Why I Ditched MacOSX for Linux – A Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 Review

I entered the world of Apple hardware about 3 months ago now, with a second-hand iBook2. It was a 500mHz, 256mb, ATI Rage 128 model, with a standard CD-Rom drive. I spent the first few days trying to tweak Mac OS X to my liking, then a few further weeks installing and learning to use the applications I thought I’d need. Chimera, BBEdit, the developer tools, even the Fink X server so I could use Gaim.

But OS X just wasn’t stacking up for me. For my uses, Mac OS X isn’t all it claimed to be.I’d read the hype about OS X, indeed it would have been pretty hard to miss. I was led to believe that great swathes of Windows users (and a few Linux users) were biting the bullet and changing to OS X because of it’s performance, usability and stability. Maybe this situation is a little exaggerated given the nature of the pro-Apple press, which will pounce upon any morsel and claim that the Mac revolution had finally arrived (albeit maybe 15 years too late). But eventually, using OS X was, for me, a bit of an anti-climax.

The graphics card that was incorporated in my iBook wasn’t up to running the new QuartzExtreme features, so I had to make do with standard 2D rendering. I experienced small amounts of graphical lag right from the start with OS X.

Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 - Click for larger version

Scrolling a Finder window with more than 10 or so icons in it would produce skipping and visible refreshing, something I thought died with Windows 3.1. I certainly wouldn’t have expected such poor performance from from a 256mb system, when my Amiga 500 managed such tasks and performed better, at least in terms of responsiveness, than this in 1991. Maybe this could be rectified. Maybe the configuration panel hides an option to increase rendering performance; but I shouldn’t have to find it, such simple system performance issues should not exist. OS X on Apple hardware should just work well out of the box.

In addition, the 1024×768 maximum resolution of my iBook simply didn’t seem enough for OS X. Maybe technology has evolved so much recently without my noticing that 1024×768 is now the working minimum, but consider the cavernous expanses of desktop you get in Windows 9x at that resolution. My mother uses Windows 95 at 640×480 resolution, and is quite happy with it. I can’t see how Apple can justify the cramped feeling of OS X on such a high-resolution display.

I laboured with it for the first months of my iBook use, telling myself; “This is just the way Macs are, you’ll get used to it” and “You’ve just got to think differently”, but waiting for my computer to catch up to me just isn’t the way to be productive. In an age where Moore’s Law proves itself every 6 months or so, I should never have to wait for tasks to finish when using simple desktop productivity applications. Simple little things can kill your computing morale; I don’t want to watch an icon bouncing up and down while an application starts; I want those extra cycles put to use to make said application start faster in the first place. Even simple applications like the terminal were taking around ten seconds to load; unacceptable when all I wanted to do is issue one command (and yes, opening the terminal, waiting, then issuing that command is still faster than using the Finder).

Don’t get me wrong, I do like some aspects of OS X. This article isn’t a flame. I think the enforcing of the Apple HIG on application vendors generates truly stellar usability levels, and represents the way forward to functional, ‘just works’ computing. I think out of the box, OS X is the prettiest OS out there, and while they may impact on performance, you can’t deny that large, clear icons and well-worded dialogues and menus help out novice users more than any ‘tool-tips’ or help files. However I feel that Apple have concentrated on getting OS X running nicely on their top-end hardware and ignoring those of us who can’t afford or just don’t want to upgrade to something a faster. I’m sure the same accusation was raised by 386 owners when Microsoft released Windows 95, but my iBook is just 18 months old, and certainly not ready for the scrap-heap yet.

I think the OS X concept is great, and given a few more version revisions and a truckload of optimisations and I’m sure they’ll be on to a real winner (and if the occasional x86 port rumours are true, I know for sure who will win the ‘desktop battle’ for Joe Sixpack, and it certainly won’t be Microsoft).

For now, and more importantly, for me as a power-user, OS X just isn’t good enough for doing the things I need to do.

The Alternatives

I think maybe I should clarify here that I’m not an Apple user for the software. I don’t use Photoshop or Dreamweaver, and I don’t heavily use a digital camera or video camera. I’m not one of the media types that traditionally made up the Macintosh market. I’m a web developer of the ‘new school’; CSS, the W3C validators and a good terminal Vim session are my friends. I like to do everything by hand, and I’m most comfortable using Linux as it’s what I run for my clients on their web servers. I’ve been using Linux on the desktop on and off since Redhat 5.2, and I’ve now been Microsoft free since 2001. My other laptop is currently a Dell Inspiron 2560 which has run Redhat 7.3, 8.0 and now 9 ever since I bought it. To be honest, I only really wanted to play with Apples for the hardware. Apple hardware is, in my opinion, the best manufactured and designed hardware bar-none. Macs are sexy, cool and hell, they last for years.

Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 - Click for larger version So, what were my options? It seems the PPC users options are certainly limited. I could downgrade to OS9, but that would mean learning a whole new system (again), and the OS9 architecture seems the be flawed and, well, decaying. Of course, I’d heard about PPC Linux, but never anything more that the occasional Slashdot announcement for a distro release, and that never seemed to happen particularly regularly anyway. I’ve used Redhat for most of my working life, I was comfortable with it, and so that was the basic blueprint I used when looking for a Linux PPC solution. I knew Debian PPC was available, but I’ve used Debian on x86 in the past and I don’t like the idea of having to download and configure everything I wanted from scratch, least of all actually set it up into a usable state. I had a look at SuSE, but their PPC offerings haven’t been updated since 7.3, and I wanted to be a little more current than that (From my use of Redhat on x86, I knew I had to have Gnome 2.0)!
. How happy I was when I found Yellow Dog Linux 3.0.

Yellow Dog is, essentially, a port of Redhat 9 to PPC. It uses the excellent Redhat installer ‘anaconda’, keeps the same Bluecurve-esque theme (‘Wonderland’), and streamlined GNOME 2.2 desktop. I gazed at the screenshots, read the marketroid spiel, and within 5 minutes I had gFTP downloading the 3.0 ISO images from my local mirror. Once received (about 4 hours later over my DSL) I burned the images and inserted the first disc into my iBook.

The Installation

I waited for the screen to light up, heard the familiar, reassuring Apple ‘BONG’, then watched in dismay as OS X booted normally. I had forgotten to hold down the ‘C’ key as the machine booted up. (did I mention I’d only been using my iBook three months? πŸ˜‰

A quick reboot, and now I watched as the installer started. I don’t really have any comments about the installer (which is, of course, good thing), apart from that it worked really well. If you’ve used any of the recent Redhat releases you’ll be right at home. Partitioning was a snap (I just selected the automatic option, I decided not to keep any OS X partitions), and I selected the custom package option. I elected to install GNOME over the default KDE (nothing personal, I’m just familiar with GNOME having never really used KDE), which wasn’t the default setting, and I added a few extra packages I know I’d need. The overall install size with these options was around 2GB.

One thing I did notice is that I was being asked a few possibly redundant questions. The installer asks you for your mouse type, video card and monitor type. Because of Apple’s standardised hardware, surely a lot of this should be avoided by simply selecting the type of machine at boot; if I could have just told the installer I have an iBook, surely it should then know what hardware I have. Maybe this wouldn’t work so well for those people with a custom PPC system, but for the majority who have Apple hardware which remains pretty much unchanged from manufacture, this feature would make things nice and easy.

Using Yellow Dog

The first boot was pretty painless. The CUPS daemon took a long time to start on the first boot, I guess as it figured out I don’t actually have a printer. This hasn’t been an issue on subsequent reboots, I think it fixed itself. The firstboot application ran fine, and I set some system options and tested my sound card.

I logged on and a very familiar GNOME desktop appeared, almost identical to Redhat’s apart from the default panel position. Yellow Dog puts the panel at the top of the screen, presumably to make previous Mac OS users feel at home. This was soon remedied πŸ˜‰

Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 - Click for larger version The first things I tested was the suspend mechanism, which was one of the things that impressed me most about OS X. I closed the lid, and to my surprise the little breathing LED that I was familiar with worked first time. I opened the lid, and after half a second, my desktop appeared again, perfectly. I was impressed. Very impressed. I started the GNOME battery monitor applet, and it displayed the status pretty accurately (I’d ran the whole installation process on batteries, so I was down to about 30%).

Now, the real test, the extended keyboard functionality. I tried the brightness and volume controls, which also worked flawlessly, as did the F12/eject button. The F10 and F11 keys take on the role of the middle and right mouse buttons respectively, a fairly cumbersome solution, and I can see it causing problems for the mouse-dependant. I don’t really see a much more elegant work-around for this problem, and well done Yellow Dog for including this feature as a fall back for those without external mice. Another nice feature that users of the iBook’s track-pad may appreciate is the pad-tap functionality. Using the option-F1 and option-F2 keys you can set the tap functionality, from a mouse click to drag mode etc. While Linux was never designed to work with single mouse button systems, Yellow Dog have done well to make X usable.

By this point I was pretty much speechless. I’ve had various problems with laptops and Linux in the past, and I didn’t expect everything to work so well out of the box. If anything I was a little upset I wouldn’t be able to get my hands dirty under the hood to make it all work again πŸ™‚

As far as the applications go, I suggest you go and read any review of Redhat 9. OpenOffice.org is there, in all its glory (I’m using it to type this), and Yellow Dog seem to have decreased the start time a respectable amount. OO.org Writer takes around 6 seconds to load on this machine, OO.org Calc just a little longer. Mozilla 1.2.1 is included with anti-aliased fonts by default, and Evolution is getting more and more mature each time I use it. Apart form these, all the usual suspects are here, emacs, The Gimp, gphoto2 and suchlike, along with a few themes and backgrounds.
The GTK2 font smoothing looks excellent on the iBook’s LCD panel, set to the ‘sub-pixel’ rendering method. Overall system performance seems pretty snappy, and certainly more responsive than using OS X.

Keeping my system up to date has been a snap, because unlike Redhat, Yellow Dog uses apt-get for RPM out of the box (and why Redhat haven’t followed suit yet is a mystery), and updating is as simple as ‘apt-get update && apt-get upgrade’.

There are still some holes in the bundled applications. MP3 support isn’t here, as in Redhat, and there is the conspicuous lack of a video player. MPlayer with a nice GTK front-end (the current MPlayer GUI suffers from an annoying bug where the GUI appears underneath the GNOME panel, making some buttons inaccessible) would be a good start, or maybe something from the excellent VideoLan project. I downloaded RealPlayer, which worked fine out of the box (I experienced no /dev/dsp permission problems that seem to persist with standard Redhat installations). While all of the above can be fairly easily obtained and installed, it’s a protracted process, and including these applications by default would be a great plus; maybe a Debian-esque ‘non-free’ repository which could be scanned during installation for extra packages which don’t necessarily meet the licensing restrictions of the standard CDs. I think Gentoo Linux got this system exactly right; those applications which requ!
ire click-through agreements or binary-oply releases could be downloaded then installed using an RPM spec file. One of my pet-peeves is installing applications that don’t get listed in my RPM database.

Hardware support looks good. My external USB HP CD-writer was auto-detected, and worked fine with the new Nautilus CD burning capability. I also have a USB MS Sidewinder joy-pad, which worked fine once I ran /sbin/modprobe joydev as root. I don’t have any FireWire devices to test the support, but there is mention of FireWire in /proc/bus/pci, so I can only assume the Yellow Dog kernel comes with compiled-in support. Some sort of XFree voodoo meant that when I plugged in my USB mouse, it was working instantly (with wheel support) without me having to touch my XF86Config.

The Conclusion.

I love my Linux iBook. It really is the perfect computing platform. The marriage of such excellent hardware and a Linux distro customised to take advantage of it all make the iBook a joy to use with YellowDog. Using it for day-to-day tasks brings back a joy that I thought died with the Amiga. Everything just works. If you’re someone who needs to use their computer to work, and can’t tolerate software failure or hardware incompatibilities, this Yellow Dog Linux on Apple hardware fits the bill very well indeed.

So do I regret ditching OS X? Not really. I have some issues; it’s much harder to find PPC RPMs on the net that x86 rpms (It should be noted that the excellent Freshrpms repository provides PPC packages). I’m a little more limited in my use of other operating systems within Linux; I can’t get VMware, for example, but that’s really a problem with the choice of hardware platform that operating system.


About the Author
Jon Atkinson is currently taking a year out from a Computer Science degree at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and in his spare time likes tinkering with old hardware, boozing a little too much and spending excessive amounts of money on his better half. His (largely) juvenile website can be found here.

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