I’ve been trying to use Linux, but…

The first time I tried to use Linux was before the year 2000. I was gravitationally drawn to Linux because of the movie Hackers. I had saved up enough money to buy a laptop of some sort (a Compaq if I’m not mistaken) and stumbled somehow upon Linux by way of Linux-Mandrake. If memory serves, an installation CD was included in an issue of PC World magazine. I have no idea how I even remember the name, but it’s likely because it didn’t work at all. But I knew that Dade Murphy didn’t use Windows. I then tried out Red Hat Linux and couldn’t even get the installer to run. For a while there I stuck with Windows, but would always fiddle around with Live CD Linux distributions like Knoppix when I found them.

I started my web development career in the early world of boutique web design and development agencies. In my opinion, that’s where Apple’s insane flywheel we see today got its start. I know it’s a biased opinion based on my life experiences, but in that world you felt like you needed a Mac. This wasn’t only the designers but in particular developers were having better experiences with Macs too. This brought back my desire to get away from Windows, but I couldn’t afford a Mac at the time. So I decided to go all-in on Linux and I actually logged my experience in some posts on this very site:

(Side note: both of these posts went to the front page of Digg in its former life and I’ll never for get that.) While the experience was really cool and lasted a little while, I need to point out that the chapter ended with another post: I’ve Switched from Linux and Settled on OS X. I picked up a black Apple MacBook and it was awesome, I can’t deny. From there the iPhone came out and it was true what they all said: it just worked. That was the story for a long time, especially as Apple continued to refine its position as a company and in particular its approach (by appearance anyway) to privacy, which is important to me.

Then the world changed

Apple releasing the iPhone in 2007 was a transitional time for the world, and we’re still experiencing that shift today. Computing underwent a paradigm shift as it fully integrated into daily life in basically every waking hour for pretty much everyone. With that came the rat race of company growth by way of data collection and mining. Google in its own way stood proud in a position of learning everything it could about you, but Apple’s marketing machine made it seem like it was doing a better, more responsible job of it.

About a decade ago I De-Google’d myself and my family, and still do to this day. I am sure I’ve missed out on some convenience, but ignorance is bliss and I’m glad Google knows a little less about me.

As time went on I began to feel unsettled about Apple’s data collection too, especially as my truck (via CarPlay) got really good at inferring where I was about to go before I even got out of the driveway. That very much got under my skin, gave me the creeps, and reinvigorated my desire to eject from all of this Apple integration.

Linux on the desktop

It had been a number of years since I truly gave Linux a full-time try, but I wanted to see if I could do it. I checked out some of the hardware out there and found the same mixed bag that seems like it’s been there for decades. I was really drawn to System76 after hearing glowing reviews and also Pop!_OS was the distro I wanted to try out.

I almost went with it but instead decided on a ThinkPad P14s because I heard their keyboards were great. It seemed like a newer machine, and the keyboard is pretty good. But the trackpad is absolutely terrible and I don’t say that lightly. “Use a mouse then” is an appropriate response here, but: no, I don’t want to. I figured I could suck it up and deal with it so I installed Pop!_OS and hit the ground running. Everything worked out of the box and I got set up to work.

Until it stopped working.

One day I applied some automatic updates from the standard update workflow and the machine wouldn’t boot. Turns out there was some sort of incompatible kernel issue, which I eventually figured out after using another computer to search for a solution. Unfortunately unless I remembered to update everything except the kernel I could consistently run into this issue.

So I switched to Mint which was also all well and good. Until I applied the updates. Same problem. I assume it’s something coming from Ubuntu (which both are based on) but I don’t know for sure and although I’m a nerd I’m not a big enough nerd to dig in and figure out what the issue was.

To me this was a signal that I’m (still) not the guy to use Linux full time. But I still wanted to be. I let the dream die while I resumed the hunt for different hardware, thinking that might solve the problem. There are a number of boutique hardware builders/assemblers out there, but something didn’t sit right with me. I even tried to track down an HP Dev One only to find out they discontinued it after a year despite my finding really good reviews of it. I even ordered a refurbished one on Amazon only to wimp out 20 minutes later and cancel the order.

I gave up on it and put the idea aside in hopes of diving into a project or two and getting some actual work done. But then Apple announced Vision Pro. Immediate feelings of dystopian trouble took over and I was again on the hunt to try and get out of its vicinity. But I had no idea where to go as I thought the hardware doors were shut.

Linux on the desktop begins with the hardware

Then I remembered Framework. The upgrade-able laptop. They had just announced an AMD-based system and the reviews were glowing, so I hopped on the waiting list and ~3 months later it arrived. I ordered the DIY system so I had to put it together, which I quite enjoyed to be honest. But then I tried to turn it on and I literally saw and then smelled smoke coming from the keyboard.

Again using another machine to search around, it sounds like there was a batch of components that resulted in this issue, some sort of short somewhere or something. I was disappointed, but given what Framework is doing I didn’t and still don’t hold anything against them. Their support was fantastic and they had a new component out to me within a couple of days. The second go-around worked flawlessly and the trackpad is actually really good!

With a sour patch kernel taste in my mouth, I thought it wise to just stick to the most stable operating system environment I could possibly run and so I went with Debian 12 running Gnome. I like Gnome and I like the stability of Debian. Installation was super smooth and everything worked out of the box. But (this ‘but’ with Linux seems to be ever-present, doesn’t it?) the display was absolutely gigantic. Not the physical display panel itself (although it is a 3:2 aspect ratio which is something to get used to) but the UI elements on screen were comically huge.

I then discovered this is a known problem with HiDPI displays in Gnome. The ThinkPad didn’t have this issue because of its display dimensions and pixel density, at least not enough to really notice, but the Framework display is quite good and very dense and it made for a very undesirable desktop GUI.

There are some hacks like Gnome Tweaks that will enable experimental support for fractional scaling, but when you force UI elements to be drawn at 150% of their intended size (or anything that is not a full scale multiplier of the original) things get fuzzy. And that is super annoying.

One way around this problem is to use KDE Plasma which does fractional scaling really well but KDE Plasma is a very different experience than Gnome. That might speak to my disposition more than it does the limitations of free an open source software, but when you work professionally on a computer I give you (and myself) permission to be fussy about things. So for me KDE isn’t an option.

I then spent some time fiddling with font size options in Gnome, but that only gets you so far as many controls are still either frustratingly small or laughably big. Apps like VS Code allow you to have control over font sizing within itself which is quite nice, but that means there’s little to no consistency application-to-application. That isn’t a huge deal, but knowing it’s going on is another one of those “fussy” triggers for me.

From there I got set up on Lando for web development because I’ve had a great experience with it in the past. That wasn’t without running face first into a number of walls having to do with Docker and Docker Desktop vs. Docker Engine and the entirety of that knotted ball of yarn confusion. Summary: do not install Docker Desktop if your goal is to use Lando.

I tried working and continuing to refine (and enjoy) the setup for the most part. And then Docker just… stopped working. I can’t even recall the errors I was having but it was as though I hadn’t even set it up in the first place. I’m no Linux genius but I’m also pretty capable when it comes to diagnosing error messages and searching for fixes and getting things working, but for some reason I cannot for the life of me grok Docker and ended up just bailing on it.

I thought it might have to do with some sort of software incompatibilities so I reluctantly decided to wipe the system and start fresh with Ubuntu which Framework supports. Ubuntu is built on top of Debian, but after everything so far and my goal of having the most stable system I could, I thought that would be a good next step. I was able to get up and running pretty quickly again and Lando works well, but I have a fear in the back of my mind that it’ll break and I won’t be able to fix it down the line.

Linux is a… lifestyle?

And that’s the thing, there’s always something going wrong with a Linux system. I don’t say that to knock on the project, not at all. Linux existing in the first place is an awe-inspiring thing in my opinion. The fact that it runs on anything at all, let alone basically everything it gets thrown on, is quite frankly amazing.

But until now (and I wager into the future) if you are using Linux on a laptop* you’re going to need a margin of patience and time to pretty constantly work on your own computer. Not in the sense of getting work done, but literally working on the thing to get it working again.

* Basically all of the problems I’ve run into never seem to happen on desktop machines, just laptops, but that’s what I use.

All that to say, I’m typing this on a 2020 MacBook Pro (as listed on my uses page) which has served me really well along with the Apple machines I had before it. I have the Framework laptop to the side, and it’s still calling my name because I see it as the only way to escape the trajectory of mainstream computing. For me, it’s a destination that’s protected from privacy invasion which continues to grow in importance as time goes on.

I think that being in a position of hoping that Linux gets as “good” as one of the two mainstream options is the wrong angle to take to begin with. But man, I’m really hoping the fractional scaling issue gets resolved with all of the work that’s being done in the desktop environment and display manager worlds, neither of which do I know any-dang-thing about to begin with.