Why an Ubuntu enthusiast switched to M1 Macbook Air?

I was a very religious Ubuntu enthusiast for the last 15+ years and was using Ubuntu LTS versions as my daily driver on Thinkpad laptops. I recently ( in the last 2 months ) bought myself an Apple Macbook Air ( M1 ) and don’t think I will be going back to Ubuntu any time soon. In this post, I am going to explain the reasons for switching from Ubuntu to Mac and also the overall experience so far.

What was my Ubuntu setup?

Up until the last couple of months, I was running Ubuntu 16.04 LTS with Gnome desktop running on a Thinkpad T470 ( Intel 7th Gen Core i7, 32 GB ram, Nvidia Graphics – 2GB ). You can see my Ubuntu system set up on this Youtube Video. I was comfortable with the setup and also the Thinkpad as the hardware was solid. But not everything was great. There were reasons for me to switch to a Mac system.

Reasons for switching to a Mac

The most commons reasons for the switch are listed below. There were other minor ones as well, but the below list summarizes the relevant ones.

1. Finally a value for money Mac with decent performance

One of the major blockers for me on the Apple side was the exorbitant pricing for the laptops. I was never able to convince myself for getting an expensive Mac when the same configuration was available for much less. The only difference I felt was the software experience and I was not ready to shell out the money just for that. I bought my Thinkpad in 2016 and it cost around $1600. The same configuration ( a 16″ Macbook ) at that time was around $3000 ( India pricing ).

But, then the M1 chip happened. This changed the scene drastically. I was following on the MacBook developments and started checking the reviews for the M1 Mac. I was blown away by the performance comparisons and battery life. I was more hooked towards the MacBook Air due to the below reasons

  • As low as $1200 for the 16GB variant
  • I need a full keyboard ( as I am coming from a Thinkpad legacy ) and I literally hated the touch bar ( Yes, I have used it a couple of times as my Wife uses 2019 Intel Mac with a Touch bar )
  • Zero moving parts ( As there is no Fan, there are no moving parts in M1 )

When I checked the performance and the price, it was a great deal when compared to the competition on Windows ( Thinkpad, Dell XPS ), etc.

I know that the M1 Air does not have a fan and may throttle when the temp rises. But in the last months of usage, I have run my entire developer workload on it and never had an alarming issue where it slowed down drastically. Of course it gets heated up when there is a long compiliation. But the performance bounces back once the task is done.

2. Requirement for iOS development

I am a developer with over 10+ years of experience and majorly works on the backend APIs and DevOps. The Ubuntu + Thinkpad combo was perfectly all right for the daily development tasks.

But during the lockdown of 2020, I started working on a personal project called microideation. It’s an open community for creating and discovering micro-content and was developed using react native and made available as an Android app in the Playstore. But as you have guessed, the iOS version requires a Mac for testing and development ( the ecosystem !! ).

Since all that I am doing in Ubuntu can be done and set up on a Mac plus the iOS app development requirement, I had my first valid reason to go seriously for a Macbook.

Still, if it wasn’t for the first point ( affordability ), I would have postponed switching to a Mac as this requirement was not critical.

3. Obsessed with Mac

That’s right. Though it sounds weird, I was obsessed with the polished interface of the Mac. All the themes setup I used in Ubuntu was a futile attempt to mimic the look and feel of the Mac system. Right from the first few years of using Ubuntu and discovering customization, I was using some themes that were similar to the Mac transformation packs. This has continued till the last day I used the Ubuntu system.

One of the reasons for me to stick around with Ubuntu was the ability to customize the UI and almost any part of it. But this came with a cost of UI inconsistencies and random crashes. Maybe I am getting matured and I no longer want a highly customizable UI, just a system that works :).

The Experience

Now, let’s talk about the experience of using a Mac system from the perspective of a long-term Ubuntu user. As with anything, there are a lot of positives and few negatives that I felt. I will be listing them down here.

The Good

  1. You can do all the things that you do on Ubuntu + the iOS and macOS development.
    Although this seems to be a conscious restriction by Apple, it makes sense to use a Mac in case you are working with iOS and other Apple-related development. I was able to set up all the tools and services that I require as a developer in the Mac without any issues.
  2. Faster processor and storage with better RAM management
    The latest M1 processor has taken down all the other processors in the market by a considerable margin on the thermal as well as performance depts. I must also say that the RAM management is pretty good in Mac as with my full workload, I haven’t seen the swap go above 1 GB ( I have 16GB version ).
  3. Performance not linked to the power cable
    This is an amazing difference for me while coming from Ubuntu / Thinkpad world. In my old system, I could see a considerable drop in the performance when you unplug the power cable. There were some scripting or configuration that you could do to avoid this, but that affects the battery life very badly. So naturally, you feel to have it plugged in all the time when you are on serious work.

    In Mac, the only difference I see when plugging out a power cable is that the brightness may reduce a bit ( that too, I had it enabled ). But other than that, the performance is not at all affected. It is a great feat by Apple that the user is able to get good battery life without compromising on the performance of the system.
  4. Jaw-dropping battery life
    This is something I am so thrilled about. My Thinkpad had two batteries ( one replaceable and one built-in ). The best I could get out of it was maybe 4+ hours. But with some optimizations, I am getting along with the same workload with a 9 to 9 ( 12 hours ) battery life in my Mac. I have made a post on the optimizations I did for this. Now it has become a habit for me to charge the laptop for like 2 hours towards the end of the day and I can easily use it wire-free for the next day.
  5. The never-sleeping laptop
    One of the most important differences coming from Ubuntu is the time taken for the laptop to get ready for work. My Ubuntu + Thinkpad used to take more than a minute to wake up from hibernate. With the M1 Mac, it looks like, I am the one slowest in the entire login process :).
    Seriously, this damn thing never sleeps. I read about it in some of the Apple support forums that the laptop will be even connected to the WiFi and checking the mails while the lid is closed. The logging-in process is now almost similar to me unlocking my phone and using it.
  6. Smooth and lag-free UI ( polished interface ) 
    Like I specified before, I was always obsessed with the polished interface of Mac. That was one major thing I missed in Ubuntu. There was a lack of consistency and then the issues with the Gnome desktop environment that gets slow and crash. Even waking up from hibernating for Ubuntu was a hit or miss many times. It may get stuck in the login screen and the only way out was restarting.
  7. Good display
    The retina display is always a pleasure to look at. The text is ever so crisp and coding is a pleasant experience. When I compare with Ubuntu and Thinkpad, the display is a lot better and the overall color is more pleasing. Similarly, the dark mode colors of Mac seem to be more elegant and positive to use.
  8. First-hand app support for all major software and tools
    This is a major advantage while using Mac. You get first-hand support for all the major software and tools. Most of the major players will have the Mac version for sure along with the Windows. With Ubuntu, you could find the Linux version of a tool, but most of the time it will be under development or as an afterthought kind of thing or buggy with most of the features.
  9. Great gesture support and touchpad
    The gesture support on the Mac is so good that I stopped using my external mouse and keyboard. I am new to it as Ubuntu does not have much native support for gestures or is limited by the hardware. I was even scared to enable the touchpad in Ubuntu as the Palm rejection was horrible. The same thing in Mac is very well handled and is a breeze to use. The quality of the trackpad hardware is also good on Mac. I had permanent smudges on the Thinkpad trackpad during the first 2 weeks of usage itself.
  10. Good build quality and ultra-book compact design 
    Though looks are personal, I really like the design language of Apple. The unibody design is durable and the build gives confidence while using. Comparing it with a Thinkpad ( on matte finish), it would get a scratch if my nail touches the surface of the lid. I hope the aluminum unibody ages well with time for Mac. I have also never felt any flex and also one major thing is that I can use the Macbook Air on my lap comfortably as it does not have air vents and also runs cool most of the time.
  11. Using the touch id confidently
    I had a fingerprint sensor on my Thinkpad, but I seldom used it. Now with Mac, I use the fingerprint almost every time I need to put in the password. I am not sure, but for some reason, I feel confident to use the Apple TouchID.

The Bad and the Ugly

Now, not everything is green on this side. There are some things that I miss on Mac and also certain things I don’t like about it.

  1. You live with the same configuration
    This is one of the most annoying things with Apple laptops. No upgrades are possible on the hardware side. You need to shell out the entire money upfront or you live with it for the rest of your life. In my case, I was skeptical whether I would require 16GB. The only reason I opted for it was due to the lack of upgrade options later. Compare with my Thinkpad, almost every component can be upgraded or replaced individually.
    I believe that the tight cohesion between the components could be a reason for better performance in Apple. Also, now Thinkpad has got non-upgradable RAM ( like X1 Carbon ).
  2. Lack of ports
    Though I am not a content creator, I would have really appreciated one USB connection and HDMI in the body. Also, the placement of the USB Type C could have been on either side. Now if I connect my external drive, the charging cable connection is tough to plug in and plug out. Compare that with my Thinkpad – 4 USB A, 1 USB C, HDMI, EtherNet, Card reader, and a SIM card ( Phew )
  3. Lack of customizations and theming
    Coming from Ubuntu, I miss mostly the theming side. You could customize all parts of the UI on a Ubuntu system. But with Mac, you live with what you get and maybe something more ( with some utilities ). As for a lot of users, this may not be a negative at all. I for myself now don’t care much about the theming and all. From my experience with Ubuntu, more customizations have always lead to reduced stability.
  4. Most of the tools and software are paid 
    This may not be a negative, but a difference in personal experience. In the Ubuntu world, you will always find free and open-source software that gets the job done. But in Mac, even for the simplest utilities, you are required to either pay for a lifetime or subscribe. But the quality of the software is really good and I have myself bought some that I found is adding value.
  5. Lacking basic utilities
    I felt that the Mac is missing many Utilities and software support out of the box.
    1. The calculator in Mac is kind of a Joke ( no multi-line, no history ).
    2. Default office suite ( Numbers, KeyNote ), etc are nowhere near some of the free solutions available for Ubuntu ( Libre Office, Open Office, WPS ).
    3. Image editor ( I know that some basic editing can be done on Preview. I am used to Gimp and fortunately, they do have a Mac version ).
  6. Support and service is expensive and monopolist
    One of the worst problems with Apple that is currently going around is the form of “Right to repair”. I was so scared of the stories from my friends when they had to get their Apple laptop repaired that I went ahead and purchased the Apple Care +. Many suggested that if you are careful with it, you should be fine. But no one is insured against bad luck. For a Thinkpad or other brands, you could get it repaired with authorized centers as well as local repair. This is something where Apple needs to be more open.
  7. No choice – You are bound to the design decisions by Apple 
    This is something similar to point 3. If Apple changes a design, you can love it or hate it, but you gotta live with it. This could be with hardware or software. But since Apple is the sole creators, we don’t have a choice.

Footnotes

The experience of switching from Ubuntu to Mac has been largely positive and smooth than I anticipated. There are certain things that could be improved by Apple which I think they would in the coming releases. But overall I am happy with my decision to switch to a Mac.

Now I am trying hard not to be dragged down further into the dreaded eco-system ;).

Hold tight Android.

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