My story of transitioning from Mac to Linux

If you want an operating system that aligns with your ethics but isn't a huge jump from macOS, give Elementary OS Linux a try.
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There's growing awareness in the design community about the importance of design ethics and the way proprietary technology subjugates users. As a user experience designer, I believe technology should be designed to respect the earth as well as creators and users. Using and contributing to Linux is one way to align my design ethics with my practice.

This is why I bought a ThinkPad and installed the Linux distribution Elementary OS, even though macOS is, by far, the most popular operating system among designers. Linux doesn't have a great reputation for ease of use, and switching operating systems can be disorienting and frustrating. When I told people I was making the switch, many (especially designers!) thought I was foolish. However, after making the switch, I am happy to report that I have a design workflow that I really love and an operating system that aligns with my values.

If you'd like to see what it's like to switch from macOS to Elementary OS, read on to learn from my experience.

Elementary OS.

Elementary OS has a strong user experience which makes it a great operating system for designers.

Plan for the applications you will use

First, make a list of the tools you use regularly. For me, they are:

  • Sketch: designing
  • Marvel: prototyping
  • Firefox: web browser
  • Tomighty: Pomodoro timer
  • Skitch: taking and annotating screenshots
  • Standard Notes: notetaking
  • Adium, Signal, Slack, Telegram (Does anyone else feel my pain here?): messaging
  • iTunes and Spotify: music
  • Sublime Text: writing HTML and CSS, coding
  • Thunderbird: email

Next, check if those programs are available on Linux. AlternativetTo is a good resource to find software alternatives.

Luckily, I was already using a lot of free and open source software. However, the most important application for me is Sketch, which is not available on Linux.

I was hoping I could switch to an open source software tool for designing and prototyping. I tried out Glimpse (a fork of GIMP), Krita, and a few other tools, but none were stable or had the feature set and workflow I wanted. I am keeping an eye on these projects and hope to switch to one of them if the functionality meets my needs.

Instead, I chose Figma. Although it is proprietary, I appreciate its relative openness, its mission to make design accessible, and its ease of use. Because it's web-based, I can replace both Sketch and Marvel with Figma. There is also a native app that I really like.

Skitch is only available on macOS. So, after some research, I landed on KSnip, which is a fantastic screenshot tool. Because I like it so much, I wrote Annotate screenshots on Linux with Ksnip.

Install and set up ElementaryOS

After ensuring that you have Linux-compatible apps for all your needs, the next step is deciding on your hardware. You could install Elementary alongside macOS, which would be a great way to try things out before fully committing.

Instead, I started fresh with a new ThinkPad. I followed Elementary's installation instructions and donated $20 to support the project.

The beauty of free software is its emphasis on customization. Many settings in Elementary are configurable, and you can customize Elementary to match the workflows you know and love.

The Elementary experience mirrors macOS in many ways, so you might be pleased with how little you need to configure.

Keyboard shortcuts

The first thing I customized was the keyboard shortcuts. There are only a few shortcuts that differ between macOS and Elementary. If you don't want to work against your muscle memory, configure all shortcuts to your liking at System Settings > Keyboard > Shortcuts.


Elementary comes installed with a few really helpful apps, such as Calendar, Epiphany (a web browser), Mail, and Music. It's worth trying them out. If one works for you, then that's one less application you need to worry about installing.

Transfer your data

After switching to Elementary, I realized just how little data I save locally. Most of my work is saved to a Nextcloud file share hosted by my tech co-op May First. I transferred all the other files I needed using a USB stick.

Learn Elementary's design patterns

While it's similar to macOS, Elementary has a few important differences. You could still try and override them, but you might want to just get used to them.

Tabbing between applications

On macOS, I perpetually switch between applications with Alt+Tab and the Alt+Arrow keys. On Elementary, you also use Alt+Tab to switch between apps, but the Alt+Arrow keys are not supported. If anyone knows how to customize Elementary to do this, please leave a comment because I'd love to have that feature back.

In macOS, you can switch between different windows in the same application with Alt+~. This is not supported in Elementary. Instead, Alt+Tab cycles through all windows, regardless of the application it belongs to. You can, however, switch between different windows by hovering over the application icon and scrolling. You can read a full list of methods for switching between windows and workspaces on StackExchange.

Screenshot of Elementary OS's keyboard shortcuts configuration screen.

Most of Elementary's shortcuts are the same as OSX, but you can configure any of them to your personal preference.

Get familiar with support

Linux, unlike Apple, is built and maintained by communities. Elementary is supported by Elementary, Inc., but it thrives because of its larger community. It has done a great job of fostering a community that helps one another out.

It's inevitable that you will get stuck or have a question. When you do, you can turn to:

When you seek out help, remember to do it from a place of compassion. We're used to having transactional—even antagonistic—dynamics with the tech tools we rely on. With Elementary, you're not talking with a faceless corporation but a community of people, many of them volunteers, who genuinely want to help.

Get comfortable with the command line

The reality is that there will probably be times when doing something in Linux requires you to use the command line. If your work keeps you away from the technical side of things, the commands you need will probably be minimal and straightforward. Still, it's good to get comfortable with the basics—once you have, you may very well find you prefer the command line over a GUI approach. Codecademy is one place you can learn command-line basics.

Learn to install apps

A great feature of Elementary is its curated AppCenter. Curated apps are designed with Elementary in mind, so they may work smoother than other apps. It uses a pay-what-you-want model that strikes a balance between supporting app developers and maintaining its free and open spirit. Plus, Elementary just successfully fundraised for a week sprint to improve security and the user experience even more.

Screenshot of Elementary OS AppCenter

App developers name a suggested price, but users have the option to pay what they want.

However, there may come a time when you'll need to install apps not found in the official store. One mistake I made was to start installing apps in a variety of ways (e.g., the apt-get command, Snaptastic, and Flatpak), rather than picking one method and using it as much as possible. The more ways you install apps, the harder it is to keep track of how you installed what and which method is the proper way to run updates.

My recommendation is to stick with AppCenter as much as possible. If you must venture out, I recommend Flathub because Elementary adopted Flatpak for its AppCenter.

Contribute back

Elementary is free to download, and so are most of the apps. You can donate to Elementary (or buy a tee shirt or mug from the store) and the creators of the apps you use. You can also promote those projects by telling your friends and colleagues about them. You could even offer your skills to the projects you admire the most.

Since I made the switch, I feel great about being further involved in the free and open source software movement and appreciate the speed and efficiency with which I can work in Elementary. If you use Elementary (or try it out), please share your experience in the comments.

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Clayton profile picture.
User experience designer and product owner at DevCollaborative helping make free and open-source software intuitive and empowering.


On KDE, one can cycle through windows with Super-ALT-Tab. Perhaps this works on Elementary?

Perhaps try ctrl+tab to switch between windows of a same app.
Also alt tab goes forward, while alt shift tab (or in some cases alt ctrl tab) goes backwards. Not the same as MacOS but should be close enough since you can go in both directions

After 20 years of trying I think we should be honest and tell that Linux on Desktop is just a battle we can't win. Ok, there are a couple of goodwill distros out there, such as Elementary or Mint, but those systems are just not as suitable for everyday desktop usage as Os X or Win. Horrible font rendering, inconsistent UIs, lack of decent alternatives for many applications... Working with Linux isn't just as comfortable as using other OSs. That's it.

Have you tried Elementary or Mint recently? I've been really impressed with Elementary - including in those specific areas you brought up as common deficits in Linux distributions.

I think the key is for distributions to focus on specific niches that Windows and Mac fail at and based on their values, business models, etc. will always fail at.

In reply to by Andrez (not verified)

@Andrez, let me answer you this way:

Who CARES about winning the desktop right now? Beside, Linux has won every other space. I expect that eventually it will win the desktop too. Microsoft finally admitted defeat in the browser wars and will adopt Chrome for the next major release of Edge. Can the desktop be all that far behind?

1) Horrible font rendering?!? I have far more trouble with that issue on Windows 10 than I do on any Linux desktop environment that I've tried. Or have you ever tried to run a dual desktop with different sized monitors that happen to share a common resolution? Linux? No problem. Win10? Not so much.

2) Inconsistent UIs: Not sure what you mean here. Inconsistent between desktop environments? Yes, that as a strength, not a weakness. It's a side effect that we have lots of choice. This is an inherent feature of FLOSS.

Inconsistent between apps? And how is this different from apps written for OS/X or Windows? For heaven's sake, Windows has become downright schizophrenic with the heavy emphasis on treating it as a tablet app with poor support for desktop apps. Yet that's still how the vast majority of people interact with it.

3) Let me rewrite your last objection to something a little closer to the truth; there are /some/ jobs for which there is a lack of decent alternatives for /some/ applications.

I have been a dual booter for about 25 years at this point. The only reason that I keep a Windows partition around these days is for gaming. Even there it's much less of an issue than it used to be. About half my library of AAA titles has a Linux version now. Everything else that I do I do comfortably in Linux. Web browsing, writing, experimentation with enterprise level tools like Docker and Kubernetes, etc.

4) The truly wonderful thing about an open garden is that anyone can come play. There are a TON of desktop environments out there to choose from. Just pick one and enjoy. :)

Personally, I've settled on xfce. It's lightweight, it stays out of my way, and over the years I've found that people who had to borrow one of my computers weren't instantly lost trying to figure out how to use it.

Don't like choice? Feel free to adopt OS/X or Windows.

I totally agree with you. People get disappointed with desktop Linux because they expect a 1 on 1 replacement of Windows. They expect their Windows-only closed source proprietary app to work on Linux or find a copycat of it, they don't try to explore alternatives. They expect their Microsoft fonts to render correctly, and they complain about being too many choices. If you don't want too many choices and want consistency in UI, you can stick with a desktop environment. Or you can install a WM and customize heck out of your system. And all of this is completely free (as in beer). Windows only let you do the former, not the latter even though you pay for it.

In reply to by sgtrock

Hi, which Thinkpad did you get to install Elementary OS on? What specs does it have? Thanks.

I bought the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (6th Gen) with the following specs:

Intel® Core™ i7-8550U (1.80GHz, up to 4.0GHz with Turbo Boost, 8MB Cache)
16 GB (Onboard)
14" FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS anti-glare, 300 nits

In reply to by Axl_Rose (not verified)

How is the battery life on Elementary? Are there any issues with it on the X1 Carbon? Any bugs?

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