The Ubuntu Desktop Pitch: Reasons to switch from Mac

My coworkers are generally quizzical when they see that I strictly use Ubuntu Desktop as my daily OS, or when I suggest they try it out. “Why not just use Mac?” It’s true, my desktop configuration is functionally identical to Mac. And Mac is certainly functional, but it comes with its fair share of frustrations, which I see people either work around or acquiesce to.

So here I’ll describe how Ubuntu Desktop solves those frustrations for me. If you share any of these frustrations and, you’re insterested in trying out Ubuntu Desktop, be sure to see my Compiz installation guide!

Note: All of this will probably come off as whiny, which isn’t my intent, but I think it’s important to detail the shortcomings of Mac that Ubuntu can solve. tl;dr All the individual frustrations aren’t dealbreakers on their own, but together they start to add up to feel like an adversarial experience

Mac: The Good Parts

First, credit where credit is due, I’ll go into what I liked about Mac. I used a Macbook Air (2013) from 2014-2017, daily, for work. Here are the things I enjoyed most.

Thunderbolt Monitor

The Thunderbolt monitor is really cool because I’m guessing it has an onboard GPU. Or at least does something fancy that makes my Macbook Air actually run slightly faster than when it’s plugged in, despite running 2 monitors.

Sleekness

Even though I hate to say it, Apple sells sex. Its products just feel good, they have that je ne sais quoi. All of its products, in both hardware and software, are sleek and smooth.

Battery Life

The battery life is really impressive. In the time 3 years that I was using Mac OS exclusively, I probably ran out of battery 2-3 times.

The Dock (Software)

The dock has been generally pleasant to use, I don’t have any complaints. It’s smooth and minimized windows are stacked in a way that is comfortable and makes sense. Important notifications jump out from a hidden dock when appropriate, not too intrusive.

Mac: The Bad Parts

Default Applications

Finder

Finder is slow. Really slow. With very little indication of how to navigate to Home, Music, Pictures, or Videos.

mac-finder

It should open your home folder by default, but instead I just see a bunch of random files Mac thinks I’ve used recently. I might not even know that there is a home folder because it’s obscurely buried in the Go tab.

mac-finder-go-tab

It makes me wonder if Mac users with lots of icons on their desktop do so specifically because it’s so painful to find anything in Finder (but admittedly that’s just speculation).

Ubuntu: Gnome File Browser. Fast, opens your home directory by default, properly organized by default, the relevant folders for different media are apparent, and are respected by practically all applications.

iTunes

If you use it regularly then I’m sure you have your own frustrations. Part of the issue is that there aren’t very many satisfying alternatives. Spotify, perhaps, but locally stored music is an afterthought there.

In short, browsing and playing your music library on a Mac is unpleasant, especially if you have a lot of locally-stored music, or don’t own an iDevice. This is an important quality-of-life concern for someone like me who listens to music for most of the working day.

Ubuntu: Rhythmbox, installed by default. It’s clean, minimal, easy to understand, and respects your local files.

Quicktime

Afaik, Quicktime doesn’t respect certain codecs. You’ll have to use VLC.

Ubuntu: The default video player plays all codecs easily with ubuntu-restricted-extras

The App Store

Requires an Apple account. No thanks.

Ubuntu: Ubuntu software center (or even just apt by itself)

Permissions

Speaking of the App Store.

mac-permissions

This is mostly fixed once you figure out that you need to go into the security panel and allow sources from outside the App Store, but it really, really rubs me the wrong way that Apple doesn’t trust us to install anything they don’t host or have expressly approved of.

mac-permissions-2

Ubuntu: sudo apt-get

Window Managment

Out of the box, Mac arbitrarily sizes windows.

mac-window-madness

This is mostly rectified using Spectacle, but it still irritates me that there’s not a built in solution. It’s especially irritating when I see other engineers who don’t use Spectacle. There’s not only a ton of wasted screen space, but how can anyone think straight when they have a dozen windows in a randomly sized stack? Aren’t they resizing windows all the time?

You can maximize windows, which aleviates some of the issue, but this requires a bit of investment in learning how to use Mac workspaces effectively. And if you have a dozen fullscreen applications, you spend an obnoxious amount of time managing workspaces.

Ubuntu: compiz Grid / Scale / Expo

Package Manager

Brew is fine, but I don’t see it used very often. It seems risky for advanced DevOps tasks as well, like installing apache or mysql, but again, I haven’t used it too much.

Ubuntu: apt installs everything, including full applications like Sublime Text and Spotify. It’s not only dead simple, but you can confidently rest assured that your software will remain up-to-date per apt’s repositories.

Development (DevOps)

I’ve seen that Mac has quirks and workarounds for DevOps. Personally, I’ve experienced some frustration with docker and vagrant/virtualbox. Mac doesn’t always retain exact parity with production Linux servers.

Ubuntu: is often the server’s OS, apt makes parity a non-issue.

Animations

While it’s impressive how tacticle the Mac hardware is with the desktop, the animations get old.

Min/maximizing a window, switching workspaces, window alerts, etc. Each animation takes a split second of my time whenever I’m switching context (which is dozens of times a day). It’s not that big of a deal, but for something so frequent, it does tend to get on my nerves, and I daresay even gives the impression that the OS is slower than it really is.

Ubuntu: compiz animations can be as superfluous or as non-existant as you want.

Android

As far as I can tell, and maybe I’m wrong, but the only way to transfer files to a Mac from and Android is with Android File Transfer, which is bizarre and unpleasant.

At first I just wanted to mount my phone and listen to music that was stored on it, but there wasn’t any indication that that was possbile. If there was ever a time I felt like a second class citizen in Mac, it’s when I have to install extra (crappy) software to use my preferred, non-Apple device.

Ubuntu: Just mounts the phone automatically, use it like a normal mounted device.

Ubuntu: The Good Parts

Performance

I don’t have any stats to back it up, but in my experience, Ubuntu beats Mac and Windows every time, in every category. It’s never been a question.

As an example, I am still using my (personal) 2011 laptop (Lenovo U300s, Core i5, 4 GB) with Ubuntu, no complaints, even when using cpu/memory-hog tools like vagrant/npm/webpack. Engineers tend to scoff and say something like “I’ve got a Core i9 and 32 GB of RAM, so performance is not a problem for me”. Although I hear the opposite… that performance is otherwise a problem, so they have a Core i9 and 32 GB of RAM.

Either way, if you want to get the best bang for your buck, Ubuntu is a solid choice.

Customize Everything

The window manager compiz guts GNOME and gives you all the control you could ever ask for in the process. Check out my guided tour of compiz to see what features it can offer you.

Freedom

This is the part where I enter rabid Linux fanboy-ism. Just kidding. You’ve already heard it before, so I won’t go at length, but using Ubuntu prevents OS vendor-lock and increases transparency.

Ubuntu: The Bad Parts

Mac Software Availability

Obviously you can’t bring all of your native Mac applications with you, so think about what you can’t live without. This usually isn’t a big deal in the age of SaaS though, and most development related tools have Linux clients, or suitable stand-in replacements.

Initial Installation

The initial installation can be daunting: choosing your partitions, potentially SWAP, bootloader, that sort of thing. The Ubuntu installer does a good job of guiding you though.

Learning Curve

Committing to making the switch will take some effort on your part, and probably isn’t for you if you aren’t ready to explore outside your comfort zone.

Apple hardware is hostile territory

Apple has its hardware locked down. Installing Ubuntu on Macbooks is more of a pain than it is on a PC, and using Apple hardware can increase that friction.

That’s it! And as always, to each their own.