Why I switched from Mac to Linux

After 25 years, Lee made the switch to Linux and couldn't be happier. Here's what he uses.
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An introduction to GNU Screen

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In 1994, my family bought a Macintosh Performa 475 as a home computer. I had used Macintosh SE computers in school and learned to type with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, so I've been a Mac user for well over 25 years. Back in the mid-1990s, I was attracted to its ease of use. It didn't start with a DOS command prompt; it opened to a friendly desktop. It was playful. And even though there was a lot less software for Macintosh than PCs, I thought the Mac ecosystem was better, just on the strength of KidPix and Hypercard, which I still think of as the unsurpassed, most intuitive creative stack.

Even so, I still had the feeling that Mac was an underdog compared to Windows. I remember thinking the company could disappear one day. Flash-forward decades later, and Apple is a behemoth, a trillion-dollar company. But as it evolved, it changed significantly. Some changes have been for the better, such as better stabilization, simpler hardware choices, increased security, and more accessibility options. Other changes annoyed me—not all at once, but slowly. Most significantly, I am annoyed by Apple's closed ecosystem—the difficulty of accessing photos without iPhoto; the necessity of using iTunes; and the enforced bundling of the Apple store ecosystem even when I don't want to use it.

Over time, I found myself working largely in the terminal. I used iTerm2 and the Homebrew package manager. I couldn't get all my Linux software to work, but much of it did. I thought I had the best of both worlds: the macOS graphical operating system and user interface alongside the ability to jump into a quick terminal session.

Later, I began using Raspberry Pi computers booting Raspbian. I also collected a number of very old laptops rescued from the trash at universities, so, by necessity, I decided to try out various Linux distros. While none of them became my main machine, I started to really enjoy using Linux. I began to consider what it would be like to try running a Linux distro as my daily driver, but I thought the Macbook's comfort and ease, especially the hardware's size and weight, would be hard to find in a non-Mac laptop.

Time to make the switch?

About two years ago, I began using a Dell for work. It was a larger laptop with an integrated GPU, and dual-booted Linux and Windows. I used it for game development, 3D modeling, some machine learning, and basic programming in C# and Java. I considered making it my primary machine, but I loved the portability of my Macbook Air, and continued to use that as well.

Last fall, I started to notice my Air was running hot, and the fan was coming on more often. My primary machine was starting to show its age. For years, I used the Mac's terminal to access Darwin's Unix-like operating system, and I was spending more and more time bouncing between the terminal and my web browser. Was it time to make the switch?

I began exploring the possibilities for a Macbook-like Linux laptop. After doing some research, reading reviews and message boards, I went with the long-celebrated Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition 7390, opting for the 10th Generation i7. I chose it because I love the feel of the Macbook (and especially the slim Macbook Air), and reviews of the XPS 13 suggested it seemed it was similar, with really positive reviews of the trackpad and keyboard.

Most importantly, it came loaded with Ubuntu. While it's easy enough to get a PC, wipe it, and install a new Linux distro, I was attracted to the cohesive operating system and hardware, but one that allowed a lot of the customization we know and love in Linux. So when there was a sale, I took the plunge and purchased it.

What it's like to run Linux daily

I've been using the XPS 13 for three months and my dual-booted Linux work laptop for two years. At first, I thought I'd want to spend more time finding an alternate desktop environment or window manager that was more Mac-like, such as Enlightenment. I tried several, but I have to say, I like the simplicity of running GNOME out of the box. For one thing, it's minimal; there's not much GUI to get caught up in. In fact, it's intuitive and the overview takes only a couple minutes to read. 

I can access my applications through the application dash bar or a grid button to get to the application view. To access my file system, I click on the Files icon in the dash. To open the GNOME terminal, I type Ctrl+Alt+T or just Alt+Tab to switch between an open application and an open terminal. It's also easy to define your own custom hotkey shortcuts.

Beyond this, there's not much else to say. Unlike the Mac's desktop, there's not a lot to get lost in, which means there's less to distract me from my work or the applications I want to run. I didn't realize all the options or how much time I spent navigating windows on my Mac. In Linux, there are just files, applications, and the terminal.

I installed the i3 tiling window manager to do a test run. I had a few issues configuring it because I type in Dvorak, and i3 doesn't adapt to the alternate keyboard configuration. I think with more effort, I could figure out a new keyboard mapping in i3, but the main thing I was looking for was simple tiling.

I looked up GNOME's tiling capabilities and was pleasantly surprised. You press the Super key (for me, it's the key with the Windows logo—which I should cover with a sticker!) and then a modifier key. For example, pressing Super+Left moves your current window to a tile on the left side of the screen. Super+Right moves to the right half. Super+Up maximizes the current window. Super+Down reverts to the previous size. You can move between app windows with Alt+Tab. This is all default behavior and can be customized in the Keyboard settings.

Plugging in headphones or connecting to HDMI works the way you expect. Sometimes, I open the Sound settings to switch between the HDMI sound output or my external audio cable, just as I would on a Mac or PC. The trackpad is responsive, and I haven't noticed any difference from the Macbook's. When I plug in a three-button mouse, it works instantly, even with my Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

Software

I installed Atom, VLC, Keybase, Brave Browser, Krita, Blender, and Thunderbird in a matter of minutes. I installed other software with the Apt package manager in the terminal (as normal), which offers many more packages than the Homebrew package manager for macOS.

Music

I have a variety of options for listening to music. I use Spotify and PyRadio to stream music. Rhythmbox is installed by default on Ubuntu; the simple music player launches instantly and without any bloat. Simply click on the menu, choose Add Music, and navigate to a directory of audio tracks (it searches recursively). You can also stream podcasts or online radio easily.

Text and PDFs

I tend to write in Markdown in Neovim with some plugins, then convert my document using Pandoc to whatever final format is needed. For a nice Markdown editor with preview, I downloaded Ghostwriter, a minimal-focus writing application.

If someone sends me a Microsoft Word document, I can open it using the default LibreOffice Writer application.

Occasionally, I have to sign a document. This is easy with macOS's Preview application and my signature in PNG format, and I needed a Linux equivalent. I found that the default PDF viewer app didn't have the annotation tools I needed. The LibreOffice Draw program was acceptable but not particularly easy to use, and it occasionally crashed. Based on some research, I installed Xournal, which has the simple annotation tools I need to add dates, text, and my signature and is fairly comparable to Mac's Preview app. It works exactly as needed.

Importing images from my phone

I have an iPhone. To get my images off the phone, there are a number of methods to sync and access your files. If you have a different phone, your process may be different. Here's my method:

  1. Install gvfs-backends with sudo apt install gvfs-backends, which is part of the GNOME virtual filesystem.
  2. Get your phone's serial number. Plug your phone into your computer and click "Trust" on your iPhone. In your computer's terminal enter: 
  3. lsusb -v 2> /dev/null | grep -e "Apple Inc" -A 2

    (Thanks to Stack Oveflow user complistic for this code tip).

  4. Now open your File system.
    • Press Ctrl+L to open a location and type in:
      afc://YOUR_SERIAL_NUMBER

      to open and navigate to your DCIM folder. My photos and videos are inside the DCIM folder inside five subfolders, not the Photos folder. From here you can move them over to your computer manually.

    • After mounting the phone file system you can alternatively navigate to your files in the Terminal via:
      cd /run/user/1001/gvfs/afc:host=YOUR_SERIAL_NUMBER

Graphics, photographs, modeling, and game engines

I am an educator and teach a variety of new media courses. Many of my colleagues and students subscribe to the pricey and proprietary Adobe Creative Suite. I like to let my students know they have other options.

For drawing and graphics editing, I use Krita. It's definitely my Photoshop replacement. For illustration work, there is also Inkscape and Scribus for publishing software. For automated editing, I use the command line ImageMagick program, which is pre-installed in Ubuntu.

To manage my images, I use the simple Shotwell application.

For 3D modeling, I use and teach the open source Blender software. At my school, we teach Unity 3d, which has Linux builds. It works fine, but I've been meaning to try out Godot, an open source alternative.

Development

My XPS 13 came with Chrome and Chromium installed. I also added Firefox and Brave Browser. All work as you'd be used to on a Mac or PC. Most of the time, I do my development work in Atom and sometimes in Visual Studio Code, both of which are easily installed on Linux. Vim is pre-installed in the terminal, and Neovim, my preferred terminal text editor, was an easy install.

After a few weeks, I began to try out other terminals. My current favorite is Terminology from the Enlightenment Foundation. For one, it allows you to view images in the terminal, something you'd be hard-pressed to do in Mac's terminal.

Here to stay

I can't see myself switching back to a Mac as my daily computer. Now when I use a Mac, I notice the abundance of options and extra steps needed to run an application or navigate somewhere. I also notice it runs a bit slower, or is that just in my head?

Now that I've made the switch to an open source ecosystem and Linux, I'm happy and have no need to switch back.

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Lee Tusman is a new media artist, programmer and educator interested in the application of the radical ethos of collectives and DIY culture to the creation of, aesthetics, and open-source distribution methods of digital culture. His artistic output includes interactive media, video art, net art, experimental videogames, sound art, websites, twitter bots and micro-power radio stations.

46 Comments

Thanks for great article. Mac runs at the same speed as any other Linux. I did not notice the difference in speed. But this is my opinion.

I have been confused in choosing between Linux and Mac for a while now. Seeing how positive your reviews are, I am tilting a bit towards Linux. Are there any factors in which you would say that Mac is a better option?

I think Linux is better or on the same level as Mac on every level. The only advantage would be the lightweight of Mac as compared to the comparatively heavier Laptops with Linux. I would recommend that you go with Linux as your choice.

In reply to by Anirudh Singh

I have 2 workstations and a laptop for each of those operating systems, but I’m apparently missing a lot. How do you run Office365 natively on Linux? What tool is available in Linux for me to publish iOS apps on the Apple store? How do I integrate my watch; phone; and biometric id with my Ubuntu devices? I run most of the same open source stuff in either environment, but how do I run iMovie, Garage Band, and other Mac-centric programs in Linux? Not asking to be facetious, but I’ve recovered a lot of older hardware using Linux, and I’d love to be able to give it away to people who need computers, so how can I do so and know they can use it as easily as an older Mac? To be fair, I don’t share “frankenmacs” when I make them, either.

In reply to by Collin Davis

I don't use all these services/apps so I don't know 100%. If you're looking to keep using all these specific Mac programs because you specifically love them and are already familiar with them, it could be hard to switch. I think you could look into using a Mac VirtualBox but essentially that would just be starting up a Mac system in your Linux box, which maybe goes away from the goal, and you'd want to look up the legality of this.
If you want to find Linux software with similarity to these Mac programs, you can find that. For example: iMovie -> Kdenline. GarageBand -> Ardour. There is Office Online for the occasional need to open up an office document, but otherwise I use LibreOffice. Or the most Mac-like Linux system I can think of is ElementaryOS.

In reply to by Droslovinia (not verified)

The most simple research would show you that Office365 does not run 'natively' on Linux (though there has long been talk it is coming). And you cannot run Mac in a virtual machine (a mortal with other work in life cannot, anyway). So if you want to use those apps, stick with the Mac. The Terminal gives great access to all unix commands. If you want Linux, install a distro or two in VirtualBox.

In reply to by Droslovinia (not verified)

For me the biggest advantage of a Mac is the better and smoother multitasking. I usually have 2 monitors to work with Ubuntu and Windows, but on a Mac I am completely okay with using one small screen (of course 2 screens are still better even on a Mac). Having a smooth and easy way to fullscreen an application (and hide the topbar) and order them however my needs are is so helpful and really helps productivity. I don't need to remember where the app I need is because if I forget I simply swipe up and get all the screens ordered. If I need to swap to another screen just swipe left or right to the desired screen. I don't know why Windows and Ubuntu dont have a similiar approach to this because the current system of alt+tab is clunky to me compared to Mac. (Maybe they do but not out of the box like on Mac) So if you plan on using your laptop's trackpad without a mouse Mac multitasking experience is really smooth. Apart from that from my experience using Ubuntu and Mac, I don't really see any major benefits to using a Mac over Linux both work well and get the job done. FYI I am a web developer and a student.

In reply to by Anirudh Singh

I think I have the same functionality on my Ubuntu out of the box. Press the Super key (It's the one with the windows logo) and you get a view with all open apps and your workspaces on the right. Click on any app or workspace to switch. It's equivalent I think to swiping up on a Mac.
Also: Alt-Tab switches apps. Super +UP fullscreens. Super+LEFT tiles on the left. Super+RIGHT tiles on the right.
But definitely some folks have different needs/interests so choose what works best for you.

In reply to by Dario_Simun (not verified)

Re-reading your comment again. If you're looking for mouseless ability to view all and switch. After you hit SUPER and it brings up the open apps and workspaces you can hit tab to cycle through them and hit enter to accept.
Maybe there's some other functionality you're looking for as well?

In reply to by Lee Tusman

You're lucky you can programme , because yiu may need to develop a driver to a printer or other piece of hardware. Linux is great but it is not for everybody.

I don't program and, obviously, have never developed a hardware driver. Yet I've been using Linux as my sole operating system, and productively, since 1999.

In reply to by ELIEZER FERREI… (not verified)

Personally, I find that kind of limiting, just using one OS only. Heck, the only reason I do not own a Mac is because I cannot justify spending the money on one. After all, I prefer to build my own machines and have done so for at least the last 35 years or so. :)

In reply to by Scott Nesbitt

We're not in the 90's anymore, you don't need to program your own driver, they are already included in the kernel unless it is a Linux-hostile hardware vendor.

In reply to by ELIEZER FERREI… (not verified)

Incorrect - most hardware works under Linux-based operating systems "out of the box", especially with Ubuntu... I've been using Linux-based operating systems for nearly ten years now, and I could count on half a hand the hardware that hasn't worked "out of the box".

Unless you're using hardware that's pretty obscure, you're going to find that hardware compatibility is almost on-par with an Apple macOS or Microsoft Windows-based operating system.

In reply to by ELIEZER FERREI… (not verified)

This must have been long ago - Linux uses CUPS, while Mac uses... oh well, also CUPS. So you generally pretty much have the same printing options as on a Mac. I know, not always, because sometimes, brain-dead printer producers make you install 100 MB of software on your Mac in order to print out some sheets of paper while all you really would need is a CUPS description file (and Gutenprint or something similar).

In reply to by ELIEZER FERREI… (not verified)

I can't speak to MacOS driver availability, but I have found more often than not I have better luck getting devices working with Linux out-of-the-box, while MSWin wants you hunt down vendor drivers that may or may not still be available. It's especially the case if you're using older printers and scanners, where MSWin will have broken the ABI for the only available device drivers (and the vendor has zero interest in updating them for a newer OS version). Meanwhile plug that same device into Linux, and it just works more often than not.

Your biggest problem comes from the so-called "WinPrinters" (and "WinModems" at one time). These are dependent on proprietary vendor drivers to function at all, being reliant on the OS to do all the processing that a proper peripheral should do on it's own. These are only made so the vendor can crank out cheaply-made, readily-disposable devices (which also adds to the ecological problem of electronic waste).

In reply to by ELIEZER FERREI… (not verified)

I prefer using Linux as it provides more administrative and root level access than Mac OS and it helps me in doing task automation through command line interface.

The last Apple computer I owned was a IIe, which tells you something about how long ago that was. I got fed up with the fact that there was always something else you needed to add for more usability. Mainly, though, the absolute lock-down control Apple has on the hardware and OS means they are overpriced at every level.

If you want to try an alternative Markdown editor, I would wholeheartedly suggest Typhora. It's cross-platform, with a minimal GUI and the ability to export in md, pdf or html. It's very convenient to use it when exporting html files for GitHub Pages.

https://typora.io/

I also would love to move to Gnome as my main DE over macOS Aqua... but the only thing preventing me from doing so is Continuity... Having an iPhone, I need to be able to text and call people from my computer, and copy and paste between the devices. I haven't figured out a way to do so on Linux. I'm also unwilling to switch to Android as 90+% of my contacts use iMessage/FaceTime. Anyone else with the same dilemma?

I don't use Messenger much, so this may not help you, but I do use Signal. And the Signal app works well on Ubuntu and syncs with my phone.

In reply to by macsmister (not verified)

Fair enough ... but when you say about Apple that there is "the difficulty of accessing photos without iPhoto; the necessity of using iTunes; " you could not be more wrong. I use Apple for everything, many, many photographs and I never use either of those apps. Lots of alternatives.

For me, one of the problems with Mac (aside from it not being an open source system) is that it compels its users to upgrade. Mac OS becomes obsolete before the hardware does. You're forced to upgrade on a pretty regular basis, and it often involves e-waste and high prices. Linux enables you to run a modern OS on very old hardware.

While your last statement is true, Macs are supported for quite a while. I have a MacBook Air from 2013 on the latest OS and it’s running just fine. If anything, chromebooks and android phones are much worse.

In reply to by Seth Kenlon

In terms of speed: if you see improvement wait till you switch to Arch + gnome :)

Can you copy your pictures from your computer to your iphone this way? Can you also copy music mp3s to your phone too? It is too complicated to do with iphone so I carry around an android to listen to music.

I haven't tested sending photos from computer to phone so am not sure about that.
For transferring music, you may be able to use the same method, but I haven't tried it because instead, this is what I have been using: I use the iOS app VLC For Mobile. In the app there is a local WIFI setting. It gives you a URL you can type into your computer's web browser, and then you can drag mp3s into the browser window and it transfers to my iPhone through wifi. Works really fast and easy!

https://apps.apple.com/us/app/vlc-for-mobile/id650377962

In reply to by Pattylover (not verified)

There is no fan on Mac air

I recently switched to Linux. My recent jobs have provided me with a MacBook, when I changed jobs and found not only did they not use Macs, worse their OS of choice was Windows. I am a Linux SA and haven't used Windows in years. I find Windows clunky and annoying that almost every time you make a change it requires a reboot.First thing I did was get an old PC at work and install Linux. At home I was faced with buying a MacBook, but really couldn't justify the cost. I bought a cheap small laptop off eBay and installed Linux Mint and it ran just fine. I spend a lot of time at the shell prompt and using Putty just doesn't cut it for me. All the functionality I typically use ; web browser, document editing etc is available in Linux. I have tried different distros Ubuntu, Elementary, Deepin , Peppermint and so on, but keep coming back to Mint. Occasionally there are annoyances get something to work or find the right drivers, but I am happy with my switch and don't think I will ever go back.

Great read. Have you seen that Ars Technica series on YouTube that explores old video games and the developmental challenges? There was a great one about Myst, and how the creators started with Hypercard. Really lovely series.

https://youtu.be/EWX5B6cD4_4

Lee, what a great article! I really enjoyed the way you explain your journey of discovery. I can fully relate to that as I see many parallels between your "transition" to GNU/Linux + GNOME and mine (in my case, it was from Solaris). Of course some are comfortable where they are, some don't want to spend time learning new things but rather prefer to hone their expertise on their existing tool sets, and some are explorers, like you... and it's great to hear that your explorations led you to a great new place, AND it's even better that you shared with the rest of us. Congratulations!

For all your PDF needs - including signing documents (with or without a graphical signature) - have a look at Qoppa Software's PDF Studio - it's proprietary (rather than Open Source), but I've been using it for nearly ten years and it supports almost every single feature Adobe Acrobat does under Apple macOS / Microsoft Windows... I simply cannot recommend PDF Studio highly enough.

I had to switch from Linux to Mac for work and actually have been quite happy using both worlds.

I am still much more happy with my Linux machine and was lucky enough to be asked to give away my 15'' Mac to a new colleague recently, buying myself a new Linux machine. While the Dell XPS is an extremely nifty thing, I am a programmer and 13'' displays are no fun for me, no matter how high the resolution is.

I bought a TUXEDO InfinityBook Pro 15 - which is almost the same size as my old 2015 Mac Book 15'', but has more and better interfaces. I am happy with it and realized there are pretty good alternatives to Macs out there.

Ray, another point of view on this - here in Canada, we don't have any "local" suppliers of size other than Dell, and Dell Canada is very variable on Linux. But having bought 4 System76 machines over the past few years, I can say they're easy to deal with despite the border. If I were living in Europe I would probably look at Tuxedo by default, since they are located in Germany.

In reply to by Ray

i've been onto linux for a very long time, as far back as 1995 when it was still relatively unknown. i had been a distro hopper for a while but settled onto Linux Mint for a long time.
But LM has it's pain points here and there.
About a year ago, i decided to give Kubuntu a try, and i thank god that i did.

Kubuntu, i.e. Ubuntu + KDE, is in my opinion the best of all. There are settings in there that you can't get in nonKDE distros.

Kubuntu 20.04 LTS will be released in about 10 days.
Check it out guys. It's simply great. I used the Dark Mode theme. Simply superb.

Good to hear that you're happy with Linux, just a little surprised that it took you so long ;-)

Best wishes.
Richard.

Thanks Les for an excellent article. I changed from Vista to Ubuntu a long time ago and am very happy with it. I did use Unix on a Fortune 32:16 so the move to Linux was easy. I like the command line interface better than the desktop. I'm still exploring Linux options.

Nice article, thanks. I personally find it limiting to use or enjoy just one OS so I use them all. (Now mind you, I do not own a Mac because I cannot see spending the money on one but I do like them.)

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