Making a Tidy Digital Life: Local Software and Files
As a Linux user, I have naturally acquired many strong opinions about the “right” way to use a computer. They are also most likely to be relevant to students taking Computer Science and similar courses. Hopefully you will be able to appreciate that they are, in fact, just my opinions. In fact, in a lot of these cases, I haven’t taken my own advice!
At the most general level, when I talk about digital tidiness, it means minimising use of scarce resources. These include CPU cycles, RAM, internet bandwidth, battery life, and your time and attention. Notably, storage space is not included, since most people nowadays will have at least 256GB of storage (SSD or hard drive) on their computer; your operating system shouldn’t take more than 20GB, so unless you’re downloading many large games or video files, you’re unlikely to fill that up.
Another major component of digital tidiness is keeping your data organised and safe.
There’s a big meme that the average computer user today treats their operating system as a boot loader for Chrome. There are web applications for almost everything you could want to do with a computer, from writing notes and sending e-mails, even to programming with the browser version of Visual Studio Code. However, I would argue that there are a couple of serious advantages to using native desktop programs in [current year].
The first, and most obvious advantage is that you don’t need a persistent internet connection to have access to your software. While modern network connections are usually reliable, there are many edge cases where it’s either impossible or undesirable to use the internet (free public Wi-Fi, anyone?). This also applies to having your files saved locally.
Thunderbird (and other, mostly hypothetical, similarly advanced desktop e-mail clients) even lets you download your e-mail inbox to read offline, and queue up some messages to send once you go back online.
The major advantage of web software (and file storage) is that you can access it on any computer with an internet connection, but that excuse is completely worthless if you carry a laptop with you (as most students seem to). If you only have an iPad, I offer my condolences.
In short, the overall goal should be to use your web browser for browsing the web: just reading (mostly static) content, and maybe downloading some files.
There are some specific advantages to local file storage. For one thing, you are free to organise things in whatever way works best. I keep all the files for a given university module in one place: Documents/uni/modules/csXXX (see the banner image, a screenshot of Eagle Mode, the most advanced file manager). Generally, being able to store all my files as I please means I can group related files together, rather than ones that I happen to use the same web application to edit.
The big disadvantage of storing files locally is that they can be lost if your computer gets destroyed or damaged. This is really easy to avoid in Windows by saving all your files in the OneDrive folder, which is automatically synchronised to the cloud and between devices. Many alternative cloud backup solutions exist, and there’s always the good old USB stick in a desk drawer, so you have options to keep things safe, regardless of your operating system.