few priorities that have turned me away from many consumer electronics makers, including Apple:

  1. I want my devices to last as long as possible.

  2. I want my data to be local only, not synced to any cloud server, unless it is non-sensitive data I am sharing with others, or the data is encrypted end-to-end with a key I control.

  3. I don't want to be pushed to use services that the manufacturer built. I do not want to have to login to a service to use my own computer, or to access my own data. Furthermore, I no longer trust those services.

  4. I don't want my devices to be reporting my usage of the system to anyone, no matter how noble the goals of this project may be.

So given all these lessons, my current setup is as follow:

  • I have a desktop computer, in a mini-ITX case, purchased in 2020, which runs Linux. I can upgrade it and update it at my leisure. Right now it has 5 TB of storage. The LTS release I'm using now will be supported with security updates through 2027. This is used for most of my home computing, especially anything heavy like gaming or running resource-intensive software for development testing, like minikube.

  • I have a Google Pixel 4a phone running GrapheneOS. It is a very simple phone, made even more simple with GrapheneOS's minimal feature set. Running a custom Android ROM allows me total control of what software runs on my device, who is listening, and what the phone is connecting to. Without any bloat, this phone gets an amazing 30+ hours of battery life on a standard charge. GrapheneOS enables some really nice features for privacy and security, my favorite being the randomized MAC address and ability to completely disable Bluetooth scanning. Once this phone stops receiving security updates, I plan to purchase a Pixel 7a, but if I wanted to I could install LineageOS to extend the phone's life even longer.

  • I still have my MacBook Air which is starting to feel ancient at this point. I mainly use it for writing. I had the keyboard replaced under Apple's keyboard replacement program which has made it a bit more usable. When this MacBook hits its end-of-life, I'll likely replace it with a Framework Laptop, to get what I really want, which is a powerful enough laptop with good battery life, a functional keyboard, and the ability to upgrade and repair the hardware as needed. For my personal laptops, I don't do a lot of resource-demanding tasks, typically just writing and editing work.

  • I haven't completely abandoned Apple. I now have a Mac Mini (M2) which I snagged on sale! I use this exclusively for music production for now, because getting a DAW and all the attendant drivers for a MIDI keyboard to run in Linux has proven to be too painful for me to endure. I plan to also learn some video editing.

  • I also have a couple devices that I don't interact with directly, namely my pfSense firewall, a NAS for backups, a media PC running Kodi, and a bunch of networking equipment to wire it all together. The firewall forwards all outbound traffic through a VPN connection, with my DNS routed through Cloudflare's network to filter out malware and other bad stuff. This gives me a good amount of default security and privacy without having to individually configure every device on my network or trust flimsy third-party VPN software.

This setup may seem more complex than just putting all that money and time into Apple products, but I feel like I have more control of my devices this way.

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