Why I abandoned Apple and OSX for Linux

25 Jan

I must start from small confession. I am not an computer kido. My first computer was AMD K6 with 266 Hz clock I got for Christmas back in 1999. I’ve seen in my life Amiga, but I wasn’t part of long standing battle between platforms. I’ve seen Norton Commander on my friend PC who got his Pentium in 95, but I never had to run such tool on my own. Point of bringing whole history of myself coming to computers is to show you that I am relatively fresh to it.

First Apple devices under the roof

I got my first (and last at the same time) MacBook Pro in 2011. In fact this is the only one laptop I got from Apple. Primary reason for buying this expensive computer was – unix. Back at this time I was working on project which used Hadoop. From what I remember, it was not possible to run it under Windows. I had some small successes with git under Cygwin, remember it was almost 7 years ago, but it was pure pain. After seeing how much work and struggle git did cost me I decided to cut my sufferings and get unix based device.
My former collaborators used Macs and they were very happy about it. They also engrafted such love into me. That’s how I become a Apple computer user. I started from 8,3 model with Mac OSX Lion (17″ full hd screen). Despite of it’s size it was still lighter than my gaming laptop (Asus G50v) and quite powerful at moment of buying. Worth to note that it was my first device which supported SATA3.

Over time I replaced traditional disk and installed OCZ Vertex 3 which had only 128 GB but gave a new breath to my laptop just after a year of using it. A year later I swapped memory and moved from 2×2 GB to 2×8 GB. Each change costed me about 380€, but thanks to these two spendings I had an amazing machine with big screen, fast disk and lots of memory.

First Linux experiences

To be fair with you I had my first linux experiences long time before I even knew about OSX. In past days, when I was going to technical school, I had no internet at home. Somewhere in 2003 I got recommendation from John, a system administrator managing network at internet cafe I was visiting. He proposed me to run Linux instead of Windows.
This might seem silly these days, but I was between 16 and 17 years old and this man was the only one I knew who was paid for working with computers. For me this was some kind of holy grail. I can’t remember which distribution he gave to me, if it was Slackware or maybe Debian, I think it was slack. I managed to install it, but I didn’t pick it up as it was too difficult for me to manage it. Without internet connection at home finding solution for single configuration option was taking to long – walking for about 1,5 km to cafe and back.
About two years later, my dreams come to true, despite of not having Slackware knowledge. I got my first job. It was sunny July 2005 and my workstation was powered by Mandriva Linux. While overall user experience was rather fine because I got user interface running with no troubles, I could not stand it. I simply hated huge fonts. They were ugly, ugly like hell. After years of windows experience first look at big fonts with blurry letters in editor was giving negative impression. I was using Eclipse as my primary IDE for programming and I couldn’t adjust it to look any closer to what I used to see under Windows.
I had few attempts to run linux at home, but I never succeeded to stay longer than a week or two. In 2006 I had LG Laptop powered by Ubuntu, but due to poor performance caused by lack of drivers I went back to Windows.
This is an interesting fact on the linux, even if it is extremely powerful for running server side, many programmers, including myself, couldn’t commit themselves to use it as development workstation for quite long time.

Apple device troubles

My Apple experiences are, generally speaking, quite good. My hardware works, but at the same time it failed multiple times. But lets start from beginning.
Once I got convinced to buy MacBook Pro I called authorised reseller, asked him about availability and after confirming hardware is available I went there and bought it. Here a small mystery occurs. I was completely new into Apple universe, so I showed up in cash desk and said – I would like to buy a Mac Book Pro. Apple Genius went behind storage doors and brought back a black box. He said – this is a special kind of MacBook Pro, so special it is packaged in black, not white one as usual. I did not ask anything, I’ve paid full price and went out without rising any questions.
I am bringing this at the beginning as I was cheated by ispot. I haven’t had a clue that I was played by their worker in their biggest salon. A whole network claims it “fulfils restrictive requirements of Apple Premium Reseller”. I’ve forgotten about black box and was happy mac user until my computer broke in August 2013, few months after warranty. I called official service and after getting rough estimation of repair cost decided to go to unauthorised service. Guy there asked me if I ever removed battery from my laptop (which I did not), because there was a pencil note on cover under it. He said me this happens with refurbished devices. That’s the way I learnt that my computer was almost “a brand new” when I bought it.
I think somewhere later same year or even a year later I’ve found information that issue I got was covered under extended warranty. Symptoms I had were screen/display flickering caused by graphic cards or thunderbolt controller issue. Of course when I called official service (where I bought computer) they did not even mention that such thing might be subject of repair program announced by Apple.

As I swapped disk and got Vertex SSD my configuration become unsupported. For example I’ve failed to update from Lion to Mountain Lion because earlier version of system didn’t have TRIM support. Installer simply failed to complete without giving any valuable information. High Sierra update also couldn’t move, for whatever reason, my devices to APFS.

My history of failures with Apple is much longer than that. I owe iMac 27″ from late 2011 which was not heavily used and broke anyway. It ended up in service with broken graphic card. This time it happened again after warranty period, but unauthorised service I was using so far told me that such issue (black screen, spinning fans) is subject of extended repair program. When I brought computer (or rather mainframe if you think about it’s weight) to authorised service staff there instead of just picking up device started to count other reasons why computer may not work which were not under official repair program. They literally made impression that they were looking for a reason to avoid service program and charge few hundred euros from my pocket instead.
I tested iMac with my Thunderbolt display and it did not send any output to second screen so I was sure that screen itself is fine and actual issue comes from graphics. Funny fact is that guys called me two days later saying that computer was full of dust, however issue was covered by official repair boundaries. I couldn’t comment on dust, as it seems to be collected there by design. 😉

So far I enlisted two Apple devices who got broken so far and did mention third one. This got broken too – here I mean – Thunderbolt Display – luckily in this case issue was related to thunderbolt plug which broke over time. From not critical issue in this device I experienced overheated screen which lost colours and have some kind of blurry line going from top to bottom.

With all these things I found that Apple devices are not that rock solid as you would expect from so expensive hardware. In Poland where I live Apple is not cheap. It is more expensive than PC and there are no doubts about that. Sometimes I think it is kind of luxury brand here.

Questionable hardware strategy

Having said that my laptop broke first time in late 2013 I had to make a choice – spend over 470€ on repair or buy a Retina model. I decided to stay with my old machine as Retina did not offer me anything dramatically better than what I already had (SSD, 16 GB of RAM) and had soldered memory. Higher weight of 17″ laptop haven’t been an issue for me as I did not travel a lot. It was few weeks before October 2013 event and I couldn’t wait that long. I had to have working hardware.
In the end a upgrade announced back then was PCIe drive, upgraded CPU models. Even if PCIe storage was faster still I haven’t had any reason to drop working machine and decided to hold on one more year with two and half year old laptop. With double price I paid for it (compared to Asus G50v) I wanted to use it as long as it was making sense.
How it ended up that now I write this article on over 6 years old laptop? Well, Apple did invest into shrinking their laptops but not into things I considered necessary. Over time I found my laptop performance degrading and loosing distance to new releases, however I could not convince myself to spending a lot of money to soldered configuration regardless of how good it would be.
I did hold my breath multiple times in past years – in 2013, 2014, 2015 and also 2016. In 2017 I did not hold any breath for Apple releases as I resigned from buying Apple computers for work. I been waiting for device with more than 16GB of memory because I know that sometimes I cross this limit. I was never looking for having slimmer device because I can sacrifice some mobility for performance (remember I used gaming laptop before). Few millimetres less does not make any difference to me. Even if I travelled a lot between 2013 and 2016 and had to carry on two laptops, I never had issues with my 17″ model. It was slim enough. My issues were caused by second device which was Windows powered radio station I had to have with just to pick up calls within company. I called it that way because calling was the only one functionality I used on it. With two laptops and power supplies on my back I felt like world war two soldier. I was only missing an antenna coming out of my backpack.

These days hardware manufacturers keep working on making devices smaller and lighter. Even gaming notebooks with separate GPU are lighter than ultrabooks several years ago. This is great and Apple might have a fair part in making this movement and driving it with its hardware. However from an avarage Joe point of view such myself, I see only thin devices in their offering. Most of hardware suppliers have variety of laptop models – from kind of mobile workstation over notebooks down to ultrabooks. I think what is missing with Apple strategy is a workstation device which would sacriface some battery life and offered other advantages such extra ports. Retina displays are great, but most of people I know with hidipi screens have to scale text in order to be able to work. If you don’t have a eagle eye you will end up with nicely rendered fonts and similar amount of lines in your editor as you had before. Luckily amount of rows between 15″ and 17″ screens does not differ a lot.
To be clear on this part – I do not miss 17″ models that much, I miss a possibility to choose. Apple was quite successful with mobile devices having one or two models published every year. This changed slightly over time because they found that one size doesn’t match everyone. Yet, we need to remember that most of us use mobile devices in similar way, as its something which you connect with friends or family or improve overall connectivity with various online communities or systems available at work such mail, scheduler and so on. There are quite few people who work exclusively on mobile devices. In fact I don’t know currently anyone who do work only using mobile. [1]
Computers are completely opposite to mobile devices in regard of their usage. There might be someone who uses it just for browsing web, someone can use it for watching movies (with or without web browser) and someone will use it to write software, doing vide or photo editing or technical drawing in CAD/CAM/CAE. Each of these use cases requires different software which is not yet available in cloud and for long time this will not change as years of investments in standalone software are difficult to transfer into cloud even if this business model scales better and might also pay better (this is something which might be clarified by company who did such move). For someone who works with video editing a card slot in device is something which is used on daily basis. Other groups of people will use it sporadically, some maybe will never need to use it.
Now, if we will take a look, on computers available in Apple offer we will find that only one device which still have SD card slot is MacBook Air which is rather poor choice for photo editing. As far I know life with next release this socket will be gone and only one plug possible to use will be USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 meaning that all dongles you had bought till now will require one more dongle – a USB hub in middle. Not that I am missing this SD card socket, but lack of “traditional” usb after all years of this standard on the market is overwhelming for every hardware owner.

Interestingly enough Apple announced a while ago that it works on modular Mac Pro, meaning a desktop computer in which you can swap parts. It sounds that it will get a bit closer to what people see in regular PCs. Maybe it is some kind of mark that people do like to swap parts in their desktops? With Apple’s ultimate weapon – which is OSX – they can control which devices gets better support and which doesn’t get support at all – for sure devices manufactured by Apple will be supported out of the box, while others will depend on supplier resources. It might be even easier with controlling that with physical barriers such mainboard sockets. Apple will design a new kind of plug which will require paying them royalties for using it, just like they did with headphone jack in iphone. I don’t know for sure what they gonna do. I think that even “analysts” specialised in Apple hardware don’t really know what they will do for sure.

All these rumors

Since we are on questionable hardware strategy I can also bring a topic which is complete mystery to me. Some products of Apple are known and announced a long time before they are offered. Some other are receiving singular rumors which might happen or not. All this whispering, for me – a guy who do not follow Apple news feed, is completely ridiculus. Because company politics I don’t know if hardware which was upgraded a year ago and I bought this spring will not get updated over summer. In many cases people could hold a bit for two months and buy a fresh hardware instead. In fact, that what people did before 2016 update – they simply limited new orders because they were expecting something new. Now, if you think about this, who is a bigger beneficiary of unclear release policy? Think a bit and you will find that its defnitelly not you. As for consumer in your very best interest is to know an approximate release cycle. You can then see if next update will receive better/newer CPU and wait if you need it or decide to buy now as there is nothing fancy coming in next three months. With Apple – it’s a complete mystery. There are new CPU models available on the market? Screw them, we will skip them. Same story is reoccuring every year or two. Sometimes its nothing bad, sometimes its quite awful.
This is literally what pushed me out of apple circle – I been waiting for some major upgrade for years hopping that within a half year there will be better device to buy. It happend to my friend that he bought an Mac Book which got updated within 3 months. With most (not to say every) Apple event I was finding that what they were offering was almost the same to what they have. In the end I’ve found that other manufacturers were able to deliver configurations which Apple couldn’t despite of its position.

Final remarks

I don’t think I ever had “eye opening” moment with Apple, because I never closed them. I never considered myself a fan boy. Despite of having multiple devices from this company (I think) I kept some reasonable criticism to firm decisions and scepticism, backed by mentioned stories, to it’s quality.
From following macrumors it’s clear that computer part of Apple’s business have better and worse moments. Some devices and markets segments are completely abandoned (for example mac mini), Mac Pro haven’t got any updates since 2013. Laptops on other end got some love with upgrades of hardware such CPUs and changed graphic cards, however there seems to be a a fair trouble with Apple waiting or skipping new components coming out from Intel production cycle. For example Apple offered 15″ Retina with i7 from 4th generation from 2013 up to 2016 (Late-2013, Mid-2014, Mid-2015 models) upgrading processor within generation bounds. There were no device with 5th generation of Intel processors and their late 2016 release used a year old chips launched by Intel on Q3 2015. Apple finally grasped with Intel upstream with 2017 release by placing in their devices 7th generation of mobile processors.

From a power user perspective, meaning someone who uses computer for work – announcing new model with a “touch bar”, “force touch trackpad” or slim keyboard – these are all nice things, however I would not place them first. These are nice to have. A real must have is a guarantee of having a hardware which is following latest releases by vendors, have predictable release cycle and reasonable maintainability.

A story of migration from OSX to Linux will be part of separate post.

[1] Once, while working at Red Hat, I meet colleague who was working for quality assurance department and he did work on ipad and didn’t have any laptop. It was possible for him to do such cause all systems he needed were available via ssh terminal or web page.

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