I am not an operating system loyalist. It's not an exaggeration to claim I've probably had over 100 different computers throughout my life – my career in IT has me swimming through a sea of computer parts. I've run every version of macOS and Windows (and many versions of BSD, Linux, ChromeOS, etc) since the mid-90s. The point is, I'm not shy about trying things out, and I know exactly how green the grass is on the other side of the hill.
Computers should never, ever reboot.
The computer's job is to help me do things. None of the things I need help doing are served by the computer rebooting. The ideal computer never needs to reboot because it never crashes, and because it installs all software upgrades without interrupting me. When powered on, the computer should resume to the exact state it was in when powered off, as if it had never stopped running. Rebooting is maintenance, not utility, and the least maintenance any tool requires, the better.
Windows 10 forces frequent and disruptive reboots. Disabling this behavior is very difficult for me, a Windows sysadmin, and effectively impossible for a regular user. On the Apple side, macOS too forces reboots, although less frequently than Windows. Also, macOS is superior at restoring the user's session after a reboot.
However, macOS has identity issues – is is a general-purpose operating system? Or just a electronic pocketknife, capable of many things but forever limited to what the manufacturer built in? Each version of macOS grows more forceful into pushing all users into adopting a predefined, narrow set of software. This means that macOS stops me from using the computer to its full potential, dropping the operating system's utility to be even less that of Windows.
So when my new laptop frequently rebooted itself, I was frustrated and about to return it. As a last ditch "let's try anything" tack, I installed the latest Ubuntu. As much (or little) as I favor any Linux distro, Ubuntu has been my go-to. Ubuntu is an outgrowth of Debian, which I have found very reliable, and has a large community to support it. I've had different computers running Ubuntu for several years now. I'm not an expert, but I'm familiar with it.
Before this, I did not dislike Ubuntu. Rather, I found Windows or macOS more useful. In computing, some people value usefulness less than philosophical and ethical arguments – they promote Linux as a battle standard of the Free and Open Source Software movement. Those people's commitment to their ethics is admirable. However, I've never believed that FOSS is the only path, and pick closed-source software when it is the more useful option. Improvements to Ubuntu have now made this a moot point.
Ubuntu now offers a better user experience than Windows or macOS.
yes, it's true
Ubuntu installed easily. All the hardware drivers were automatically available during install. No bloatware tried to sneak along for the ride. The Ubuntu Software program makes getting applications installed a breeze. The terminal provides all the easy and flexible power over the machine that I'm accustomed to on Linux servers.
Those things are great, but they're bare minimum – Windows can do all those things. Where does Ubuntu supersede?
Operating system updates are so much smoother and less invasive than on Windows. Most don't require reboots, and the few that do are happy to wait until I reboot the machine myself.
Ubuntu looks better on my screen – this laptop has a 4K monitor, which Windows still can't quite figure out how to scale for. Yes, macOS looks better than Windows, especially on a high-resolution screen like this. Ubuntu now looks just as good, but with far more customization than macOS.
Ubuntu controls the hardware better. Screen brightness settings are much more nuanced and useful than those in Windows. Keyboard backlighting is the same story. Ubuntu calculates battery life and power usage accurately, Windows never could do that. Ubuntu sleeps and wakes smoothly.
Of course, it's not the operating system alone that makes the computer useful. The OS gives you a solid base, but without anything to put on top of it, who cares? (Remember BeOS?) Here's the software that I've found the most useful, all free and available in the built-in Ubuntu Software app.
- Firefox — Well, you need a web browser. I use Firefox everywhere, not just on Linux. But Firefox works well on Ubuntu, it feels native.
- Thunderbird — I use hosted email. The provider has a webmail app, but I like going old-school and having email software running on my machine. I tried several different clients, but landed on boring old reliable Thunderbird. It may not be rethinking the paradigms of communication or some such bullshit, but it works well, and is timeless.
- Sublime Text — On Windows, I've been using EditPad Pro as my IDE for as long as I can remember. It's not perfect, but I know it so well I never saw any point in changing. Unfortunately, it is Windows-only, and I needed to find something new for Ubuntu. I tried several IDEs, only stopping my search when I found Sublime Text. I'm behind the curve, apparently everyone else already fell in love with this tool. Now I am too. It may even replace EditPad Pro in my heart, but my heart is icy and cold, and any changes there take several years to settle in.
- LibreOffice — Not the most exciting entry on this list, but office productivity software is something I depend on, and without a tool like this, Ubuntu wouldn't be useful.
- Darktable — The open source alternative to Lightroom. Adobe Lightroom is another tool that I've been using since forever and I know intimately. Darktable users claim it can fully replace Lightroom, but I will need some serious convincing. For now, I'm happily learning Darktable on this laptop while keeping Lightroom running on my Windows rig for when I need to move quickly.
- FocusWriter — I sometimes write things, like this, and while any program that allows text input can be used to write, sometimes you want something purpose-built. I used to do what I imagine most people do, which is write in Microsoft Word or ones of its clones (Microsoft WordPad, Google Docs, Apple Pages, LibreOffice Writer, ClarisWorks). But Word tries to be a one-stop-shop document creation tool, handling page layout, document organization, and many other features beyond just writing. Taking the opposite approach, FocusWriter removes all the extraneous parts of word processing, dropping the user directly into a pure writing experience, leaving all the formatting and page layout for later.
- Filezilla — I use this on Ubuntu only until I can find something better. It's another tool I've been using for decades, so I know it well. However, despite its open source core, it does not feel native on Linux.
- GoldenDict — A little bit wonky of a tool, but this offline dictionary app can load the Webster's Revised Unabridged 1913 Dictionary advocated for in this blog post, and that alone makes it useful.
- Terminal — I know Terminal is built-in to Ubuntu, but I need to call it out for how awesome a job the creators have done with it. It feels so much more a part of the system than CMD, PowerShell, or the macOS Terminal tool.
I know that each of these tools (except Sublime Text) is an open source project with varying levels of sponsorship and contribution from for-profit companies. I do my best to be grateful to those who contribute, and appreciate and acknowledge all the work that's gone into making these programs be as useful and convenient as they are. Peaking beneath the hood of any one of these projects can give you a glimpse of the vast amount of engineering expertise put into a tool that's being given away at no cost. It's staggering, overwhelming. Software design is not my background, so my contributions are only financial. But I am impressed that the community has now created a better desktop experience than the corporations.