Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side

April 02, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

This article is part of a series:

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop
  3. This article
  4. (TBD) My review of the M1 Macbook Air

Due to very bad decisions by Apple's product marketing teams, Mac hardware and software had been in steady decline since 2016.

Therefore, there has been a trickle of articles on the Geekosphere about people switching from Macs to Linux or Windows.

This is the contrarian view. Don't do it.

The TL;DR is right there in the title: migrating to Linux is fine, but don't expect a better experience than the Mac.

My experience with the Dell XPS 13" Developer Edition was positive in general, including a self-hosted Cloud setup, but not good enough to convince me to stay with it.

We will cover:

  1. A comparison of generic productivity software: email, calendar, image manipulation, etc.
  2. Available power tools to customize your keyboard, trackpad, and more.
  3. A quick jab at decades-old issues which still haven't been solved.
  4. Misc stuff that Linux does better than the Mac.
~~~~~

I feel like I need to clarify that this is an article aimed at Mac users who are considering a migration to Linux in hope of a more polished system. As usual, personal experiences and requirements are subjective. I know that Ubuntu ≠ Gnome ≠ Linux. I also know that I'm not entitled to anything, everybody is welcome to send patches. Just let me say that if you try to cherry-pick any single issue, you're missing the forest for the trees.

~~~~~

Linux productivity software is fine, but there are rough edges for the power user

The typical disclaimer when recommending Linux to a Mac/Windows user is that some proprietary software may not be available, like MS Office, Photoshop, games, etc.

Nobody says, "the main problem you will find with Linux is that email and calendar clients fall apart when you scratch under the surface."

It is truly ironic because I ran MS Office with Wine and it worked well but I was unhappy with my email workflow.

Yes, the apps I missed the most from the Mac were Mail.app, Calendar.app, and Preview.app.

I am an extreme power user, to the point that many of the keys on my keyboard don't do what the keycap says. I want my apps to let me do easy things fast while allowing me to do complex tasks with a bit of extra work.

I send and receive maybe 100 emails per day. Most of them are HTML, with attachments, video conference invitations, and such. I don't live in a vacuum. I can't ask my clients to send me plaintext email only. I need to send long emails with pictures, I want my zoom invites to appear automatically in my calendar.

For some reason Mail.app gets a lot of criticism, but it does almost everything well. It has conversation view, search is fast and helpful, multiple accounts are combined seamlessly including autodetection of the "From" field based on the recipient, and smart folders (search folders) are updated when you need them.

On Linux, the only email client with a native "conversation view" is Geary, which is in early development and still very buggy. Evolution is fine and well-integrated with the rest of the desktop apps, but the lack of conversation view was a deal-breaker for me. Thunderbird is an excellent email client, but conversation view is provided by a plugin that is also buggy. Other options like Claws, Sylpheed, Kmail, and terminal clients are more limited in terms of features and don't work for me.

I ended up using Thunderbird, but I felt like I was doing my email with handcuffs. Suffice to say, I had both Thunderbird and Gmail open and used either one depending on the task I needed to complete.

The situation of calendar and contacts clients is similar, with the same contenders. I also ended up using Thunderbird along with Google Calendar.

About PDF and basic image management, anybody who has used Preview.app will realize that it's much more than just a viewer. There is simply no replacement on Linux. You'll need to open either the Gimp or Xournal for any basic editing. I am an advanced Gimp user, but for most operations, Preview.app is faster and more convenient.

Desktop notifications are something we don't think a lot about, but a bad system can be very annoying. Gnome has a system-wide framework, which is not well thought in terms of dealing with the actual notifications.

Most apps have their own notifications system which runs in parallel, especially Thunderbird and Evolution. You end up with different types of notifications on different parts of the screen, and a non-consistent UI to deal with them.

Finally, on the Mac, you can find an ecosystem of alternative paid PIM apps, like Spark, Fantastical, Things, and others. There is no equivalent ecosystem on Linux, probably because they would be difficult to monetize.

Power tools are more limited and more difficult to use

The previous section could be summarized as "Linux PIM software is fine in general, but gets in the way of power users."

That is counterintuitive, right? Linux is a much nerdier OS than the Mac and everything is customizable.

But when you jump from theory to practice, at some point you just want a tool to help you set up your config, without the need to edit your trackpad driver source file.

Any advanced Mac user knows about Karabiner, BetterTouchTool, Choosy, Alfred, Automator, and more.

With Linux, you can achieve almost the same feature set, but it is harder and more limited.

For example. To customize your keyboard, you will need a combination of xdotool, xbindkeys, xcape, xmodmap and setxkbmap to capture some event and then run a shell script. There is a Gnome Shell plugin that allows you to tweak your keyboard, but it's nowhere near Karabiner.

If you want to achieve some specific action you need to read four or five manpages, search online, and figure out how you are going to put the pieces together. That made me appreciate Karabiner and BTT much more.

Furthermore, I couldn't find a real alternative to BTT to customize trackpad multi-touch gestures. I tried a few approaches with libinput-gestures but none worked.

In the end, I was able to replicate most of my macOS power tools setup via input hooks and shell scripts, but it took much longer than it should have. I found it surprising that, given the number of nerds using Linux every day, there are no specific tools equivalent to those mentioned above.

"I Can't believe we're still protesting this crap"

Please allow me to make a bit of fun of issues that existed back in 1999 when I started using Linux and still exist today.

  • Screen tearing with the intel driver. Come on. This was solved on xorg and now with Wayland it's back. I fiddled multiple times with the settings but couldn't fix it. Even with OpenBSD it was easier to fix. The default settings should be better. I don't care if the video driver will use an extra buffer or whatever.
  • Resolving new hosts is slow, with a delay of about 2-3 seconds. I tried to disable IPv6 and other tricks from Stackoverflow threads, but none solved the issue completely. Again, an issue with the default settings. macOS does some DNS magic or something and the network feels much faster.
  • Resuming after suspend seems to work at first. As soon as you start to trust it and not save your work before closing the lid, it betrays you and you lose your work. Later, you upgrade the kernel and it works all the time for weeks until you upgrade the kernel again and it goes back to working 80% of the time. What a mess.

We've come a long way with Linux on the desktop but I think it's funny that some things never change.

Linux also hides some gems

I want to end this review on a positive note.

During those six months, I also took notes on apps and workflows that are still better on Linux.

  • Tracker/search is better and faster than Spotlight. It's a shame that not all apps take advantage of it, especially Thunderbird.
  • Firefox is amazing. On the Mac, Safari is a better choice, but I was very happy using Firefox full-time on Linux. I am going to miss some great plugins, like Multi-account containers, Instagram-guest, Reddit Enhancement Suite, and of course NoScript and uBlock Origin
  • Nautilus is better than the Finder. It's not even close.
  • The Gnome Shell Extension Gallery has many hidden gems, like Nothing to say which mutes the microphone system-wide with a shortcut, the Emoji selector, Caffeine to keep your computer awake, a Clipboard manager, and Unite to tweak basic UI settings. I am now using macOS equivalents to those, and I discovered their existence thanks to the Linux counterparts.
  • Insync for Linux is better than the official Google Drive File Stream for the Mac. In fact, I am now using the Mac version of Insync.
  • Gimp and Inkscape are excellent apps, and it's a pity that the macOS ports are mediocre. I'd rather use them than Pixelmator/Affinity Designer. Hopefully, someday either GTK or these apps will get decent macOS versions.
  • apt-get was a revolution when it was released in 1998 and it is still the best way to manage software today. brew is a mediocre replacement.
  • I paid for Crossover which allowed me to use MS Office and other Windows apps I needed. Kudos to the Wine developers for almost 30 years of continuous effort.
  • Xournal is an obscure app that allows you to annotate PDF documents as well as draw with a Wacom tablet. I used it constantly as a whiteboard for online presentations. The macOS port is very buggy, unfortunately, so I use OneNote which is not that good.

Hopefully, the success of paid tools like Insync or Crossover can encourage the developer ecosystem to continue developing quality apps, even if they are non-free, or supported by donations.

What's next?

Watching the ARM Macs keynote

On November 10th Apple showed us the future of the Mac and released again laptops worth buying. So I bought the 2020 M1 Macbook Air. You will read a review of it soon.

The hardware is much better than the Dell's and, I guess, every other PC laptop. The software ecosystem is a big improvement over my Linux setup, and Big Sur course corrects the absolute mess that Catalina was. With every passing year, the iCloud offering keeps getting better, especially if you have other Apple devices.

I am somewhat sad that I couldn't join the Linux Resistance. After all, I've been an annoying proselytizer heavy free software advocate in the past, and I still am, though I nowadays admit there are many nuances.

The experience of using Linux as a daily driver has been very positive for me, but I do need my productivity. I can work much faster with macOS and iCloud than I was with Linux and my self-hosted cloud setup.

If there ever was a period where the Mac experience was worse than Linux, it is now over. The Mac ecosystem wins again. Don't switch to Linux expecting it to have fewer papercuts than the Mac. It's quite the opposite.

There is definitely grass on the other side of the fence, but it is not greener.

Tags: apple, linux

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How I moved my setup from a Mac to a Linux laptop

February 11, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

This article is part of a series:

  1. Seven years later, I bought a new Macbook. For the first time, I don't love it
  2. This article
  3. Fed up with the Mac, I spent six months with a Linux laptop. The grass is not greener on the other side
  4. (TBD) My review of the M1 Macbook Air

Returning the Macbook Pro

In the previous installment of this series I explained how I had been disenchanted with recent Macs.

The fact is that shortly after writing that review I returned the 2020 Macbook Pro.

I tried to love it, honest to God, but it was mediocre.

Let me share with you the list of issues I found while using it for two weeks:

  • USB2 keyboard and mouse randomly disconnecting. I tried 3 different USB/Thunderbolt adapters, including Apple's, to no avail.
  • Abnormal rattling sound when fans start spinning, as if they were not properly seated.
  • Not detecting the internal keyboard sometimes after resuming sleep.
  • Only 5 hours of battery life when streaming video with the screen off, connected to a TV.
  • Battery drained from 70% to 15% after sleeping overnight.
  • The touchbar. I spent time trying to make it useful with BetterTouchTool. Then I discovered that the keypresses don't register correctly most of the times, and I had to tap twice or three times, which defeats the purpose of having a dedicated shortcut.
  • Trackpad registers too many spurious taps and the cursor jumps around the screen while typing.
  • Airpods Pro have ~400ms of audio lag when watching videos. Solved with a reboot but it appears again after a few minutes.
2020 MBP does not detect its internal keyboard

The fact that it had issues with the internal keyboard and the USB subsystem made me think that the unit may have a faulty logic board. I discovered later, through a Reddit thread, that the USB2 issue was not specific to my unit, but it didn't matter much.

I was feeling really ripped off with a machine I had spent 2.000€ on and which, speed aside, was worse than my 2013 Air in every way I cared.

In the end, my gut told my brain, "Stop rationalizing it, this laptop makes you unhappy", and I came to terms with it.

Now what?

I had been dreading this moment since 2016, when I realized that Apple didn't care about my demographic anymore.

Migrating platforms is a big hassle, so after I made the decision to return the Macbook Pro, I thought carefully what the next steps would be.

In order to transition from the Mac to Linux I had to prepare a plan for for new hardware, new software, and a new cloud ecosystem.

At that point there were strong rumors about ARM Macs. I thought I'd use Linux for an indeterminate amount of time, until Apple hopefully released a good Mac again. Which may have been "never", though I was optimistic.

I have used Linux extensively in my life, since 1999, but mostly as a developer. Nowadays my requirements are more "mainstream" and I need apps like Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader to do my job. This is an important point to make. This computer is my main work tool, and it needs to accommodate my own needs as well as my job's. I spent some time making sure that I could run all the software I needed. As a last resort, there is always the option of using a VM.

As a final step, I had to move all the iCloud stuff out of there, because it is not interoperable with standard clients. I decided I would self-host it and see how difficult it is to leave the walled garden.

Therefore, I needed to fulfil the following requirements:

  1. Good laptop hardware with Linux support
  2. Ability to run work-related software
  3. Self-hosted (or almost) cloud services

1. Choosing a new laptop: The 2018 Dell XPS 13"

Before buying—and potentially returning—a new machine I drove to the office and grabbed two old laptops to see if they would fit: a Thinkpad 420 and a 2018 Dell XPS 13".

I decided to test drive the five of them: the 2020 MBP, my 2013 MBA, the Thinkpad, the Dell, and my tinkering laptop, a Thinkpad x230 with OpenBSD.

Benchmarking laptops

I then spent a couple days trying to make some sense of the situation. You can see them running a group video chat and some benchmarks.

Fortunately, a clear winner emerged: the 2018 Dell XPS with Ubuntu-Dell installed.

How good is the 2018 XPS? Excellent. 9.5/10 would recommend. I got in love with that machine. Very good hardware, with just a few minor issues.

Pros:

  • Good screen quality
  • Small bezels. It makes a difference and I still miss them today.
  • Light, nice in my lap. The Macbook Pros have air vents that "cut" into your legs when you're wearing shorts.
  • All I/O worked fine. I used the official Dell Thunderbolt Dock.
  • Excellent keyboard. I liked the pgup/pgdn keys on the arrow cluster and welcomed back the function keys.
  • Good battery life (6h of streaming video) even though the laptop had been used daily for almost 3 years.

Cons:

  • The speakers are of laughable quality. Not just bad, but why-would-Dell-do-that bad. Extremely quiet and terrible quality.
  • The webcam is on a bad location. Not really a big deal, but I'm glad they fixed it in recent revisions.
  • The trackpad is kinda like the 2013 Air's, but a bit worse.
  • Coil whine. I tried to be positive and used it as an "activity indicator" like in the old days of spinning hard drives, but I'd rather not have it.

That really is it. The Dell XPS is probably the best go-to PC laptop. Excellent set of compromises, good price, good support. If you want to use Linux on a laptop, you can't go wrong with the XPS.

2. Doing my job with Linux

I knew beforehand that hardware support was not going to be an issue. Linux drivers in general are pretty good nowadays, and that XPS specifically was designed to work well with Linux, that is why we bought it for the office.

On first boot everything works. Ubuntu is pretty good. Gnome 3 tries to be like a Mac, which I liked, and the basic software is fine for most of the people.

I then installed my work software. Most of it is either standard (email, calendar...) or multi-platform via Electron or webapps. For Windows-specific software I purchased a license of Crossover and also installed a Windows 10 VM on Virtualbox. It was not super convenient and sometimes things crashed with Crossover, but I could manage.

Overall, the desktop environment and base apps are not as polished as macOS, which I will discuss later, but it worked.

I am happy to realize that I can continue recommending Linux to "regular people" who want a computer that just works, doesn't get viruses, and is very low maintenance.

3. My self-hosted cloud setup

This is a topic that is on everybody's mind right now. We went from the original, decentralized internet, to a network centralized in a few vendors like Facebook, Google, Cloudflare and Amazon, and I think that is a bad idea.

The walled garden is comfortable, but what happens when you want to make the switch? How easy it really is to migrate your online infrastructure to another vendor?

Well, I was going to discover that soon. I like the iCloud ecosystem, and in general am fine with Apple's privacy policies, but I just couldn't continue using it. Apart from email, all other services (pictures, calendars, files, notes, etc.) cannot be used in Linux, and the browser client is extremely bad.

I am a geek, and have been a sysadmin since college, so I took it as a personal challenge to create my own personal cloud infrastructure.

First I tried Nextcloud. It mostly works and I recommend it in general, but the server components are too heavy and the file syncing is slow and unreliable.

I decided to self-host every individual piece of the puzzle:

  • My mail has been managed by postfix/dovecot for a few years now. I don't recommend anybody self-hosting email due to deliverability issues, but I'm that stubborn.
  • I set up radicale for contacts, calendars and tasks. It had issues connecting to some clients due to, I believe, SSL negotiation. If I had to set it up again I'd try another alternative.
  • All my files got synced over my laptops and the server thanks to Syncthing. I can't stress enough how great of a software is Syncthing. Really, if you're looking for an alternative to Dropbox, try it out. It will amaze you.
  • Syncthing does not expose files publicly, so I span up the Apache Webdav server to share files.
  • Joplin is a good alternative to take rich text notes and sync them over the internet. The clients are not very polished, but it works.
  • For passwords I've been using Lastpass for some time.
  • I kept using iCloud for pictures, because it's the best solution if you have an iPhone. It is fine because I don't need to work with pictures on my daily workflow.

It took some time of researching and deploying all the pieces, and I'm quite happy with the result. It feels really great to manage your online infrastructure, even though it requires technical knowledge and regular maintenance to keep everything up to date.

So how did it all work out?

Well, I have been repeating this term all over the article: it works. I could do my job, and it was a very gratifying learning experience. Overall, I do encourage geeks to spin up their own cloud infra and work with Linux or BSD boxes. I do have some self-hosted cloud services and I also keep a laptop with OpenBSD which I use regularly.

It is possible to get out of the walled garden. Of course, it's not within reach of the general public yet, even though Nextcloud is very close, and some third party vendors are starting to offer an integrated cloud experience outside the world of the Big Cloud.

But I'm writing this in the past tense because I went back to the Mac. Unfortunately, after six months of using this setup full-time I started noticing very rough edges, which I will explain on the next article.

Stay tuned!

Tags: apple, linux, hardware

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Linux vs GNU/Linux

February 07, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

Why I do call the system Linux

I personally use the term Linux for simplicity. I know that it's the kernel name, but that's how naming works, sometimes it's convenient to use a synecdoche.

Linux is useful to identify the platform as a whole and it is recognizable to the general public. No-one is using it as demeaning, and when technical people need to be more specific they can include any complements to that term.

Why I don't call it GNU/Linux anymore

Some time ago I was an advocate for the term GNU/Linux, following the rationale of the FSF.

I still do recognize the importance of the FSF and the GNU project into making Linux what it is today. However, I think that nowadays this controversy does more harm than good to the FSF, and I encourage people to be careful when discussing it.

The FSF arguments boil down to:

  1. Many years ago, a big percentage of the codebase of GNU/Linux systems was sourced from the GNU project.
  2. The GNU project is not just a series of tools, but rather an integrated system, which was missing only the kernel. It existed before Linux.

The thing is, with every passing year Linux systems have less and less GNU components. Some vendors are even preferring software with alternative licenses such as BSD or Apache.

Should we then, using the same arguments, advocate for a name which reflects the more recent critical components, as GNU/FreeDesktop/Apache/OSI/BSD/.../Linux?

I am not trying to ridicule the FSF argument. To the contrary, my point is that, while they have been a very important contributor to the project, those specific arguments carry less weight as the project progresses. Therefore, even if this discussion could have been productive in 2001, nowadays it is either moot, or worse, plays against the GNU project's interests.

I am sure that the FSF will continue calling the system GNU/Linux and I believe they are entitled to it. But I don't think anybody should continue to proselytize about this anymore. And I also don't think that calling the system Linux in 2021 is neither morally nor technically wrong.

Tags: linux

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