The switch from Mac to Linux, 2012
July 16, 2012 10:52 AM   Subscribe

After a couple of mind-changing conversations I'm ready to give Linux another shot. Old hands, please help me pick a laptop, a distro, and offer a little advice for some transition issues. A few details within. Thanks!

Years ago I clumsily ran a version of Ubuntu on an old ThinkPad -- it was an ongoing string of hardware and driver issues, most likely my fault, and aggravated my own tendency to endlessly fiddle with things rather than doing my work. Despite the high prices and many annoying details of Macs I switched over and I've been using them for a number of years now. Some recent news and a couple of conversations with hacker friends and open source developers convinced me to try an OSS OS again, and embrace the fiddliness as a learning experience (at least until things are nicely configured). I also like the idea of a machine/OS that lasts a long time and takes me off the tighter and tighter upgrade/buy new stuff loop Apple is on, and moves towards simplicity and away from chrome, skeumorphs, and weird design agendas. I'm thinking of Arch Linux (Mint was also strongly recommended) and a ThinkPad. Here's a few salient details I'd love your input on:

- I work in lots of different places and while traveling, so portability, toughness, and crazy battery life are all Good Things. I'm mostly going to be writing and reading, so I don't need heavy-gauge video/game/etc processing power or whatever (though more capacity is always welcome, of course! -- and I do sometimes trim video clips for projects). Don't need a DVD drive.

- I'm pretty comfortable with the command line and vi -- not a programmer or a developer by any means, but I don't need a GUI right out of the gate (and I'd love to experiment with tiling window managers -- recommendations welcome!).

- I'm an academic, so I need to be able to make slide presentations, search across and read PDFs, write an absolute monstrous ton of email, print stuff sometimes, and deal with Word documents with track changes running. (I live in text files and markdown, but publishing, and many of my collaborators, will never leave that frustrating format. Do let me know your world-beating text editor, too!) My impression is that LibreOffice can keep up with all the latest bell-and-whistle junk added to Word, and has a PowerPoint variant. (If anyone can suggest cool new/different Linux-native presentationware I'd love to check it out -- something beyond traditional slides.) And I listen to lots of music.

- It would be great if the hibernate cycle and hardware issues and so on could pretty much Just Work, given some intervention. My last attempt involved super-irritating BIOS beeps (I'm often writing or taking notes in very quiet environments) and an ascetic pilgrimage through mountain and vale every time I had to get the wireless card working. I'm sure things are much better now. Any prominent snags or known problems I should be ready for?

- And I type in Dvorak, if that's an issue.

All your advice, recommendations for models and set-up stuff (SSD? extra battery slice? backup techniques?) is welcome. I'll be getting the No Starch intro the Linux command line, to help me get past n00bland. Neat stuff that can't do on other platforms also welcome, if only so I can use them to convince my partner I haven't lost my goddamn mind and decided to stop driving and build a bicycle out of old vending machine parts.

I realize a lot of this is likely available on one site or another, but before I take the plunge I wanted to narrow the search/choice space a little bit, and hear from people already doing it.

Thanks so much for your help in advance.
posted by finnb to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good luck finding a proper distro that doesn't come with a GUI. Sounds like you'd be okay with just running Ubuntu. You know, you don't even need to know the command line anymore, I don't know why you're mentioning this.

Also, you didn't talk a lot about your hardware wishes. You definitely need to specify a price range.
posted by ysangkok at 10:57 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mentioned the command line in terms of fixing things, making little adjustments to system files and so on -- I suppose such competence is no longer necessary, which is great. In retrospect that's kind of a nonsensical statement, reflecting how long I haven't been paying attention. (And I remember booting up to a prompt with some fondness -- it helped me concentrate on one thing at a time until I absolutely needed to do something graphic. I realize this is a bit bonkers.) And for price, I assumed that, as someone used to Apple-level pricing, anything else would seem pretty reasonable. Let's say sub-$1k if possible?
posted by finnb at 11:03 AM on July 16, 2012


You could buy the laptop from somebody like System 76 - so it'll just work when you get it.
posted by COD at 11:07 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Thinkpad X220 was last year's the hacker-geek laptop of choice; the X230 is now available. The X1 Carbon is available, but on preview, it's out of your budget.

Not as chunky as the T-series, but it retains the old-school build quality and expandability/repairability not as evident on Lenovo's "diffusion" lines. Hardware support is good; the tools for power management and keyboard doodahs are mature; there's a big community of users and lots of documentation.

Distro? Dunno. Ubuntu drags you along with its upgrade cycle unless you lock into a LTS version, and even then, there'll be a point where upgrading manages to break things you like.
posted by holgate at 11:08 AM on July 16, 2012


I'd advice against Arch because you're not a developer. Arch is a pretty bleeding-edge distro, and I don't know why you'd want something like that if you aren't a developer. Arch is also follows a rolling release model, which means you can't "stick to what's working" since all packages are interdependant and will need updating (for security reasons) which means you can't stick with an old release that still gets updates (like you can with Debian or Ubuntu).

Also, your wish that it should be a completely OSS OS is conflicting with your wish that it should work out of the box with any hardware. Impure distros like Ubuntu package non-free drivers that you won't see in distributions like Debian that are a bit more idealistic. Consider this though: If you run Ubuntu 99% of the software you use will be free. There is little sense in being so idealistic that you want Stallman levels of pure freedom.

Regarding CLI: Every single machine you can buy today is strong enough that running the GUI is no problem. If you don't wanna be distracted, you can switch to the CLI VT by pressing Control-Alt-F1. (ctrl-alt-f7 or f8 to go back to graphical).
posted by ysangkok at 11:11 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


using libreoffice is fine, but, if you collaborate on MS Word documents, it'll be problematic. I'd suggest sticking with MS Office, it'll save you heaps of headaches. I use virtualbox to run an XP instance with office, no problems. You can also use Wine for MS Office, but that tends to have some issues.

I'd suggest running a small XP instance anyhow, as a backup in case you realize you can't do certain things in ubuntu. (netflix, im looking at you.)

Also, what apps have you been using for PDFs? the pdf programs out there for linux are limited if you are an end-user.

Arch requires lots of fiddling and configuring, so, yea, if thats what you want...
If you just want things to work nicely, ubuntu/mint is the path to go.

xmonad is a tiling manager recently mentioned on the blue. it does what it says. real simple.

for backing up, dropbox works fine in linux.
posted by calm down at 11:14 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


holgate: My experience is that Ubuntu very rarely breaks anything in-release. You're telling a guy that was considering Arch that a LTS is too unstable...

Also, the standard Ubuntu update manager categorizes all updates in security-related and not-security-related. Everything is checked initially but unchecking all the not-security-related packages is only one click. I really don't think you have to worry about breaking your system.
posted by ysangkok at 11:15 AM on July 16, 2012


I've installed Ubuntu and Mint (and briefly flirted with a few other distros) on an HP netbook and a Samsung series 3 laptop. Except for having to download a new driver for the wireless card in the case of the HP netbook, things went off without a hitch in terms of hardware compatibility. I think hardware compatibility with Linux tends to be much better than it was a few years ago, generally, but I can't speak to ThinkPads in particular.

I don't know that I'd recommend Ubuntu if you want to move away from chrome, skeumorphs, and weird design agendas, but definitely give Mint a try.

I've found LibreOffice to play nicely with MS Word's Track Changes and collaborative stuff, but the PowerPoint equivalent is still kind of tetchy with compatibility stuff -- I would recommend dual-booting with Windows just in case you run into a huge compatibility issue.

Do you ever watch Netflix streaming? That's one thing that doesn't work on Linux yet and probably won't ever work unless Netflix switches from Silverlight to some other platform.
posted by Jeanne at 11:16 AM on July 16, 2012


I would steer clear of Ubuntu. It keeps getting slower and slower with each release, and the UI they are herding everyone towards seems like it is built for tablets. Ubuntu now suffers from the same thing that apple OS's do, which is thinking it knows what you want to do better than you do.

I highly, highy recommend linux mint. it is clean, fast, and easily customizable.

Collaborating with windows documents might be a pain, yes.

Printer and scanner drivers can be annoying to get working, but some comanpies (like Brother) provide linux friendly drivers.

Everyone else has covered the rest of what I was going to say. Good Luck!
posted by amcm at 11:18 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


co-man-pies = companies.
posted by amcm at 11:18 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Points very much taken. I was more out of my depth in some of these conversations than I thought! I was basically just asking people I like what they liked to use without factoring in their capacities and interests (as in, them being Jedi, with Jedi-specific tools and needs). Looking into xmonad and virtualbox. Thanks for your patience.
posted by finnb at 11:18 AM on July 16, 2012


Regarding music: There are so many programs for playing music. This is a simple problem but it has been solved so many times. I think we should focus on the hardware.

Regarding "text-editor": Vi is a great text editor. LibreOffice is a word processor.

Regarding word processors/office suite: Since you're a bit fascinated by CLI's and stuff I'd suggest you look up LaTeX and see if you like it. You can do presentations with Beamer, that's for LaTeX too. Don't be intimidated, it's not really programming. It's really popular among academics :P
posted by ysangkok at 11:21 AM on July 16, 2012


amcm: OP wants to use a tiling WM. So OP is probably going to ditch Unity. I'm running Ubuntu on a five year old laptop as we speak (LXDE). Ubuntu is not Unity and vice-versa.
posted by ysangkok at 11:24 AM on July 16, 2012


I love LaTeX for papers -- I didn't know about Beamer! Cool.
posted by finnb at 11:25 AM on July 16, 2012


Since you mentioned "beyond traditional slides": May I suggest Impress.js if you have some time to spare.

Don't be intimidated, the only thing you need to understand is actually just how a 3D Cartesian coordinate system works, and HTML/CSS. HTML/CSS is easy though, if you don't know them already.
posted by ysangkok at 11:31 AM on July 16, 2012


I also like the idea of a machine/OS that lasts a long time and takes me off the tighter and tighter upgrade/buy new stuff loop Apple is on, and moves towards simplicity and away from chrome, skeumorphs, and weird design agendas. I'm thinking of Arch Linux (Mint was also strongly recommended) and a ThinkPad.

If you want long-lasting, I'd suggest either the current Ubuntu, 12.04, which guarantees support for five years, or Debian Stable or Testing (which was recently frozen in anticipation of becoming the next stable, and can be expected to be stable enough for use.) Arch is what you want if you want bleeding-edge; it's not what you want if you want stable. Mint is what you want if you want everything pre-loaded to handle all media and a GUI app for everything and have no qualms about including proprietary software. It's not what you want if you want to start with a simple command-line system. (Neither is a regular Ubuntu install -- I'd suggest starting with a command-line-only install from its Alternate Install CD.) There was a recent discussion on the blue about Ubuntu vs. Debian.

I'm pretty comfortable with the command line and vi -- not a programmer or a developer by any means, but I don't need a GUI right out of the gate (and I'd love to experiment with tiling window managers -- recommendations welcome!).

Awesome and xmonad seem to be the biggies now. Here's a list from the Arch Wiki and one person's tour of 30 window managers in 30 days. I use ratpoison, myself.

I'm an academic, so I need to be able to make slide presentations, search across and read PDFs, write an absolute monstrous ton of email, print stuff sometimes, and deal with Word documents with track changes running. (I live in text files and markdown, but publishing, and many of my collaborators, will never leave that frustrating format. Do let me know your world-beating text editor, too!) My impression is that LibreOffice can keep up with all the latest bell-and-whistle junk added to Word, and has a PowerPoint variant. (If anyone can suggest cool new/different Linux-native presentationware I'd love to check it out -- something beyond traditional slides.) And I listen to lots of music.

I use s5 for slide shows that work in the browser. Emacs is the ultimate world-beating text editor. LibreOffice is probably your best bet for dealing with Word docs, but it'll never be exactly the same and you should look out for compatibility issues when sharing things with others (for instance, consider writing to rtf if you're giving it to a Word user.) There are a zillion, bazillion music players; I don't have any opinions there.

It would be great if the hibernate cycle and hardware issues and so on could pretty much Just Work, given some intervention. My last attempt involved super-irritating BIOS beeps (I'm often writing or taking notes in very quiet environments) and an ascetic pilgrimage through mountain and vale every time I had to get the wireless card working. I'm sure things are much better now. Any prominent snags or known problems I should be ready for?

Hibernate is often a problem -- definitely consider getting a pre-loaded Zareason or System76 laptop if you want something that Just Works. Things are better with wifi -- there are some chipsets with open solutions that Just Work; others whose firmware can't be distributed with Linux so they involve a simple extra hoop-jump; others with complicated hoop-jumping. I recently opted in one case to spend $10 an an Intel wifi card rather than try to get a Broadcom card working (which I've done other times.)

And I type in Dvorak, if that's an issue.

I'm a Dvorak user, too. This isn't an issue for Linux -- I don't know any variant without a straightforward means to switch to Dvorak -- but it is an issue with some laptops with keyboards so small they've done weird re-arranging of keys, and without the labels, you're lost. (The Dell Mini 9 is a nice piece of hardware, but it has this problem.)

I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently up on hardware to offer specific advice about models, though. The Thinkpad x130e looks nice, but I don't see anything yet about Linux compatibility. I'd definitely want an SSD, though, which offers greater speed and much lower power consumption.
posted by Zed at 11:35 AM on July 16, 2012


Linux Mint hijacks (or used to hijack) google search in browsers to display a customized search with ads for Linux Mint. I totally get that they need to support themselves, but there was no supported way to opt out at the time and it left a very bad taste in my mouth. Any Linux distro that hijacks the internet is doing something very, very wrong. That alone would be more than enough reason to choose something else.

I believe WINE will still get Word going on Linux, and if not or if it's too difficult, I've had a lot of success just using a virtual installation of Windows with virtualbox. Very simple to use and setup.
posted by jsturgill at 11:40 AM on July 16, 2012


(Thanks, Zed and everyone. This is really useful and clarifies a bunch of misunderstandings I had.)
posted by finnb at 11:45 AM on July 16, 2012


Regarding virtualization advice, it requires support in the CPU to run at acceptable speeds. While you'd be hard-pressed to find a remotely modern desktop CPU that didn't include it, it's one of the things that's sometimes left out of the low-power CPUs intended for mobile devices -- if you want virtualization (and it's definitely a handy option to have), be sure to get a CPU that supports it. (Here's Intel's list of what does and doesn't have it.)
posted by Zed at 11:46 AM on July 16, 2012


I'm a longtime ThinkPad/Linux user, and I can happily report with Ubuntu 12.04 everything "just works" on my x220i, which is an excellent all-around laptop. Suspend works, though I haven't tried hibernate.

LibreOffice is mediocre as a PowerPoint replacement, as is Google Docs. I use LaTeX/beamer but it's not for everybody, so I keep a Windows VirtualBox guest sitting around for those rare times that I need to edit an MS Office document without it getting trashed. This is especially useful for Word documents that need to have changes tracked and margin notes added.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:13 PM on July 16, 2012


I'm very happy with Ubuntu also. I've been using it since about 2004 or 2005, and while I never did have huge dramas, my most recent install on a new laptop, last year, was still smoother than back in the day. I don't use Unity or any fancy window dressings at all (opting out during or shortly after install was so easy I don't remember doing it), and while I've used a variety of window managers in the past, this time I just stuck with the native Gnome iteration and have been pleased enough.

I have an Asus EEE, and hibernate etc. was all perfect out of the box--better than Windows, actually (I dual boot). My previous ThinkPad T63 was also no problem.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:26 PM on July 16, 2012


LibreOffice is okay for making presentations, but for viewing I tend to export to .pdf and then view in something like Impressive. It has a few snazzy extra tidbits like being able to highlight or zoom into bits of your slides live with keyboard shortcuts, which is useful during post-talk Q&A sessions.

Definitely check out awesome if you are looking at xmonad - I ended up switching some months ago and I now run it on both my work and home desktops.

Also, re: cool tools for LaTeX, I mostly use a GUI interface around it called LyX and I have found it to be a really great tool. You can drop down to LaTeX if you need to from within, but it also has a really clean interface where you mostly just see the text, as opposed to the formatting symbols. No problems with stability, etc., either (knock on wood, I'm writing my thesis in it -- but so far so good for sure).
posted by en forme de poire at 2:04 PM on July 16, 2012


Specifically on using Libreoffice / OpenOffice with Track Changes and comments: after several disastrous editing sessions with lost changes, mangled comments and crashes, I've given up on using it for collaborative editing of word documents. Loading and saving a complex document and hoping it still looks perfect for Word users is a big risk. However, it's absolutely fine for very complex stuff that doesn't have to be edited in word (so you can stick to the native format)
posted by firesine at 4:37 PM on July 16, 2012


The Thinkpad X220 was last year's the hacker-geek laptop of choice; the X230 is now available. The X1 Carbon is available, but on preview, it's out of your budget.

Thinkwiki is the dedicated wiki for linux on lenovo machines. It's quite good.

I'm using kde on ubuntu, kubuntu, which I'm comfortable with.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:23 PM on July 16, 2012


If you don't care about GUI bells & whistles, an alternative worth considering is Lubuntu - this is Ubuntu with LXDE. Simple, lightweight, and no extra cruft you don't need.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 10:29 PM on July 16, 2012


Yes, Lubuntu worked very well for me too on an elderly netbook where Ubuntu 10.04 was a hog.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:11 AM on July 17, 2012


Chromebook? That Linux distro is fine tuned to work on that particular hardware. Also has Dvorak (and Colemak).
posted by at at 4:06 PM on July 17, 2012


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