These are quite interesting times for sure. I mentioned in my last post I already had by that point a couple of posts lined up, but I didn’t see them as important anymore because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the seemingly perpetual dumpster fire that is my country. My thoughts on this haven’t changed any. I’ve decided to post this one anyway, mostly because I’ve let my blog go silent again and that I need to do things that don’t involve work which keep my mind off of the daily atrocities that are occurring in my country. I almost didn’t hit publish on this post because it just seemed totally trivial. Maybe I just want to write something here no matter how inconsequential it appears to be.
This post has been the one that has rested the longest in my backlog, having started it in January of 2019. This is because what I was wanting to write about changed a lot, and I made the mistake of starting to write it at the beginning of a transitional period instead of at the end of it. Back then I was just interested in drafting a review of various FOSS desktop environments, starting with GNOME. I have years of experience in running Linux as a server, but I didn’t have a whole awful lot of experience running it as a desktop operating system. Again, I’ve tried them out from time to time over the years. I haven’t been entirely ambivalent to them, but there is a huge difference between trying out an operating system and its desktop environment in a virtual machine and installing the operating system and desktop environment on actual hardware. That’s before actually attempting even to perform daily tasks on it; one’s priorities change when running an OS as their primary. I wanted to take these desktop environments for a spin on a separate drive on my main computer and attempt to get actual tasks done with my multiple displays and other hardware. What happened next was surprising.
The Hackintosh Failure
I outlined my early history with the Macintosh, many of my grievances with Apple, and my initial findings in setting up a hackintosh in Knowing When to Move On. I won’t reiterate them here. I will, however, add to them. The experiment ultimately failed. The bootloader kept getting corrupted not long after I started on my review of GNOME, and I was incapable of keeping the system updated. One day I booted into Windows to play a game, and when I was done with that I rebooted into macOS and couldn’t boot it anymore even when I tried overwriting the bootloader from a backup. I was done. There are a lot of bullshit things one must do to get everything on a hackintosh system working perfectly, and I really didn’t want to spend a long time getting everything back just like I wanted it. I also was stuck on macOS 10.13 High Sierra because of Apple’s disagreements with Nvidia as I have an Nvidia card. It also doesn’t help that the latest released version of macOS is garbage because Apple prioritizes new features over bug fixes. Hey, don’t just take my word for it. I am also concerned with all of the features and behaviors from iOS which have been creeping into macOS, especially Catalyst applications which allow developers to essentially click one checkbox and have their iOS applications run on macOS. None of the existing applications which use Catalyst on Apple’s released operating systems are worth using, and it looks like that is going to be the case in the near future. The Mac is going to be filled with applications by developers who think that clicking a checkbox to build for the Mac is sufficient enough for a release, and the number of quality native applications for the Mac is already less than what it was a decade ago. What I see in macOS 11 Big Sur doesn’t give me hope; it actually fills me with dread akin to what Windows Vista did in 2006 although admittedly not quite to that degree. I can see a future where I would be completely incapable of using a Mac as my primary computer because of Apple’s propensity for removing features in favor of half-baked and often completely broken replacements. After the keynote for Big Sur people were confused and worried thinking Apple completely removed the terminal from the operating system because of the way they demonstrated the Linux virtual machine; that didn’t end up being the case, but it’s telling that people could believe Apple would remove access to the terminal. It’s gotten to where every year people look for things which are missing in new releases of macOS as they slowly morph it into a desktop version of iOS. I don’t want to use iOS on my desktop; in fact I’d prefer never to use iOS at all.
Since I last wrote on the subject Apple released a new Mac Pro as a tower computer that is upgradable which addressed one of my grievances in the prior post. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely made for the professional film industry and is priced accordingly. Their new display intended for use with it alone is $5000 and doesn’t even come with a stand; the stand is $1000. Yes, that’s the correct number of zeros. The display itself isn’t VESA compatible and requires an adapter to even mount to a third party stand; the adapter is $200. The display has a super high color range that is really only useful again to the professional film industry for color grading. I’m sure there are some other obscure uses, but the reality is that 99.999% of the market has absolutely no use for the display. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to use one, of course. One that can do Adobe RGB is quite alright with me which it in of itself is on the higher end of the display market. The Pro Display XDR can produce colors far outside of the Adobe RGB color space. Their pro computers as they are today are luxury items instead of being able to service the professional market as a whole. At those prices Apple probably fancies itself the tech equivalent of Tiffany & Co. My computer isn’t for show; it isn’t a luxury item for materialistic idiots; it’s for getting work done.
The entire rest of Apple’s lineup isn’t suitable for my uses on my primary computer, and two years ago this problem is what brought me to hackintoshing. Apple just a short bit ago announced they’re switching Macs to their own processors like what they already use in the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. I really do wish them luck in this endeavor. I just cannot follow it for my primary computer. Apple with this move will lock down their computers even more, and it will make their monopoly in ARM silicon even stronger. Apple has a performance monopoly when it comes to ARM processors for the consumer market as no Android device can even remotely come close to Apple’s CPUs (or GPUs for that matter) in performance. Hackintoshing is likely going to become a thing of the past because both the processor architecture switch and the fact that third party offerings don’t measure up in performance. Needless to say it’ll be a multi year process and likely be slower than their PowerPC to Intel transition. I am, however, excited by the move as I wonder what they have planned for Macs now and am hopeful they’ll start producing hardware that is worth purchasing again that doesn’t require taking out a mortgage to purchase. I just don’t see myself going back anytime soon for my primary. I don’t trust Apple to make consistently good hardware anymore. I don’t want to compromise again by buying an all-in-one computer that becomes useless when just one component of the unfixable-by-design computer breaks. The nearest Apple Store to me is 2.5 hours away.
No, It’s Not the Year of the Linux Desktop
The Year of the Linux Desktop is thrown around as a running gag. It’s even used as an insult to Linux users by Apple and Microsoft fans. There are very little computer manufacturers selling computers with Linux preinstalled on them, and that isn’t likely to change in the near nor distant future. The days of the desktop computer for anyone but enthusiasts is waning. Most people are not buying personal computers. That makes perfect sense because most people just need their computers to be appliances; phones and tablets are perfect for that. I am not new to Linux. I’ve been using it for years on my servers, but I am no wizard at that by any means. This website is served on a Linux server, and all of my websites for the past 20 years have been served on Linux. I have also run various distributions on my secondary computers over the years but my actual time with them has been limited. My primary computer has been consistently macOS-based for the past 14 years. That has now changed, and I can almost feel the unshaven hairs growing longer on my neck as a result.
The burning question probably is, “Why Linux?”. I don’t have any ideology about computer software. I love free software. I’ve even contributed to some projects myself, but I will gladly buy good software if it does what I need. The honest truth is there’s nothing else to really move to. Windows 10 is bloated, slow, woefully insecure, costs ridiculous amounts of money, violates its users privacy, and umm… those fucking forced updates. I’ve already described macOS’ faults in detail above and in previous posts, so that doesn’t need repeating. It does seem like I am moving to Linux just because I feel like I have no other option; that’s not true. I am quite happily using it, and I am enjoying learning things about Linux that only come from using it as a primary operating system. It makes me feel like it’s 2006 all over again, abandoning Windows completely and using the first model Mac Pro as my primary. What made me love Mac OS X was its Unix underpinnings; while it presented a working environment that didn’t require access to the terminal at all the terminal was there for power users and the Unix folder structure — while hidden for everyday users — was there. I could automate repetitive tasks really easily without writing code in something like C, could explore the internals of the operating system, and after Homebrew came out installation of software required just a single command. Linux provides me an operating system that is in some ways a lot like what Mac OS X was, not how macOS is today.
Linux is greatly fragmented, and that is both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw. This fragmentation does provide users with a lot of choice of different approaches, but also that choice makes it ridiculously hard to decide on what to use as an end user — at least it has for me. The choices are nearly endless as one can literally customize every aspect of their operating system. Out of all that there is to offer because of my affinity for macOS one might think I would have ended up using elementaryOS. I didn’t.
While I don’t want to go into great detail on my assessments of different desktop environments because I might write about them later, I will say a bit about my distribution choice. I have tried most of the popular distributions. Ubuntu is the most well known if not the most popular one. I currently run Ubuntu on my server and really like it for that, but I found I did not like it as a desktop distribution because most of the software available in its repositories are outdated. In the Linux world distributions are typically either fixed release or rolling release, either updated in versioned updates or gradually over time as individual packages themselves are updated respectively. Ubuntu is a fixed release OS like macOS is. However, unlike macOS all applications whether they’re part of the OS itself or not are traditionally installed via Ubuntu repositories; they aren’t updated as frequently as the application developers themselves update if at all between point releases of the operating system itself. Ubuntu has a solution for this shortcoming, Snaps, which are a way to bundle applications and distribute them independent of the operating system. Questions about Canonical’s absolute control over the distribution system itself aside, I find Snaps overengineered and quite like trying to mend one broken leg by cutting the other off. I really would like to avoid them and other things like it for the time being, so quickly realized I would like to use a rolling release OS. I narrowed down my list to OpenSUSE Tumbleweed and Manjaro because they both are rolling release; software on their repositories aren’t bleeding edge; and they’re tested before release which I quite like. I ended up going with Manjaro because almost all of the applications I like to use were available without adding additional repositories or resorting to Snaps, Flatpaks, or AppImages; the rest were on the AUR. It also didn’t hurt that Jeff was fed up with Windows by this point and jumped head first into installing Manjaro while I was still taking my dear sweet time trying to decide. I then eventually landed on KDE Plasma as my desktop environment, and I am mostly happy with it. I can do almost everything I need to do with a computer on Linux, and with free software at that. In fact most of the programs I used on macOS are available for Linux, so I am even using the same applications. For others such as the macOS iTunes/Music app there’s alternatives for Linux which are actually quite a bit better. Not everything I have found alternatives to have been better; email applications are really lacking on Linux compared to macOS. I am using Evolution at the moment until I can find something less bloated and antiquated in user experience while still supporting CardDAV.
I, unfortunately, haven’t been able to find good alternatives to the Adobe Creative Suite. GIMP is the most well known Photoshop alternative, but I absolutely hate using it. Its user interface and experience is quite frankly really weird and janky. Color management also only works on a single display, and feeding it color profiles to use causes it to crash. Without color management it’s pretty much useless for me. It also cannot work in CMYK or L*a*b* which makes it not useful at all for printing and for manipulating color in photographs. Inkscape looks and works like CorelDRAW from 1999. I’m sure it’s quite capable, and I have tried to use it quite a lot but then get frustrated trying to do even the most basic of tasks. I just don’t want to fight its awful user interface to get work done. Krita is quite possibly the best painting application in existence, free or not, and I have used it already in my work. For painting I feel like I’m quite covered, but for everything else I’d need Adobe’s apps. I am currently running Adobe’s applications in a Windows virtual machine guest. This presents a problem of course because Adobe’s applications make liberal use of GPU accelleration, and there’s a huge difference when there isn’t any. The solution to that is GPU passthrough using QEMU. I can give the virtual machine a secondary GPU and a display, and the virtual machine runs almost as if it’s on bare hardware. Barrier is then used to share my mouse and keyboard with the virtual machine. Works great. Most of the time I am just doing something lightweight that doesn’t really require GPU acceleration, so I can just run the same virtual machine in a window using the default SPICE video.
In some people’s opinion my virtual machine setup wouldn’t be preferable to just running Windows as my primary. I disagree. I can strip Windows 10 down to just what is required to run everything for Adobe’s Creative Suite, and I can not worry as much about getting the OS configured just how I want it or worry about its myriad of software failures that pop up at the most inopportune times. I keep a backup of the VM so when something fails I am not stuck having to reinstall everything or searching the internet for esoteric Windows errors. It’s just there to run Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign when I need them and whichever way I wish to run them.
A big disadvantage Linux has over macOS is color management. Everything one sees on the screen on macOS is color managed and has been since 1993. Regardless of one’s display’s capabilities the colors on the screen are clamped to sRGB by default. This means that on displays which support color gamuts larger than sRGB colors in the user interface don’t look oversaturated. Applications which require support for additional color profiles such as Photoshop and web browsers can access them and apply them to their open documents. However, the UI remains sRGB. Linux (and Windows for that matter) allow for custom color profiles, but it only applies LUT values and doesn’t clamp the UI to sRGB, making any color used in user interfaces be oversaturated on my display. There is no way to fix this, and explaining this problem to people who have never used high gamut displays is like trying to explain blue to a blind man. I can live with this shortcoming mostly by using a neutrally colored theme which I would be doing anyway to avoid having the UI affect my perception of colors when painting or designing. Most applications which really need it like Krita and web browsers correctly change the color and not just LUT values.
Wacom tablets are supported out of the box on Linux which is quite nice with a driver that is quite well documented and doesn’t exhibit the application conflicts that the official driver has on Windows and has been having in recent years on macOS. However, depending on the desktop environment one is left with varying degrees of interfaces to configure the tablet stretching from no GUI at all to fully featured. Xfce has no tablet configuration tool. Cinnamon has a fully featured one. GNOME and KDE Plasma’s are problematic, although in different ways. After struggling getting what I wanted with Plasma’s tool I ended up writing my own. Aside from initial configuration I have no need for a GUI tool, so it works well and is easy (for me) to modify if I want to change its configuration in the future. While initially not having a GUI configuration tool for my tablet was a problem the fact that I am able to easily write a tool myself because the driver is accessible via the command line is a huge advantage Linux has over either macOS or Windows.
One big advantage over macOS is that I don’t need to boot into Windows to play most PC games. There are quite a few technologies that allow Windows games to run as well or better than they do on Windows in Linux. There is of course Wine, and Steam has a thing called Proton which is based upon Wine to run games on Linux. On top of that there are applications such as GameHub and Lutris which are designed to make it really easy to configure games and manage them, especially ones which aren’t bought on Steam. I like to play the occassional PC game with my girlfriend, so it’s really nice not having to boot into Windows to do so. So far pretty much every game I’ve wanted to play runs just fine. I refuse to buy games with anticheat malware or spyware. They don’t run in Wine/Proton due to the nature of what they are, anyway.
Whew. This, like my hackintosh before it, is an experiment, but it looks like I’ll keep this experiment going. It’s a good start, anyway. I would like to write more about my findings on Linux in the future and maybe do a few projects of my own in the Linux world. I can say I haven’t been this happy using my computer in quite some time, and the only thing I have to sacrifice is that I need to run Adobe’s applications in a virtual machine. It’s been nice finally getting this post worked out. Hopefully the next one won’t be as difficult to author.