My personal computing experience is about to be ruined forever and there’s nothing I can do about it
UNIX, Good UX, Good software support, Good hardware. I wanted it all.
It all started in early 2015. I just came to America, armed with nothing but my Surface Pro 1, having had to sell my big desktop setup. Starting to drift deeper into this new world of CS that I found myself in, I wanted to get an OS X machine. iOS apps, the excuse went. Not having much money to spare, I got this $235 ThinkPad T420, specifically for its amazing OS X compatibility.
It turned out to be so much more.
This unholy abomination, the big fat rectangle slab running an operating system it was never meant to run, is the best personal computing experience I’ve ever had.
ThinkPad T420 and Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite.
Falling in love with OS X
You know, I didn’t like OS X that much when I first tried it. I was very much annoyed by how window management worked. There was no taskbar. No Aero Snap. I hated it! That is, until I finally started using multiple desktops.
I’m kind of a window hoarder, which before made OS X almost unusable to me. I’d end up having 15 different windows open for each app, all layered on top of each other, and it would be a mess. Combine that with me not really liking to restart my machine that much, I’d sometimes be finding windows from weeks or even months ago whenever trying to find that window I accidentally overlapped with my web browser. Realizing I can separate them into different categories was a life changing event to me. I assigned my function keys to navigate across my screens — and I use these keys so often they almost became a new home row for me.
Beyond that, it’s all UX, some of it in places you’d never look.
Quick Look. Being able to hold an app’s title bar and then move it to a different workspace with just one key press. Clipboard keeping the alpha channel. Holding a file over folders to navigate the file system. Language switcher remembering your last two used layouts.
Also, Miller Columns.
Really, the biggest flaw this ThinkPad has is that it’s heavy enough to kill somebody.
OS X runs faster on this thing than Windows ever did. Everything from sleep to 3D acceleration works perfectly.
I love being able to self-service this computer. A screwdriver is all you need to take it apart, and I’ve done all sorts of things, from the basic stuff like putting in an SSD and maxing out the RAM, to more interesting things like swapping out the CD drive for a second HDD and replacing my entire motherboard (the CPU isn’t soldered on!)
I love having every port under the sun in the machine.
I love the keyboard and its 7 rows of keys, including my beloved F-keys.
And yes, the TrackPoint. I love the TrackPoint, it’s amazing, and it’s insane how well it works in OS X. I don’t ever touch the trackpad, hell, it’s disabled completely. Hand my computer to somebody and they won’t be able to navigate to Facebook if their life depended on it.
But I don’t care. It’s called a personal computer for a reason.
Nothing’s ever 100% perfect. Not even my hero of a computer.
On the hardware side, it’s the usual ThinkPad complaints. The screen sucks. The colors suck, the viewing angles suck. There’s a 1080p screen mod somewhere out there, but it requires a special board that was sold by one guy on one forum, and he quit taking orders. And it’s heavy — not a device I’d want to carry with me daily to class.
And then there’s OS X, and some of the strange things about it. You probably heard what Linus Torvalds had to say about HFS+, and you probably have replaced a system package or two with a Homebrew version.
OS X ships with 9 year old bash — something about folks at Apple being really mad at GPL3. Sure, I can use zsh or get whatever bash version I want from Homebrew (which is what I did, in fact, with a huge pile of symlink trickery to make it actually work), but it feels weird having to do this to begin with.
Still, despite that, it’s a lovely setup I’ve got. A nice big black rectangle of a computer with software that gets as close to the whole ‘just works’ principle for me as possible.
But it’s all going to hell
My dream setup turned out to be a five year old laptop computer running a two year old operating system. It’s aging. How long will it be able to serve me? How many more upgrades can I make to have my aging ThinkPad keep up with the ever-changing world? And even then… Does it matter, if I can’t keep using my favorite software?
OS X Yosemite is two years old. I tried OS X El Capitan. I did not like it. I can’t blame Apple for the security choices they made, even if they broke lots of my tweaks. I can’t blame Apple for whatever Hackintosh problems that could occur — because there weren’t any. I can and I do blame Apple for the bugs and for every single Finder crash, though.
I did not even try macOS Sierra. I watched the keynote, I scrolled through Apple.com, and realized something. I didn’t care about a single feature Apple put in the front. I didn’t care about Siri, didn’t care about Photos, didn’t care about iCloud, didn’t care about Apple Pay, didn’t care about Messages.
OS X, and Apple in general, are heading in the opposite direction from me. I am about to meet the same fate that already claimed Final Cut Pro, Aperture, and all Mac Pro users. I am merely prolonging my death with the pile of hacks that is my hero setup, clinging to the same desire to service my machine that kept the non-Retina MacBook Pro alive until now.
It makes sense to do this. It makes no sense for Apple to cater to me. It makes no sense to have user-serviceable parts, when I can be sold a $200 RAM upgrade and AppleCare+. It makes perfect sense for them to simplify the OS, to try and move to where more customers are, so I will not say that Apple is doomed, and that losing me as a customer (hey now, I did actually own a MacBook at some point) is the final nail in the coffin.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It left me at a dead end, sitting on an old operating system on unsupported hardware. I don’t know what to do, where to go after it’s finally time to move on.
When Yosemite runs out of security patches, where can I even go?
Stay with Apple?
Beyond the Hero ThinkPad, I did have a Surface Pro 3 (an upgrade, but that’s a story for another time) until very recently, and I am now a recovering Windows Phone user.
Honestly? It could work. Bash on Windows was a surreal experience. I wanted to re-encode something in ffmpeg on the go — so I only had my Surface. Installing ffmpeg with apt-get, then cloning my dotfiles repo, then just using my scripts without a single change. Living the dream!
But what’s dragging the OS down is legacy. Legacy drivers, legacy code, legacy apps.
I recently tried Windows on a shiny new X1 Carbon, and that was a strange experience. Nevermind all the Lenovo bloat, what the hell is up with the TrackPoint drivers? Nevermind lack of diagonal scrolling or lack of middle click support (both things my setup can do, by the way), how is it possible for the driver to get swapped out of memory and leave your TrackPoint useless if you are doing RAM-intensive work?
Trackpads in general and Windows are a sad story. Microsoft finally added good support for them, and it’s ruined by poorly written drivers and poorly written software.
Beyond that, it really mostly comes down to UX.
Alpha channel and the clipboard. The slightly poorer workspace support. The way the language switcher works. Lack of my beloved Miller Columns.
But imagine if Microsoft suddenly ditched legacy stuff. If they just went and decided to set themselves free, and do things in a different way. Imagine the terrible backlash they would get, and how far they would end up having to backpedal even from the good parts of what they proposed.
2016 is a year of many surprises, so perhaps it could be my little personal year of Linux on the desktop?
Well, it ticks the UNIX checkmark, bet you didn’t expect that. I use enough cross-platform software to get away with just having a copy of Windows in a VM for those special moments, and I don’t particularly mind tinkering with config files.
Then we get to UX. So close, yet so far.
Aqua-but-worse might be the most accurate description for my current Unity setup. I almost have it working, you see. I have my 7 desktops, and can even go as far as assigning windows to specific desktops, even if it’s extremely painful to do. But everything’s ever-so-slightly broken. Said window assignments don’t work for some apps. Shortcuts randomly stop working, random freezes and error popups.
But in terms of my usual UX complaints, there’s actually a lot of things done well! Language switcher, in GNOME, at least. Alpha channel. Can even get Quick Look if you really try.
And then it all goes and falls apart in places you’d never expect. For example, how do you expand a tree in the GUI using the keyboard? It works with the right arrow on both OS X and Windows, but I’ve got no clue what it’s supposed to be on Linux.
There does exist another path, however. I walked far enough down that road to be a full time Vim user. I tried out i3wm before, and I actually found it pretty interesting. But I do love having sane defaults, and that’s as far as I can get from that, having to setup everything from volume keys to even mounting plugged in USB drives manually. But perhaps, if I truly embraced the terminal, it could work out.
I don’t want to compromise. I don’t want death by a thousand little UX annoyances. I don’t want to settle for hardware that requires a heat gun and alchemy to disassemble.
Perhaps, I could just run away from it all. What’s gonna stop me from becoming a recluse with an unpatched operating system? What’s gonna stop me from being ‘that guy’ with the 10, 15, 20 year old computer? After all, there are still people running Mac OS 9 out there.
It’s sad to think about, but someday this dream will end and I will need to make a choice.
Until then, at least, I still have my wonderful ThinkPad.
My truly personal computer.