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.
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