Taking the plunge, two weeks on

Posted on Sat 14 June 2014 in news • 5 min read

Two weeks ago, I posted about my reasons for installing Ubuntu Linux on my ageing MacBook Air. It's been three weeks now since I took the plunge and I wanted to write a follow-up on my my experiences and what I like and don't like about running Linux on my MacBook.

What I don't like about changing to Linux

Most of my complaints are in truth minor. Several of which are hardware related (which isn't Linux's fault); some are just due to differences between the two systems but several are bugs. In the last three weeks I've tested Pantheon Shell (briefly), Unity, Gnome-fallback (both metacity and compiz) and most recently, Gnome Shell.

Hardware

My hardware complaints are in truth minor and let's face, Apple never intended users to run Linux on their hardware. Battery life has taken a hit, but I was expecting this and I'm never far enough from a power outlet for it to be an issue. There's also minor issues entering and resuming from the suspend state. On my trackpad, which is truly a wonder in OS X, I can only get two-fingered scrolling to work and not the multi-touch gestures I've grown accustomed to.

Unity

Okay, I'll say it. I don't like Unity; the dash is slow, badly organised, intrusive and it invades my privacy. Gnome 3.10 however rocks and I look forward to upgrading to 3.12 stable.

Features and applications I miss

There's some features for OS X that I really miss, namely: QuickLook, Automator, Spotlight and Preview. Other things I also miss are AirPlay (add-ons to Pulseaudio don't work), multi-touch gestures, GeekTool (conky is okay though), iPhoto, Pages and Pixelmator.

You'll note that I don't include Microsoft Office or anything from Adobe, that's because I don't use them, even on my Mac Mini, for any of my personal projects.

What I like

Packages

Firstly, the packages in Linux (even a non-rolling released like Ubuntu) are newer than their OS X equivalents. Things like wget are installed by default, and it's much easier to install packages you don't have. Package management is one of Linux's biggest strengths and OS X's biggest weaknesses.

The Applications

After putting up with the bloated mess of iTunes, the barren features of Quicktime 10 and piss poor performance of Finder for 10 years, it's fantastic to finally use some alternatives that actually work the way I want them too.

Gnome-Mplayer plus Gstreamer has made me a happy man once I got hardware acceleration to work with my Air's Nvidia 320m graphics chipset. It plays everything I want while feeling native to the Gnome Shell (no surprise there) to the point where I've removed VLC and Totem.

Banshee, my preferred music player, works great even with my lossless alac rips and it has a decidedly smaller footprint than iTunes. It also works well with my Nexus 7.

Gedit, is an extremely useful text editor for all kinds of documents. I don't think it would ever replace Sublime Text for development but it's ideal for editing configuration files, plain text and markdown documents. It's also got a rich plugin architecture, which I'm going to explore as a possibility for integrating with my Worldbuilding App.

Convenience

There's a lot I find convenient under Linux, that while possible under OS X was a pain to implement. For example, because the Air only has a 64GB SSD, I don't have room for a lot of media files. I keep them instead on a small BSD-powered NAS I have at home. With Linux, it's very easy to mount that directory to my ~/Music folder and let Banshee do it's thing; in fact it's easy to do this both inside (using NFS) and outside (using sshfs) my home's network. I'm blessed with a static IP address and a decent ADSL connection at home so performance is good, even streaming lossless rips of my CD collection.

Can I do that on a Mac and iTunes? Yes but it's fiddly because of the way that iTunes catalogues media and stores the links to the files which change depending on your shared file protocol. Banshee and Rhythmbox by contrast seem to be fairly agnostic and simply reference the ~/Music folder as the source.

It doesn't end at music either because I can do the same with any directory on my home server (i.e. videos, backups)

Another thing I find convenient is that support for my mobile broadband card works out of the box with profiles already in place for my service provider (Australia's Telstra NextG network). In OS X, I had to install an app from Telstra; it added overhead and gimped my network profile. Likewise, connecting to VPN is possible out of the box.

Gnome Shell

I've only played with Gnome shell for a few days but so far it's been the most usable, performant and consistent shell I've used to date and I'm just using Gnome 3.10, by all accounts 3.12 is even better. Gnome 3 is everything Unity should have been.

Choice

Apps, themes, icons, desktop environments can be tweaked, changed, hacked to suit any taste or preference. The fact that I can choose Unity, Gnome (including classic versions), KDE, XFCE and LDXE off the same software repository and on the same kernel without breaking the system is astounding and a testament to the strength of the Linux community. Honestly, there's something for everyone and that kind of choice simply does not exist in OS X or Windows with performing potentially dangerous hacks.

Final thoughts

Apple never intended Linux to run on their hardware so I didn't expect everything to work. The fact that almost everything does, albeit with a hit on battery life, is a pleasant surprise. Sure I have to use two proprietary drivers (Nvidia and Broadcom), but I'm prepared to live with that for the sake of a stable and functional system. I'm not going to hate on Apple or OS X; I love Apple's hardware and in fact the decision to migrate to Linux was in part due to desire to prolong the life of my Air.

From the outset, I want to say that many of my reasons for switching still stand. Performance is unquestioningly better under Linux on the Air's limited resources and that was my primary reason for switching. Gnome Shell feels much more modern than OS X Mavericks and yet it still feels like a desktop operating system. In general, many applications have less bloat and a smaller footprint which is exactly what I want on the Air. Social media and cloud services integration are there if I want them, but they aren't crammed down my throat (or more to the point, into my RAM cache).

Mac OS 10.10 Yosemite is intriguing and I'll look forward to installing it on my Mac Mini (well 10.10.1, I'm not a glutton for punishment) but on my MacBook Air, I plan on sticking with Linux.

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