An Apple User Tries Ubuntu

Can a longtime citizen of Cupertino find happiness in the land of GNU?


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I’m an Apple user. Long time, pure bred, never owned anything else. Oh sure, I’ve used Windows machines, but it’s never crossed my mind to use one daily.

I mean, Windows? Like most Apple users, the very idea makes me vaguely anxious. When you’re an Apple user, you’re a snob. You feel – no, you know – that your OS is superior. The machines are fast and secure, and they’re gorgeous, too.

The Macintosh is, without a doubt, one of my favorite things.

(Of course, we Apple users don’t admit that Macs can crash, too. And that Safari can’t handle certain Web features, including plenty of videos. And that being non-Windows in a Windows world is inconvenient. Still, those burdens are worth bearing for a computer this cool.)

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I reveal my Apple snobbery because I want you to know where I was coming from when I sat down to try Ubuntu, the Linux distro. I think reviewers should always disclose their preconceptions. Like a movie critic who only likes serious dramas, and he goes to an action flick, and his review says, “Oh, it was just a bunch of explosions.” Yeah, to you it was, but you wouldn't have given it a thumbs up no matter how good the action was.

So, if I’m totally honest, here was my prejudice before I sat down to Ubuntu:

First, I expected it to look pretty bland by Apple standards. No upstart software could compete with Apple’s 25 years of design inspiration. Also, I assumed the whole thing was held together by glue and rubber bands; after all, Linux dudes are always talking about “recompiling the kernel” – whatever that means – and some even still use the command line. (The command line? Oh, geez…)

I know Ubuntu is free software, but I don’t care about that. It’s more important that my system be good, not cheap. (And if it was really that great, they’d charge for it, right?). I also know I can get under the hood of any of these GNU/Linux apps and change them (unlike Apple apps) but I don’t care about that either. I’m not a software engineer; if I can’t grab it off the shelf, I can’t use it.

In short, my expectations for Ubuntu were modest. In fact, they were pretty low.

Enough with the Prejudice: What’s the Reality?

I sat down with a Toshiba laptop, a hot little box with 2GB of RAM, running Ubuntu, the Gutsy Gibbon release. I used the machine courtesy of Free Culture at Virginia Tech, which provided assistance as I clicked around.

First off, immediately, before anything: the rotating desktop. Damn, that is totally cool. You click an icon in the screen’s lower right, and the desktop rotates to a fresh view. Remarkably, you can have up to 16 different desktops.

It’s not just cool, it’s great for workflow. You can have files and documents open on one desktop – maybe you’ve got four browser windows open, researching something – and a single click takes you to a fresh desktop, with documents and apps open as you like.

Ubuntu rotating cube

The rotating desktop in mid-rotation

I thought to myself: this could increase productivity so much. Even with my huge Apple monitor, I'm always needing to move things around when I’m deep in a project.

It was so neat I did some research and, yes, it’s available for Mac. It’s called You Control Desktops. (Of course it costs $29.95, whereas it’s free for Ubuntu.)

Eeek! It’s a Command Line! (Run, Hide…)

I had heard that Linux users still use a command line. Instead of pointing and clicking, they actually type in obscure commands – a series of numbers, letters, and squiggly things. It’s very Russian spy, black hat, deep nerd.

Decades ago, the Microsofties who ran DOS got all excited about the command line. They kept their cheat sheets tucked behind their pocket protectors. But Apple led the way to a truly human GUI, making the command line just a bad memory (except for heavy Mac experts).

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Tags: Linux, Windows, Ubuntu, Apple, Mac

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