How to setup a telecommuting Mac for $300

“No man is an island,” John Donne famously wrote–but Donne predated the era of telecommuting by almost four centuries.

As someone who lives on the other side of the country from most of my colleagues, I spend almost all my time working from home or the comfort of a coffee shop. And while I’m not exactly an island, I do have to be a self-sufficient outpost, equipped to work as effectively as if I were just sitting down the hall from my boss.

When Macworld challenged me to setup a telecommuting Mac for just $300, I didn’t even blink an eye. While the task might have seemed a Herculean task in decades past, these days, it’s a snap.

The setup

As a telecommuter, my top concern is staying in touch with colleagues around the country. I need to be able to write and edit stories, collaborate on documents and projects in real time, and keep up with the latest developments in my field.

And I need to do it all from wherever I might find myself: at home, a hotel room, or in a local cafe. Obviously, my mobile office starts with a Mac laptop running Mac OS X Leopard. From there, my mantra is to keep it simple and travel light.

Instant communication

Despite the thousands of miles separating me from my coworkers, I don’t want to feel isolated from what’s happening in the office. More important, I need to be able to communicate easily with other members on my team about projects and assignments.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of free tools for these tasks, from both Apple and third parties. For e-mail, OS X’s built-in Mail client is a no-brainer. However, I decided to replace Apple’s iChat instant messaging software with the free Adium ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), which lets me keep track of chats with my coworker and friends in one convenient location, no matter what network they’re on, from AIM to Google Talk to, yes, even Facebook.

Despite its frivolous reputation, Twitter’s social networking service is also an important part of my communication strategy. The service’s steady stream of status updates creates a public dialogue about interesting trends, feeds me breaking news relevant to my job, and keeps me in touch with professional contacts and friends alike without making me expend a lot of energy.

To keep Twitter from absorbing too much of my time, I downloaded The Iconfactory’s Twitterrific ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), which is free–so long as I don’t mind a few ads. The program lets me keep up with my Twitter feed in a convenient pop-up window, without having it take over my life.

Collaboration

Since I need to be able to interact with my fellow coworkers as though I’m just a shout away in the next cubicle, I signed up for an account with the free Google Docs apps. This suite of online tools lets me and my colleagues team up over the Internet on word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations–all in real time. I can even export any of those documents as PDF or Microsoft Office documents, if needed.

Google Docs takes care of instant collaboration, but I do occasionally have to receive files of a more Microsoftian persuasion. While there’s no perfect replacement for Microsoft Office, the $150 price tag for the Home and Student Edition would take a huge bite out of my budget.

I looked at the free OpenOffice.org ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ), which offered many of the tools I needed, but found its interface too rough around the edges. Ultimately, I decided it was worth making a small investment in Apple’s $79 iWork ’09 suite to have well-designed tools that let me work with most Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents.

I also need the flexibility to share large files, including photos, audio recordings, and video. Though e-mail is sufficient for most tasks, every once in a while I end up with a file that is more than the mail servers can handle. For these scenarios, I turned to Cyberduck ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). Cyberduck is a master of all flavors of file transfer, from FTP to WebDAV, and its interface is simple and intuitive, requiring little recourse to the help files. The developer asks for a donation, so I put in $5.

Prying eyes and sticky fingers

When you move around as much as a telecommuter does, making sure that your information and physical property are secure is essential.

The preponderance of free and cheap Wi-Fi networks is great, but I deal in sensitive data and frequently need to access restricted work services. That means logging into a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and creating an encrypted link to the home office.

I could use OS X’s built-in VPN client for this, but the Cisco VPN client that my office (and many other businesses) prefer is far more reliable, even if it’s not as user friendly. To make my life easier, I downloaded Fabian Jaeger’s Shimo ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). This $20.95 app provides quick and easy access to Cisco VPN functions via my Mac’s menu bar.

Since my laptop is my livelihood, it’s important to keep it physically safe as well. Thankfully, all recent Mac laptops (except for the MacBook Air) have a lock slot that you can put to use with a lock and security cable. I chose Kensington’s $39.99 ComboSaver Combination Ultra Notebook Lock. It sports a long, thick cable that’ll deter most casual thieves.

Safety net

Of course, the security of your information is only as good as your last backup.

Leopard’s Time Machine makes backing up easy and relatively painless. It does require an external drive, however. Luckily, these go for a song these days. I picked up the roomy Western Digital My Book Essential 1TB drive for a mere $119 from NewEgg.com.

The only trick is that I have to remember to plug in the drive every time I sit down at my desk at home.

That takes care of a local backup, but backups are like potato chips: you can’t have just one. For mobile professionals, having an off-site backup is just as important. Since backing up all my files requires a lot of space and I don’t want to lug an external hard drive with me, I back up only my most important files to Dropbox. This online service offers 2GB of free storage space, and its Mac syncing client makes the process almost effortless.

The paper problem

Most of my work falls into a paperless routine, but every once in a while I have to do something out of the ordinary–for example, scanning, printing, or faxing. Since I’m not about to lug peripherals around with me, I decided to rely on the kindness of others for this. If I can’t beg or borrow the use of a friend’s hardware, I’ll make a trip to the local copy shop or library branch–many of which can accommodate files stored on a flash drive.

Of course, that means I need a flash drive. I snagged an 8GB Crucial Gizmo flash memory drive for just $18 from Newegg.com. Crucial is a reliable memory manufacturer, and 8GB should be enough to hold almost anything I want to transfer.

Power supply

If you’re a frequent patron of Internet cafes, it’s nice to be neighborly. Since most coffee shops or other public establishments have a limited number of power outlets, I grabbed one of Monster Cable’s Outlets to Go four-outlet compact surge protectors for $13.98 on Amazon. Now when I’m plugged in, I can offer to share with my fellow telecommuters. Who knows, I may need the favor returned some day.

With my remaining cash, I splurged on a cup of tea–English breakfast, if you’re interested–and treated the barista to a nice tip. When you work out of a cafe, it’s important to remember that the staff are like your coworkers: be friendly and respectful, and everyone goes home happy.

On the move

Putting together a telecommuter system on a small budget wasn’t hard. In fact, with a few exceptions, this is exactly what I use every day. With so much great inexpensive and free software available for the Mac, hardware took up the bulk of my budget–and most of that was aimed at protecting me from thieves and equipment failures. Such is the life of the roaming worker.

The splurge

Once I was done with my shopping spree, Macworld asked what I would do with an extra With an extra $300. Here’s what I’d add…

Upgrade my office

Although iWork will get the job done for most of the tasks I need, with a bit more money I would go ahead and upgrade to Microsoft Office 2008. I do end up dealing with Microsoft Office files pretty frequently, and for the $105 that the suite costs on Amazon, I could be assured of full compatibility with my colleagues and other business contacts.

Drown everything out

I find that being in a bustling environment like a cafe actually serves to help me focus better, but sometimes I need a little extra concentration. A pair of Sennheiser’s PXC 300 noise-canceling headphones, should do the trick, and I picked up a pair on Amazon for about $111. Not only do they reduce background noise, they provide great-sounding audio for cranking out my work tunes, podcasts, and videos without unduly disturbing my neighbors.

Travel in style

Given how much I travel, I don’t exactly fancy carrying my MacBook around in the box Apple sent it in or my ancient college backpack. A far better option would be Brenthaven’s Expandable Trek backpack ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), which I was able to find on Amazon for $74.

The bag features a padded sleeve for my computer, as well as plenty of space for any and all accessories. Comfortable and sturdy, it fits under an airline seat, has pockets galore, and sports expandable compartments to handle even more gear.

[Macworld Associate Editor Dan Moren has been telecommuting from Boston for almost four years now, previously as a freelance writer and blogger. Most of the staff at his local cafe know him by name.]

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