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Posts of varying effort on technology, cybersecurity, transhumanism, rationalism, self-improvement, DIY, and other stereotypical technologist stuff. Crazy about real-world functional programming.

Linux on the laptop, forever 10 years behind

It was the year 2003. I was sitting at the FTC office, with some other open source activists, testifying that Microsoft was in violation of its 1995 consent decree.

Microsoft, through illegal monopolistic bundling deals, had been forcing laptop manufacturers to sell customers a license for Windows whether they wanted to run Windows or not. Even though the EULA when you boot the machine says you are allowed to decline and get a refund for Windows, manufacturers were not honoring it.

(revolutionaries demonstrating outside of Microsoft HQ in NYC)

What I was presenting to the FTC was my testimony and also a video recording of unboxing a brand new Dell laptop, declining the EULA on first boot, wiping Windows, installing Linux, and then asking Dell for a refund. Dell’s response was that the refundable item was worth $0.

The people at the FTC agreed this was bullshit. However, they leaned forward and said with the Bush administration in the White House, they would not be able to penalize Dell and Microsoft for this activity. They took a copy of my CD (which had the video recording) and stack of printouts and said they’d reach out to me if the situation changed.

This is how serious I was about running Linux on my laptop.

With some sadness I have to say that today, in 2021, I’m finally over running Linux on my laptop (and desktop too!)

The reason is: Linux laptops are way, way behind Mac laptops (and Linux is worse at driving hardware that humans have to interface with compared to MacOS)

Being a home sys admin is even more thankless than being one at work

I say this not only as a crazy open source activist that wasn’t committed to getting any real work done, but also as someone who maintained a fleet of Linux desktops (and servers) for a quantitative trading company and was proud of the fact that we used this to get real work done.

At home, the story is a bit different; I don’t have a technology ops group to maintain my desktop, let alone my laptops. The burden is on me, and I’m trying to get other stuff done. Being the Linux admin for my entire household is not something I have the patience for.

Aren’t Linux laptops better than they’ve ever been? Yes. Today you can buy laptops directly from manufacturers that specialize only in Linux, and do their absolute best to sell you compatible hardware with distributions specialized to running their hardware. They even go further and provide some advanced security features, like all open source firmware and some will even take photos of sparkly nail polish painted on the seals before shipping to detect tampering.

But, having exclusively used Linux laptops for years, I learned helplessness, and didn’t realize how much of the experience actually sucks. Until! Recently, while developing a cross-platform graphical application on Linux, I finally decided to boot up a MacBook Air M1 and try porting it over. Immediately I was struck by two things.

Lest you argue that this would be better if I bought a laptop from a Linux hardware vendor, don’t bother. The Linux experience from both Purism and System76 is still not this nice. I’ve tried products from both companies.

A MacBooks Air M1 features

  • Waking from sleep as soon as you open the lid (which you can do with one hand!), unlike on Linux laptops which take seconds (or minutes!)
  • WiFi which also wakes up on lid open and reconnects about a second later, unlike on Linux laptops which can take 30 seconds or more
  • Sound that still works after waking from sleep more than 90% of the time, which is a normal failure rate for Linux, but hasn’t happened once on a MacBook
  • Very low heat production, so there’s no fan. I didn’t realize how annoying having a fan in my laptop was until I tried using one that didn’t have a fan
  • Bluetooth that actually works(?!)

What about Linux on Mac?!

HAHAHAHAH. No. If you’re a Linux junkie I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: that’s just good hardware, you can always wipe and install Linux on your MacBook. Then you’ll be free hackers, you’ll be FEeeEeeEe! But you’re wrong. I don’t even need to try that or hear from anyone who has tried that to tell you that that’s going to be an exercise in misery. All of the power saving features I described above will totally fail and the sound system will be terrible again and the dazzling Retina displays will look like garbage. I could wait 10 years and go back to it and it still might not be as good.

I’m not doing it. Maybe you’re even a bad person for thinking about doing something like this. I’m not sure.

Moving on.

Homebrew

But! What about the rich ecosystem of open source/UNIX tools found on a Linux box? MacOS can’t compete there!

Ha! I thought so too, but, well, have you heard about Homebrew?

I always assumed homebrew would be kind of a crappy n00b version of dpkg/apt, but if anything it’s actually better!?

Homebrew:

  • aggressively tracks newer versions of open source packages so you’re not months-years behind like on most distros
  • it’s actually easier projects from source against a homebrew environment, because when you install a rando package, Homebrew goes ahead and installs the dev files by default as well

Totally shocked by how amazing this is. Literally everything I use on my Linux environment, like 20 years of built-up config files and tools, ports right over. Except for X11 tools of course, I have to leave that shit behind and find Mac replacements. Which has actually been totally great because graphical Mac-based tools are far superior in every possible way.

Decision time

The most suprising thing about this is that the MacBook Air M1 was only $1,000 and by far was a nicer experience than Linux laptops that I’ve purchased for almost $1,400 directly from hardware vendors that specialize in Linux compatibility.

Right. So. Recap. Abandoning Linux on my laptop for a MacBook. No brainer.

Sorry, fellow open source revolutionaries, life is short and I have work to do.

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