Mac or Linux? Decisions, Decisions...

As a software engineer, one of the tools of the trade that you invest in is having a kick-ass computer system. One that has enough processor speed to put an early 2000's supercomputer to shame, enough RAM to let you run enough virtual machines that you'll think you own a small datacenter, and screaming-fast SSD storage that seems to boot up your laptop even before you take your finger off the power key.

Unfortunately, I'm not one of those software engineers.

My main laptop at this moment, the one I use for working on my personal projects and the one I'm using to write this blog post, is an early-2009 15-inch Macbook Pro. It's one of the first unibody Macbooks that Apple made, which seems like eons ago since these laptops are ubiquitous nowadays. I bought this laptop in February 2009. Valentine's Day, to be exact. The main reason why I have this date so clear in my head is because when I picked out the laptop at Apple's 5th Avenue New York City store, the Apple Store employee asked me if this was a gift for my significant other. Probably not the best thing to ask a then-single and then-lonely guy on that day. But I digress.

While owning a laptop that's nearly six years old doesn't seem to serve someone in my line of work well, I have to say that it's kept up with the times rather well. Granted, I've helped with that process too, performing various upgrades throughout the year. I maxed out the RAM from its stock 4 GB to 8 GB, I replaced the hard drive with a nice little SSD drive that hasn't failed me yet in over two years, and I even took out the never-used optical drive and replaced it with a 1-terabyte hard drive for storage (thanks to the OptiBay).

Still, this laptop is definitely starting to show its age. The battery is starting to die in less than two hours without being plugged in, it randomly goes to sleep on occasion, the integrated webcam ceased working, and I had to replace the logic board once when the fans stopped working all of a sudden. Electronics don't last forever, but I've been somewhat of a mad scientist and kept things running for all these years.

I could probably still use this laptop for a good year or two, provided no major issues come up. However, after spending the last year using a speedy 2013 Retina Macbook Pro at work, and then coming home to my ol' faithful laptop, I admit that I've been getting jealous at those newer laptops out there. Now that I will be striking out on my own (more on that topic another day), I decided that I need to upgrade.

Considering that I've used Apple laptops on a daily basis for the past six years, you'd think the next step is to march to the nearest Apple store and walk out with a new laptop, right? Well, it's not that easy for me.

I bought a very cheap laptop that I use to tinker with Linux for a bit. It's not really suitable for work, so I barely use it nowadays. But every time I do use it, I just feel so comfortable, and for my type of work, it just feels right, more right than being on Mac OS X. It's one of those things that I can't describe very easily, but I definitely can feel.

So now that I have the budget and the need to get a really solid and fast laptop, I'm caught in the middle of these two thoughts. I've been thinking about it quite a bit, and came up with both good and bad things for both Mac and Linux laptops. Let's weigh some pros and cons here.

Mac: Pros and Cons

  • Solid design and build quality - I really love the aluminum unibody of the Macbook line. It feels sleek and smooth, and very solid. After having some laptops made of cheaper plastic, I can surely appreciate the care that Apple has put into the exterior of the Macbook laptops. There are some nice laptop PCs that have really good build quality (the ASUS Zenbook comes to mind), but in my mind no one does this better than Apple.
  • Can't live without some apps - There are some apps that I've grown attached to that are only available on the Mac (Day One is definitely a must-have for me now) that I won't have if I switch to another platform. Others, like Evernote, simply don't have a native Linux application. Admittedly, this is becoming less of a problem, as I have access to most of my daily-use apps online (even Evernote has a web client) or on the iOS (like Day One).
  • That Retina screen - I've become extremely spoiled by my work laptop. The Retina screen is really amazing, and it's really tough to go back to a non-Retina screen. Some people might not care for this, but for some reason I find it really difficult to go back after experiencing high resolutions. I had the same experience when I got my first HD television. I just dreaded putting on channels that were non-HD. Same thing when I got an iPhone 4. This is not really a dealbreaker, but I sure would miss the sharp laptop screen.
  • Hope my credit card accepts this payment... - Of course, one of the major drawbacks for Macbook Pros is the hefty price tag it commands. Yeah, Apple has gotten a lot better in the past couple of years with their pricing, and some people argue that the hardware on the Mac is better, thus justifying the price. But after doing some comparisons, I've found that it's not really the case, depending on what you're cool paying extra for. More on this later.
  • Goodbye, upgrades - As I mentioned before, the reason why I've been able to keep using the same laptop for almost six years is because I had the ability to upgrade a lot of the components and extend its life. This is virtually impossible with the latest Macbooks. You have to tear the laptop apart to even be able to access some of the components, only to find that all of them are either glued in (battery), soldered onto the motherboard (RAM) or not standard components (hard drive). So it's basically "spend a ton of money now to make sure the laptop will remain speedy three years down the road". I don't like that idea at all.

Linux: Pros and Cons

  • I don't have to mortgage my home for good hardware - I mentioned above that Macbooks are pricey, particularly the models with the Retina screen. I thought that the reason was because the hardware specs were better, but it turns out that it's not really the case. For example, the Linux laptop I'm eyeing right now is the Galago UltraPro by System76. I calculated the price for both this laptop and the Macbook Pro with the most similar specs for that I want. The Macbook Pro came out to $2200; The Galago UltraPro came out to around $1450. That's $750 less. In all fairness, the Macbook does have the Retina screen I crave, and a slightly speedier CPU, but that does not make up for the difference in price.
  • Upgrade for longevity - Most of the Linux vendors out there allow the hardware of their laptops to be easily upgradeable. This means that when that when 1 Terabyte SSD drives or 32 GB of RAM become super-cheap, I'm not stuck with what I bought a few years prior. Additionally, with the Galago UltraPro, I can add a second hard drive to the laptop - something that's impossible to do with the Macbook nowadays.
  • Supports open-source - Okay, this is more of a personal statement more than anything else. I'm a huge fan of open source, ever since I learned what Linux was and attempted to install Mandrake Linux on my cobbled-together PC in 1999 (not a successful endeavor - damn you, Winmodems). Buying a Linux laptop helps the cause by demonstrating that there's a market for Linux on the desktop, which I would love to see grow during my lifetime.
  • Unknown build quality - Outside of Apple, there are very few laptop vendors that place a premium on build quality on their systems. While the Galago UltraPro that I want to buy seems sturdy enough, I haven't read too many reviews about it to know if it could withstand the rigors of being carried around and used just about every single day.
  • What customer support? - Being entirely open source, Linux systems are typically a "do it yourself" event. Apple has its "Geniuses" on tap at their many stores where you can take your laptop when it's giving your hardware or software problems. With Linux, it usually means scouring the Internet for hours on end. This might not be as bad as I think, however. One of the reasons I wanted to get the Galago UltraPro is because System76's business is all about Linux, and they provide customer support for their hardware (including their own drivers). So this might not be too much of an issue.

So, both sides have their pros and cons. I'm honestly leaning towards Linux, even though I'm sure I'll miss using a Mac. Like I said, Linux feels at home. I can comfortably do all my development work there, I'll be saving some a decent amount of money, and I'll be supporting Linux. All worthwhile reasons, I'd say.

What do you think? Should I get the tried-and-true Apple laptop that I've used for the past half-decade, or should I get a laptop with Linux that feels perfect for my work? Whatever the decision is, I look forward to using that hardware and produce some kick-ass work for years to come.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

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