Confessions Of An Operating System Junky

In the past five years, I’ve switched from OSX to Ubuntu to Windows and back to OSX. I also got rid of my iPad four years ago and bought an HP 12 Chromebook that I use whenever I’m on the road. Why all of the changes? In short, because I’m a nerd: I take pleasure in exploring the diversity of operating systems and finding out how different systems accomplish similar tasks. I’m also finicky. If things don’t work the way I want them to, I tend to fidget with them until they do.

This article isn’t about my quirks, though. And it isn’t about declaring any particular OS the best. As many tech reviewers have pointed out over the past couple of years, proclaiming that a particular OS, computer, or phone is “the best” isn’t a fight they want to pick with anyone because so much of it boils down to personal preferences. With that said, however, some of the lessons I’ve learned — especially those relating to the relationship between the OS and the hardware — might be helpful to you if you’re in the market for a new computer and are open to a platform swap.

Ubuntu

Let’s start with Ubuntu. I’m thankful for my three years on Ubuntu but I probably won’t go back. As a learning experience for someone who wants to gain more knowledge about programming and computers, it’s invaluable. Just through the osmosis method of keeping an Ubuntu computer going for three years, I learned a great deal about programming. The funny thing is that I didn’t even know I was learning useful skills until I enrolled in a Firehose Project Software Engineering & Web Development course and began to discover that many of the tasks and actions in Ubuntu that I categorized as “pointless meddling” were actually core coding concepts and skills that had relevance in other environments. Who would’ve thunk?

For the normal person who’s just trying to get through their workday, however, Ubuntu is not an efficient choice because the operating system requires so much attention. Of course, there are other factors that might sway you. For instance, if you place a high value on privacy, security, transparency, longevity, and/or other open source benefits, than yeah, Linux operating systems may be worth your investment. Also, the more capable you become in programming, the less time you’ll need to invest in Ubuntu troubleshooting, which helps balance the cost-benefit ratio.

Ubuntu was most enjoyable on my System76 computer. System76 assembles their computers in the U.S. with hardware that’s known to be Linux-friendly. However, my motherboard shorted out after two years and I wasn’t excited about buying another computer from them. That’s when I purchased a Dell Inspiron 2-in-1. Originally, it was supposed to be released with an option for pre-loaded Ubuntu and there were all kinds of stories on Linux blogs toting its imminent arrival. The pre-loaded version never materialized but I figured that even if I couldn’t buy it with Ubuntu baked in, the computer should at least be Ubuntu-friendly. It wasn’t. In fact, out of all the computer/OS combinations I’ve owned, that was the worst.

Microsoft Windows

After a year of trying to keep Ubuntu running smoothly on the Dell while meeting my grant writing deadlines, the free Windows 10 upgrades came out and I decided to restore the Dell back to Windows. Despite the computer being a touchscreen hybrid — the kind of computer that Windows 10 was supposedly designed for — I was wholly unimpressed. The Windows Store and Windows 10 apps stopped working within a month or two, the trackpad was seven kinds of buggy, and sometimes the Cortana search results would list Settings when I searched for them and sometimes they wouldn’t (totally mystifying). While my experience with Windows 10 has not been positive, I have a friend with a Microsoft Surface who loves her computer so perhaps computers running Windows 10 on Microsoft hardware offer a radically different — and better — user experience. On my Dell, however, not so much.

Back to OSX

This summer I bought a 2016 12" MacBook. Why? First, the whole Apple thing: it just works. What do people mean when they say that? For me, that translates into my computer becoming invisible as I’m accomplishing other tasks. There’s also the build quality: it’s a pleasure to look at and touch. But why the 12" MacBook, a notoriously divisive laptop? Basically, it had all the pros of my HP 12 Chromebook: portability, great trackpad, and great keyboard (yes, the shallow keys take some getting used, but after a few weeks it’s hard to go back to more traditional keyboards). Plus the MacBook is fast. It swallowed my 150GB music library without even a burp and it can quickly edit pdf files and images without an internet connection. Although I work in a Google environment 90% of the time — and those tasks that make up the other 10% are possible to do on a Chromebook — they can be done much quicker (and without an internet connection) on a MacBook.


Wrap Up

While I learned a lot about computers and programming over the past five years, the more interesting realization is how much more enjoyable a computer’s user experience is when the operating system and the hardware play nicely together. And conversely, how quickly you can grow to dislike your computer when the hardware and software don’t get along. In this day and age where all of the major operating systems are fairly mature in their development, you can’t compare them in isolation. Rather, your experience of the OS is becoming increasingly dependent upon its relationship with the hardware. Apple was the first to learn this and their masterful execution of that relationship is what had me return to their products. Now other companies are catching on, as demonstrated by Google’s release of the Pixel phones and Microsoft’s release of the Surface Studio. I hope this is a trend that continues with other companies as well.