A voice crying in the wilderness

Posts tagged ‘Apple’

Choosing an operating system, or chainsaw juggling for beginners

No matter which system you choose, you’ll always be at risk of provoking someone. In the last few years, I’ve found myself switching between Windows, Mac OS and Linux – the latter being my preferred system of the moment, though I veer from one to another like a drunkard leaning against a lamp post.

Of Mac OS X and Linux, there is much to admire in each but despite their similarities, they also represent drastically opposing philosophies.

A year ago I wrote about how I had invested in a new second hand PC to renew experimentation with Linux after using a Mac for several months. Due to taking two weeks off work for surgery, I had plenty of time to experiment but after spending two days configuring the system to my liking, I went back to the Mac. After a few weeks though, Linux became my main system for the next six months.

Until I did a fresh install of MacOS and switched again – but only for a few weeks.

I’m finding myself vacillating between two systems as neither seems entirely right for my requirements – Linux is the more flexible of the two but prone to be rough around the edges, feeling unpolished and unfinished. MacOS is more polished and slick but leaves a feeling of compartmentalising the user, as well as costing a lot more. I do like how nicely Apple products work together but not how Apple try to block out everyone else.

There are other reasons to dislike Apple as well.

1. Most Apple products are manufactured by Foxconn, a company well known for mistreating and underpaying its staff.

2. Apple have very shady practices regarding taxes – they route their profits through numerous subsidiaries and pay only a fraction of what they should.

3. Apple are also prone to vexatious litigation – suing rival companies, even if they don’t have a fully formed case or their position isn’t justified.

I understand to a degree why Apple like to keep their platform closed – aside from keeping a tight grip on their revenue stream, it ensures that hardware and software are tightly integrated. They don’t have to allow for every conceivable hardware combination.

Given the opportunity, I’d probably do something fairly similar myself – after reviewing the available hardware configurations, I’d develop a custom Linux distribution based on the accepted profiles and support only that hardware base.

After watching several documentaries on Steve Jobs and then reading his biography, I find that as much as I dislike the man, there are many aspects of his management style that I would imitate were I to find myself in a similar position.

One of the stumbling blocks I’ve faced previously with Linux is that I’ve not purchased hardware with Linux in mind – I’ve not reviewed the Ubuntu hardware compatibility list for notebooks, desktop PCs or accessories. Some peripherals, such as the Brother laser printer, worked without any effort – plug and play as it should be. Other accessories, such as my Epson scanner purchased before I had any real interest in Linux, proved much harder to work with. After much research online, I discovered how to extract the firmware from the Windows drivers and how to edit the configuration files appropriately.

Video drivers proved to be the toughest challenge – both my 2007 Acer notebook and my 2010 Hewlett Packard desktop went unrecognised. The ATI Radeon HD 2300 in the notebook was sufficiently obscure that even ATI themselves frequently forgot that the chipset existed. The Intel 965 integrated video controller should have been properly supported but as I learned, even Intel only want to support the most recent distributions so Ubuntu 12.04 LTS was already too old to be supported by September 2013. Neither configuration was properly supported until I found myself obligated to upgrade my installation to 14.04 LTS. Even then, the ATI chipset is not supported to its full potential – playing full screen YouTube video, for example, stops and starts fitfully, the audio popping and crackling all the time.

Gradually, I found that if I was prepared to do the necessary research, I could overcome any of the frustrations I encountered with Linux – my confusion in restoring backup files created previously, installing functioning video drivers, tweaking Google Music Manager so that I could access the options screen after the first installation or so forth.

Ultimately, I conclude that although I have issues with Apple, their products are very “together” – I still recommend them to anyone who would like to use a computer but isn’t very technically minded. Linux is more for those who like a hands-on approach and don’t mind getting their hands dirty under the hood. Plus, Linux is a great way to re-purpose ageing but otherwise useful hardware and the vast majority of software is free.

Other niggles I face, such as a lack of a proper iTunes client for Linux, are compensated for in some ways by a reasonably comprehensive and often more cost effective alternative in Google Music. Although there is a client for each platform to upload and download music, the store itself is easily accessed via a web browser. Books, magazines, television shows and motion pictures can be viewed by the browser as well.

Only on rare occasions do I still buy music through iTunes, either someone is having a promotion offering credit at a substantial discount, or its a store exclusive. In future, I will likely buy Google credit though their discounts are smaller and quite infrequent.

My next project is to either get my Time Capsule to work natively with Linux as a backup device, or to replace it with something else that will. I’m reluctant to sell the Mac Mini as well, if only because I may yet change my mind and go back to using MacOS X again for a while – in which case, the Time Capsule will be useful again. For now, I’m planning to re-purpose it into a flexible Apple TV and media centre.

Windows, I think, has no real place in my computer room – I’ve already installed Linux on my brother’s system due to the age of the hardware he was given, and I recently installed Ubuntu 14.04 on my wife’s notebook due to our increasing mutual frustration with Windows Vista. Once we’ve finished converting our VHS video tapes to DVD, likely I will replace it altogether on her system. I have WINE installed on both my Linux systems for the handful of Windows applications that don’t have a native analogue, or the Linux version of the software isn’t as good.

Sadly, I can’t get iTunes to install in a usable form under WINE, and its too slow to operate under a virtual machine. Windows may survive in my collection solely for that purpose.

Reasons why I like Apple and Mac OS X

1. It just works
2. When you plug something in, it figures out what driver is required and installs it for you
3. Apple products are very tidily and neatly designed to work together – Mac, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV co-operate pretty seamlessly – and include most of the software that most people need for everyday needs
4. Having their own stores and support network means that if you have issues, you always have access to someone who will sort it out – often for no charge

Reasons why I dislike Apple and Mac OS X

1. Its a very closed system even though it incorporates some open source software
2. Apple products and accessories have a reputation of being very expensive compared to other platforms
3. Apple have a rather questionable security and privacy commitments – they seem to alternative between declaring their superior security and trying to downplay security incidents (collecting data for NSA, collecting private information even when you have turned those functions off or iCloud being hacked)
4. They will tap into your device to undo unofficial modifications (such as jailbreaking) and remove files (primarily apps) that they no longer wish to support
5. Apple also have a very chequered history regarding environmental responsibility and human rights – failing to use safe materials, failing to dispose of waste products correctly, ensuring that their workers and contractors are paid a fair salary and have a good working environment

Reasons why I like Linux

1. Its open source and community developed – all the work is being done by people who share a common purpose and believe in what they do
2. Its free
3. Its easily configured and customised to suit any purpose

Reasons why I get frustrated with Linux

1. Because it is community developed, often projects are undertaken as a hobby as and when the developer feels like it – there’s no guarantee that any task will ever be finished

2. There are a lot of divisions and fractions within the community so you are often bombarded with many different people telling you what you should do and what the best version of the software is

3. Whilst Linux supports an awful lot of hardware, there’s no real guarantee that your hardware will be properly supported (if at all) or will continue to be supported in the next versions

Think different – Actually, just try thinking all at

I made a decision a few weeks ago to reformat my Mac Mini and, later, my Time Capsule and sell them.

It probably seems strange that eight months ago I was in in full Apple/Steve Jobs fanaticism mode, watching documentaries about Jobs and reading his biography with great enthusiasm. I had my Mac set up more or less the way I wanted it and, following a hernia repair surgery, I had two weeks off work and an abundance of energy due to a bad reaction to the pain management medication I was prescribed.

I took the time to review some of the documentaries I had accumulated in recent months, including three about Steve Jobs. One portrayed him as a genius, a visionary, one who computer enthusiasts owe a great deal to. The other painted him as an unbalanced, obsessive control freak who stole unashamedly from everyone else. The third took sections from each and came to no clear conclusion.

My reading of Jobs’ biography was mostly honest, frequently unflattering and still slightly unhinged; I began to see why so many Christians seem to favour Apple products – there seems an almost religious awe to the way they market their products. There seems to be an appeal to those who aren’t seeking God as such, but someone to tell them how they should live their lives. The public face of Jobs was a most charismatic pastor to the Apple faithful.

When I was still working at The Unnamed Computer Shop, they had finally gained an Apple dealership after several years of unsuccessful applications, though the reasons given for declining were apparently always vague and inconclusive. We had a training session with a representative from our main wholesaler – the session took some time and demonstrated some of the amazing things that the Mac and its software was capable of, but also a clear indication that the Mac was no longer the tool of the free thinking, counter culture artists but now a fashion accessory that you could not live without.

I remember being both impressed and horrified by what I saw. I walked out of the training session and back to my desk suddenly sporting a Van Dyke, beret and a placard proclaiming “Linux power!” At least, that’s how it felt. My inner Socialist was enraged.

It became clear that Apple made use of some very persuasive people – even knowing that Apple was promoted as a lifestyle choice, I managed to get caught up in the hype. I purchased a second hand Mac Mini through the local classified adverts, upgraded the memory to 4GB and spent some time tooling it up until it became my main system for everyday use. My Windows notebook, my primary system for the last six years was relegated to the machine I took with me to LAN parties, programming meetings and when travelling. And yet I was left with a continuous niggling doubt…

One things that struck about Apple is how closed they are – they provide the hardware, the operating system and many of the applications we use. Everything worked together in an impressively seamless and consistent fashion. When comparing with Windows, the latter offers much the same functionality (after a fashion) but everything seemed cobbled together – a collective product by people who had a particular goal in mind but who made no effort to communicate with each other during development. Or sometimes software purchased or licensed from third parties and just dropped into place.

The closed nature of Apple has its benefits but once you try thinking outside of that glass box, you start to run into trouble – like Microsoft, Apple like to keep external developers at arm’s length. Its not that they prevent third party developers, but you will be frowned upon in you don’t follow very specific guidelines. Whilst I found a lot of useful, free tools for everyday general use, some of the software I needed for specific tasks (such as writing DVDs with verification) required some quite expensive software – having purchased this software for Windows, I didn’t want to have to buy it again for the Mac at twice the price.

Whilst I was recovering from surgery in late September and early October, I took some time to tinker again with Linux – my notebook has a rather obscure video controller and few operating systems seem to recognise or support it properly. Various flavours of Linux would operate but I would encounter odd problems like being unable to play streaming video at full screen or the audio stalling, crackling and popping like someone burping underwater. Previously, I had worked with Ubuntu 9.04 which worked pretty well for the most part, improving somewhat under 9.10 but when I upgraded to 10.04, the whole system went to pieces. Fresh installations of successive editions never seemed to work satisfactorily.

Having acquired a three year old Hewlett Packard desktop from a friend, I thought to try again – the same issue of not having the video controller supported properly reoccured, but the issue wasn’t as bad as before; streaming video would sometimes struggle but media systems like VLC could play full screen 720p video without any trouble.

Tweaking, refining and a little bit of research allowed me to get the system up and running to my satisfaction, even to the point of taking over from the Mac as my regular day to day machine. With more memory and something like 12 times the hard disk space, I could keep all my music and photos on the same machine. Features like Ubuntu One cloud storage and the built in backup software make sure that nothing goes astray. WINE had improved enough that Windows specific tools like Irfanview operated perfectly well but if I needed to run some software that demanded something more, I could run a virtual machine loaded with Windows XP for software like iTunes (more for purchasing music than configuring my archaic iPod).

In a way, both my inner Socialist and my outer Christian selves were satisfied with the arrangement. When my brother acquired an old PC from his local technical college, I put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on it as I felt it would be easier for him to use and safer in his inexperience). Eventually, I want to install it on my parent’s PC as well – I just need to figure out remote desktop access for them should they get into any trouble.

The Poor Man’s Apple

Whilst I’ve been off work for a couple of weeks recuperating from my hernia repair, I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with my multiple computers and thinking about their continued place in my life.

Since I first had a chance to work with a microcomputer back in 1984, I’ve gone from intrigued, to fascinated to completely obsessed with computers and their associated technologies. Though I use them every day for writing, research, composing and essential workplace transactions, I’ve been more drawn by their essential “computeriness” than all the things they could enable me to do.

My reason for having so many systems at home is more to do with the way each one does their tasks in a slightly different fashion, how one system is better for web design, another better for experimentation and another for just general web browsing.

As I write that, though, it strikes me as being similar to having multiple cars or vehicles to drive down different surfaces – a hatchback for traversing the suburbs, a boat for water recreation and a motorbike or four wheel drive for off road use.

The conclusion I came to when tinkering with each system is that whilst Windows 7 (and I’ve spent enough time over the last two weeks testing Windows 8 to learn to deal with its quirks and benefits) is probably most suitable to my requirements, I don’t particularly like it.

Its kind of hard to explain, but I suppose you have a system that has expanded and encompassed so many features and attributes that it has come to collapse under its own weight. Having multiple versions, each with their own licensing scheme, confuses matters more. And having come from a background where individualism and innovation were encouraged, it has long frustrated me the way Microsoft often made a person feel that if you weren’t following their instructions specifically (and thus using only their tools and hardware), you were a dangerous and potentially destructive influence.

Of course, with Apple‘s resurgence in recent years, Microsoft have learned to pull their head in a little and get on with making products that work, as well as showing a little more respect to their customer base.

I bought a second-hand Mac Mini a couple of years ago as I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about but find out on my terms, not as according to the marketing material and hype (and fashion culture).

That is certainly one area of the Apple marketing that caused me much frustration and indignation. They had a very good system and peripherals, but they promoted it like a fashion accessory. I’d encountered too many people who pushed the “coolness” factor rather than the “ability to do stuff well” factor. If you had a Mac, you probably drove a BMW and had a house in Nedlands as well. That Sort of Approach. Of course, you probably just used it to type an email now and again and defrost the occasional pizza…

I upgraded the memory on the Mac Mini 18 months ago and after a few false starts, configured it more or less the way I want it and have been using it as my primary system for a while now – although I still flip back to the Windows notebooks from time to time.

About five weeks ago, I purchased a three year old second-hand PC from a friend with a house full of such things. He was clearing things out in an effort to raise some cash by selling old and unused items at the JAFWA geek-mart swap meet at the end of August. I pre-empted it by a few days.

With a little tweaking and adjusting, I had Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS and Windows 8.1 Pro preview up and running to greater degree of satisfaction. Ubuntu running well enough that I decided to clear out one of my backup drives, do a fresh installation of Linux onto a 1.5TB drive and copy all my essential data to the new setup. Once configured, I had what I felt was the poor man’s MacIntosh – a layout that does more or less everything that I can do on my Mac, and perhaps a little more, for a fraction of the price of a real Mac. With WINE installed, I can even run a number of Windows applications if required (though I’ve found that there are few tools that I need that I can’t already find a Linux equivalent for).

But despite all of that, after only a couple of days, I went back to using the Mac.

Maybe its the coolness factor.

One of the things I wanted to do whilst I was resting was catch up on a few documentaries I’ve collected over the last few months – including two about Steve Jobs. Its impressive how much influence and charisma the man had, his “reality distortion field” as its frequently referred to, though “Billion dollar hippy” portrays Jobs as an understated genius, “One last thing” is more critical and suggests that Jobs was not a particularly nice man at all. I still find the whole affair fascinating though, so I’m looking into buying his biography and related books (in dead tree format, I’m not much into ebooks just yet).

Its a shame Dennis Ritchie didn’t garner so much fame or riches during his lifetime.