Is Ubuntu a Realistic Alternative to Mac OS X?

Is Ubuntu a realistic alternative to Mac OS X? For some it could be, but your experience will differ if you have a PowerPC Mac or an Intel Mac. But does it match up to Mac OS X?

About 18 months ago, I wrote about Linux as an OS X alternative. At the beginning of this year, I wrote about my return to the Mac world after a brief time using Windows and Linux. In brief, I sold my TiBook, moved to Ubuntu and Windows XP, and then promptly bought an iBook G3 and returned to the Mac world.

The experience has changed me. I still have an old ThinkPad 600 (introduced in 1998) running Ubuntu 10.04, and, despite its age and low speed, I find myself using it more than my iBook.

As user friendly as they try to make Ubuntu, it is still a steep learning curve and heavily nerdy OS – and not always for the average user. Ubuntu has more in common with OS X, both in terms of its Unix underpinnings and cosmetics, than with Windows, so the move is easier for a Mac user.

With my iBook stuck at Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, it isn’t going to be long before it is severely outdated and software makers and especially web browser plugin developers leave us behind.

Linux Limitations on PowerPC Macs

But don’t be fooled in thinking you can install Linux on your old PowerPC Mac and things will be great.

While Ubuntu might be a great OS, it isn’t a great one on the PowerPC. The same goes for other PowerPC Linux distros.

Firstly, most software available for Linux only is written and compiled for the x86 architecture, including Flash.* So while your favourite Mac or Windows app might be available in Linux, it might not be available on your PowerPC Mac. This is a massive problem, and the lack of Flash support really stops it in its tracks.

Most PowerPC Mac users would look towards Ubuntu or another flavour of Linux because it is currently maintained, so you would have an up-to-date OS instead your aging Tiger, but you are in no better position without the needed web plugins.

For a PowerPC Mac user to switch to Ubuntu and have access to the world of Linux software would mean switching hardware too. This is something not every user wants.

If you are an Intel Mac user, you have a better choice: You can run the latest version of OS X alongside the latest Intel x86 version of Ubuntu (as well Windows if you wish), all from the comfort of your Mac.

OS X vs. Ubuntu

But let’s forget what hardware you are using and your reasons for switching and looking at it cold. OS vs. OS. OS X vs. Ubuntu.

OS X requires a Mac – unless you have a Hackintosh, but that’s another story. Unless you buy a new Mac, you will need to buy a copy of OS X to be up-to-date, whereas Ubuntu runs on many platforms and costs nothing.

Ubuntu has come a long way in the past few years. and hardware detection is superb. I recently had to install a printer in Ubuntu, Tiger, and Windows XP, and Tiger was the hardest to get working. XP required loads of drivers and software, and Ubuntu just worked.

The Linux community is a massive player and full of developers, so software is never short, and with commercial developers, now realising the impact of Linux, are now releasing their software for it.

While we don’t have big name packages like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or Quark Xpress, there are open source alternatives.

Any OS Will Do

People use their chosen OS for their own reasons. I started using Macs because I was working for a design house, but for simple browsing and writing, you can do it in pretty much any OS.

My time in the Mac world is numbered. My love of Ubuntu has grown.

A lot of Low End Mac users use older Macs for financial reasons – myself included. Buying a new MacBook Pro isn’t an option for me.

However, the latest version of Ubuntu will run on very modest hardware.** I currently have it on a 10-year-old ThinkPad, and it runs okay; on a slightly newer machine would run it a dream at the fraction of a cost of a Mac, even a second user one.

You have nothing to lose. Download Ubuntu and try it. It’s free. You will be surprised. If you have tried it in the past, give it another shot. You will be surprised at the progress it has made recently.

* Update: There are two open source Flash alternatives available for PowerPC Linux, Gnash and Swfdec.

** Recommended minimum hardware for Ubuntu 10.04: 1 GHz x86 CPU, 1 GB of system memory, 15 GB hard drive, 1024 x 768 graphics, and either USB or an optical drive.

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