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OS X vs Ubuntu: Ubuntu wins!

December 2, 2008

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently bought a MacBook. The reason? They are really good portables, just the right size (my old HP Pavilion also was very good, but too big to comfortably use on planes and trains), you can run pretty much any major OS on them (caveat emptor), they have long battery life and the 2.4Ghz version, which I got, is the fastest portable of this form factor I found. And, when the new models came out recently, the old ones suddenly got cheap! The MacBook 4,1 cost only just over 1000€, which is the same price range as HP, Asus and all the others of the same type of form factor, except that they only have 2.1Ghz processors. So they choice was easy. And the MacBook is good, and full of clever little solutions, like the small speakers bouncing the sound off the screen, the famous magnetic power connector, and so on. Drawbacks are that it doesn’t have a mic input, the screen is blank, I’d prefer a matte one, and that there are no Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/Delete keys. Otherwise, it’s pretty much perfect. And of course, last but not least, OS X is getting very popular in the Plone community, and I saw a fair number at PyCon as well. So I’d thought I’d give it a try. I already knew I preferred Ubuntu to Windows, but how would OS X’s famous sleekness and usability compare?

It turns out OS X compared pretty well to Ubuntu, but not good enough, quite simply. If I’m going to summarize it, you could say that Linux is for programmers, and OS X is for users. I have already noted that OS X and Linux is getting pretty close when it comes to capabilities. And that’s not only because OS X is a type of Unix, Ubuntu is also quickly gaining more and more end-user features. But there are significant differences, and I’m going to try to tell you which ones made a difference for me.

What kicks ass in OS X:

  • The suspend/wakeup is really fast. On battery power, you can turn down the lid, and the machine will suspend. And when you open the lid, it will wake up in just a couple of seconds. Ubuntu takes much longer.
  • Much commercial graphical software with high usability and good looking output exists only for OS X, such as Keynote and OmniGraffle.
  • The mobile phone integration just works. After connecting my Nokia to the MacBook via Bluetooth, and getting my Google Calendar to show up in iCal, I could just sync it to the mobile phone. And it would also take a backup of my phone book, and those numbers would show up in Skype, which is practical when I’m abroad and using the mobile is expensive.
  • I liked how you could easily set applications to different workspaces, and how the workspace shifting was through sliding. It really made workspace shifting useful for me.
  • I liked the dock. Tastes vary, but I liked it.
  • In short, general usability was very good.
  • Time machine is really cool.
  • That little video editing program can post videos directly to YouTube! Nice!

What kicks ass in Ubuntu:

  • The package management. This is generally good in Linux, and extra good in Ubuntu. OS X people like to brag about how easy it is to install software. You just drag it into the Applications folder. Well, yes, but you have to find, sometimes buy, and download it first. And then each software needs it’s own update checker. With Ubuntu you quickly learn to first look for the type of software you want in Synaptic, because often it’s there. And once installed, it will get automatically updated too.
    This package management *totally* kicks ass. Neither OS X nor Windows have anything like it.
  • It has consistent key bindings. This is because most Linux UIs (as well as Windows) are based on or heavily influenced by an awesome document called IBM SAA CUA. Yes, really. IBM: King of the TLAs. The Common User Access guidelines detail how user interfaces should work. Of course, Apple has one too, the Human Interface Guidelines. But Apples are made for Macs, and are designed to use the mouse. IBM needed user interface guidelines that worked on everything from their huge mainframes down to DOS, via GUI’s like Windows. So the CUA defines rules for user interfaces that are consistent over all these systems. That’s why you could run Windows 3 without ever touching a mouse, unless you were doing graphical work. Yes, you could, really.
    As a result, Ubuntu, and most Linuxes, has consistent key binding for doing basic stuff like going to the start of the row, etc.
  • It’s a programmers OS. It’s very friendly for developers, and not only because all kinds of open source developers tools are available as packages, and because it’s Linux.

But, sad to say, there are also things that really suck. In OS X, they were:

  • The lack of consistent key bindings. As a programmer, I use the keyboard more than I use the mouse, and selecting everything from the cursor position to the beginning or the end of the line is one of the most common operations. And you need around three different combinations for that in OS X, and some programs don’t seem to support any key combination for this. The result is that every time you want to go to the start or end of the line, you have to stop and thing what program you are in. That drove me nuts.
    That Apple after 25 years of Macintoshes aren’t able to put forward a standard for that is extremely weak.
  • Time machine can’t make backups to network drives. The closest you get is having time capsules, which basically are stupidly expensive harddrives with wifi. I also heard several reports of people having their backups trashed because OS X went into suspend during a backup operation.
  • The “You have to use Apple stuff” attitude really bugs me. I can mount drives from my multimedia machine in OS X. Why can’t I make a backup to them? So that Apple can sell their overprices Time Capsules. Why is there an extra delay if you try to boot from a disk that is not HFS+? Because it’s not Apple. That sort of attitude is pervasive. Apple is not a company that embraces openness. Preferably, you should use Apple hardware and Apple software only.

And with Ubuntu, these things really sucks:

Yeah, I can’t come up with anything that really, really bugs me in Ubuntu. OK, Linux drivers of hardware often lags behind, so if you buy the latest and greatest, especially in laptops, you are asking for trouble. But you are also asking to spend money for very little, so I don’t buy the latest and greatest. I’ll buy a Laptop that is reaching the end of it’s production life, like this Not The Latest MacBook. That way you know that firmware bugs have been ironed out, Linux supports the hardware, etc.

Ubuntu just totally rocks, and for a programmer, I hereby declare it the best operating system ever. For ordinary users, I think OS X wins, over both Windows and Ubuntu. And here is a small prediction: In five years, there will be a free, open source Linux distribution that kicks OS X ass for that too. Because open source will continue to grow and get more manpower. And Linux will simply have way more man power than Apple can afford to pay for. And when that manpower will, as it inevitably will, get focused on making the most kick-ass easy to use end users experience, Linux will blow OS X out of the water.

But I don’t think that will be Ubuntu. I think that will be some other distrubution that isn’t based on Gnome, but on some other more radically simplified and less Windowsy UI. Perhaps something based on Sugar? Maybe something new altogether? Only time will tell.

From → linux, mac, plone, python, ubuntu, zope

  1. I use Ubuntu at work and OS X at home, and I still prefer OS X for development. Each to his own, I guess. Synaptic is certainly good, but with Mac Ports, I’ve never had any problems.

    I wonder where you found the key binding inconsistencies, though. Cmd + Left/Right seems to always work for me, and most applications also support Ctrl+A for Emacs fans.


  2. Postscript: sorry, if you’re new to Mac OS X it’s probably too soon to be asking how developers have responded to related reports 😉

  3. > MacBook … no Home/End/PgUp/PgDn/ …

    On my early MacBook Pro, the keys are labelled
    home (left arrow)
    page (up arrow)
    page (down arrow)
    end (right arrow)

    and like the F… labels on the function keys, they’re effective when used in combination with the following key:


  4. > Why can’t I make a backup to them?

    Much of the richness of the Finder/Mac OS X experience is thanks to extended attributes etc.. To these things, HFS+ is well suited.

    Time Machine has requirements that are not met by some local/remote filing systems. If you like, I’ll find the reference. (Time Machine is unlike other backup applications 😉

  5. WordPress seems to have lost huge chunks of what I wrote so instead, I have used Plone to blog:

  6. I have been using OS X since 2003 and have loved every minute of it. I don’t think a week is sufficient time to get to know OS X (or any other OS for that matter). Most of the issues you have with it could be solved in various ways.

    OS X is by no means perfect. I can totally relate with the keyboard bindings, but this can be customized. I think what it really boils down to for me is UI porn and interface consistency. I’m sure I could do all the same tasks in other operating systems, but the way the OS X apps work together is a beautiful thing.

    But as Martin said, to each his own 😀

    • I have spent many hours trying to find a solution for the problems like the key bindings, and I do not believe it can be solved. I agree with you that it boild down to interface consistency, I guess we just put the emphasis on different parts of it.

  7. Carl permalink

    It is my understanding that you can use other network drives with Time Machine, but you must use afp:// not ftp or nfs or smb, since only afp is sufficiently Apple-owned or something. ;-P

  8. Zak permalink

    I just set up Ubuntu on a Dell D532 Latitude (AMD Turion64). In about a half hour’s work, I have installed the system, updated and installed my preferred software, got dual monitors set up, configured both my wireless and shared printers, and set up network drives to my Linode servers. I only touched the command line once, and that was for my unusual dual-head set-up; not something and end user would likely worry about. A helpful pop-up on initial boot allowed my to click and install the ATI drivers for my video card, and the wireless firmware for my wifi card; I was online and spinning my 3D desktop in no time.

    I think the linux is rapidly closing in on the “it just works” marker; which is substantially more of an achievment than apple ever did, as linux devs are forced to support many architectures, rather than just x86, for example. I am not an Ubuntu/GNOME user myself, so I just followed the most intuitive configuration path I could see, and everything fell in place.

    Apple and Microsoft had better pay attention. Open source devs and community are approaching with a vengeance.

  9. Yves Moisan permalink

    Coming from the windows world, there are things that are still rather painful to do on my Ubuntu 7.10 machine, like install the software versions one needs. Examples I’ve had lately :

    – FF3 (you have to google to find instructions for that; Ubuntu 7.10 supports FF2 only)

    – the R programming language

    On my Feisty, Synaptic gives me one choice : R 1.5.1, which is *old*; I found a way to install 1.7 but I can’t update it through Synaptic. On my former windows machine, setting up any version of R was a breeze.

    That said, there are many things I like of Ubuntu but software installation for those packages not maintainable through Synaptic is a pain.

  10. Well, 7.10 is a year old now, so of course it doesn’t install FF3 automatically. It also uses R 2.5.1, while Intrepid (the lates version) uses 2.7.1.

    You claim that 2.5.1 is *old*. In fact, it’s about 18 months old. The OS you are running is 14 months old. If R 2.5.1 is *old* and you absolutely require a later version, why isn’t Ubunt 7.10 *old*?

    It seems to me that you problem is that you aren’t upgrading. Is there a reason for that? Also, you complaint is basically that the ease of use you get with Synaptic, which you DO NOT have on Windows, is gone of you want to use versions newer than the ones in the Ubuntu repository, and therefore it’s *less* practical than Windows?

    I find that a very strange claim.

  11. shige permalink

    As for R, the easiest way is always to:
    1) grad the most recent tar ball;
    2) untar;
    3) ./configure
    4) make
    5) sudo make install

  12. Balazs Ree permalink

    So, have you, by now, removed OS X from your Mac and installed Ubuntu on it? 🙂

  13. Armand permalink

    the only single reason i run mac on my macbookpro is audio production.
    i love ardour though, its getting better and better…

  14. Yves Moisan permalink

    Sorry for the late reply but I came back to your blog because I had problems … installing OO 3 on 7.10 and hoped to find an answer to the issue I raised :-(.

    “It seems to me that you problem is that you aren’t upgrading. Is there a reason for that?”

    I’ve heard stories of things not working anymore after upgrade. But you are right, I should upgrade. Now a question : say I were to migrate from 7.10 to 8.04. Since 8.04 is LTS, what good would it do to me to keep updating to a non LTS version just to have a Synaptic access to a recent FF or OO ?

    The point is with windows I can upgrade from FF2 to FF3 on a 5-yr old XP. I don’t need (and don’t want !) to upgrade to Vista. In fact I need to be on Ubuntu. All I’m saying is that it is IMO not easy to install the software versions of programs one wants.

    “Also, you complaint is basically that the ease of use you get with Synaptic, which you DO NOT have on Windows, is gone of you want to use versions newer than the ones in the Ubuntu repository, and therefore it’s *less* practical than Windows?”

    Could be. I could run R 2.5.x or 2.6.x or 2.7.x on my XP machine last year. I had to fight to get R 2.7 on Ubuntu 7.10. Make no mistake : I’m committed to Ubuntu but for now I find it harder to configure.

  15. LTS versions are good to stick with if you plan on not updating. That makes sense for servers or if you have many machines you manage, like on an office or something. Or if you just don’t like upgrades. But I would go with the latest version. No reason not to really.

  16. Yves Moisan permalink

    “like on an office or something”. Indeed. Plus, I find it a different paradigm to need to update a whole OS in order to gain access to newer versions of popular applications. Don’t forget that LTS also means longer support for the desktop version of Ubuntu. But if that means I’ll be “Long Term Stuck” with an old FF or OO, then I’ll force myself into upgrading the whole OS :-).

  17. Yves Moisan permalink

    Another thorny example : setting up Sun VirtualBox on my (still !) 7.10 Ubuntu :

    – search synaptic for “virtualbox”; finds entries (about INNO not Sun but it’s the same thing right ? so yay!) so : install => I get an entry in Applications/System Tools; I launch it and it says it is missing some virtualbox-ose part

    – I go back to Synaptic and try and install again; I find that what Synaptic points to for the Vbox version it lets me install is for kernel 2.6.22-14 and of course I have *-16 on my system; so I go on the web and search :

    – I find Perfect so I follow the list of commands and I end up with an error like the ones mentioned in the comments section of that page (at least I’m not alone);

    Now what ? I googled a bit more and ended up on

    Got the deb, installed and NOW it works. Although now I have no preset shortcut set anywhere (like Synaptic had given me) so I have to guess it installed the software to /usr/bin. I had to make a shortcut on my own from /usr/bin/virtualbox.

    It works, but it sure wasn’t user friendly 😉

  18. Brian permalink

    I bought an HP laptop and installed Ubuntu 8.10, and less than two months later I sold it and got another Mac laptop.
    I really liked Ubuntu, but I could never get my sound to work, and it became too much of a hassle. I think that Ubuntu (and other distros) can be great for new users, because I found it to be very user friendly.
    If my sound had worked I would have stuck with it.

  19. matt permalink

    Great choice, my friend.

  20. Joe Lawrence permalink




    the end…

  21. Haha, it seems the major thing that drove you away are the keybindings… that’s funny to me mainly because I’m trying very hard to switch from OS X to Ubuntu and right now the number one thing driving me back (aside from some hardware issues) are the keybindings. My main problem is also with text navigation… I’m on a mac laptop, so the whole home/end thing doesn’t work (I find the whole idea silly anyway… you have to lift up your hand to hit any of those keys…). So I set the keybindings to be Emacs style, which is great except since everything uses the control key there are all sorts of conflicts (like I can’t jump to the search field in Firefox while editing this post, because Ctrl+K is bound to kill line…). Now of course I could remap the Emacs bindings to use something other than Control, but now the issue of using different keybindings in different apps turns up, since in the terminal those won’t work. And of course this all only works in GTK programs.

    My experience on the Mac, on the other hand, is that the defaults (Command/Option + arrow keys) work absolutely everywhere, and the emacs bindings (available by default) work almost everywhere (every Cocoa application).

    I’d love to be able to remap the super (command) key to be used by all applications on Ubuntu in place of control… haven’t figured out how to do this yet… I find it’s positioning much more natural, since moving the pinky to control in its default position is more work than moving your thumb… though of course I’ve remapped my caps lock key to solve that for now. Ah well… in general my feeling is that the Mac is much better about getting little details like that “right” the first time around… other than that I agree whole-heartedly about the package management.

    • Well, as you can see from the table in the post I made about keybindings, the default keybindings simply do not work everywhere, full stop. And as mentioned, there is not one single key-binding working everywhere.

      The keyboard is neglected in OS X, and it’s noticed, and it’s a big problem for programmers. And yes, indeed that the main reason I chose Ubuntu, although the other reasons are not insignificant.

  22. Soule permalink

    I find ubuntu to be all set for the common programmer;

    As a php writer, i find it easy to set up a LAMP server and the default editor is very intuitive and useful with the automatic syntax highlighting.

    Synaptic makes installing apps a breeze as well as the Add+remove programs.

    But i think the best part of ubuntu is:

    It does everything you nee\d it to. If it doesn’t out of the box in a couple of clicks you are. As long as your addiction to games isnt that strong, youll be fine. (Anyways, ubuntu has some awesome games that you can pick out later0

    I think ubuntu is the best for anyone who is sick of windows, and can live without some windows-only features.(unless he can afford a mac, then he should try that first unless he’s a geek.)

  23. Sid permalink

    > I find it a different paradigm to need to update a whole OS in order to gain access to newer versions of popular applications.

    You don’t have to update your OS to gain newer versions of popular applications, but it makes it easier if you do.

    Besides, why not update the OS? It’s just a click of a button in Ubuntu. It’s not like you have to go to the shop to get a CD for newer version of your Windows or OSX.

    A whole different paradigm indeed

  24. Lord Nelson permalink

    My prediction….

    As people argue over the best OS, Google will sneak behind you and pinch your ass with their Linux version of Chrome OS.

    Then people will say “Oh, that is Linux? I’ve heard of it from my 15 year old nephew. He uses You Bunt Too or was it Purple Bowler? Anyway, I like that it’s free. Maybe I should try it.”

    Then Canonical will be calling Google and say “We just want to destroy Apple and Microsoft. You in? Gooooood. Lunch next week?”

  25. Virgil permalink

    Glad you use Ubuntu, and erased OSX. I dislike the expensive ‘Use a Mac to run your iLife” even more than the ‘There is another type of system other than Windows?” mentality.

    Linux is starting to really evolve, and I am fond of the GNOME and Ubuntu projects very much. The professional polish of Ubuntu in the new Karmic beta is really showing.

    Not only this, but it is free software, which can be used for any purpose, and for anyone. With free software, you do not ever need to pirate or activate, and it will always do exactly what you want, and not just what you get.

  26. Sebastian permalink

    Lennart ,

    Thanks for that assessment. I’m using Ubuntu now since last March. Started using Debian Linux in late 2006. There was just something about Linux that kept (and keeps) pulling me back. Your review is also timely for me, because I must admit after last June’s launch of the new AND LOWER PRICED MacBook Pro line, I had briefly decided to make one my next computer. Problems with iTunes and Apple’s ‘tude changed that. Since I haven’t used a Mac in several years, I can’t really qualify my opinion appropriately that Ubuntu is better than OS-X. But, like wine, it’s what you like. I like Ubuntu Linux far better than any Apple computer I’ve used. I think it’s because it allows you to become part of it. You invest your time and energy in it by configuring it far more extensively that either Windows of OS-X. It attracts interest. It causes you to want to learn more about it.

  27. Josh permalink

    Maybe that OS That will blow mac osx out of the water is Chrome OS? It is Linux 😉

    • It’s too simplistic to do that, I think. But I do hope that it will be simple enough to put in the hands of non-technical people so they stop asking me for help on Windows. 🙂

  28. Jonathan Chen permalink

    Sadly I’m a windows users, I’ve been really wanting to jump ship and go onto Ubuntu, but windows has a strong hold on me. I was thinking of jumping ship to Mac Land, but I absolutely hate Mac Fanboys (and windows fanboys too) and the keybindings for a Mac really bother me a lot.

    The only thing keeping me from going to Ubuntu is really the triple monitor issue and that I can’t use adobe products on Ubuntu… yet 😉

  29. maxibon permalink

    wow very good article and i agree with you 100% and i use ubuntu and it kicks ass

  30. Jack permalink

    Hey- liked your description, good review, even though it’s clearly biased in some ways (bias is good, provides diversity and distinguishes alternative perspectives).

    I wonder what you think of 10.04, and how things have improved in general with Linux.

    • The update to 10.04 completely messed up my computer. I’m used to Ubuntu upgrades slowly rotting the system, but now it suddenly became completely unusuable, and I had to make a clean reinstall.

      But after that 10.04 has been very nice, and is a clear improvement. Only complaint I have is that Gwibber sometimes crashes into a state where the backend is half-running, and you can’t start it before you kill the backend, and that twice it ended up not having either the internal or the external screen on. Tricky to do anything then. 🙂

      Ubuntu 10.04 + XBMC is working quite smootly on my multimedia system, and I also installed Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.04 on my wife’s laptop and finally converted her from Windows. I don’t think it’s actually harder to use than Windows anymore, and Ubuntu Netbook Edition actually is *easier* to use, and maybe even easier than OS X when it comes to daily use. If you, like me, need to do IT-support for your family, UNE is definitely an option.

      So thing are improving…

  31. BrawndoQC permalink

    Ubuntu is a poor man’s OS X

  32. Leon permalink

    @BrawdoQC and other OS X fans, I have switched from Windows to Mac 3 years back. It was a learning curve. Now I wished that I had switched directly to Ubuntu. Mac is extremely restricting, even more than Windows on many fronts. Anything you want, you need to pay for, similar to the iphone. There comes a stage that you are just getting tired of it. Whereas on Ubuntu, if you want it, you install it. No need to take out your credit card first. You click the install button. That is a feature that I think will take linux very far, now that it is also extremely userfriendly. I had also seen a lot more people moving to ubuntu. I can also buy hardware at a 3rd of the price you would pay for when going mac for the same machine. Yes there are good things about mac, but is it really worth that investment.

    So @BrandoQC, I think that OS X is a former rich man\’s OS, as he is bankrupted by it by now. Why I say this is that you buy the Mac basic system at 3 times the price, then you need to buy an office suite for the odd spreadsheet and word document that you want to create. Then you need to buy a piece of hardware at an overpriced fee to convert your mac screen port to a normal screen port to make presentations – yet another device to remember to carry around. Then you need to pay for fuse software to interface with your ntfs and other file systems on external drives. Well the list goes on, and over three years, I had spent a lot more on my Mac than on any Windows system. So that being said, I strongly feel that it is a waste of good money, better spent on your childrens education. I can thus find way more and better things to do with my money than to buy every bit of basic software and hardware to make a computer do what I want it to do, that I desperately need before I can start using the computer.

    So yesterday we had shut down the last microsoft product in our house, as we decided to end my wife\’s frustrations with Windows once and for all, and converted her computer directly to Ubuntu. All I can say is, if you want to end your frustrations with Windows, you\’ll replace it with new expensive ones in Mac. So don\’t let Mac into your house, it is Micro$oft on steriods, unless if you are a video production house – but those days are nearing an end as well, as my wife have a niftly fully featured video editor (Open Shot Video Editor) already installed, without her credit card leaving her wallet!

    PS: Time machine is overrated – can do it for free on Ubuntu, with a choice of a large set of linux free backup options…

    PSS: I know that Ubuntu will cause its own frustrations, but at least the solutions will not be linked to my bank account, instead it will be just a free google or upgrade away.

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  1. Apple sollte Ubuntu offiziell unterstützen « Dijkstrabühl
  2. Switching to OS X, Obstacle 4: Python and friends | Lennart Regebro: Python, Plone, Web

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