Daydreaming about macOS alternatives in my future

Image credit: Markus Spiske

I often find myself thinking about possible macOS alternatives. I have a 2011 MacBook Air which I have loved using. Still, it is more than 5 years old and Apple hardware doesn’t seem to age particularly gracefully. For one thing, my battery has failed so my MacBook Air has to be plugged into power when I use it. Thankfully, the battery hasn’t swelled so I don’t have the risk of a catastrophic leak (touch wood).

With the prices of replacement Apple computers being what they are, I have been thinking about what I would buy if my laptop fails one day. The typical choice would be a Windows machine but I don’t really enjoy using Windows. Besides, it confuses me and I spend more time trying to figure out how to do stuff than actually doing stuff.

I have an affinity for Linux and Ubuntu is probably the closest I have come to a macOS-type of environment in terms of general workflow.

Wesley Moore’s adventures with Linux

Wesley Moore published a great series of posts titled “Finding an alternative to Mac OS X” that I enjoyed. He is far more familiar with Linux than I am and, being a developer, he is very comfortable digging around in his machines’ software internals.

I have used Mac OS X since the public beta and use it at both home and work. I’ve also run various Linux distributions and BSDs since around 2000, so am quite familiar with them.

In April 2016, dissatisfied by the lack of MacBook Pro updates (and performance of Ruby) I had a custom PC built for work. It has a fast Intel CPU (4Ghz i7–6700K), plenty of RAM and fast SSD storage. It runs Arch Linux and I have been doing all my development at work on this machine over ssh via iTerm using its amazing tmux integration since.

I tried a couple of times to use this machine as my sole work computer but kept coming back to the Mac + tmux option. The first option I tried was an i3 based desktop. However whilst I liked the idea of tiling window managers I decided they weren’t for me. Next I built an OpenBox desktop but the lack of a complete, integrated desktop where all the parts work together frustrated me.

I deeply value the consistency, versatility, reliability and integration of Mac OS X and the excellent quality hardware it runs on. However the current state of the Mac has me considering whether it’s still the right platform for me.

Still, his experiences are instructive and it is worth reading about his journey. I like the idea of elementary OS (it looks beautiful – not something you often say about open source software) but I suspect that if he found it frustrating to the point where he couldn’t work productively, it would drive me a bit crazy.

Leaving that aside, a Linux machine is very appealing to me. Especially if I found myself unable to use a Mac for some reason.

My story

Fortunately I have had opportunities to test Linux out as in a work context. In my previous company I used a Lenovo i3 laptop which was so under-powered for Windows that I installed Ubuntu on it and used that for a while.

In retrospect, Ubuntu was a little heavy for that machine too because I struggled running most common apps. I eventually gave up and started using my personal MacBook Air for work because I spent more time being frustrated with a totally inadequate machine (I couldn’t even get a memory upgrade) that I wasn’t productive.

Still, that was more an issue with the laptop. I installed Ubuntu on our old home PC that our kids use most of the time. The PC had 2GB of RAM and also struggled a bit with Ubuntu so I switched the machine across to Linux Mint. I managed to find another 2GB of RAM for the PC (it is old RAM so I had to look on eBay) and it runs pretty well. Well, except when my son starts playing Minecraft with his many add-ons.

What I’d probably use

Anyway, if the time comes to replace this laptop (and may that time be in the distant future after many more years of productive use), a Linux machine may well be the way for me to go. I rely on a few apps for my day to day work and I’ve been researching macOS alternatives for Linux. I’ve managed to find options for most of what I do except for –

  • Evernote desktop (the Web app is pretty good though);
  • OmniFocus (my likely alternative is something like Remember the Milk – it seems to support GTD pretty well); and
  • iTunes Music (iTunes isn’t amazing but I have been using iTunes Music a lot).

One of my big concerns has been losing Lightroom which I use for my photography. I recently came across darktable which looks like a good alternative. Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t support the VSCO Film presets I use so I’d need to adapt to photography without those.

I was a little concerned about losing Alfred which I use frequently on my Mac to find stuff and launch apps but there is a Linux alternative called Albert which looks almost identical. In addition, the built in search in Linux is pretty good for most stuff and I tend to use it on the home PC anyway.

My primary text editor is Byword and I love it. Byword is macOS and iOS only so my alternative would probably be Atom. It supports a range of syntaxes so I have the benefit of syntax highlighting along with a huge library of expansions for the app itself. Heck, even the built in Linux text editor, gedit works well for me.

Linux apps are rarely as good looking as macOS apps. Getting things to work can be pretty fiddly and involve the command line a lot. Still, for the work I do, I can probably work just fine on a Linux machine if I needed to.

As far as the OS distribution goes, Mint works well on our home PC. It reminds me a lot of Windows and that puts me off a bit (totally irrational and it doesn’t detract from the software but it’s a bias I have come to accept). I like Ubuntu and I’d probably begin with that if the machine I use is powerful enough to get around some of Ubuntu’s performance requirements.

I haven’t figured out how to replace my desktop UI and retain the underlying OS/file system on Linux. I believe it is possible to change your desktop UI pretty easily so that would make any silly UI niggles I may have, go away.

Not as pretty but viable

Linux isn’t as polished as macOS but these macOS alternatives are viable when you consider the cost of Apple hardware and the direction Apple is going when it comes to ports (if that is a factor for you).

Being a dedicated Apple user can become expensive and although there are definitely benefits buying into the Apple ecosystem, it isn’t an option for everyone.

I’ve noticed that a number of my friends who were pretty dedicated Apple users have switched to Windows 10 machines and Android phones. It just no longer made sense for them to stick with Apple’s products. They weren’t all driven away by cost considerations either.

The bottom line is that macOS alternatives exist and are pretty compelling for a number of reasons: cost, hardware choice and capabilities. I would likely opt for Linux and work around the limitations that would mean for me. I may even dual boot into Windows for the stuff I need to do in Windows but I like the idea of using a Linux machine for my day to day stuff.

For now though, I still love my MacBook Air and all the things it enables me to do.

Image credit: Markus Spiske

By Paul

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at Automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

6 comments

  1. Our developers have been using Linux Mint as their primary OS for a few years now. I think using Windows would drive them mad.

    I think the ideal setup for our use case would be a monster desktop running some or other flavour of Linux and a MacBook Pro with maximum spec for portability and functionality only available on macOS.

    1. My ideal setup would definitely still be a max spec MacBook Pro. The problem with that is I’d need to sell vital organs to afford that.

  2. I recently switched to an Android device. I have a post in the works that I may eventually finish and publish. Until then, I still need to get things done and, like I pointed out in my post “The tools I use to be productive with ADHD”, my big challenge has been to migrate from iOS/macOS-centric workflows to something more cross-platform.

    When it comes to picking a solution to manage my tasks, I went with OmniFocus. It was practically designed for GTD and I can use it on all my devices. It isn’t cheap and it only works on macOS/iOS (the platform limitation bothers me but I can live with it). At the same time, it is excellent software and nothing really comes close to it.

    My first challenge was which task manager to use for my tasks. I started exploring alternatives such as Remember the Milk and Todoist but the thought of reinventing my whole system wasn’t a happy one. Still, I experimented with them a bit and even started migrating tasks to RTM.

    I just discovered @focusgtdapp – an Android app that syncs with @OmniFocus. Thank goodness! #relief pic.twitter.com/9oFrDIgrTR
    — Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) February 19, 2017

    http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
    Fortunately, I discovered the Focus GTD app for Android that syncs with my OmniFocus data in the cloud. The design isn’t as polished as OmniFocus but the main thing is that the app syncs reliably with my OmniFocus data and I don’t need to recreate anything to keep going.
    Lately I’ve been playing around a bit with some Google options for getting things done. In particular, Google’s Reminders that integrate with Google Inbox (which I don’t really use, I prefer Gmail), Google Calendar and Google Keep.
    It’s not that Focus GTD doesn’t work. It does. The notifications could be better but the app does what it says on the box and it saved me hours of recreating a GTD workflow with another app or service.
    Mostly, I’m curious about the Google option because they are cross-platform, cross-device and are pretty native to my Android phone.
    Google’s integrations
    Google’s approach to productivity is to combine everything, where possible. Makes sense; Google wants us to use its services more. The Google approach is pretty different in many ways.
    I’m accustomed to a task manager being distinct from my calendar and email. Google’s approach is to bring it all together and even go so far as to use your email interface as your task manager (specifically, Google Inbox).
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzNTjpUMOp4?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=525&h=326%5D
    By contrast, my OmniFocus workflow is more about using a standalone task manager as the focal point of my productivity system with email being just one input. Calendars are where you record tasks or events that are date sensitive and everything else goes into a general task service that you review regularly and maintain on an ongoing basis.
    Still, the Google productivity suite that comprises Calendar, Gmail/Inbox and Keep is intriguing because it is better integrated with my phone (probably my primary device overall) and is largely OS independent.
    So I started using Reminders in Google Calendar this week just to see how they would work for me.
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPuvf2lzZMY?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=525&h=326%5D
    I also started playing around a bit with Calendar’s Goals feature. I’m curious to see if this approach will help me achieve those goals more effectively. I also really want to see just how smart the machine learning behind goal-related task scheduling is when it is tied into my calendar.
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnZZInDyrZo?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=525&h=326%5D
    Keep is another part of the overall mix. I’ve read a few articles about how to implement GTD with Keep (such as this article in Wired and this one by Clayton Glasser) and it certainly seems feasible. The only thing about Keep is that it seems like a weak replacement for Evernote for me.
    At the same time, Evernote isn’t really a task app for me. As I mentioned in my productivity post, Evernote is my reference system with almost 27 000 notes about just about everything in my life. Reconfiguring Evernote to handle my tasks as well as function as my reference service would be messy so I haven’t really explored that.
    Method behind the madness
    That brings me back to my experiment with Google services for get things done. The linchpin when it comes to OmniFocus is currently my MacBook Air.
    If I reach a stage where I can’t use a MacBook every day for work, it will become that much harder to maintain an OmniFocus-centric productivity system. Focus GTD is good but relying on that completely while a work machine doesn’t support it adds a lot more friction to being productive.
    This is a real concern for me. I am currently looking for a new job and it is rare to be offered a MacBook by a new employer. My MacBook Air has been my primary work machine for most of my time in Israel but the battery has failed and I think it’s time to give my trusty device a vacation.
    My next work machine will likely be a Windows-based or, preferably, Linux machine. Neither will support OmniFocus so this seemingly academic debate about which productivity system to switch to isn’t going to be academic for very long (I hope).
    A big plus in the Google column is that the apps it uses are free and available on whichever device I am likely to use. Of course, there is a reason for that. Not only does Google want to keep us actively using as many of its services as is possible, it uses the data from and about our interactions to build and improve its services (including ad targeting) overall.
    One day we may see the true cost of that and it may bother us. For now, though, it seems like a fair exchange: we get stuff to help us get things done fairly effectively and Google receives a lot of data it can do to create more things and sell is really accurate ads.
    Ok Google, help me be more productive
    A lot of this experimentation is about experiencing all the things Google services can do. I’m still getting used to using Google’s voice stuff and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t have Google Assistant yet but I’m sure that will be even better.
    I’m not sure if Google Reminders/Keep/Calendar will be a viable replacement for OmniFocus but it seems to be worth exploring. What do you think? Do you use Google services to get things done?
    Image credit: Pexels
    This post was originally published on Paul Jacobson’s blog with the title “Ok Google, show me how to get things done“.

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  3. I recently switched to an Android device. I have a post in the works that I may eventually finish and publish. Until then, I still need to get things done and, like I pointed out in my post “The tools I use to be productive with ADHD”, my big challenge has been to migrate from iOS/macOS-centric workflows to something more cross-platform.

    When it comes to picking a solution to manage my tasks, I went with OmniFocus. It was practically designed for GTD and I can use it on all my devices. It isn’t cheap and it only works on macOS/iOS (the platform limitation bothers me but I can live with it). At the same time, it is excellent software and nothing really comes close to it.

    My first challenge was which task manager to use for my tasks. I started exploring alternatives such as Remember the Milk and Todoist but the thought of reinventing my whole system wasn’t a happy one. Still, I experimented with them a bit and even started migrating tasks to RTM.

    I just discovered @focusgtdapp – an Android app that syncs with @OmniFocus. Thank goodness! #relief pic.twitter.com/9oFrDIgrTR
    — Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) February 19, 2017

    http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
    Fortunately, I discovered the Focus GTD app for Android that syncs with my OmniFocus data in the cloud. The design isn’t as polished as OmniFocus but the main thing is that the app syncs reliably with my OmniFocus data and I don’t need to recreate anything to keep going.
    Lately I’ve been playing around a bit with some Google options for getting things done. In particular, Google’s Reminders that integrate with Google Inbox (which I don’t really use, I prefer Gmail), Google Calendar and Google Keep.
    It’s not that Focus GTD doesn’t work. It does. The notifications could be better but the app does what it says on the box and it saved me hours of recreating a GTD workflow with another app or service.
    Mostly, I’m curious about the Google option because they are cross-platform, cross-device and are pretty native to my Android phone.
    Google’s integrations
    Google’s approach to productivity is to combine everything, where possible. Makes sense; Google wants us to use its services more. The Google approach is pretty different in many ways.
    I’m accustomed to a task manager being distinct from my calendar and email. Google’s approach is to bring it all together and even go so far as to use your email interface as your task manager (specifically, Google Inbox).
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzNTjpUMOp4?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=700&h=424%5D
    By contrast, my OmniFocus workflow is more about using a standalone task manager as the focal point of my productivity system with email being just one input. Calendars are where you record tasks or events that are date sensitive and everything else goes into a general task service that you review regularly and maintain on an ongoing basis.
    Still, the Google productivity suite that comprises Calendar, Gmail/Inbox and Keep is intriguing because it is better integrated with my phone (probably my primary device overall) and is largely OS independent.
    So I started using Reminders in Google Calendar this week just to see how they would work for me.
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPuvf2lzZMY?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=700&h=424%5D
    I also started playing around a bit with Calendar’s Goals feature. I’m curious to see if this approach will help me achieve those goals more effectively. I also really want to see just how smart the machine learning behind goal-related task scheduling is when it is tied into my calendar.
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnZZInDyrZo?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=700&h=424%5D
    Keep is another part of the overall mix. I’ve read a few articles about how to implement GTD with Keep (such as this article in Wired and this one by Clayton Glasser) and it certainly seems feasible. The only thing about Keep is that it seems like a weak replacement for Evernote for me.
    At the same time, Evernote isn’t really a task app for me. As I mentioned in my productivity post, Evernote is my reference system with almost 27 000 notes about just about everything in my life. Reconfiguring Evernote to handle my tasks as well as function as my reference service would be messy so I haven’t really explored that.
    Method behind the madness
    That brings me back to my experiment with Google services for get things done. The linchpin when it comes to OmniFocus is currently my MacBook Air.
    If I reach a stage where I can’t use a MacBook every day for work, it will become that much harder to maintain an OmniFocus-centric productivity system. Focus GTD is good but relying on that completely while a work machine doesn’t support it adds a lot more friction to being productive.
    This is a real concern for me. I am currently looking for a new job and it is rare to be offered a MacBook by a new employer. My MacBook Air has been my primary work machine for most of my time in Israel but the battery has failed and I think it’s time to give my trusty device a vacation.
    My next work machine will likely be a Windows-based or, preferably, Linux machine. Neither will support OmniFocus so this seemingly academic debate about which productivity system to switch to isn’t going to be academic for very long (I hope).
    A big plus in the Google column is that the apps it uses are free and available on whichever device I am likely to use. Of course, there is a reason for that. Not only does Google want to keep us actively using as many of its services as is possible, it uses the data from and about our interactions to build and improve its services (including ad targeting) overall.
    One day we may see the true cost of that and it may bother us. For now, though, it seems like a fair exchange: we get stuff to help us get things done fairly effectively and Google receives a lot of data it can use to create more things and deliver really accurate ads.
    Ok Google, help me be more productive
    A lot of this experimentation is about experiencing all the things Google services can do. I’m still getting used to using Google’s voice stuff and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t have Google Assistant yet but I’m sure that will be even better.
    I’m not sure if Google Reminders/Keep/Calendar will be a viable replacement for OmniFocus but it seems to be worth exploring. What do you think? Do you use Google services to get things done?
    Image credit: Lauren Mancke

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