Rationalising Desktop Efficiency

Over the last 30 years I have used all three major desktop operating systems in my daily regime. I have done this to a high level of proficiency in each, so thought I would share my thoughts in terms of general productivity and cost.

The Windows Era

I have used Windows since version 3, with all the iterations across the DOS and NT based platforms. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a challenge, especially in the early days. The first really usable version was Windows XP, moving away from the DOS base and adding a slightly more pleasing interface on top of the Windows 2000 core. There were still some driver issues, depending on your hardware, but overall the stability and performance was much improved.

Having said that, the general resource management was still woeful, and that still continues to this day. As a very heavy user, I simply could not go through a single day without having to reboot the system as it got bogged down with remnants of my activities. I could not run an installation for more that about a year before having to re-install from scratch, which was about a two day exercise to bring it up to working standard.

More recent versions are slightly improved, but now have the unforgivable traits of forced update (including reboot) and constant nagging about using a cloud based identity. As a person who frequently runs batch files and processes that can literally take days to complete, and takes my privacy very seriously, this has simply become a platform that I cannot use.

The Power of Linux

I’ve been using Linux in one form or another since 2007. I’ve used several distributions in search of the ideal platform, looking for stability, efficiency and extensibility. All the varieties seem to excel in one or more category, but none of them really tick all the boxes. While they are all exceptionally good at underlying functions, like running web servers, databases, development tools and automation, they vary in terms of interface, human interaction and productivity.

My go-to for simplicity and compatibility is LinuxMint, for stability it’s CentOS and for usability it is currently Manjaro (but that may change soon). While I have found that using Linux on a daily basis is very effective, I have now moved on because of challenges around upgrade paths, migration paths and environment retention. These elements of daily use tend to be rather expensive in terms of the time required to manage the platform.

I still use Linux almost daily, but focus more on what it is really good at, which is not a daily desktop.

MacOS to the Rescue

The introduction of OSX in 2001 was a game changer in so many ways. Before then, finding an Apple computer in the corporate world was almost unheard of, outside of graphic design studios and recording studios. Two things changed this: dual boot and Parallels. Both of these allowed corporate elites to sport a shiny Apple computer while still being able to run Windows or Windows applications in a corporate environment. As nice as that seems, it defeats the whole object of the exercise, which was to provide a better user experience in the desktop space. It’s a bit like putting a lawnmower engine in a Rolls Royce; looks nice, but doesn’t really operate the way that it should.

Apple hardware is strictly controlled, and is generally of exceptional quality. This allowed the operating system to be rock-solid, as they could focus all their attention on interfacing with a defined set of devices that they architected themselves. As a result, the system is very reliable and Apple have spent a considerable amount of effort focusing on usability and interoperability.

OSX is actually built on a UNIX derivative that closely resembles the modern Linux core. This really extends the usefulness of the platform to allow many of the functions typically only possible on a Linux workstation. It has also made porting some applications from Linux possible, so the application availability has been far greater than before. Graphics applications like GIMP, Blender and Inkscape are all available, as well as open source productivity suites like LibreOffice, not that you need it.

The core applications that are shipped with OSX are perfectly usable for a daily workstation, and in many cases, far better that alternatives from other vendors. Microsoft Office is available for OSX, but in true Microsoft style, is incredibly resource hungry, so I almost never use it. The best feature by far is the ability to resume your work in the event of a failure, whether it be a power failure or a system/app failure. Not all applications support this, but I have had several occasions where I have lost power, only to be returned to exactly where I was before once power is restored, including unsaved documents. This alone has saved me many hours of lost productivity.

For all the non-standard things I do, I have the terminal. As one might guess, I’m an obsessive scripter, and OSX does not disappoint. Many of the mainstream Linux executables are available on OSX via Homebrew or MacPorts. This allow me to do just about anything that I can do on Linux. Base applications like MySQL, PHP, Apache all work in exactly the same way. Add some AppleScript for other automation and you have a winner.

Then there is the interoperability. Apple allows you to hook up your other Apple devices through various mechanisms to allow things like cross-device copy and paste. If you have an iPhone, you can make and take calls on your computer. When allowed, iCloud sync allows photos and voice recordings to be instantly accessible on all your devices. Add to that the ability to back up your devices wirelessly and you’re smiling, not to mention the easiest system backup function I’ve ever seen.

In terms of stability, OSX has on occasion failed. In nine years of using it on a daily basis, I’ve seen it crash twice, presumably because I was doing something I probably shouldn’t. If I was a normal user, I would be surprised if it would ever happen. I also never reboot my computer unless it need a kernel update. This means that reboots only happen once or twice a year, or when there is a power failure. This is a far cry from the daily reboots of my Windows days.

It’s Conclusive

In terms of productivity and cost, OSX wins hands down. This is for several reasons:

  • Technical support is minimal (especially compared to Windows)
  • Excellent system stability
  • Unrivaled compatibility
  • Great interoperability
  • Effective user interface (once you get used to it)

Despite the additional cost of the hardware (which is not always more), cost savings are easily recovered in terms of better productivity, reduced support costs and system longevity (my daily workhorse is a 2009 iMac which still does everything I need, although I’m sure I’ll get around to upgrading at some point).

There are still some things that I cannot do on OSX, specifically related to storage devices and partitioning, plus a few applications that are not available on OSX (although Parallels is an option), but these are not things I need very often. I do still run both Windows and Linux workstations for when I need them, but find myself yearning for my Mac. On the whole, I spend a lot less time fighting with my computer than I did before, I swear less and my general stress levels are reduced. These are the real reasons I will stick with Apple, despite my many misgivings about their activities and privacy concerns. These devices simply make life a little bit better, one small step at a time, and I’m all for that.

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