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Applications Coding Devices

Giving a 2011 MacBook Air new life with Linux

I bought my wife a 11″ MacBook Air in 2011. It’s a Intel® Core™ i7-2677M CPU @ 1.80GHz (four core) laptop with 4GB of RAM. Over time the battery became less effective, and started to swell. We eventually removed it early last year, before it burst.

That left my wife with her MacBook Air that she had to use when connected to main power. It had also become pretty sluggish between macOS updates, and general cruft accumulation so it took forever for the device to boot up, and perform simple tasks.

My wife recently left her job, and we bought her (formerly) work Lenovo laptop for her to use as a personal machine. This left her MacBook Air gathering dust in a corner of the apartment.

An available option

I’d wanted a personal laptop for my non-Automattic projects, and was building up the courage to buy a new machine that I’d install Linux on. I decided to see if my wife’s laptop would suffice, instead.

I first reset the device, and poked around a bit in macOS. The laptop is past the support cut-off for the current macOS version, so it was running High Sierra (I think). It worked ok, but it felt pretty slow.

Setting it up

I’ve also wanted a Linux laptop to geek out on, so I took a leap, and wiped the drive completely (I was actually planning to configure dual boot, but couldn’t work this out), and installed Pop!_OS by System76 on it.

I installed a couple of my preferred apps such as Sublime Text, Sublime Merge, Dropbox, and so on. I also switched my shell over to ZSH (with Oh My ZSH), installed Conda as my main Python distro/option, and even figured out how to run Jupyter Lab on the laptop.

Of course I also installed the WordPress.com app for Linux testing too.

The laptop still seemed a bit sluggish initially, and it looked like all the processors were maxing out. I also couldn’t work out how to make the dock appear in a more convenient way, and how to add other bits and pieces to my desktop to improve my experience.

I then switched the desktop environment to the MATE desktop, and it seemed to help. For one thing, MATE is better suited to older hardware, and it has a bunch of indicators and widgets that you can customise. I liked it, but I still preferred the overall aesthetic of Pop!_OS.

I also realised that the reason why the laptop was so sluggish was because Dropbox was being Dropbox when it started up. It eventually released its death grip on the processors, to a degree.

Getting used to a different environment

My one big adjustment has been moving from my glorious 15″ Macbook Pro screen where I spend most of my time, to a teeny 11″ screen. On the other hand, I do like the much smaller form factor for mobility.

The laptop is small enough that I may even be willing to take this with me on work trips so I have a personal device for movies (assuming I can get them onto the device, legitimately), projects on longer flights, and so on.

The immediate challenge to all of that is that this machine doesn’t have a battery. I’ve found a solution for that, though. iFixit sells an after market battery for this model for about $75. That’s certainly cheaper than buying a new laptop (assuming it works).

Other than that, it’s also taken me a while to figure out how to do otherwise routine things in Linux. I’ve found ways to customise my experience of the desktop using things like GNOME Extensions, and other apps and utilities.

Mostly, though, I use Sublime Text for my writing and coding (I know VS Code is what all the cool kids are using, I prefer Sublime for now, and it loads really quickly), Firefox as my main browser on this laptop, and I have my terminal pretty much set up with my various extensions.

More of the similar for other home uses

My experience with this laptop has reminded me why I much prefer a Linux computer for home. Our daughter uses a really old desktop PC that’s running Ubuntu 19.04. The PC is a Core 2 Duo with 3 or 4GB of RAM.

When it comes time to replace that, I’ll probably give her one of the new Raspberry Pis with an external drive for storage. The current version is just incredible for what you’re paying. This review will give you a pretty good idea:

The new board comes with a four core AMD processor that, I think, is pretty comparable to the MacBook Air’s 2011 processor, up to 4GB of RAM, and runs on USB-C power. The 4GB model costs around $50 to $60, and the main challenge is actually getting your hands on one.

A Raspberry Pi would probably be a decent upgrade on what she has at the moment, and she could continue doing everything she’s been doing (Minecraft, browsing the Web to school sites, general school research, Google Drive, YouTube, Spotify) just fine.

I’d be very tempted to get one for myself one day, if I could come up with a decent plan for how to travel with it, and use it productively on the road. The biggest challenge would be a screen of some kind, I imagine.

So far, I like this

So far, I really like what I have. I’d like to get some other apps going, such as AutoKey for text expansion, and Albert for easier app launches, web searches, and some of the tasks I use Alfred.app for on my work laptop.

For the time being, though, this Linux-driven MacBook Air is proving to be a pretty good choice.

Featured Image: Unleash Your Potential Robot by Kate Hazen at System76, licensed CC BY SA

Categories
Applications Useful stuff

Daydreaming about macOS alternatives in my future

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

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Business and work Mobile Tech

My MacBook Air just had its first anxiety attack

It had a little nap and seems to be feeling better now.