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Farewell, Apple. Hello Linux Mint!

How I gave up my MacBook Pro

That's right, I packed it in. My MacBook Pro is now on the shelf. In a while, it goes on Craigslist -- not because it's been obsoleted by the latest version of Mac OS -- Mountain Lion as mine will work okay (some MacBook Pros will not). Instead, there's a cushy comfort zone that's dangerous for a product reviewer to fall into.

Apple sent some machines a long time ago to my lab. Try them, they said. They were damn seductive and had populist agendas going for them. They combined elements of open source, Microsoft Office, and a slick look-and-feel. They tasted of Unix, and I've been using Unix since 1979. Mostly, to borrow a highly overused phrase, it just worked. That was at Mac OS X (10.0), which had just changed over from a long stretch of OS9. There was even a bundled OS9 compatibility mode for legacy software.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: The Apple security survival guide | BOOK GIVEAWAY: Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual, Lion Edition ]

Mac OS then moved onto Intel hardware in a move that surprised many. Early software allowed Windows to work on it in virtual machines -- or by a dual-boot arrangement. If your business was IT, one machine could cover both operating systems, Mac and Windows. Yes, you had to buy the Windows licenses, but it was one machine.

Support for Apple software among major vendors was at the time, minimal, because of Apple's prior use of the PPC processor. Handily Apple included a processor instruction translation capability that allowed Intel and PPC software to execute concurrently in the same machine; that capability was lost at Mac OS 10.6.

No one wanted the expense of supporting two platforms when sales of Apples were small. Now, Apple is on a somewhat level playing field with Microsoft in terms of mainstream software support. For me, however, it was time to change.

Day one: What to use in lieu of the Mac?

I coveted the MacBook Air. Nice machine. It's light weight if bereft of specs comparable to bigger machines. I had to keep the weight down. I needed a fat hard drive and a lot of memory. I could choose between Linux and Windows, or both with VM technology. It boiled down to 8GB of memory with a 200GB+ hard drive. WiFi with 802.11n had to be available. Bluetooth would be nice but optional. Same went for an internal CD/DVD. I download most stuff these days and have a USB 2.0 based hard drive that stores a terabyte. Good battery life might be nice.

The list narrowed down to a Lenovo X120e. It has a smaller screen, but the keyboard is great for a touch typist. I decided on Linux Mint 12, the Gnome/Debian version, as the base. Windows 7 or 8 would probably live in a virtual machine, as well as other virtual machines I already use. I found one on eBay at a very reasonable price, then outfitted it with more memory and a fatter hard drive, still well under budget.

[ Linux Mint 13 gets back to desktop basics ]

Day two: App compatibility

Work production requires something that saves in the Rosetta Stone of document formats, the ubiquitous .DOC file. Microsoft Office on the Mac translated to LibreOffice, which behaves in many ways like Microsoft Office -- especially in the word processing department. Linux Mint includes it.

But Apple Mail is a lifeblood, as Outlook will likely be for Windows users. I already use a Zimbra email server appliance that comes from TurnkeyLinux.com. There's no Microsoft Exchange or Gmail or other mail server in the picture. Zimbra admins can transfer mail and folders from Apple Mail to Zimbra IMAP (a webmail protocol) that in turn, can be used with a Zimbra desktop application. This would be major. I live on email.

Inside of Zimbra's online webmail client is an RSS reader. I used NetNewsWire on Apple; it would take some playing with to transfer the RSS subscriptions to my favorite news sites, including my custom Craigslist feeds for RV parts, NYTimes articles, and the myriad of sites that I track through RSS.

Then there was a mess that had to be cleaned up. There are duplicate photos all over my Mac. Call it user stupidity or whatever you want, but of the 90,000 photos I have, about 75,000 are duplicates. They fill my machine, and they are plentiful. Eventually gThumb would take over the responsibility from iPhoto. The gThumb app is also included with Linux Mint. There are others yet gThumb seems to have at least the initial capability of being able to help me sort out the duplicates. I'll explain how later.

Day three: The base install

There's a download for Windows that installs Linux Mint onto a flash drive; I booted from the flash drive to install Linux Mint. It took about 20 minutes. The updates, however, took a miserably long time. It's important here to both thank the Linux Mint people for a fine distribution, and humbly suggest that they pack their website downloads and mirrors with versions of stuff that are newer than three years old (in some cases).

It took four times as long for the updates as the initial installation because the initial installation's packages were so out of date. But everything updated correctly. Almost. One update for gstream halted everything until I skipped it manually and the rest of things updated correctly. A few days later, the gstream problem was caught and updated. I'm not sure what gstream does. But ostensibly, it works now.

Day four: Apps

I backed up the Mac four times. No, really. Two Apple Time Machine backups were done. Then two manual backups were done onto different media. Why? My income depends on my data and historical docs, mail, and so forth. Plus, I have the space; not many do.

Zimbra came first. I had to do the aforementioned IMAP transfers. When I tried to do them by folder, I got errors. Maybe it was the 15,000+ emails in some folders. I knew I was pushing it. I had to scrape portions of folders, a bit at a time. It took 11 hours, off and on. I have a lot of mail. It's all intact; I sampled each folder. It's all there.

Then there's the trick of associating the IMAP account with another one, and everything proceeded to populate itself as I attended the process occasionally. That took about four hours of clicking stuff occasionally, but no real work was done by me, just attending it. Zimbra is an open source product, but with closed source pieces available, sponsored as a project by VMware.

The docs were restored in to the Documents folder on the Lenovo. Music was transferred, but it's not as important as the rest of the stuff, so re-categorizing it will come later.

The pictures remain, but a sampling says that they ought to arrive correctly, and most of the duplications won't be made through a "do not overwrite" selection in gThumb. Because this is going to take a while, it'll have to be done in the future. The near future.

Day five: Config

Wallpaper. Timezones. Calendar importation. Contacts importation. CalDav is a standard that Apple follows; it worked well. There were various selections to make. Do you want it to behave like a Mac, or like Windows, or like Gnome, or what? I figured it out. There are files I need constantly. I put them where they belong.

It reminded me of moving. Boxes to unpack. Where's my favorite apple peeler? How about the VMs? Did they make it? Do they react to the different hardware? I was amazed: the virtual machines seemed to behave no differently, and in retrospect, they shouldn't behave differently.

Day six: Final evaluation

The Lenovo hardware uses a dual core AMD CPU, and it's known to be slower than the MacBook Pro. I knew that. But the Lenovo is much faster in many respects, including faster boots, suspends (the equivalent of "sleep" on the Mac) that are just as fast, and the file system seems to move quickly although I have only my own anecdotal evidence that it's going more quickly.

What's slower is anything having to do with graphics rendering. Firefox is the new browser in town, and it's not as good as Safari. I don't use Chrome. Firefox seems to become burdened after a point, slowing down, but doesn't flatly crash like Safari. Plug-ins seem to slow Firefox down considerably and I'm not sure why. I'm still investigating it.

Initial WiFi connection to an access point is slower. The Lenovo is plainly more difficult to get wireless connections and get moving. It's not much, but frustratingly discernible.

I've had to use a terminal about a half dozen times. I have no fear of CLI, but some people look at a CLI prompt and haven't the vaguest clue of what to do. Linux Mint has the Debian version as an underpinning, and I had to remember the few interesting ways that Debian does things. It's a school of thought that installs software differently than SUSE or Red Hat versions. After a fashion, I recalled the salient differences and was merrily installing the smaller apps quickly. It's Ubuntu underneath, atop Debian, so Ubuntu support sites have lots of usually useful information for tech questions.

Day seven: Final grade

The photos still aren't imported. Bluetooth still doesn't work, but I have a few clues as to why. I just took the machine on a 12-day journey and didn't have to login to the MacBook Pro even once. It sat on a desk, lit up and ready for a remote logon, in case I couldn't make the Lenovo work. I believe in backups.

I'm officially off the MacBook Pro. Civilians will probably need an integrator's help (read nearby geek) to pull off what I did, and much depends on applications and data critical to that user. Some can have an easy transition. Others may have dependencies on the Mac that I don't. Windows users will have other experiences, although the similarities between Mac and Linux are closer. Windows has legacy problems; Linux/Unix/MacOS all have their own legacy quirks.

Today, at least, I'm rocking on a small Lenovo with a total cost under $500 that's brand new. Do I still covet a Mac? They're lovely and a wonderful experience. Excuse me, I have work to do.

Addenda

The Macbook Pro replacement, a small but very usable Lenovo X120e, has become a great companion. Ultimately, however, I found it's unusable for a single reason: its screen is too small. I obtained a larger machine after a month, a T520 Lenovo, which is at least twice as heavy, but has a far larger screen that allows me to have many items open visibly and usably at once. It is with great reluctance that I now carry a machine around that weighs approximately as much as the MacBook Pro that it replaced. But I do. Work production mandates it. The small Lenovo 120e, oddly, gets packed as well. It's just too fun.

Apple's power cord, with its magnetic connector is also superior to Lenovo's power supply and cords. I'm waiting to find a full-search text method for indexed document files, too. I'm close to a solution, but nothing yet. Otherwise, I'm out of the Apple sphere of influence, and what some call the Reality Distortion field.

Apple, like other vendors, now has vast economic ecosystems that are building data empires of analytics, and dossiers of their clientele. I'm no longer a customer, I'm a profit center.

This article, "Farewell, Apple. Hello Linux Mint!" was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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