Comparison of OSX with Ubuntu 9.04

Bucking the historical trend of comparing desktop Linux with Windows, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth recently told journalist Bruce Byfield that he was looking to Mac OS X as the operating system to beat for future Ubuntu releases — particularly in the areas of usability and user experience.  Now that Ubuntu 9.04 is out, how does it compare to Apple’s latest offering?

The “overall usability” of an operating system is hard to assess because it is so nebulous, but by breaking down the subject into a handful of distinct areas, we can measure Ubuntu’s present status in more meaningful terms.

Hardware Support and Configuration

As we all know, Apple has a natural advantage in the area of hardware support and configuration because of its tight control over Macs’ component parts.  But Ubuntu has made great strides forward in simplifying the process of detecting and correctly configuring problematic components like wireless adapters and video cards.  Jaunty Jackalope introduces a new restricted drivers manager that automatically probes the hardware to detect devices that can be used with closed source and binary-only drivers. It is still a hassle to jump through the separate-installation-for-restricted-drivers hoop, especially since certain system options (such as Compiz-based “desktop effects”) silently fail if you use the default open source driver, but it has never been this easy.

Jaunty ships with a new X.Org release that makes manual editing of xorg.conf even more of a rarity.  Multi-monitor configurations can be detected and adjusted from the Display Preferences tool, and input devices like Wacom pressure-sensitive graphics tablets are now hot-pluggable and auto-configured.  Jaunty also makes great strides forward in webcam support, with most USB video cameras now correctly detected and configured automatically — a big strategic win.

There are still weak spots in Ubuntu’s hardware support, including Bluetooth and the PulseAudio sound server.  Both have made improvements, but still require some level of manual intervention to configure hardware for a great many users — as a quick search on the forums will illustrate.  Likewise, support for laptop power management is improved, but still imperfect, with suspend and hibernate varying in stability depending on the exact hardware. This is due in part to Ubuntu’s introduction of closed source drivers.

Considering that Ubuntu needs to be able to run on any computer, with any hardware configuration, it actually has much better hardware support than Apple’s offering. Not only that, but you can buy just about any wireless card, web camera and other peripherals these days and have them seamlessly work. Just try doing that on OS X.

Grade: B, for greatly improved X server and video camera support, but room to grow in Bluetooth, audio, and power management.


The flip side of Mac OS X’s natural advantage on hardware support is Ubuntu’s battle-tested installation process, which over the years has grown faster, smarter, and simpler.  Those who have never installed, re-installed, or upgraded OS X might be surprised; it is certainly point-and-click, but lacks many of the niceties of modern Linux installers: no live CD/DVD mode for testing, no live installation, multiple discs that require swapping out, and perhaps most troubling, you must take a separate installation path if you want to preserve documents and previously-installed applications.

Ubuntu 9.04, by contrast, is available in a wide variety of formats: live CD, live USB key image, and installation directly through Synaptic, for a variety of hardware architectures.  It is easier to install, particularly when you include important options like disc partitioning that allow you to install Ubuntu alongside existing operating systems without fear of overwriting them.  You can also configure separate partitions for the storing of user data or any other directory on the system. And that doesn’t even begin to address the options you have for the system itself, including the main Ubuntu, the KDE-based Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and all of the other remixes, including a netbook-oriented option.

The 9.04 installer does not introduce any significant changes to the install process, although it does give you the option of setting up your system with encrypted home directories (which OS X also provides), which the security-conscious will praise.  On the whole, the installer has gotten better and better over the years, and leaves very little to be desired.

Grade: A

Base System and Desktop

For day-to-day usage, the desktop, file manager, and system configuration tools contribute most of what we would consider the OS’s usability scenarios.  Ubuntu 9.04 ships with GNOME 2.26 plus an assortment of tweaks and additions from the team at Canonical.  The most widely publicized changes in 9.04 are the new notifications system and the default disabling of the Control-Alt-Backspace keystroke combination, which has historically restarted the X server — neither is a major change in its own right, but both are controversial because they break with precedent. 

The new notification behavior strongly resembles the Growl system for OS X.  Growl is BSD-licensed and not developed by Apple, but it is widely popular with independent application developers and users.  The Control-Alt-Backspace keystroke combination has no direct parallel in OS X; it is possible to force a restart using the power key, but that is not likely to happen accidentally.

A few desktop and system configuration elements have been renamed since the last release, notably the session manager which now goes by the far more descriptive “Startup Applications.”  The System Tools submenu has been removed from the Applications menu, which is an improvement, and the shutdown screen has been redesigned to better present the available options to the user.  Regrettably, the menu system is still saddled with the vaguely-named (and inaccurate) “Places” menu, so there is still work to be done. Overall, the changes represent a move in the right direction, but they aren’t fully cooked yet.

I doubt whether there is any way to succinctly explain the distinction between “suspend” and “hibernate” without delving into the technical details, but the explanatory text in the shutdown tool does a good job without getting in the way.  A new utility called Computer Janitor debuts in 9.04, offering to locate and optionally remove accumulated but unnecessary material like old Debian packages, simplifying a task all Ubuntu users have had to perform manually in the past or ignore completely.

Assessing Ubuntu’s desktop usability against OS X’s is tricky indeed.  Apple still uses confusing unlabeled red, yellow, and green buttons for its window decorations; a choice it should have abandoned long ago.  Ubuntu’s default Human theme is visually easier to understand while still looking nice.  For some common tasks, the Finder (OS X’s file manager) is easier to use than Ubuntu’s Nautilus, but Finder is not without its faults.  Finding available network shares is harder than it should be, and Apple’s attempt to mask the Unix filesystem is pleasant as long as you don’t need the filesystem, but aggravating when you need to locate a particular component. 

Nautilus still treats removable media in a confusing way, with multiple paths to navigate to same location, perplexing quasi-URL-like schemes in the location bar (e.g., computer:/// ), and vulnerability to failure caused by other applications (try cding to a mounted CDROM, then attempt to eject the CD in Nautilus — Nautilus can’t tell you what the problem is). On the other hand, manually umount removable media under OS X and watch the operating system get itself in a twist. At least Ubuntu is still maintaining the underlying power of the command line, which is part of the power of Linux.

Ultimately, OS X is still ahead of Ubuntu on desktop usability because Ubuntu’s flaws are more likely to interrupt or prevent the user from completing a task.  To cite a few unrelated examples: you may prefer the GNOME taskbar to OS X’s Dock for keeping track of open applications, but it is much more difficult to figure out why your printer suddenly stopped processing jobs in Ubuntu.  You might like the individual entries in Ubuntu’s System -> Administration menu better than OS X’s all-in-one System Preferences panel, but it is much harder to correctly configure Ubuntu’s Firestarter than OS X’s built-in firewall.

Finally, OS X’s built-in help system trumps Ubuntu’s in at least two respects.  First, it is written as a guide to troubleshooting the current problem, while Ubuntu’s leans more towards documenting the contents of particular windows, and second, OS X’s Help system can actually open the appropriate windows and assist, which Ubuntu’s cannot.  Attempt to get help configuring a Bluetooth headset in both systems for an example.  OS X guides you through the process step by step; Ubuntu returns a list of man pages.

Grade: B-, in spite of big steps forward, the problems that remain tend to be task-blockers.  Many are the fault of underlying components (HAL, CUPS, etc.) rather than the desktop, but the end result is the same.

The worst-kept secret of the OS wars is that Apple sells OS X to consumers by selling its applications, not by selling the OS itself.  Sure, occasionally a new Dock feature will make it into John Hodgeman and Justin Long commercials, but most of the hard marketing is done on iPhoto, iTunes, iWork and the rest.  Ubuntu, of course, ships with far more bundled applications than OS X, but from a usability perspective the system defaults are where the head-to-head comparison belongs.

The “iLife” bundle of consumer-level media apps has rough parallels in Ubuntu’s default media suite, except for the still-tricky video editing and authoring pair iMovie and iDVD, and the Web design tool iWeb.  The music player Rhythmbox is the closest to its Apple counterpart iTunes (excluding the major-media-company content store, of course), and F-Spot is an easy-to-use substitute for iPhoto.  Audio editor GarageBand is trickier; both Audacity and Jokosher are slick consumer editing programs, but neither is installed by default. 

Video editing continues to lag behind on Linux, but some stable and easy-to-use editors are approaching the usability of iMovie, such as PiTiVi. There is currently no DVD authoring tool matching the ease of Apple’s iDVD.  I personally have never been a fan of the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) sites produced by iWeb, but they are popular and there is no equivalent packaged for Ubuntu — the last real contender, Kompozer (a KDE application), has been dormant since 2007.  On a bright note, although not officially part of iLife, the video players QuickTime and DVD Player are easily equalled by Ubuntu’s Totem, perhaps surpassing them when you consider supported formats.

Ubuntu’s OpenOffice, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude more powerful than Apple’s iWork — no surprise when you remember its long development history.  Likewise, the Internet combo of Firefox, Evolution, and Pidgin is more powerful than Apple’s Safari, Mail, Addressbook, iCal, and iChat, while remaining easy to use.   Linux is built for Internet communication, so it should be no surprise that its core applications have been refined over the years. 

Apple’s XCode and Automator are both highly-respected developer tools, but again Linux offers more, and for a specialized task like software development, the ground rules are different — coding an application can’t be as simple as creating a playlist in iTunes, what matters more is ease of use over the long run, where Linux tools like Eclipse have a strong history.  So, too, Apple’s multi-boot solution Boot Camp pales in comparison to the installation options available through Ubuntu’s installer and GRUB — Boot Camp is Windows-only, and only allows for two OS partitions.

For most utility applications, the two OSes are on approximately equal footing.  But Apple does have two strong offerings with no workable parallel in Ubuntu: Time Machine and iSync.  Time Machine is an integrated backup tool, which simplifies the process of backing up user data, settings, system files, and applications.  In contrast, although there are scores of backup programs packaged for Ubuntu in the Apt repositories, none of them are enabled by default, and most are significantly harder to use than Time Machine.  Searching through the Ubuntu forums, most users who do backups (which is not many) seem to either tweak or hand-roll an rsync-based solution, or perform manual backups.  Clearly there is room for an integrated solution.

OpenSolaris has a snapshot function built right into GNOME which makes use of its ZFS file system. Linux has all the tools required for a very powerful backup regime, such as rsync and hardlinks, indeed some projects have already emerged, such as FlyBack and TimeVault.

iSync synchronizes PIM data (contacts, calendar events, to-dos) between OS X’s desktop applications and mobile devices.  To the best of my knowledge, no mainstream Linux distribution ships a PIM sync application; most rely on the built-in import/export tools of their default email client (limiting them to VCARD, CSV, and other tricky file conversion options), or at best have a handful of outdated single-platform utilities buried somewhere in the package repository.  Certainly nothing approaches the mobile device detection and automatic sync provided by iSync.  This is a shame when you consider how much more important mobile platforms are becoming every day, and especially when you consider that there are open source sync solutions out there — some, like Funambol, extremely robust.

Apple’s MobileMe (formerly .Mac) online service also deserves mention; it is not a desktop application, but it does provide services useful to the desktop like online synchronization.  Ubuntu has already proven its chops with integrated online services, notably the bug reporting tool integrated with Launchpad.  Regardless of whether Canonical would ever want to offer a for-pay IMAP and Web hosting service like MobileMe, the easy integration with existing desktop apps of MobileMe is commendable. Ubuntu has recently attacked this area with the release of Ubuntu One, which allows users to sync files and share work with others or even to work remotely. The service is still in beta, but it looks promising.

Finally, don’t forget how easy it is to download and install apps on Ubuntu.  Thousands of packages are available through the official repositories, and only in rare instances will you need to download and install a package manually.  By contrast, Apple’s software download service is woefully underpowered and a pain to navigate.  Installing a package on OS X generally involves hunting for the project’s Web site, downloading an image file, opening it, authenticating yourself with your password, then manually copying the application onto your hard drive.  Synaptic’s point and click is considerably faster, and handles configuration automatically.

Grade: C+, for big gaps in coverage in particular areas (like backup and video editing), plus missing defaults where Linux apps do exist (like audio editing and sync).  As with the previous section, part of this grade is due to weaknesses in underlying applications, but the end result is the same for the user.

Apple Ubuntu
iTunes Rhythmbox
iPhoto F-Spot
iMovie none; several are under active development
GarageBand no default; Jokosher and Audacity are good options
iDVD no default; several are available in repositories
iWeb none
QuickTime Totem
DVD Player Totem
Mail Evolution
Safari Firefox
iCal Evolution
iChat Pidgin for IM, Ekiga for VoIP
PhotoBooth Cheese
Front Row no default; Elisa and MythTV are available
Addressbook Evolution
iWork suite OpenOffice
MobileMe none; Conduit and others are in development
Time Machine no default; many options in repositories
iSync none; Funambol is an independent solution
XCode Eclipse, Anjuta, KDevelop and more available
Automator Many scripting languages available, though none target desktop as a whole
Boot Camp GRUB
Aperture no default; Rawstudio and UFRaw are good options
Final Cut none; Cinelerra is unstable, Lumiera still far from release
Logic Pro no default; Ardour is available
Shake no default; Blender does compositing in addition to 3-D<

Table: OS X applications and Ubuntu alternatives


Software Updates

Both operating systems can perform software updates through a graphical tool, although they take different approaches.  Ubuntu’s Update Notifier periodically checks for new packages, which the user can then choose to install on a package-by-package basis, and users can manually perform updates with Synaptic.  Apple’s Software Update also makes periodic checks, but Apple only infrequently makes releases.  When it does, they are bundled together; iTunes and iPhoto may receive stand-alone updates, but updates to the core of OS X are all-or-nothing, whole-OS affairs.

Apple’s update tool begins downloading available packages in the background without user intervention, so when the user is notified that an update is available there is usually no waiting.  On the down side, Apple’s system makes it impossible to downgrade to a previous version.  Not only that, but Apple’s update service does not update all software on the machine, but only core Apple products. Any third party applications are not managed and must be tracked manually by the user. In fact, even Apple’s own software development suite is not integrated in this service! Synaptic on the other hand allows users to skip or roll back an update if it proves problematic, and can be used for any package available on any Apt repository.  There are more and more third-party vendors running Apt repositories, including open source (e.g., Boxee) and closed (e.g., Google). 

One of the best Ubuntu innovations in recent years is the Launchpad Personal Package Archives system, with which any developer or team can painlessly run a robust Apt repository for the package of their choice.  It is easy to take such power for granted, but on OS X, if a non-Apple application wasn’t coded to automatically check for updates of itself (which some are), the only way to learn about a new release is to visit each application’s Web site and look for an announcement.

Grade: A+, for simple automatic updates, the ability to pick and choose, and integration of software regardless of its source.


This category is a gimme for Ubuntu, which is free no matter how many machines you install it on, and no matter whether they are servers, desktops, laptops, netbooks, thin clients, or anything in between.  But it is also a good place to point out that not only is the OS free, but so are the applications.  iTunes, Safari, and Mail have their legions of fans on OS X, but don’t forget that Apple charges for iLife, iWork, and MobileMe.  It even charges for MPEG-2 support in QuickTime due to some 640 software patents which also affect free software users.  Plus, the “professional” creative apps Aperture, Final Cut, Logic Pro, Shake, and the rest cost considerably more.  As mentioned earlier, Ubuntu is still in need of better video tools, but a Raw photo workflow like Aperture provides is available for free, as are heavy hitters in audio editing and 3-D. While Ubuntu itself it free to install, commercial support is available for a fee, which means you can really get your money’s worth!

Grade: A+, because it can’t get lower than free.  Use the money you saved on Ubuntu to buy hardware, or — worst-case scenario — a commercial Linux application or support.


Both Apple and Canonical will sell support contracts attractive to enterprise buyers, but for a typical desktop user these paid plans are not the usual approach.  To get help with Apple software, you can physically travel to the nearest Apple retail store, either making an appointment or waiting in line, and talk to an employee.  Depending on the question, you might have to pay.  You can also post to Apple’s discussion communities, which are organized by application, or search its online knowledge base.

Ubuntu has no retail stores, so face-to-face help is not an option, but it does have both online documentation and highly-trafficked user forums.  In addition to the official Ubuntu documentation site, the user community manages an extensive “community wiki” with more tutorial and troubleshooting content.  The site groups discussions by release, desktop version, and subject, and hosts specialized forums for groups like local Ubuntu community teams (LoCos).  All old discussions are archived, constituting years’ worth of questions and answers.  Finally, the toughest questions that stump both wiki maintainers and forum regulars can always go directly to the developer.  Launchpad provides bug tracking and the ability to get in touch with the actual programmers working on the product in question — something Apple would never allow.

There are weaknesses in Ubuntu’s support system, such as the tendency for wiki pages to fall out of regular maintenance and either become obsolete or confused by too many independent, sometimes conflicting edits.  Sometimes the forums are so crowded that it can be difficult to search for an answer among previously-opened topics, many of which may sound similar from the subject heading and contain several pages’ worth of replies.  Still, if you are persistent, the forum volunteers will eventually notice your question among the others and you will find personal help.

If all else fails, commercial support for Ubuntu is available via their founding company, Canonical.

Grade: A-, better options than Apple’s, although the sheer volume sometimes makes it hard to navigate. Commercial support available, but overall Ubuntu has less presence than Apple and no shopfronts.

Concluding Thoughts

Over all, Ubuntu 9.04 averages a B+ in this comparison against Mac OS X usability.  Big changes in the last two of three years have raised the usability of desktop Linux as a whole — just consider the importance of being able to configure the monitor without editing xorg.conf; the difference is night and day.  The areas in which Ubuntu comes up short OS X in this review are considerably smaller in scope — an unpredictable “suspend” here, a not-very-helpful help system there, some missing or difficult to use applications.

But that does not mean that filling in all of the small gaps is easy work; in fact it may get more difficult.  As Shuttleworth admits, it is not going to be an overnight story.  A part of that challenge, he adds, is figuring out how Canonical can inspire both consistency and innovation in the broader open source community. Ubuntu has also recently launched a project to fix niggling usability issues, called One Hundred Paper Cuts. The project aims to improve the user experience by identifying one hundred issues which negatively impact the user’s experience, but which can be fixed relatively easily. It’s certainly a move in the right direction!

That emphasis on the community is a critical point — Ubuntu and the other distributions can do integration work, and can accomplish impressive feats through integration, but pushing real usability changes through requires buy-in from desktop environments, applications, library developers, kernel developers, and everyone else in the Linux food chain.  Shuttleworth thinks there is widespread interest in the usability challenge, noting that both GNOME and KDE have raised their commitment to usabilty.  “Canonical is participating in their efforts, as well as driving the new cross-desktop-usability ideas we’re pursuing under the Ayatana flag,” he said, “Whether we can pull all of those threads together in something harmonious remains to be seen.”  Bill Gates made the mistake of underestimating Linux when his product was in its crosshairs — we’ll see whether Steve Jobs learned anything from that story in the months and years ahead.

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