Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Switching, away from OSX.

This might come as a shock to some of you, but I've switched away from Mac, to Linux. Specifically Ubuntu 9.10, but more on that later.

This post, my first on this new blog page, will mostly be my history. After all, you need to know a little bit about me in order to give any credence to my comments and thoughts, don't you?
Otherwise, I'm just another random voice speaking away in the global crowd on what we know as "The Internet".

I started messing around with electronics at a very young age. Back in 1978, at the age of twelve, I received an electronics project kit for Christmas. It was from Radio Shack and was the best toy I ever enjoyed as a kid. I spent days with it, reading books on electronics, wiring up circuits, occasionally making smoke.

I discover ham radio a little later and dove right in. We lived near the HeathKit company, so I furthered my electronics education by building an HW-8 morse code transciever from Heath as well as working on other old radios I acquired.

Along about this time I also obtained a Sinclair ZX-81 computer kit. Thrilled at owning my own computer, I spent many many hours with the little beast. Typing in BASIC programs on that miserable membrane keyboard, poking in machine code one number at a time, and dealing with a notoriously finicky external 16Kbyte memory expansion. (Hey, it only came with 4K of RAM)

Eventually I moved up to a commodore VIC-20. Combining skills, I built an audio interface between the computer and my Ham Radio to send and receive morse code via the computer. I also wrote a really nice font editor in BASIC on the VIC-20.

At school, we used Apple][+ computers in our library, and built a HeathKit H89 CP/m machine in electronics class. I failed algebra and accounting due to spending my time in those classes writing out BASIC programs in my notebook. I took and nearly failed a computer class at that time also. The instructor was an old mainframe guy, and we didn't get along. It might have had something to do with me writing a word processor in BASIC on the classroom H89, he considered me a "smart-ass".

I probably was. How many teenagers have a clue about humility after all?

At home, I graduated to a Commodore 64 during my senior year at high school. It came with a 1541 floppy drive, and I saved up for a 300 baud commodore modem. Floppies! Finally, no more cassette tapes and 15 minute load times for a single program.

The modem was an interesting beast, with a single small jack on the back that accepted the handset cord from a phone. You would dial the BBS number, wait till you heard the answer tone and quickly disconnect the handset cord, plugging it into the modem.

BBS systems had only just started to show up, and there were two in my area. I spent lots of time on them, running Term40 on the C64. It graphically displayed a full 40 characters across the screen, woohoo. One funny moment was when I talked my dad into taking me to see the movie "War Games" one weekend. He got quite nervous about my BBSing after that.

I graduated High School and moved away for Fort Wayne, Indiana to go to electronics classes at ITT Tech, made other friends with C64s and figured out after a year that I didn't want to pursue electronics engineering as a career. So I dropped out of ITT and went to work for a small mom&pop computer store called Computer Corner. A great little place, it's still in business today.

This was the end of 1985 and computers were just beginning to grow in popularity as a home entertainment device. At Computer Corner, I serviced many different machines from Commodore 64s to Epson QX10 CP/m machines, Kaypro luggables, Osborn, and early IBM PCs.

Although the Apple Macintosh had just come out, that store didn't deal with them, so I had no exposure to the early macs. Commodore, however, came out with newer models, and I gave up eating a few days a week to afford a C128, and eventually, an Amiga 1000.

I stuck with Amigas for several years, what great machines they were. Most people who computed through those times knew of the Amigas amazing graphics and sound abilities, and many know of it's amazing operating system and its preemptive multitasking.

During that time, I serviced Amigas, Atari STs, IBM PCs. Installed the first 10Meg hard disks, then 20, the 30Meg HDs. We were amazed at the storage capacity of those noisy and slow disks.

I left Computer Corner after 5 years to try a few other things. Spent three months driving around the country living in my dads old van, came back to Fort Wayne and worked for a short time for a commercial radio company servicing radios and climbing 400 foot towers.

As winter came on and it got seriously cold up on those towers, I went to work for a small TV station in Auburn Indiana, doing graphics, video editing, and station programming. The station was built around an Amiga 2000 with a NewTek Video Toaster in it. Great times, lots of reward in seeing your creative output broadcast on live TV.

Did I mention they were a small TV station? Really small... So small, that after just under a year, I was informed that they couldn't afford to continue paying me and I was let go.

Next stop was a job at ComputerLand, servicing PCs and Apple Mac computers and peripherals. I didn't like the early macs. Their cooperative multitasking was problematic, and they did a lot of weird things with their filesystem and file forks. I had switched to a PC at home, running OS2 and eventually windows 95.

I was at ComputerLand for 5 years before taking a job in PC support at Essex wire. This was the most educational time of my life, working in a large company. I was responsible for hundreds of workstations at the local offices, and many more at the 11 or so plants Essex had across the country. I built and maintained a couple of windows servers, and had some exposure to an IBM mainframe Essex owned.

At home, I continued to use windows, but was intrigued by things like Minix and eventually Linux. These remained playthings on scavanged hardware though, my desktop machine was running windows 98, then NT, finally windows 2000 and XP.

Essex began to fall apart after a sneaky business deal management pulled off, allowing them to retire on fat stock options while the company began to sell pieces off. This was around 2000, when Apple released OSX. That caught my eye.

OSX, Unix under the hood of a fairly clean and usable GUI. I bought an eMac and switched. I fell in love with OSX. It was more stable than windows, and far more secure. The initial lack of software variety rapidly faded as more and more software began to appear.

Essex began major layoffs around this time, and I was included in the third round. Given a six month severence in the early spring seemed like a good deal. I'd take the summer off and relax a bit, then go find another job. Computer skills still seemed like a very employable skill then. I was wrong.

I took three months off, then started looking for work. There was nothing even close in pay to what I'd been making at Essex, and my personal life was draining with a recent divorce and the responsibility of single parenthood. I ended up working in another mom&pop type office supply company for just over half what I'd made at Essex. This plus the financial ruin left me by the divorce lead to a very tough time.

At work, I built and serviced PCs running XP. At home I continued to enjoy my eMac and do some side work as a photographer.

The office supply company went out of business almost two years after I'd started there, and I ended up working at my current job, back in a PC support role. This time, however, it's at a large company that uses Macs for workstations and mostly Linux for their servers. Talk about a dream job for a computer admin! Great place.

I moved up to a Mac mini, then an intel Mini, and finally to my last machine, an intel iMac.

Whew, that was a long trip down memory lane. But now, if you're still reading this, we've reach the present day, and I've just switched away from Mac, to Linux.

Apple did a great job with OSX, expanding on the services in their GUI and maintaining a very usable and user friendly desktop. Under the hood, they faded out the remnants of NeXTstep and reached a fully certified Unix. They did a few things wrong though, and the recent Snow Leopard version of the OS actually went backwards in a key area, the filesystem.

Apples filesystem is called HFS+. It's not much different from the HFS filesystem they were using on the 'classic' macs back before 2000. The HFS+ filesystem is the Achilles heal of OSX. It's problematic, requiring regular maintenance and repair. Over time, maybe as little as two or three months, a Mac will slow down and maybe start to act strangely. Programs might hang, file associations might change, all manner of subtle weirdness. A pass with a disk utility or directory repair utility will correct several issues, and things will be fine again. For a few more months.

Apple also is suffering a bit of bloat. The OS is getting bigger and in some ways slower. Virtual memory is way overused, with many gigs in VM files existing almost right away after boot.

When talk of the upcoming Snow Leopard began, there was mention of Suns ZFS filesystem and I got a little excited. Maybe we were finally going to get a new filesystem and the stability of the OS would finally be where it should be. After all, a linux machine can run for months or years straight without a reboot or loss of performance.

Snow Leopard arrived, with no optional filesystem. No choice, just HFS+ and its same troubles. Worse yet, rather than moving further away from their resource fork idea, they stepped back to depend on them again. Let me elaborate.

Back in the classic mac days, there was no easy way to associate a file with the program that created it. In the PC world, the three character file extension was the answer. A file ending in .doc was to be opened with Micorosft Word, a file ending in .txt would be opened by notepad.

Apple split a file into two parts, a data fork, and a resource fork. The data fork would contain the files actual data, the resource fork would contain an icon image, and information about the files creator application, etc. This was fine for the time, but relied on their filesystem for this scheme to work.

With OSX, this became less necessary since we had other ways to accomplish this. The time was right to move to a new filesystem.

With Snow Leopard, many tech writers made note of the reduction in disk space required for the OS. And it is quite a reduction, a few Gigabytes of space saved by upgrading. They accomplished this by compressing many of the systems files, and storing the compressed data into the resource fork, decompressing it on the fly.

To me, this is a step backwards, and also means HFS+ is not going away anytime soon. After grumbling over rebuilding my iMacs directory yet again to solve a problem with it not waking from sleep, I started seriously looking at the latest Ubuntu release, 9.10.

Ubuntu has reached the point where even a non-techie computer user could sit down and do most of the things they need to do on a computer, painlessly. Under the hood, it's solid and stable, secure and reliable.

The availability of software through repositories has made it simplicity to find and install software. The quality and variety of open source software rivals and in some cases surpasses commercial software. Projects like WINE allow many popular windows applications to be run without the need for windows. And finally, VirtualBox allows windows to be installed and used almost as an application itself.

For techie types like me, the nearly infinite ways you can customize Linux and your desktop environment is a huge plus. The computer can be made to look, feel, and work in just about any way you'd like. And finally, the filesystem is also a real choice, although the ext4 filesystem default is already far more stable than HFS+ or NTFS. I may use my current machine for years and never have trouble with the filesystem.

Then there's the sense of freedom from using a system that's not owned, controlled, and restricted by any single corporate entity. Sure, Canonical gives you an initial build that they decide is the best combination of things, but you have no limitations on where you take if from there. Once you boot up after install, it's yours to do with as you please.
The final piece to my decision to switch, is hardware. For just over $400 in parts, I was able to build a computer that is in every way outperforming my old iMac. Ubuntu on modern hardware is amazingly responsive.

So there you have it, I switched away from Mac, and have no regrets.

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