A retrospective on 2 years of linux

It's been just over a year since I switched to my Librem 13v3 from a Macbook Air. About two years since I migrated my Hackintoshes to Linux. As the school year draws to a close, I think it's time for another quick retrospective on the switch.

Why did I switch?

It's hard to pin down exactly what triggered the big move. It was a culmination of a lot of little things. Apple swapping out the classic save/open file dialog boxes with new ones that weren't keyboard accessible. Dropbox removing the Public folder. A general trend towards more locked-down and less friendly hardware. Eventually I came to the conclusion that The Switch was going to happen sooner rather than later, and I decided to test the waters. I still have a lone mac laptop for the odd thing here and there that I still can't do on Linux, but the vast majority of my computing now happens on Linux-powered hardware.

What do I miss?

There are a few things that Linux still hasn't replicated. I still keep a mac around for the following:

  • Numbers: An under-appreciated gem of an application. AlternativesTo.com lists Numbers as a spreadsheet, and that's certainly a role that it can play. However, if spreadsheets were the next step in visual programming, Numbers is the step past that. I can't point at any one thing that distinguishes it: Multiple distinct grids on a single sheet, explicitly distinguished header rows, footer rows, and header columns, and the use of header values to identify cells all combine to create a more intuitive, user-friendly data management tool. I have yet to see another application mimic it on any platform.

  • Preview: Apple has a history of shoving crazy amounts of utility into simple default apps. For example, back in System 9, SimpleText could read VRML files. Preview is another example of what was once a swiss army knife of PDF management. You can easily add signatures, add annotations, insert/delete/reorder pages, rotate pages, and more. The closest I've found for Linux is a combination of PDFMixTool and eVince.

  • Painless Color Profiles: It's possible to get good color prints out of a Linux box. It's just not easy, and in general seems to require some expensive calibration hardware. OSX color profiles work more or less out-of-the-box.

  • iTunes: iTunes itself started off bad and has been progressively getting worse. However, as far as I can tell, it's presently the only (legal) online streaming service that allows you to purchase and download media. You can buy BDs/DVDs and rip them. You can stream off netflix/hulu/amazon for a monthly fee. There's also a number of smaller sites like BandCamp that are amazing for more niche stuff. However, for popular media that you only need to pay once for, iTunes is the only legal way to download (and there are a handful of ways of liberating videos once you legally purchase them)

  • OmniGraffle: Although Inkscape has replaced it for me, OmniGraffle remains my favorite vector graphics app. Inkscape is far more powerful, but far far far more irritating to use. Omni knows how to design a user interface, and 90% of what I need to do is just straight up fewer clicks in OmniGraffle. You can be a lot more pedantic and detailed in Inkscape, and Inkscape's plugins (PDF Import, Image-to-Vector) are nothing short of magic to me, but for most of what I do OmniGraffle is still easier.

  • Microsoft Remote Desktop: It's not so much that I miss it as I occasionally need it for work. There's OSX and Windows versions but not a Linux version. There are Linux RDP clients, but I haven't been able to get them to work with the particular setup my employer deigns to use.

Pleasant Surprises

It feels odd to say, but there's a few user-facing areas where Linux and the Librem are just straight up ahead.

  • Freedom from Dongles: I cant say how liberating having a HDMI port is. Everywhere I go there's a HDMI cable on the projector. I can just plug it into my laptop and be on my way.

  • Power Overwhelming: The Librem's battery is legitimately beefy. When I turn the brightness down to 40-50%, I can use the laptop pretty much for an entire work day without plugging it in.

  • Painless Printing: CUPS is fantastic (Thanks Apple, I guess). With the exception of color profiles for photos, Linux has had just a trivial time working with each and every printer that I've tried to set up. My wife's windows laptop, by comparison, struggles.

  • Cantata: Cantata is hands-down the best music client I've used in a long time, and I think that's largely because it's purely a frontend for MPD. MPD is an extremely powerful interface-free music player. Cantata doesn't need to worry about support for media formats, playlist management, or nearly anything else, since all of that is handled by MPD. That means it can focus entirely on being a great user experience, which it is. I haven't been this happy with a music player since SoundJamMP.

  • Gnome Calendar: It's a simple thing, but it's implemented well. Since the Gnome Calendar devs added a "week" view some months back, it's been my favorite calendaring app across platforms.

  • Inkscape: It's not as user-friendly as other options, but holy crap it can do just about anything to any vector format. PDF to SVG conversion. 'nuff said

  • Characters: (Note, NOT "Character Map") Something that I'd unexpectedly found myself missing was the OSX Glyph picker. It was great, a panel that would just open up into any app from the text input menu, find a glyph/emoji/etc..., and just type it as if by keyboard. Gnome Characters replicates that convenience. It lets you search visually for a desired glyph, and then copy it into the clipboard.

Revisiting Earlier Gripes

Last year after a few months with my Librem 13v3, I observed a handful of quirks. I'm pleased to say that most of them were transient.

  • The keyboard took some getting used to. The trigger point is different from where it was on the Macbook Air, which is, I suspect why I was getting misfires. A year in, and the problem is gone, probably as a result of me getting used to the keyboard.

  • The keyboard pipe-character glitch was finally addressed. Manual hacks no longer seem to be required.

  • The WiFi LED now behaves as expected relative to the hardware kill-switch (although I'm still unsure of the value of also having a button on the keyboard to software-kill the wifi).

  • It seems less frequent, but I still occasionally get the thing where the CPU thinks that it is overheating when it wakes up from sleep. The fix was always pretty simple, put it back to sleep and wake it back up... but it's frustrating when it happens.

Alternative Software

By the time I switched to Linux, I'd already been migrating to cross-platform software. Things like SublimeText, Firefox, and all my electron apps were already there when I switched. Apart from the apps I've already mentioned, here's a quick list of the apps I've brought into my workflow.

  • iTerm2: KiTTY provides a similar feature set including tiling, Unicode fonts, and in-console image rendering.

  • OmniFocus: I switched over to TaskWarrior. The UI, in particular the task entry UI isn't quite as user-friendly (it's on the console), and it doesn't have a particularly good mobile app, but it's just as powerful, and has a self-hosted sync service.

  • Mail.app: Evolution is a darn good mail app. I'm not a fan of how it uses multiple levels of nesting for threaded conversations (as opposed to Mail.app which just nests the thread one level deep under the first message), and its implementation of unified mailboxes is a little slow and awkward to set up. However, it handles multiple accounts well, has a nice friendly multipane view of inboxes, messages, and mail, is pretty zippy, and has built-in-support for GPG.

  • iCloud: Nextcloud does most of what iCloud used to do for me. Plus, it's self hosted.

Other Thoughts

It's interesting to see Purism pushing its Librem One service. It seemed a bit out of left field, but it really makes sense for them to do. It's a supplemental revenue stream (5000 * $7/mo = $35,000/mo) that also starts rolling out some of the functionality (VPN, Matrix hosting, etc...) that folks are going to expect to have on their phone with the Librem 5 comes out. It's a good business decision from a number of angles, and seems like it could be good for the community as well.


This page last updated 2019-06-28 15:47:51 -0400