Some backstory: I got my first Macbook back in early 2008. Before that, I had owned a couple of low-end Windows laptops – pretty much whatever was the cheapest thing on sale at Best Buy at the time – and managed to physically destroy both of them within about a year of purchasing them. (I destinctly remember laptop hinges held together with duct tape and propped up to keep the screen from flopping over while working on college assignments.)
Owning a Mac for the first time was almost a magical experience by comparison. It just felt so good to use, especially after those half-broken bargain-basement Windows laptops I’d had before. Even just the little things like being able to close the lid, leave it for a few hours, then open the lid and have it wake right back up? Amazing. Everything “just worked.” Within a matter of weeks I had eagerly embraced everything Mac and never wanted to go back to anything else.
That first white plastic MacBook lasted me a solid four years. After that I upgraded to a MacBook Pro, which lasted another eight (and technically is still functional and usable now, even though I’ve decided to upgrade to a newer machine). Whatever other criticisms there might be of Apple, I’ve found the quality of their laptops to be well worth the investment based on the two that I’ve owned.
In short, I was a happy Mac user, and there was a time when I imagined that I would just keep periodically upgrading to newer MacBooks (as needed) forever. But, alas… As you might’ve guessed by the fact that I’m writing this blog post, that didn’t happen.
Why Move Away From Apple?
The decision not to buy another MacBook for my next laptop was slow to form, and hard to narrow down to any one factor… But a few key things that that motivated it were as follows:
The TouchBar. This might make me sound like a curmudgeonly old person who can’t deal with change, but: I just couldn’t warm up to the TouchBar. And not for lack of trying – my company-issued work computer has been a MacBook Pro with the TouchBar for well over a year now, so I didn’t come to that conclusion without using it for an extended period. I just get no value out of it, and find there to be something viscerally unpleasant about the fact that it’s even there. How there’s no tactile feedback when interacting with it. How easy it is to bump it without meaning to while typing. How unnatural it feels to look down at a tiny strip of screen from a weird angle when I normally don’t even look at the keyboard much at all (I touch type on Dvorak).
Realizing that it was now impossible to buy a new MacBook that didn’t include this feature (which I so intensely did not need or want) was when my perspective on Apple hardware began to shift. Whereas before I had seen MacBooks as solid, high-end, top-of-the-line machines that were well worth the investment, now they began to feel more like gimmicky overpriced toys. Did I really want to pay a premium for one of these?
Apple’s increasingly strict software notarization requirements. I had been seeing a slow but steady stream of developers I follow (mostly in the world of games) mentioning that they would be dropping support for Mac OS due to it being just too onerous to develop for, and too small of a userbase to justify the effort. The general situation with games not being available for Mac was bad enough already, and Apple seemed to be going in the direction of making that situation worse, not better. That didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about the long-term future of being a Mac user, and I started considering that it might be better to jump ship… rather than digging in deeper by investing in another Mac for the next few years.
Using very little Mac-specific software anyway. In recent times, almost everything I’ve been doing for my little personal projects has been using open source software like Godot Engine, Inkscape, GIMP, and Blender. (With the one big exception being my first iPhone game, which is reliant on Xcode due to being built as a native iOS app using Swift and SpriteKit.) But overall I felt like I wouldn’t really be missing that much if I switched to something else as my main machine, and just kept an old beater Mac around for handling any App Store publishing needs going forward.
Overall, there were lots of little nagging things that made me want to move away from Mac OS, and very little that made me want to stay. And on balance, I felt like it was time to consider migrating to something else.
To be completely honest, I didn’t really consider Windows. I’ve been so settled in the Unix-like atmosphere of Mac OS, and I practically live in the terminal (at work especially), so when it came to the prospect of switching, Linux was pretty much the only other option in my mind.
Even though I’ve never used a Linux machine as my primary personal laptop, I wasn’t really concerned about the learning curve – I figured I could adapt to any UI related changes easily enough, and I’m comfortable on the command line. And I wasn’t concerned about software availability – like I mentioned above, most of what I was using on a daily basis was Linux compatible.
My one big concern: the possibility that Linux might be higher maintenance. Messing around with drivers, or needing configuration tweaks / other interventions just to get basic things working? That was something I emphatically did not want. Not necessarily because I find that sort of thing too difficult or too uninteresting – if I had unlimited amounts of time, I could imagine myself exploring and tinkering around with it all day long. But my computer time tends to be limited to whatever’s left over after work and family obligations, and I wanted to be able to channel that toward creative projects, not toward getting my machine to work on a basic level.
Selecting a Linux-Powered Laptop
When I first started researching potential laptops, I was considering options from Lenovo, Dell, and Razer Blade, and I was assuming I would buy something with Windows pre-installed and then have to install Linux on my own.
It was actually on Twitter that I first heard about System76, a small company that manufactures a line of machines designed from the ground up for Linux, and maintains a Linux distribution called Pop!_OS (based on Ubuntu). This immediately intrigued me – I had always thought the luxuriously smooth user experience Apple offered was due (at least in part) to producing both the hardware and software for its laptops, and I didn’t realize anything similar existed in the Linux world.
The tantalizing possibility of that Mac “just works” experience, with Linux, right out of the box, was ultimately what swayed my decision to go with System76 – so I pulled the trigger and ordered the 14” Lemur Pro toward the beginning of July. It wasn’t necessarily the cheapest of the options I considered, but was still pretty reasonable in price – and, important to note, hundreds of dollars less than I would have spent on a new MacBook with similar specs.
It arrived in stylish packaging that seemed to be taunting me to go work on my game projects or something:
I was actually surprised by just how small and sleek it was. I hadn’t looked closely at the measurements and just sort of assumed that this new 14” laptop would be slightly larger than my old 13” MacBook – but it turned out to be actually smaller due to making much more efficient use of the space around the edges of the screen:
And I’m happy to say that so far, the “just works” part has been going about as smoothly as I’d hoped. The trackpad feels really good to use, and everything I’ve plugged into it has worked without issue. (Admittedly that’s been limited to a USB mouse and a second monitor, but I got to plug them straight into full-sized USB and HDMI ports, rather than whatever adapter dongle situation new MacBooks require these days.) I was even able to download photos off of my iPhone and organise them in a slick app called Shotwell, which feels pretty similar to the Mac Photos app.
Overall, Pop!_OS has been a really comfortable environment to land in coming from a Mac background, and it’s similar enough to the much more popular Ubuntu that you can pretty much Google “how to do ___ in Ubuntu” and reliably find compatible answers.
(Side note: Apologies if this is starting to sound like some kind of advertisement; I have no connection to the company that made this delightfully sleek lightweight little laptop, and these are just my own honest not-financially-motivated impressions.)
So that’s my journey from Mac to Linux so far! No regrets at all yet, and I actually feel excited for the future knowing that the stuff I’m using is free and open source rather than being centralized in a few big companies.
The one big caveat: Right now, my one “real” released game, Bitey Trees, is tightly tied to the Mac ecosystem due to being a native iOS app built with Swift and SpriteKit. And while I had tentatively decided to move on and focus on my next game, I had also figured I would continue to support Bitey Trees for the foreseeable future, maintaining it and occasionally adding new levels and such… But being on Linux now throws a bit of a wrench into that. I can’t really work on it at all without firing up my old (increasingly sluggish) MacBook, which I honestly no longer even want.
So rather than abandoning it entirely, I’ve actually been kicking around the idea of migrating it from SpriteKit to Godot Engine (which runs beautifully on Linux). This will admittedly mean rebuilding it entirely, which may seem like a wasteful diversion… But I don’t have any real mobile games released using Godot Engine yet, and now that I’ve more or less committed to using Godot for any new stuff going forward, why not continue the tradition of letting Bitey Trees be a “practice game” of sorts? If I can release an Android version, that experience alone would likely be worth it.
Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this whole crazy migration scheme in future blog posts (assuming I go ahead with it). In the meantime, feel free to check out my Twitter for more updates, and as always, thanks for reading!