Through my experiments with the Project MacBook Oreo (which didn’t end up Oreo, because I’ve been more interested in having a fully functional computer for this trip to Vietnam), I’ve been able to really thoroughly explore the modern usability of mainstream Linux distros. While the fanciest of distros most often compared to macOS (like Deepin, whether as its own distro or as the desktop environment in a distro like Manjaro) may be too much for older hardware, there are an awful lot of choices. Of the ones I tried about two or three months back, I found Linux Mint to be the best.
I know this will not come to a surprise to many of you and you won’t think this is some grand revelation. People have been putting Linux on Macs for a long time. Indeed, I have been doing it for quite some time. But I always found functionality lacking. Eventually, there was just too many compromises for a Linux machine to be my daily driver. I feel this has now absolutely changed. We’re not quite near “just works” yet, but we’re starting to get close for well understood Machines, like the 2006-2012 or so MacBook line, intel Mac Minis, etc.
Linux Mint 19 Tara 64bit and 32bit just dropped and 64 bit has been installed on my 2008 MacBook White. This MacBook White has 2.4GHz processor with 4GBs of RAM (it can go up to 6GB, I believe, which is still considerable for a “work” computer) with a 60GB SSD. in 2018, no computer should be running an operating system on a mechanical drive. It’s just painful.
I was already impressed with Linux Mint 18.3 Sylvia and how much I could with it. I could do almost everything I needed to do and do it efficiently. There were still a few things which I couldn’t get to run. Some of that had to do with the fact I was running the 32bit version and not the 64bit version, but some of it was issues just inherent in the driver support, which was quite iffy at times. With tweaks, I was able to come to a compromise in regards to issues around graphics and wireless, but both caused me to learn routines which were clearly less than ideal. Wireless would need consistent, manual reconnection, and screen-tearing was an issue outside of old Chrome versions and tweaked VLC.
These issues have largely been resolved in Tara. A new Broadcrom driver has fixed the wireless issues, and a new graphics driver has fixed the issue with the screen tearing. It no longer exists at all, and Chromium, Firefox, and media playback all work flawlessly. Skype, Slack, LINE all work. Mailspring is a great competitor to Apple Mail. LibreOffice went through a big version change and is much better than it was, and is fully compatible with Office and very similar to the iWork group of programs. So far I have duplicated nearly every app I can think of, either by having a Linux version or a substitute, and I have successfully had about four classes I taught using Linux Mint. I’m not as good at GIMP as I am at Photoshop, so it may take practice, but so far I have used it to do basic editing tasks. It even does 1080p video editing in Kdenlive!
At this point, all that remains to the user experience inside the OS is small tweaks. Tara broke functionality with the Traffic Light macOS like window buttons and I need to find a substitute. I still need to install a global menu, but these are tiny issues that really do not affect overall use efficiency. Japanese input works just fine, important given how much writing I do in Japanese and that this is a Japanese keyboard.
So what compromises am I still making? Well, after Linux Kernal 4.14 (we are now on 4.15) I encountered a boot error issue. As the error keeps being confronted boot time slows to a crawl until Linux finally gives up and bypasses it. A similar issue occurs when going from the login screen to the desktop. This is a well known issue, and I’m working through the common fixes. Once at the desktop though, the SSD is just as fast as you would expect, and this doesn’t feel like a 10 year old MacBook at all. It’s perfectly snappy. Linux Mint even has figured out how to do multi-touch and tap gestures on the trackpad. I don’t need to use the physical button, it feels just like my 2012 in practice.
The second compromise is that onboard camera and mic still don’t work. I don’t consider this much of a compromise, because both are of way too low quality for 2018. I have an external 1080p Logitech/Logicool webcam with a bi-directional and rather large microphone. It’s what I have often used for my union meetings to broadcast an entire room to online attendees. It works perfectly. The internal speakers are still in great condition, to my non-audiophile ears (loud and clear, will fill a room), but of course a good set of headphones or external speakers (including bluetooth) would maybe not be remiss.
The screen is a definite compromise. This thing is definitely washed out in comparison to modern vivid displays. Its highest resolution and its pixel density are definitely not comparable to MacBook unibodies let alone anything newer. Compared to a few hundred dollars spent on a cheapo windows laptop? Not bad. For me, editing animation would not be vivid enough, but editing video blogs for YouTube or vacation videos would probably be okay. I wouldn’t want to do any heavy photo editing either, but remember, that’s not the role I needed this computer to play. I have a Mac Pro for that.
The verdict? This is a low-end 2018 laptop at worst. It feels better than that to me and quite comparable to my MacBook Pro 2012 which had a 2.4hz i5. This 2008 MacBook White still feels modern because of a combination of the timeless unity of Apple design (it would look even more modern if it was a 2008 MacBook Black, I think) and the modern look, feel, and functionality of the Linux Mint operating system. For a work and school computer, this is a not just adequate, it’s excellent.
Modern Linux distributions, combined with simple RAM and SSD upgrades bring older Intel Macs into the modern day and will extend the life of these machines considerably. There is absolutely no reason to give your child/teen a modern $2000 MacBook when you can do this. There may be no reason for you to upgrade, I don’t think I will. I think it’s clear that my experiment here in Vietnam has been a success. I will go back to Japan and into my normal teaching regimen with my MacBook White, and if it gets damaged or stolen, I’m out $100 and not $1000.