On Desktop Linux

After more than 20 years, I think I’m going to throw in the towel on trying to use Linux as a daily-driver desktop operating system.

A little background to start: I’ve been a Linux user for a very, very long time.  My first install was a 2-floppy MCC Linux installation, which of course didn’t get me very far.  A friend down the hall in my dorm leant me his collection of install floppies for SLS 1.05, and finally I had a system that could at least talk to the modem.  This was in 1994.  Kernel version 0.99.something.

My distribution of choice has been Debian GNU/Linux since before the late Ian Murdock left the project.  Debian is a great system, though I’ve dabbled with most other Linux distributions from time to time.  Redhat 6.0 box sets.  SuSE.  Oracle Linux.  Ubuntu.  Linux Mint.  Manjaro.  I’ve even tried the FSF-endorsed distributions like BLAG, Ututo, and Trisquel.  Along the way I’ve stumbled through NetBSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD.

Throughout college I used a dual-boot OS/2 and Linux combination, with most of my time spent in CLI on the Linux side.  In those days, the fonts provided by X were atrocious and simply too much for my already poor eyesight.  I made due.

After college I bought a Winbox, a Micron running Windows 98.  I tried to love Microsoft, but it was certainly hard in those days.  OS/2 was already dead.  At one point I tossed out all of my proprietary software and went exclusively Debian.  I lasted 2 weeks: the daily headaches, both physical and software, finally got the best of me and I went and bought a Windows 2000 license.  I still dabbled with Linux occasionally but booted back into Windows to get real work done.

In 2008 I bought a MacBook Pro.  Finally a machine with enough horsepower for real virtualization, but enough native applications that most of the time I didn’t need it.  Visually stunning, easy to use, exactly what I wanted with one important exception: it ran Mac OSX, not Free Software.  I gave up my associate membership in the FSF and decided to plant myself firmly in the “at least it isn’t Microsoft” camp.  I continued to use Linux and *BSD on servers — mostly leased virtual private servers and some systems at work — but for home computing I was generally satisfied with the Mac and the Apple ecosystem.  We now have 2 iPhones, several iPods, 2 iPads, a Time Capsule, and another MacBook Pro (2009) on the network.

The 2008 MBP is now at the point where the hardware is getting unreliable, and this hardware is no longer supported by current Mac OS X.  The latest it can run is El Capitan (10.11) which will lose security updates at the end of this year.  I’ve been trying to decide what is next: do I buy a new Mac, do I go back to Windows, or do I try again to convert to Free Software?

Windows 10 is quite a nice piece of work.  I’m using it daily on my work-provided Dell laptop.  Microsoft has clearly learned from their mistakes – especially the horrendous mess that was Windows 8.  Microsoft Office 2016 is a nice environment to work with, and I really enjoy using Visio.  My need for UNIX-like tools is satisfied with Cygwin64 and Vim.  Visual Studio is now free for personal use.

I don’t see the same kind of innovation coming from Apple these days.  Clearly the best and brightest are on the iPhone team, which makes sense since the vast majority of Apple’s revenue comes from there.  The latest MacBook Pros are just as ridiculously overpriced as they always were, but don’t offer nearly the premium over a Dell machine at half the price that they did in 2008.

Linux?  I don’t think so.  On my desk presently, there are 4 laptops.  One is the MacBook Pro I use as my daily driver.  The others are:

A 2007 MacBook that was given to me for free.  It needs a replacement keyboard, the spacebar is not as firm as it is supposed to be.  The latest this hardware can run is Mac OS X Lion (10.7), which is no longer supported by any major browser vendor.  It also contains a Broadcom BCM4321 wireless chip, which is not supported by Linux or BSD.

A 2002 PowerBook Aluminum.  Beautiful machine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, but like the newer Apple hardware, it also contains a Broadcom wireless chip.  Under Linux, the particular model in this laptop will communicate with the AP, but after 10-15 seconds starts to drop 50% of the packets.  No known fix.  Works fine until Mac OS X of course, but the newest OS supported for PPC machines is Leopard 10.5.  Debian dropped support for PPC after Jessie (8).  It runs OpenBSD quite nicely, as long as you don’t want to use wireless.

A 2004 Dell D620.  Again, beautiful machine, nothing at all wrong with it.  It shipped with Windows XP.  Linux will run on this machine, and the wireless card (an Intel 2200) is actually supported decently.  However, it is a 32-bit machine in what has increasingly become a 64-bit world.  Ubuntu dropped support for 32-bit machines after 16.04.  Power management doesn’t work properly with Linux on this machine, so the fans run full speed all the time, making it unwelcome in any coffee shop.  It works fine on Windows XP, but who wants to use Windows XP these days?

I think my plan is to donate these 3 older machines to anyone who will take them, keep the MacBook Pro as a backup machine, and buy myself a new laptop in 2018.  Maybe Dell will have a good sale around the time I have some money.  What I’d really like is a smaller machine — a 13″ one like a Dell XPS — and a docking station with a large monitor.  I think I’m done with the Mac ecosystem unless Apple surprises me with something truly innovative in the next round.  I’m not holding my breath.