Switching from Mac to Linux after 10 years

I still remember my first encounter with Apple.

It was 2004. I was 8 years old and over at my friend's house for a playdate – and by this time I was already fascinated with computers.

Standing like a glorious monument unlike anything I had ever seen before, was their family iMac in their living room (do people still put computers in their living room anymore?).

iMac G5

Coming from Windows, I was completely enamored by the OS X we all know and love. The Dashboard, Control Center, workspaces, beautiful UI, and of course, Cro-Mag Rally.

old-school iMac game

Years later, my parents got my adolescent self an iMac as a gift – and I will forever be thankful for that gift. To me, that iMac was a machine of unbridled potential, especially at an age when you are still exploring who you want to be when you grow up.

Do I want to be a musician? Download Garageband. Do I want to make apps? Fire up Xcode. Do I want to be an artist? Pirate Photoshop. Movie maker? iMovie. That computer allowed me to explore every possible creative career path that I could think of.

As I got older and started college, I got the hot new 2013 MacBook Pro to pursue software engineering. These products made me feel like I could become anyone, or create anything.

This post was actually written on that very same MacBook of which I'm hoping to give to my wife soon.

That MacBook allowed me to get through my time at college (before dropping out to pursue music, of which I dropped to deliver pizza) – that computer enabled me to use my design and development skills that I nurtured in my youth to get my first web development job, and launch my career in programming.

It's kind of amazing, really – I've had this machine for close to 7 years, and it's nearly as quick as the day I got it. Speedy boot times, beefy enough processor for compiling bundles quickly, and decent enough integrated graphics to do any light gaming when I feel nostalgic (Half Life 2, anyone?).

If you couldn't tell, I have a soft spot for these amazing machines. They've been my launchpad for creativity, and the tools of my trade for my entire professional and personal experience – which I find makes switching to Linux a little heartbreaking.

So why am I switching?

The latest MacBook hardware and OS sucks

After 7 solid years of use, it's time for a new machine. My wife needs a less-terrible laptop than her old Acer machine for her schooling, and instead of purchasing her a new machine we figured she should have my beloved MacBook. This way, she'd get a serious upgrade I could find a new laptop companion. It was time.

This past summer, I asked my work for a new laptop – specifically the 2020 System76 Lemur Pro.

Previously, my company 2019 MacBook w/ 8GB RAM was really slick and fun to use, but I encountered a few issues that didn't sit well with me:

  • our engineering team was switching to using Docker containers for local Python development, and running the containers on my MacBook slowed it to a crawl
  • the butterfly keyboard was not personally enjoyable to use
  • I never used nor had any desire to use the touchbar – I just want to change the volume, why do I have to tap into a menu to do this? why can't I have an escape button? why do we need this?
  • only 2 USB-C thunderbolt ports? welcome to Dongle World
why God did you abandon us
Nobody deserves this.

This machine was no longer able to fit my development (and personal) needs, and after reading much praise about the new Lemur Pro (and the latest version of Pop!_OS), it was an easy decision. The thought of handing money over to an independent Linux hardware shop was almost cathartic – being able to support the open source community in a round-about way.

This Linux laptop had so much more juice than the latest MacBooks, at a fraction of the price.

It boots from cold in what feels like mere seconds, it's incredibly lightweight, has a nice keyboard, and can run a billion Docker containers without breaking a sweat. Also, did I mention you can crack it open and service almost everything yourself? Need more RAM? Pop in a new stick. Want to replace the battery? Swap it out. If anything, you're encouraged to open it up and see what's going on under there.

Sure, the speakers are complete garbage and the webcam makes me look like a red tomato, but the other 99% of the time – doing valuable work – this is an incredibly fun and pleasurable machine to use.

When evaluating a machine for my personal use, I've come to realize that I can no longer justify the price tag of modern Apple laptops when I can get far better performance from independent Linux shops – especially when I can't upgrade it or hardly service it myself. To be fair, with Apple you're getting a very beautiful laptop with great speakers and an incredible display, but those aren't the features that pay my bills. I'm a developer, I need to compile things quickly and not be slowed down when switching applications.

Furthermore, with the introduction of Apple's ARM chips and Big Sur, it feels like they're moving more and more towards their walled-garden philosophy, pushing forward the mobile app front and bringing it to the desktop. Not too certain how I feel about that just yet, but it's certainly not what I'm looking for.

But even worse, is their decision to make it painful to open unsigned macOS applications, which really turned me off as well.

I don't need the ecosystem

Two years ago, I ditched my iPhone, cold-turkey – in favour of a $20 burner phone off eBay. Easily the best decision I've ever made in my life. Perhaps I'll write about that experience some day.

With that decision meant that I no longer needed the Apple ecosystem, no iMessage, no iWatch, no Ear Pods, no iPhoto, no iCloud, no iAnything.

So why stay? I have no Apple dependencies.

I miss tinkering with the OS

Do you remember the good ol' days of tinkering with your operating system?

Even if it was only a Linux virtual machine you toyed with back in college, it was still exciting and a whole heck of fun. What's that? You want to try out bspwm on your estranged Arch install? You want to have all sorts of status bar notifications and want to know the current price of Bitcoin at all times? You want to have an extensible Spotlight-like launcher that you can script yourself? You want to compile your own terminal emulator? Go ahead.

There's a deep joy that I'm rediscovering here.

I miss tinkering with the hardware

Like many teenage PC gamers in the 2010's, I built a gaming PC.

Remember how fun and exciting that was? Ordering the parts, swapping out the hardware, adding fun accessories, making it yours? What the heck happened to that?

Going beyond Apple hardware, you enter back into the fray of laptops and machines that are meant to be easily cracked open when servicing is needed or desired. Look at older Lenovo T4XX series laptops like the T420, T430, and T440p, you can really get your hands in there and swap out whatever you like. Want a CPU that rivals modern hardware? Throw that puppy in there. Want more RAM or 3 SSDs? It won't stop you.

Contrast that to this MacBook, who's battery no longer holds a charge that can last me more than 2 hours. According to this MacBook battery replacement iFixit guide, it's only 33 steps and 2 hours worth of work to remove the battery, which must be then completed in reverse order to finish the installation. No thank you, my aluminum-bodied amigo.

I'm a developer and know what my career path is

Who knows, maybe someday I'll become an artist, successful musician, or movie editor, but until then, I'm doing what I love – and that is programming. I don't need a fancy-pantsy laptop to do that.

When I got this MacBook, I didn't know what path I'd choose. Now, I know where I'm headed and what tools I'll need along my journey – inexpensive tools that I can service and have fun customizing.

With Apple hardware we were told to "Think Different", but now I get the sense that we're thinking less differently and perhaps we should get back to rediscovering the joy that comes from exploring the vast expanses of computer software and hardware.

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