The switch back to Linux

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I’ve previously written about my dissatisfaction with modern Apple Macs after being a big fan of them for more then a decade.

In summary, the machines are over priced, have had the useful ports removed, and further, the OS appears to no longer be improving in any meaningful way.

I’ve not been using a Mac laptop since my 2013 Macbook was dropped and had its screen damaged a year or so ago. When that miss-hap occurred I managed to grab a surplus Dell Latitude E5550 laptop from work. This is a pretty decent machine from 2015, with 8GB RAM, 250GB of SSD and a quad core processor. The build quality, naturally, let’s it down: its plastic and the display hinge is weak. But it’s good enough. Software wise I’ve been running Ubuntu Linux with the MATE desktop. It’s a usable setup, but I’ve only been spending an hour or two a week on it, so I’ve not really had much reason to look at it too closely. And in terms of applications, I’ve only needed to run a web browser on it, and of course lots of terminal windows. My browser choice, for what its worth, is Firefox; I’ve previously used Google Chrome since it was released, but decided to try Firefox again just for something different, and to try to reduce my reliance on things from that company.

Over Christmas I decided to take my Linux usage up a notch and retire my main Mac Mini desktop. That computer had served as my main computer for the past 8 years, having received various updates including upgrading the memory to 8GB and swapping out the hard disk for a 500GB SSD. it worked well; the SSD upgrade in particular gave the machine a new lease if life, but it was starting to feel very sluggish when running multiple large applications, and even when doing simple things.

And partly because of feeling in need of a change I’ve taken the plunge and swapped the Mac Mini for a Linux box.

Hardware wise it’s a fairly uninteresting server repurposed as a desktop.  It is a HP ProLiant ML110 G7 tower server from 2011. It came equipped with 16GB of RAM which is plenty but I’ve upgraded the storage with a 1TB SSD. Amazingly these can be found for around £80. Processor wise it’s a Xeon E31220, so is well specified for desktop use. Previously it was used remotely as a Linux development machine and headless VirtualBox server.

As this machine is sold as a server it had only basic on board graphics and no sound output; both problems were easily corrected with a trip to ebay. Graphics was supplied in the form of a basic PCIe card with DVI output. Looking at lspci output it is a ATI/AMD Radeon HD 7470/8470 and was purchased for about £10. The sound card is a generic unbranded PCIe card with a C-Media Electronics Inc CMI8738/CMI8768 IC, which was also around £10. Both cards appear well supported in Ubuntu, though I’m unsure if proprietary firmware is being used. Nonetheless they both work without installing any third party drivers.

Talking of software, this is really the key area and the thing I was expecting to get frustrated by. But I’m happy to report that after swapping MATE for KDE I, very nearly, couldn’t be happier.

I first came across KDE in, I think, 1997. The project had been around only a matter of months and had just released 1.0 BETA3. I compiled this up on my Red Hat desktop and was immediately blown away with how clean and consistent it was. Bear in mind Gnome didn’t exist at that point, and the alternatives were not really desktop environments but just Window Managers: enlightenment, XFwm95, twm and others. In the end I used KDE for a while but I spent most of my desktop Linux days in XFCE as it was lighter and snappier on the machine I was using.

Modern KDE is very nice. Not quite as seamless as macOS but it’s nearly there.

In many ways it suffers from the same problems as macOS, in terms of veering from its Unix roots. This means that provided the UI does everything you require, all is well. But when you want to go in to manually modify some configuration, which is necessary when doing things the UI cannot, the “nice UI” invariably gets in the way. A case in point is the local DNS resolver: previously this was maintained in a text file at /etc/resolv.conf. Now a UI manages this configuration. It is progress, but it comes with downsides.

KDE also has too many features which do not seem useful. It is, probably, too customisable.

But on the other hand, network printing worked without any issues: my HP laser printer just worked right away, which is a first for my Linux experiences.

Migrating my Windows 7 VirtualBox guest from the Mac Mini to the new Linux box was completely painless, other then the fact it took a few hours to copy the disk image. The VM is also noticeably faster, which is nice.

And I’ve switched my KiCAD projects across to Linux with no issues.

Software wise I’m missing a few things:

  • Fusion 360 is not available for Linux. Cura, the 3D printing slicing software I’ve been using, is though. If I want to CAD up some designs I will have switch to one of the browser based offerings, I suppose.
  • Editing videos for posting on YouTube is possible on Linux, but the software is not as polished as the applications available for macOS.
  • I’ve been making use of the Apple office suite for a few years. Switching to LibreOffice is of course perfectly possible, though I’m doubtful that the experience will be anywhere near as nice.

And that’s about it. I’m now a full time Linux user for the first time since 2005!

In any case, I’ll be keeping the Mac Mini around for the foreseeable future as a backup for when I need to run some software that isn’t available for Linux. Hopefully this will be rare.

The next post will be back to the far more interesting topic of my 68000 projects…


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