Diving Back To Linux

The current laptop I use for work is a Macbook Pro I bought back in 2009. To be honest, I bought this laptop because I was insanely jealous of TextMate. Also, this was a period when it seemed all the cool Rubyists were developing on the Mac, and I sort of felt like I had to keep up with everyone else. But I haven't regretted my purchase at all. I've never had a single problem with this laptop in the 3+ years I've owned it. As its age has been showing, I've tried to keep it running as smoothly as possible with a myriad of upgrades, from an SSD drive to adding the maximum of 8 GB of RAM, and even an additional hard drive with the excellent OptiBay drive kit. However, there's just so much that I can do, and I think I've maxed out all the power I can out of this laptop.

I've been thinking for a while about getting a new Macbook Pro, and with last week's announcement of a new lineup, including the sexy Macbook Pro with Retina display, I've been dangerously close to heading to the nearest Apple Store (and thanks to living in the Bay Area, I have about a billion stores in less than a 30-minute drive in any direction) and just blindly giving my credit card to whoever has a blue shirt. However, a recent purchase I made about a month ago has made me reconsider this option.

For a while now, I had the urge to tinker with Linux as a desktop again and had been looking for a low-cost way to do so. Fry's Electronics had a sale on a cheap laptop last month - an Acer Aspire laptop for about $270 plus tax, so I decided to spring for it. As evidenced by the price, it's a current low-end system (Dual-Core Pentium B940, 4 GB of RAM, slow 500 GB hard drive). For the time being, I also purchased 8 gigs of memory for $30, so it turned out to be a cheap investment in technology.

The last time I tinkered with Linux as a desktop system was when Ubuntu unveiled its Unity interface, and I didn't have a good experience with it back then, particularly since I was testing it on an underpowered PC. Since the laptop I purchased was a low-end one, I decided to skip Ubuntu entirely and try something different. I almost decided on Linux Mint, since it's already based on Ubuntu and Debian, which is what I was most comfortable with. But lately, I had been hearing quite a bit of fanfare about Arch Linux.

Arch Linux is touted as being one of the more flexible Linux distros out there. The secret of its flexibility is due to keeping everything very simple - installation only includes a minimal working system (essentially just the shell), giving you the choice to install whatever you'd like. The caveat is that this distribution is not for beginners. You're expected to know a bit about Linux and the command line, and especially not be afraid of tinkering around with files in the /etc directory. Having very fond memories of playing around with Slackware back in my college days, I thought it would be fun to try it out.

After installing Arch Linux to my laptop, I was greeted with a command line prompt and not much else. I had no idea what to do next. Thankfully, there's a rather large and active community for Arch Linux, and the wiki is full of useful information, especially for newbies to the Arch Linux world, like myself. After getting familiar with Pacman, the Arch Linux package manager, I was well on my way to getting my desktop environment installed. While I did stumble a bit along the way, especially with my wireless connection (which has always been one of the main issues with most Linux distributions anyway), I was able to get a shiny new Gnome 3.4 desktop set up. With very little tweaking all my hardware seemed to be up and running. I think it was a relatively smooth process to what I expected, since I read a lot of warnings about needing to spend some time tinkering around to get things right.

It's been a few weeks since I've been using Linux as my after-work hacking environment. While it takes some time getting used to the new desktop environment, and I'm sort of missing some of the polish and small things from Mac OS X that I apparently take for granted, I'm liking the Linux setup a lot for my development work. Since I do mostly Ruby and Javascript work, this system handles it all perfectly. I honestly don't think that I would miss the Mac development environment much if I had a full-time Linux machine. That's what I think I'm going to do for my next laptop. Instead of spending at least $1500 on a Mac with decent specs, I'm sure I'd be able to get a high-end work laptop for about $1000, install Linux on it, and be perfectly happy with it. It's good to be back where I was so many years ago.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

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