Miscellaneous Ramblings

Is Ubuntu Linux a Sensible Alternative for Mac Users?

A 'Best of Miscellaneous Ramblings' Column

Charles Moore - 2006.09.18 - Tip Jar

A friend of mine phoned to ask if I thought he should install Ubuntu Linux on his Macs - a 1.33 GHz G4 iBook currently running OS X 10.4 "Tiger" and a 1.25 GHz Power Mac G4 tower with OS X 10.3 "Panther" installed.

My friend had read a feature in the local newspaper extolling the virtues of Ubuntu Linux and thought it sounded interesting.

Ubuntu is a other project dedicated to making Linux user-friendly enough to be used as a mainstream desktop OS, and it's arguably the most successful iteration toward that objective to date. Ubuntu supports Intel/AMD PC hardware as well as Power PC Macs.

Does Ubuntu Linux make any sense for Macintosh users?

In my friend's case, I would say no, and I did.

He's an experienced, but not especially tech-savvy, non-power user, and the geek aspect of Linux would be of no interest or service to him. The machines he has are powerful and up-to-date enough to run OS X very comfortably. He has a suite of Mac software, and I can perceive no advantage and many potential pitfalls in his switching to Linux.

On the other hand, for users of older Mac hardware, particularly machines not supported by OS X, Linux is a way to give them a new lease on life with a modern, secure, and robust operating system that requires less power and processor overhead on their less-than-cutting-edge equipment.

Older Mac software can be accommodated using the Mac on Linux emulator - a sort of "Classic Mode" for Linux on PowerPC Macs.

Linux also has the advantage of being free.

The main advantage, as I see it, of using a Macintosh is that it runs the Mac OS, which is unmatched and unchallenged in terms of user-friendliness. Like Linux, OS X gives you the stability and power of Unix (albeit from different branches of the Unix family tree), but combined with the best graphic user interface yet devised for personal computers, ease of software installation, and, with rare exceptions, true plug and play - "it just works" - with peripherals and networking support.

...I kept asking myself, "Why would I want to put up with the aggravations and hassles of using Linux on a computer that supports the Mac OS?"

I've installed a couple of Linux distros - SuSE and Yellow Dog - on Macs in the past, partly as an exercise in curiosity. It was an interesting trip, but I kept asking myself, "Why would I want to put up with the aggravations and hassles of using Linux on a computer that supports the Mac OS?"

I couldn't come up with anything convincing.

Consequently, if I had a non-Apple PC, Ubuntu Linux would probably be my first choice of operating systems, but with a Mac, you already have the best operating system in world.

However, if you're interested in Ubuntu, it's a complete Linux-based operating system, freely available with both community and professional support being developed by a large community.

Gnome is the default desktop user interface for Ubuntu. It can also be installed with the ubuntu-desktop package, while KDE is the default desktop for the Kubuntu variant.

The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Philosophy: Software should be available free of charge, software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.

The current Ubuntu release supports PC (Intel x86), 64-bit PC (AMD64), UltraSPARC T1 (Sun Fire T1000 and T2000), and PowerPC (iBook and PowerBook, G4 and G5) architectures.

Ubuntu includes more than 16,000 pieces of software, but the core desktop installation fits on a single CD. Ubuntu covers every standard desktop application from word processing and spreadsheet applications to web server software and programming tools.

A standard Ubuntu install contains a selection of applications, including OpenOffice 2.0 for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, the GIMP for image editing and the Firefox web browser more. You can Play, rip and mix your CDs with the Rhythmbox Media Player or play your videos in Totem.

You can download the Ubuntu DesktopCD and test Ubuntu without changing anything on your computer. If you want to keep Ubuntu permanently, there is an easy installer right on the DesktopCD.

You may request CDs at https://shipit.ubuntu.com

Maybe you'll like it; maybe not.

Switching from Mac to Linux?

Earlier this year, longtime Mac programmers Tim Bray and Mark Pilgrim stirred the waters of the Mac community by announcing that they were switching from Mac OS X to Ubuntu. However, Bray recently expressed some sober second thought in a blog posting, For Now I'm a Macboy Again, in which he observes:

"On balance, the Mac experience is better. But Ubuntu is not that far behind, and it's catching up. I'm thinking about the endgame."

He goes on to list a variety of areas where the Mac OS is superior.

Further Reading

  • Why run Linux on a low-end Mac?, Larry Stotler, Linux on the Low End, 2006.07.19. Linux supports older video cards and requires less RAM than Mac OS X, and it lets you run modern browsers not available under OS 9.
  • Preparing your PCI Power Mac for Linux, Larry Stotler, Linux on the Low End, 07.26. How powerful a CPU do you need? How much memory? Do you need a faster drive controller? Are some video cards better than others?
  • The ins and outs of booting Linux on the Mac, Larry Stotler, Linux on the Low End, 07.31. "Old World" Macs can't boot directly into Linux. They need to boot the Classic Mac OS first, then pass control over to Linux.
  • Preparing your Mac's hard drive for Linux, Larry Stotler, Linux on the Low End, 08.09. Before you install Linux, you have to partition your hard drive. A look at three different hard drive strategies for Mac Linux.
  • Installing Linux on a PCI Power Mac, Part 1, Larry Stotler, Linux on the Low End, 09.05. Preparing your PCI Power Mac (or clone) for Linux and getting openSUSE Linux installed.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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