Commentary, Geekery

Ubuntu 16.04 Impressions

I have to rediscover my Bluetooth mouse on a regular basis.

I love the idea of Open Source software. I just wish it loved me back as much. Outside of the excellent MuseScore, I consistently find myself frustrated or disappointed by my time with open alternatives to commercial software. OpenOffice and LibreOffice have great features, but they aren’t the easiest on my eyes. SongBird was a nice idea, but I found the actual implementation to be clunky. I love Firefox‘s privacy settings, but it integrates poorly into macOS. The SWORD Project has a great mission, but it can be very confusing to actually use. And the same is true of Ubuntu. I love the idea. I just don’t love using it. Case in point: it can’t remember my mouse.

At first I thought the issue might be with my Bluetooth adapter, so I booted back into Windows to check how the mice behaves there. Windows 10 has no problem reliably reconnected to the mouse between uses. Ubuntu, however, loses the mouse constantly — every time the computer goes to sleep and every time I shut down. The only reliable solution is to go into my Bluetooth settings, remove the mouse, and then re-add it. It may seem a small thing, but it illustrates my entire experience with the operating system.

A Quick History Lesson

A screenshot from an older version of Ubuntu
Ubuntu 6.06, the first version I used. GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=935008

Ubuntu is a Linux operating system that Canonical launched back in 2004, and it has become the most popular Linux distribution (distro). It is built around security and ease-of-use, and it’s billed as a truly user-friendly flavor of Linux. Over the years, Ubuntu has gained more capabilities and has continued to refine the user experience. 2010 saw one of the biggest pushes in this direction with the adoption of a windowing system called Unity, which brought a new look-and-feel to the Ubuntu desktop environment while also being more space-efficient on smaller screens.

I’ve used various versions of Ubuntu off and on for years, but I’ve always returned to macOS as my primary operating system. Right now, that’s not a choice in the short term, so I’ve been more motivated than I have in the past to make Ubuntu my primary environment. While I can say it’s come a long way, I’m still not convinced it’s the best non-Mac solution for people who just want something that will work and require little attention or maintenance.

Look and Feel

a screenshot of the Ubuntu desktop showing off the file manager

Ubuntu looks great on the surface. This is, in itself, a nice surprise. Many open source applications struggle from a visual design perspective. In many ways it does feel a little dated with its use of heavy gradients for illusory depth, gloss on folders, and the rather basic transparency/blur filters, but those details feel more charming than antiquated. I’d say Elementary OS has a small advantage over Ubuntu in terms of pure aesthetics, but it’s still one of the better-looking Linux distros. From the boot screen to the shut down dialogue, you can see the care put into the overall visual design.

Ubuntu also gets credit for some daring color choices. Where Windows and macOS make safe choices with grays, blues, whites, and blacks through most of their interfaces, Ubuntu bravely sports shades of purple and orange. It gives the system a unique look, and even from a distance or over the shoulder, it’s certainly recognizable to those familiar with the system. I wasn’t a fan when older versions of Ubuntu relied heavily on browns and golds, but the purple and orange scheme is quite striking.

Firefox on Ubuntu
Mozilla Firefox

The Unity windowing system also gets credit for improving some third-party offerings. I usually have a hard time swallowing LibreOffice’s heavy toolbar gradients, but Unity smooths them out entirely. Even Firefox looks downright respectable in Unity. If you want the prettiest Linux distro available, check out Elementary OS. But Ubuntu holds a close second in my book, and it gets better with each subsequent release.

Usability and Features

Ubuntu’s biggest draw has historically been its ease-of-use compared to other Linux-based operating systems. For the most part, it succeeds well in this mission. However, its shortcomings are pretty glaring when they happen, and they demonstrate how hard it is for any Linux distro to move away from the challenges faced by those that have come before. For example, there’s no easy way to change the brightness of your screen, and it’s been that way for years. To anyone used to working with macOS, you know a couple of the function keys (or Touch Bar buttons) accomplish this in no time. Ubuntu and its relatives are yet to address this simple convenience.

Ubuntu Dash showing numerous applications

Ubuntu Dash is impressive and overwhelming. Last time I used Ubuntu, this area was more of an application launcher. Over the years, however, it’s gained more functionality, to the point where it is more comparable to Spotlight on macOS than any basic app launcher. The beauty of Spotlight is that it doesn’t begin to give you results until you begin searching. In contrast, Dash shows a ton of items the moment you launch it, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

Take the Application tab in Dash as an example; if you expand the list of installed applications, be prepared. Where something like LaunchPad on macOS selectively determines what applications are user-facing, Dash shows everything. It’s to the point where things like Reboot and individual preferences are displayed in the list alongside some downright obscurely-named things like QJackCtl. All of that said, though, the search function of Dash works really well. The only drawback is that it doesn’t search the contents of documents the way Spotlight will. I have numerous old sermons archived by nothing more than the date they were delivered. Being able to search the contents of those documents through Spotlight was a life saver on my Mac.

Ubunu preferences

Then there are the times I’m trying to do something simple like highlighting a paragraph I want to copy when suddenly Ubuntu misinterprets what I’m doing with the trackpad and begins rapid-switching between applications. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there was an easily accessible location to customize trackpad gestures, but there isn’t. Sure, there might be some command line magic I can do to fix this, but that undermines the entire point of Ubuntu. (I also should point out here that I can adjust trackpad sensitivity but not mouse sensitivity. Odd.) It stops being user-friendly when I can’t simply adjust such a major piece of functionality.

Ecosystem

screenshot of the Ubuntu app software center

I’m not going to mince words here. If you rely heavily on Apple-specific or Microsoft-specific applications, you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, there are some equivalents. There’s LibreOffice in place of Microsoft Office or iWork. There’s Inkscape in place of Adobe Illustrator. There’s Gweled instead of Bejeweled. Minecraft is available, however, if you don’t mind jumping through some hoops.

An application called Ubuntu Software serves as a sort of app store for Ubuntu. If you fins something you are interested in here, you can download it and Ubuntu Software will handle the installation process. Installing applications from external sources can be somewhat dicier. It involves downloading a software package. If the system recognizes this package for what it is, it will try to let Ubuntu Software handle installation. This is an bit of a mixed bag. I never did successfully install the Vivaldi web browser.

Performance

Ubuntu is a clear winner in terms of performance on modest specs. Before installing Ubuntu, I spent a few days in Windows 10, and then Elementary OS was the first Linux distro I tried. Ubuntu runs more smoothly than either. Elementary OS performed acceptably with the exception of the application launcher. There was a noticeable lag between clicking the icon and the launcher opening — enough of a lag that I would often click it twice, only to have it suddenly open and immediately close.

Windows 10 is perhaps the roughest experience from a performance perspective. It’s obvious Windows 10 is more resource-hungry than either Elementary OS or Ubuntu. Running Windows 10, I can often type faster than the computer will render. Ubuntu runs fairly smoothly in everyday tasks. Editing images in GIMP and complex web apps like Microsoft PowerPoint 365 slow things down considerably, but that’s as much the hardware as anything. The side effect of all this is that Ubuntu consistently got better battery life as well, about an hour more per charge than Windows 10.

Unfortunately, performance is more than raw speed. It’s also reliability and predictability, and that’s where my experience with Ubuntu starts to break down. It intermittently forgets my trusted WiFi networks, or it won’t see them at all. As mentioned before, it constantly loses my Bluetooth mouse. These issues were the deal-breaker for me; on top of some software unpredictability and unreliable updates, having to constantly restart my computer to do something like connect to my home WiFi met my frustration threshold.

Under the Hood

The managed live kernel is a fantastic idea. I love the idea of OS updates without having to always reboot the system. The fact that my system has yet to successfully run an update may be evidence why commercial operating systems like Windows and macOS are yet to adopt such a feature. It’s certainly an exciting goal, and it should change the world of computing. Already, I was to the point where I never restarted my Mac except for system-level updates. Live kernel could potentially eliminate that need as well.

Unfortunately, software updates have completely stopped working for me. I consistently get an error message that the package manager is broken. It gives me a command to run in the Terminal, which then returns nothing. This is especially problematic when it comes to system security as the security updates are simply not installing. And no amount of rebooting or Terminal fiddling has overcome the problem. If the connectivity problems had not already been a deal-breaker, this would have.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll be removing my Ubuntu partition pretty soon and settling for Windows 10 until I can return to the Apple fold. While I have reservations about Windows 10 — most notably around general performance and security — I’d rather deal with slow but predictable any day. Ubuntu may be snappier, but my experience has been far less predictable. Every major operating system comes with its own sets of concessions and frustrations, even macOS, but Ubuntu’s added up to too much for my tastes.

Overall, Ubuntu is on a good track. It’s come a long way since the first time I ran a live CD. It still has a long way to go, and it’s just not where I want it to be for my own daily use. Some more mindfulness in how the Dash presents its information, some rethinking how software installation goes, smoothing out the wireless experience, and being thoughtful about user input settings — these could go a long way into making Ubuntu a more welcoming and user-friendly experience. It might well be the most user-friendly version of Linux to date, but that’s still an unfortunately low bar to clear.

Quick Recommendations

Despite my rough experiences, if you want to give Ubuntu a try for yourself to see just how wrong I am, here are some recommendations for applications:

* I’d probably recommend Vivaldi based on my experiences with it on other platforms, but I could never successfully install it on Ubuntu.

Technology

Apple Park

Apple Park opens to employees in April

From the press release:

“Steve’s vision for Apple stretched far beyond his time with us. He intended Apple Park to be the home of innovation for generations to come,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “The workspaces and parklands are designed to inspire our team as well as benefit the environment. We’ve achieved one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world and the campus will run entirely on renewable energy.”
Designed in collaboration with Foster + Partners, Apple Park replaces 5 million square feet of asphalt and concrete with grassy fields and over 9,000 native and drought-resistant trees, and is powered by 100 percent renewable energy. With 17 megawatts of rooftop solar, Apple Park will run one of the largest on-site solar energy installations in the world. It is also the site of the world’s largest naturally ventilated building, projected to require no heating or air conditioning for nine months of the year.
 To me, this effort is quintessentially Apple. It’s dramatic and overambitious, but it’s also intentional and beautiful. It’s additionally going to be a big win for clean energy. Alongside companies like Facebook and Google who are  closing in on 100% renewable energy this year, Apple is putting their money where their ideals are and demonstrating that a renewable energy future is not simply a Utopian pipe dream. It’s good business.
Personal Notes

Asus Impressions

Not long after I set about to revive this blog, I found myself largely without a computer. This is a rather tenuous position to be in when you want to write for your site. Sure, my iPhone is a capable computing device, but I would never want to type anything longer than a tweet on it. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to pick up an Asus X Series notebook from a family member. I haven’t owned a Windows machine since the 90s, but I was willing to give it a chance, especially after a couple of product updates from Apple that have felt a bit underwhelming.

So how does this two-year-old Asus stand up to the MacBook Air I’d had for six years? The short version is: not well. If you want the long version, keep reading.

The Screen

image showing a reflective screen

The screen is the first thing you likely notice about a new computer, and it’s where your eyes will spend the most time. It’s important to get the screen right, and I’m sorry to say this laptop doesn’t. On a positive note, I will say that colors are quite bright. As Windows 10 is a colorful operating system, this leads to a positive initial impression. That impression unfortunately degrades after a couple of minutes.

It’s an odd thing that the screen is both larger and smaller than that on my old MacBook Air. It is physically larger at 15.6 inches compared to the 13.3-inch screen on my Air. However, where the Air has a resolution of 1440 x 900, the Asus sits at 1366 x 768. The overall effect is that the screen appears more spacious while offering a smaller actual canvas. Also, since it’s bigger, the lower resolution is more noticeable because the pixels are bigger.

image illustrating the resolution differences between the Asus X Series and the MacBook Air
The lighter area represents the MacBook’s resolution. The darker area is the Asus.

The Asus also has perhaps one of the most reflective screens I’ve used. I can clearly see myself in the monitor at anything but the very brightest setting, and any applications, images, videos, or websites that feature predominately dark colors add to the problem. This makes focusing on the screen content a bit of a strain as my eyes keep trying to focus instead on the clear reflections.

The Keyboard & Trackpad

a closeup of the Asus keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard is perhaps my favorite thing about the device, if only because it has a number pad. I cannot understand why Apple has deprecated the number pad to the point where they don’t sell a singe product that has one by default. (When purchasing an iMac or Mac Pro, you can swap the default wireless keyboard for a wired one with a number pad at no additional charge.) I love having a number pad back.

Beyond that, the lack of backlight on the keyboard is a hassle. Almost every Apple laptop has shipped with a lit keyboard since around 2009, so it feels like a trip back to the past.I don’t type in the dark that often, but I definitly miss that backlight when I do. Still, the actual typing action feels almost comparable to my MacBook Air. It just sounds a bit hollow, and the travel is farther than I would ideally like it to be. Saying the keboard is my favorite part of the computer is unfortunately faint praise.

Where the keyboard is decent, the trackpad is at the other end of the spectrum. Its palm and accidental touch rejection is so bad as to make it practically useless. Clicking and dragging anything is a particular hassle as it seems to have a hard time distinguishing between using one finger to hold and another to drag as opposed to tapping with both to simulate a right-click. Furthermore, for some inexplicable reason, clicking and dragging will sometimes cause the operating system to begin rapid-switching between applications. It’s just a mess, and I now understand why I see so many PC people carrying a mouse with their laptop.

(As an aside, I’ve been using a Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse in place of the trackpad, and it’s very nice.)

Performance

In a word, the performance is lousy. Here are the basic specs lined up against my six-year-old MacBook Air:

  • MacBook Air 2011: 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 “Sandy Bridge” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, 256 GB SSD.
  • Asus X551M 2015: 1.86 Intel Celeron “Bay Trail” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory, 500 GB HDD.

At the worst, this laptop’s performance should be equivalent to a MacBook three times its age, but it’s not. I don’t have any measurable benchmarks for you, but I do have this: the computer has a hard time keeping up with my typing. Scrolling through common websites like Facebook and YouTube is a chore. And I’m yet to successfully do any meaningful design work on it. I log in to my wife’s MacBook for that.

Then there’s the battery. It lasts long enough when the computer is asleep, but two hours of writing in the WordPress web app will nearly deplete the battery. I haven’t kept a laptop plugged in this much since my PowerBook G3’s battery gave up (after seven years of heavy use). The battery life easily doubles if I stay offline, but that’s far from a realistic expectation.

Connectivity

 

asus-04

I mentioned earlier that I’m using a Bluetooth Microsoft mouse to avoid the trackpad. However, I wasn’t using it at first because I had to go buy a Bluetooth adapter. As far as I can tell, Bluetooth has been standard on Macs since roughly 2003. This Asus from 2015 doesn’t have it. So there’s that.

WiFi is spotty. Often it shows half the signal strength of my iPhone or my wife’s MacBook. The laptop seldom reconnects to known networks when returning from someplace with no signal. I find myself restarting the computer near daily just to get it to recognize that a known network exists.

The selection of ports is decent. It has 2 USB ports, an HDMI port, and a VGA port. There’s also an Ethernet port and an optical drive. The latter is especially noticeable since I haven’t had an optical drive in years, and I keep resting my hand on the Eject button when I carry the laptop. Of the available ports, I do prefer HDMI over the MacBook’s Thunderbolt. Other than USB, I feel ambivalent toward the other ports. In fact, they seem almost anachronistic.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I miss my Mac. Sure, Apple has arguably made some missteps of late. Even the newest MacBook Pros have some concessions. However, Apple has an advantage no Windows OEM has — a tight integration between hardware and software. Where Microsoft’s software has to be compatible with a great variety of hardware from numerous manufacturers, Apple has a tight control over the components used in their products. This leads to greater optimization and the ability to squeeze more performance out of their selected hardware.

The other consideration is that there is really no such thing as a bargain basement Mac. This is obviously a laptop designed for price rather than quality or performance. That describes the majority of Windows-compatible devices out there. Apple doesn’t compete in that space. Sure, there’s the Mac mini and the MacBook Air, but those are still on the expensive side compared to the low-end Windows PC market. If it’s the difference between a computer I can rely on for years, however, and a machine that feels dated and clunky out of the box, I’d rather spend more and get a Mac.

Postscript: Windows 10

I haven’t addressed Windows 10 very much in this post, and that’s for a very simple reason. I’m not using it anymore. I installed Ubuntu after a couple of days, and I have to admit that performance has improved dramatically. The trackpad is still bad, and the battery life is still abysmal. It can, however, keep up with my typing now, so that’s something. I’ll be following up with impressions of Ubunu in the future.

Personal Notes

Not long after my last post, my wife started a new business (which I’ll share more about later), and she basically took over my MacBook as her business computer. Consequently, I’ve been without consistent access to a computer with a physical keyboard since then. My iPhone has been my main device, which is fine and dandy for a multitude of tasks. Writing is not one of them.

Fortunately, I’ve recently acquired a laptop to hold me over for a while. I hope to be able to get back to some writing here now that my keyboard drought has ended.