I’ve been running Apple computers for more than a decade now. While I really like macOS, anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been less than enthusiastic with the direction Apple has taken on the hardware front. My biggest gripe with Apple hardware is that it can no longer be serviced. My 2012 MacBook Pro is probably one of the easiest laptops that I’ve ever worked on. The entire back pops off and all of the frequently replaced parts are readily accessible. Part of the reason that I have been able to run that computer since 2012 is because I’ve been able to repair or upgrade components when necessary.
I usually run my laptops between four or five years. I’ve been running that MacBook Pro for six years. I was ready to upgrade last year but Apple had no laptops that appealed to me so I decided to wait a year to see if the situation would improve. When Apple announced its 2018 MacBook Pro line, it had everything I hated. All of the components, including the RAM and SSD, are soldered to the main board. Since the MacBook Pro line can no longer be upgraded, I’d have to order the hardware that I’d want to use for the next four or five years, which would cost about $3,2000. Worse yet, when something broke (all components will fail eventually), I’d have to pay Apple an exorbitant fee to fix it. And if that weren’t bad enough, the 2018 MacBook Pro still has that god awful slim keyboard. While Apple has attempted to improve the reliability of that keyboard by included a rubber membrane under the keys, typing on it is, at least in my opinion, a subpar experience.
I also have some concerns about Apple’s future plans. One of my biggest worries are the rumors of Apple transitioning its Macs to ARM processors. ARM processors are nice but I rely on virtualized x86 environments in my day to day work. If Apple transitioned to ARM processors, I wouldn’t be able to utilize my x86 virtual environments (virtualization turns into emulation when the guest and host architectures differ and emulation always involves a performance hit and usually a lot of glitches), which means I wouldn’t be able to do my work. I’m also a bit nervous about the rumors that Apple is planning to make app notarization mandatory in a future macOS release. Much of the software I rely on isn’t signed and probably never will be. Additionally, building and testing iOS software is a pain in the ass because even test builds need to be signed before they’ll work on an iOS device (anybody who has ran into code signing problems with Xcode will tell you that resolving those problems is often a huge pain in the ass) and I don’t want to bring that “experience” to my other development work. While I would never jump ship over rumors, when there are already reasons I want to jump ship, rumors act as additional low level incentives.
Since Apple didn’t have an upgrade that appealed to me and I’m not entirely comfortable with the rumors of the directions the company maybe going, I decided to look elsewhere. I’ve been running Linux in some capacity for longer than I’ve been running Apple computers. Part of my motivation for adopting macOS in the first place was because I wanted a UNIX system on my laptop (Linux on laptops back then was a dumpster fire). So when I decided to jump ship Linux became the obvious choice, which meant I was looking at laptops with solid Linux support. I also wanted a laptop that was serviceable. I found several solid options and narrowed it down to a Lenovo ThinkPad P52s because it was certified by both Red Hat and Ubuntu, sanely priced, and serviceable (in fact Lenovo publishes material that explains how to service it).
Every platform involves trade-offs. With the exception of Apple’s trackpad, every trackpad that I’ve used has been disappointing. The ThinkPad trackpad is no different in this regard. However, the ThinkPad line includes a TrackPoint, which I’ve always preferred as a mobile mouse solution to trackpads (I still miss Apple’s trackpad gestures though). There also isn’t a decent to do application on Linux (I use 2Do on both iOS and macOS and nothing on Linux is comparable) and setting up Linux isn’t anywhere near as streamlined as setting up a Mac (which involves almost no setup). With that said, I usually use an external trackball so the quality of the trackpad isn’t a big deal. My to do information syncs with my Nextcloud server so I can use its web interface when on my laptop (and continue to use 2Do on my iPhone). And since I chose a certified laptop, setting up Linux wasn’t too difficult (the hardest part was setting up nVidia’s craptastic Linux driver).
The upside to the transition, besides gaining serviceability, is first and foremost the cost. The ThinkPad P52s is a pretty cost effective laptop and I found a 20 percent off coupon code, which knocked the already reasonable price down further. Since neither the RAM nor the SSD in the P52s are soldered to the main board, I was able to save money by buying both separately and installing them when the computer arrived (which is exactly what I did with all of my Macs). In addition to the hardware being cheaper, I was also able to save money on virtualization software. I use virtualization software everyday and on macOS the only decent solution for me was VMWare Fusion (Parallels has better Windows support than Fusion but no serious Linux support, which I also require). Fedora, the Linux distribution I settled on (I run CentOS on my servers so I opted for the closest thing the included more cutting edge software), comes with libvirt installed. After spending a short while familiarizing myself with the differences between VMWare and libvirt, I can say that I’m satisfied with libvirt. It’s better in some regards, worse in others, and pretty much the same otherwise (as far as a user experience, underneath it’s far different).
I also gained a few things on the hardware side. The P52s has two USB-C and two USB-A (all USB 3) ports. My MacBook Pro only had two USB-A ports and the new MacBook Pros only have USB-C ports. All of my USB devices use USB-A so I’d need a bunch of dongles if I didn’t have USB-A ports (not a deal breaker but annoying nonetheless). In addition to being a very good mobile keyboard, the P52s keyboard also has a 10-digit keypad, which no Mac laptop currently has. Like USB-A ports, the lack of a 10 digit keypad isn’t a deal breaker in my world but its inclusion is always welcomed. If that weren’t enough, the keyboard also includes honest to god function keys instead of a TouchBar (as somebody who uses Vim a lot, the lack of a physical escape key is annoying).
My transition was relatively painless because I keep all of my data on my own servers. I didn’t have to spend hours trying to figure out how to pull data off of iCloud so I could use it on Linux. All I had to do was log into my Nextcloud instance and all of my calendar, contact, and to do information was synced to the laptop. The same was true of my e-mail. In anticipation for my move I also changed password managers from 1Password to a self-hosted instance of Bitwarden (1Password is overall a better experience but it lacks a native Linux app so I’d have been stuck with moving to a subscription plan to utilize a browser plugin that would deliver the same experience as Bitwarden). Keeping your data off of proprietary platforms makes moving between platforms easier. Likewise, keeping your data in open standards makes moving easier. I primarily rely on text files instead of word processor files (I used Markdown or LaTeX for most formatting) and most of my other data is stored in standardized formats (PNG or JPEG for images, ePub or PDF for documents, etc.).
Although I won’t give a final verdict until I’ve used this setup for a few months, my initial impressions of moving from macOS to Linux are positive. The transitions has been relatively painless and I’ve remained just as productive as I was on macOS.