Sunday, 29 June 2008

Ubuntu is easier to use than a Mac - discuss!

Ever since I bought my MacBook nearly two weeks ago, I've found it a bit of a struggle to get used to. I've used Windows XP and Vista, as well as MANY Linux distros and a few other Unix-like OS's using many different desktops - Gnome, KDE, Xfce, Icewm, E17 and Fluxbox, among others, and the OS X desktop is the hardest one I've ever had to get used to.
Add to that the fact that I've found it a pain to get used to the method of installing things, and I've come to the following conclusion:
A modern beginner-oriented Linux distribution such as Ubuntu is considerably easier to use than a Mac.
Now, hear me out. These are the points I've found where Linux is easier to use:
  1. The desktop. Ubuntu, for instance, has Applications, Places and Systems on the top panel by default, and the Application menu is broken down into categories so it's always easy to track down what you want, and other desktops such as KDE and Xfce are similarly easy to navigate. If you want a launcher, you can install Gnome Do as it's available in Hardy. By comparison, a Mac has no equivalent menu for launching applications. OK, the Dock is pretty prevalent, but it only shows a subset of applications, and if you aren't familiar with them then the only way that you can find out what does what is by trying it. And yes, you can open them in Finder, but that means opening one application to open another, which is a bit of a waste of time. Spotlight is OK, but it takes a bit of getting used to - it's not as good as either Katapult in KDE or Gnome Do in Gnome. Also, it's tiny and hidden away in a corner, while both Katapult and Gnome Do are big, friendly launchers that appear dead in the centre of the screen. To get something comparable on a Mac, you need Quicksilver.
  2. Installing new software. In Ubuntu, you can open Add/Remove Applications, pick out what you want and install it, or you can use Synaptic to get a list of everything you can install, and again can just pick out what you want, and with a few clicks whatever you want will be installed. By comparison, on a Mac you have to go to the web page, download whatever it is you want, then mess around dragging it into a folder, then you have to delete the dmg file from your desktop.
  3. Compiling from source. It's rare to have to compile from source these days, and with Ubuntu you're more likely to see new versions available in the repositories, so you probably have to do so less than on a Mac. And if you do, it's made easier to remove it later by installing the checkinstall package. By using checkinstall instead of make install, you create a deb package which can be easily removed using the package manager if necessary. As far as I can see, there's no equivalent to this on a Mac.
  4. Out of the box functionality. A Mac does "just work" quite well. But so does Ubuntu. I've only EVER had two problems in using Ubuntu or Kubuntu - one was the fact that my wireless card had a driver which didn't support WPA, so I had to use Ndiswrapper to get it working with the Windows drivers. The other was a DNS problem which was to do with my router. I've never had to mess around with my or recompile my kernel, or install any other drivers. And this is on an OS that didn't come preinstalled! To be a truly fair comparison you'd have to compare both preinstalled and installing it yourself on your own machine, as only a "like-to-like" comparison is really fair. A machine that comes with Ubuntu preinstalled "just works" as much as a Mac does, whereas building a hackintosh is MUCH harder than getting Ubuntu working on another machine, and not many non-Apple machines will work at all with OS X, whereas most will work with Ubuntu.
  5. Greater range of preinstalled applications. OK, apps like iMovie, PhotoBooth and Garageband are fun to mess around with, but they are the ONLY ones that don't have equivalents preinstalled in Ubuntu. Ubuntu has more useful things, such as the OpenOffice suite, Evolution (which includes a calendar), the Pidgin IM client (which supports more different protocols than iChat does), The GIMP etc. And it's better supplied with games - there's about five or six, whereas a Mac has chess only!
  6. Better support for third-party media players. iPods are pretty well supported out of the box in Ubuntu or Kubuntu, as are many other music players, as both Rhythmbox and Amarok have wide-ranging support for third party devices. By comparison, trying to get a third-party device working in OS X is likely to involve having to install new software, if it will work at all.
These are the ones I can think of - no doubt plenty of people will be able to suggest other reasons. What do you think? Am I right? As always, please keep it civil, and don't spout advertising slogans. Seriously, I've had enough of "A Mac just works!", it's not a convincing argument!
And if you're a Mac fan - this is not an attack on OS X, having used it I do think it's a good OS, and constructive criticsm benefits Apple because it shows them where they could improve.


ikl said...

"Pidgin IM client (which supports more different protocols than iChat does)"

iChat supports XMPP and the AIM protocol. That's already one protocol too much! Only XMPP support is needed in an instant messaging client, support for additional proprietary protocols are misfeatures.

MattBD said...

ikl, I actually agree with you there, at least in principle - the Internet is built on open protocols, and I feel that IM should be on the same basis, after all it's frustrating when your friends are on different networks.
I actually have several IM accounts, but Google Talk is the only one I use.

Thought Shift said...

I've never used a mac before but I can say that Ubuntu is already VERY easy to use. So easy in fact that some of the things I've had to hack before now comes out of the box (video driver settings in xorg.conf, for example).

Try that with Windows. (Or maybe, Macs).

Jesse Dyer said...

I'm an Ubuntu user, and I don't have a Mac. I still don't disagree with you completely.
Saying that Ubuntu has Gnome-Do and Mac has nothing unless you install Quicksilver is not a fair comparison, since Ubuntu doesn't give you Do by default any more than Mac gives you QS; with both, the user has to install them for free.
I don't think dragging an app into a folder is any harder than using Synaptic once you know how. That's the trick to any OS; you get used to certain paradigms, and then that knowledge becomes useless when you encounter an OS that uses different methods to get the same work done. That's not usability, that's learning curve. Perhaps if you qualified that by stating that Ubuntu is easier to use than Mac for Windows users, the statement might be closer to true.

Trevor said...

If I'm not mistaken I thought all macs were destroyed after 2 macs tried to get their gay marriage on?

Jake said...
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korniszon said...

#5 - greater number of preinstalled applications - which means greater number of crappy software you are not going to use.

Jake said...

im a avid mac user, but i also use ubuntu, and i have to say that i believe all those arguments are true except for installing programs. you make it sound like its a pain to drag a app from one folder to another. its also easier to remove programs, just sending the app to the recycle bin. The Synaptic installer in ubuntu is intimidating to first time users, and ubuntu has its quirks.

Craigly said...

For a dual-monitor setup, Mac trounces Ubuntu. I've done several Ubuntu installations throughout the past several years with a secondary monitor plugged in and Ubuntu fails to pick it up. I've only been a Mac user for 1.5 years, but imagine my surprise when I plugged in a secondary monitor while the Mac was running and it both detected the monitor and set it up to work in seconds.

As for applications, I have my Dock icon set up for grid view and I can see all of my apps in one click. I agree with your point of further subdividing apps to their specialized task. Mac doesn't do that.

Many apps, Pidgin, OpenOffice, and Amarok included, run on Mac as well as Ubuntu. You don't have to leave your comfort zone if you don't want.

I like to use the right OS for the job. In the past, I've used Windows, Linux, AIX, Solaris. Not to start a flame war, but the switch to Mac, while not painless, was the best and most productive OS move of my life.



AkitaOnRails said...
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AkitaOnRails said...

Very relative discussion, depends heavily on point of view. I was also a Windows/Linux user and I am now 2 years as a Mac user and I enjoy it greatly.

First of all, I prefer one single desktop manager instead of dozens of half-baked ones. Integration is a big deal. I will take Aqua instead of all the other any day of week. Again, point of view, but wtf, it works. Not having to tweak absolutely nothing is awesome.

Application Launchers from Linux all borrowed heavily from macs. First of all, you can launch any app from Spotlight. Command+Space, type in a few letters and there you have it. Gnome Do is a clone of Mac's Quicksilver. If you're going to install a 3rd party, we have to include Quicksilver, Butler and several others.

Application Distribution is and will always be a hassle. Synaptic is nice, but this is only a valid argument if you have commercial software such as Adobe, Macromedia, Microsoft, VMWare, Parallels and hundreds of others together. Otherwise it is the same problem. MacPorts is not perfect but it served me well enough as an open source software installer. Could be better, but again this is open source, if you're annoyed, you're free to contribute back.

I am completely against building a Hackintosh. Macs were designed as a single and coherent unit. You want diversity, install Ubuntu. Duh. If you want a Mac, you want the Mac experience. And that can't be beaten. Ndiswrapper? Damn, I almost forgot those nightmare days tweaking hardware overnight. Do you have ubiquitous USB, Firewire and such today? Thanks Apple for pushing that.

Quantity is not Quality, you know? There are thousands of small apps in every Linux distro that I never bothered using. On the other hand in the Mac I have several high-quality commercial products that I am more than happy paying for. Yep, somethings in life costs money, what can I say? I am a whore, beat me. VMWare Fusion rocks. TextMate is awesome. Scrivener is awesome. And so on and so forth.

Unfortunately OpenOffice doesn't come near either Microsoft Office (argh, I know) nor Apple's own iWork. Once you try Keynote, you will never ever come back.

As far as codecs go, Perian is nice. We have good enough video ripping and encoding tools such as MacTheRipper, Handbrake, iSquint, etc.

IM? Get Adium. yeah yeah yeah, it doesn't support MSN's Video. Get Skype and get over it.

XCode 3 is free and is a fair set of tools. And underneath there is Unix! Who would've thought? And it works!

I feel odd whenever I have to go back to any Linux distro, even Ubuntu. There is this strange feeling of things being disconnected that I really don't like.

Another thing: you have to get used to how things work. One mouse button is not a problem to whoever doesn't suffer from dyslexia. Having the command button is very nice as it ends with annoying limitations of Ctrl+C being both copy and cancel.

The Mac looks great, everything really just works, no need for any little tiny tweak of any kind whatsoever. Every default is very well configured, top to bottom. Plug and Play. Period. Network, Display, Composite engine, browsing, tools, applications, camera, etc etc etc. OS X is an amazing achievement. Distros as Ubuntu should have gotten nearer by now. I have no idea what is holding them back.

Anonymous said...


I'm glad you like Aqua, and I think it's odd that you describe the various linux window managers as "half baked", but as you say, this is just a matter of taste. The problem with OSX, however, is that if I don't like Aqua, I'm stuck with it, whereas I am free to change to whatever WM I want on a linux distro.

I won't comment on the application launcher issue, as I don't use one. I much prefer to just launch straight from the terminal, or with kiba-dock for my most common applications.

Application distribution is, in my opinion, one of THE most important ways in which ubuntu is superior to OSX or Windows today. It really hasn't got anything to do with it being difficult or annoying to install dmg files on OSX, it has to do with OSX simply not having a standard package manager which can do the things that synaptic can do. With the default set of repositories, you can install everything from adobe reader to java to firefox in a single command (or I'm sure there's a GUI interface as well for those who are intimidated by the command line). Sure there's MacPorts, but that's just one of many "half baked" (and probably mutually incompatible) package managers, and it doesn't even come pre-installed.

In the case of a package manager, not having a standard is a big problem because it means if it turns out I don't like MacPorts, I may not be able to switch to a new one without totally hosing the organization of my system. With linux, it's true that if I want to switch to a different package manager I have to switch distributions, but I find that the package manager is one of the things that actually distinguishes different distros the most. You pick your distro based on how well you like the package manager, amongst a few other things.

Also, you mention the "limitations" of having ctrl-c cancel an app as well as copy. On linux, however, there are actually two copy buffers, one of which is automatically filled any time you highlight text and which can be pasted by clicking the third mouse button, thus obviating the need to use the keyboard for cut/paste.

As far as XCode doesn't even come pre-installed. Linux is superior in this respect as well: it comes, at *least*, with GCC installed, and probably with a much more extensive set of development tools. Setting up a development environment in OSX or Windows is an extreme hassle compared to simply being able to type: vim file.c and start hacking away.

And your statement that "underneath there is unix" is only partially true. It's true that the OSX kernel is part of the unix family, being based on NetBSD, but there are a lot of important things to keep in mind. First of all, there are a number of architectural differences between the OSX kernel and the linux kernel. For one, they use different scheduling algorithms, and while this doesn't really matter to your average user, it does technically make them completely different kinds of kernels. More important to the desktop user, however, is the lack of GNU tools in OSX. "Linux" is really more appropriately called "GNU/Linux" because it is the marriage of the Linux kernel (developed by Linus Torvalds in the early 90's) and the GNU operating system (developed by the GNU Project in the mid-80's). So, while Linux and OSX have a shared lineage to some degree, to simply wave one's hands and declare that "underneath there is unix" is incorrect at best and disingenuous at worst. Make no mistake; they are completely different operating systems that happen to have a passing resemblance due to both being POSIX compliant.

Finally, one thing you mention several times as a positive is that "everything just works" and that there's "no need for tweaking." I agree with you that everything should work out of the box, that there should be sensible defaults, etc., and I think Ubuntu delivers this as well as OSX. Where OSX fails, however, is in not ALLOWING the kind of tweaking that is possible on Ubuntu. OSX is simply not as easy to tweak, and even if *you* don't want to tweak things, the OS shouldn't make it difficult for you to get under the hood, should you decide you want to.

a10waveracer said...

Hey there, Matthew. Your post definitely was thought-provoking and prompted me to write about this exact topic. Here's my blog post commenting on your post and containing my various musings. You definitely bring up some good points.

MattBD said...

Thanks for your comments guys. This was always going to be something of a controversial subject. Personally I do think that the only things holding back Linux from greater market share are lack of visibility and the fact that it's not preinstalled - anyone who owns as Asus Eee PC (as I do) will tell you that if it's preinstalled, a child could quite easily use a decent Linux distro.
A couple of points I'd like to clarify further:
1) Yes, the thing about Spotlight didn't really come out how I meant it to sound, so I concede the points people have made about it. The main bugbear I had with the OS X desktop was there was no easy-to-navigate menu with everything well-signposted, whereas the default Gnome desktop in Ubuntu quite clearly breaks everything down into categories and then actually states what each application is, whereas there is some possibility of confusion on the OS X desktop - for instance, if you want to use the webcam, is it iPhoto or Photo Booth you use, as iPhoto is in the dock, but Photo Booth isn't by default (at least not in Leopard).
3) Compiling from source - obviously this isn't something that will affect newbies on either platform, as the Ubuntu repositories are comprehensive enough that a newbie doesn't generally need to do so, and a newbie isn't going to need to do so on a Mac either. This was more relevant to experienced users who need to get the latest and greatest of something. For instance, I have a book about Rails programming which at the start tells you how to install Rails on various platforms. This was written before Leopard (which includes Rails by default) was released, so it gave details of how to compile Ruby and Rails, whereas for Ubuntu you could just grab it from the repository (this is probably one of the few times you have to compile something from source on a Mac). My argument was that if you compile something using make install (which is common to both platforms), then it is hard to manage later on. By using checkinstall in Ubuntu, you create a deb package (Ubuntu's native package format) which you can install as normal, and it's easy to remove it later as Apt can handle it. To the best of my knowledge, no equivalent exists in OS X.
4) My point about a Hackintosh was that you have to compare "like-to-like". OS X is usually preinstalled, so a fair comparison would be with something like a Dell with preinstalled Ubuntu. OK, it's not entirely fair to compare installing Ubuntu on a computer yourself to building a Hackintosh as Apple actively take steps to prevent people doing so while Ubuntu strives to be compatible with as much hardware as possible, but you get my point. Linux in general supports more hardware out of the box than any other OS (Windows needs drivers installed to support hardware), and under similar circumstances OS X would fare much worse, but of course that's not an issue as the OEM also creates the OS in the case of OS X.
5) The lack of any kind of office suite does bug me a little - it seems odd that Apple don't include some kind of word processor at the least. Perhaps something akin to MS Works might be a good idea - every computer I've bought that came with Windows had a copy of this, and to tell the truth it's not a bad suite for casual use, though I've found that it doesn't interoperate with MS Office, which is downright stupid. In my case, I've installed NeoOffice and I also use Google Docs, but not everyone will know about these.
6) OK, iPods are popular, but they're not universal. Players like Rhythmbox support more different players, whereas iTunes only supports iPods. But sadly, I have to admit neither platform is as good as Windows for third-party players - I used to have a very nice 20GB Sony MP3 player. It's a great player (Sony are one company that rival Apple for great product design IMHO), but it will only work on Windows. And I expect a Zune will probably work with neither Linux nor a Mac!
Ultimately, the arguments people have put are very good - the simplicity and consistency of the single unified Aqua GUI versus the flexibility and choice of Linux's different desktops is a good example that there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I think both are really great platforms, but for me, Ubuntu has the edge.
I also think that the growth of market share for Apple is actually a great thing for Linux in two ways. First of all, it shows that a Unix-like operating system is well-suited to modern computing - secure and powerful, but at the same time simple enough for anyone to use. Second, by pulling consumers away from machines with Windows preinstalled, Windows may come to be seen as a liability by other OEMS (as it may already be, given the frosty reception Vista has had), who would no doubt turn to Linux as an alternative. After all, not everyone wants to use a Mac, but they all want a secure and safe computer, and Linux can provide that to other manufacturers (I mean, if Apple continue to gain market share, the likes of Lenovo, Dell, Acer and Hewlett Packard aren't going to just sit on their backsides, they're going to fight back!)

marko.vihoma said...

MattBD, you are very ill informed about OS X not being UNIX :) OS X 10.5 Leopard is UNIX certified by the Open Group and even previous OS X releases are very UNIX-like on the commandline.

No GNU tools? Well, not all commandline tools are from the GNU project, because OS X commandline tools are mainly based on FreeBSD's (not NetBSD's as you stated). Also the BSD part of the kernel is AFAIK based on the FreeBSD kernel. I've had no problems doing the normal tasks with my shell, utilities and a terminal window neither on FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Linux or OS X, all of these work quite the same (concerning the standard UNIX tools)...

Anyways, I agree that OS X's software management is lacking, a preinstalled net-enabled package manager with ample repositories for OSS/freeware software would be great. Although MacPorts and/or Fink are not too hard to install and use (MacPorts at least is dissapointingly lacking in software compared to, say, FreeBSD's ports).

MattBD said...

Marko, I didn't say that OS X wasn't Unix, nor did I say it was based on NetBSD. I believe that was one of the other commenters.
I'm well aware that OS X Leopard has been recognised as being Unix certified, alongside the likes of AIX, HP-UX and Solaris. However, in practice I'm not convinced this is worth the paper it's written on. From what I hear, Unix certification means that an OS meets certain standards (which I believe any modern Linux distribution would meet), and that a fee has been paid to have it certified. Few Linux vendors can spare the cash needed for Unix certification, and it's probably better spent elsewhere. Also, it's debatable as to whether the Linux or Unix name carries more weight.
Also, although I've heard plenty of people say "(insert OS name) is better because it's real Unix), no-one ever justifies it. Can anyone actually give a good reason for this? I've never heard one yet.

marko.vihoma said...

MattBD, I'm sorry, it was poison164rmk to whom I should have been commenting, not you :)

I also agree, that UNIX certification for a Linux distribution would be a waste of money, and probably most Linux distros already mainly comply to Single UNIX Specification. Also completely adhering to Single UNIX Specification may not be worth it for Linux as GNU tools and Linux were written from scratch to just be UNIX-like (maybe even better in some sense), not UNIX.

For OS X I believe UNIX certification is a marketing gimmick to entice more business clients. It doesn't make much difference at least for me, as I'm happy using my 10.4 Tiger system.

And no, I don't believe OS X is better than any other non UNIX OS, because it's certified UNIX. I like my Mac a lot, but I also like Open-/FreeBSD and Linux. They all have merits and Having the choise with free operating systems and software is great.

I don't have very good arguments to back my preferences, but Mac and OS X is my choise for a desktop/worstation, and OpenBSD for my own servers (no multi-core/-cpu boxes here).