Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Switching Season Report, 2013 Edition

Every couple years I get the urge to peek out of my Apple-furnished hole and survey the landscape of alternative devices and operating systems. I call this urge switching season, and I give into it despite having laid out my own rules for computing happiness years ago. I figure that the least I can do when the urge to switch strikes me is to share what I’ve learned in the hopes that it saves other people some time.

When I first wrote about switching season, a debate was raging regarding Apple’s developer-hostile stewardship of their App Store, a debate which had a sense of urgency in the context of the iPhone’s precedent-setting ascendancy. While Apple may no longer have the raw lead in mobile devices sold, it’s widely acknowledged that users of Apple devices spend more money on apps and app-mediated purchases. Whatever debate was happening around the fairness of the App Store has since been set aside because C.R.E.A.M.

So while the bitter pill of the App Store has long since been swallowed by the developer community, there are still plenty of reasons to be wary of Apple:

  1. Despite widespread coverage and ensuing outcry, the labor practices of Apple’s suppliers continue to be abhorrent.
  2. Apple conspiring with publishers to fix e-book prices.
  3. Apple allegedly evading billions of dollars in US taxes.
  4. The questionable aesthetic choices in iOS 7. I feel that the jury is still out until they ship, but I know some people who took the official announcement video of the iOS 7 design as a death knell for Apple, or at least their personal iOS usage.
  5. iCloud. Personal computing is moving ever more into the cloud and Apple’s implementation is unpopular with developers and users alike.
  6. OS X. Apple’s desktop operating system releases seem to get progressively more paltry every year. When a banner feature for Mavericks is bringing Apple’s miserable maps app to the desktop, there’s cause for concern. It feels as if Apple is gradually draining resources away from OS X in hopes that desktop computing will simply die off.
  7. The rising sentiment that Apple is a rudderless ship without Steve Jobs, and that to buy their products now is to invest in a dying ecosystem.

Concerns aplenty, albeit of varying degrees of concreteness. But enough to motivate an exploration of what else is out there. Here’s what I found this time around.

Android Hardware

Over the past several weeks I’ve spent time with three of the best-reviewed Android devices on the market: the HTC One, Samsung’s Galaxy S4, and the just-released updated Nexus 7 tablet. I ran Google Play Edition Android 4.2/4.3 on all three, but I’ll address the hardware before the software.

The HTC One is the only non-Apple phone I’ve used that approaches the build quality of iPhone 5. The One’s pronounced seams don’t permit it the feeling of total structural integrity that Apple’s phone boasts, but as the reviews say, it feels like premium hardware. Its internal speakers are fantastic, putting both iPhone and iPad to shame. Unfortunately, even for someone who’s had an octave-plus reach on the piano since childhood, it’s simply too large for comfortable one-handed use. Reaching the right-hand side of the screen while holding the One in your left hand is a lost cause. The phone’s expansive size coupled with its weighty metal case make it unsuited to traveling in a pants pocket. So, premium qualities aside, the HTC One is an ergonomic non-starter; it quite literally didn’t fit comfortably into my daily routine.

The Galaxy S4 does not feel like a premium product. It is plasticky and sort of embarrassing to carry around, though its cheapness does lend it a sense of devil-may-care durability. But the S4 is slim, light, and fits much better in the hand, and for that reason wins out over the HTC One in my book. It may not sound as good as the One, but the Samsung’s screen is nice, and it seemed comparably speedy when Android was behaving. In a nutshell, the Galaxy S4 is uninspired but good. I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an Android phone today.

The Nexus 7 tablet’s screen is as surprisingly nice as you’ve heard, but it’s just not big enough for content to stretch out and breathe easy. Otherwise, it is hardware that looks every bit its modest price. The Nexus 7 is a comfortable weight and size for reading whether held in one hand or two. The exaggerated, unbalanced bezels on its front face drove me nuts, though. It felt silly to carry a seven inch tablet when the Galaxy S4’s screen approaches five inches, leaving the Nexus 7 in an uncanny valley between a large phone, a Kindle Paperwhite, and a full-sized tablet. Theoretically the Nexus 7 could have replaced the e-book reader and full-size tablet, but using it was so squinty and pleasureless that I happily parted with it.

With no particular victories on the hardware front, on to the software side of today’s Android.

Android Software and UX

The Android operating system itself, in its unsullied Google-prescribed formula, is substantially better than it was even two years ago. There are still homely corners of the OS itself, but delightful interactions abound amidst the Tron-like Holo style. Customizing Android, as is the OS’s Linux-derived birthright, now seems unwarranted. The app selection in Google’s Play Store is vastly improved as well. Many brand name Android apps like Foursquare and Meetup are comparable to their iOS counterparts in both features and style. You can even have The Economist on your Android, and if that isn’t a mark of civilization I don’t know what is.

If you are not deeply committed to the Google ecosystem, though, the pleasures of today’s Android soon dry up. I recently de-Googled my setup and workflow (more on this another time), and so found myself resorting to unreliable third-party apps to make Android work halfway decently with open standards like IMAP, CalDAV, and CardDAV. (iOS, by contrast, works well with these standards out of the box; interacting with the Debian-powered personal VPS that replaced Google Apps for me is more seamless on iPhone than on Android, weirdly.) While you can put a “debloated” ROM on your Android device and use only the Google products you choose, you’ll find this creates more friction than relief. Android remains a loss-leader for the Google AdWords money printing machine, and the OS reminds you of that at every turn. No wonder Samsung is investing in its own Linux-based mobile OS, Tizen, even as it sells some of the most popular Android phones on the market.

“Fragmentation” is a heated word in the Android world, one perhaps bandied about too often by critics given the mobile OS’s massive adoption rate. That said, even when using straight-from-the-Google-tap Android on top-tier devices you feel the effects of fragmentation. The Galaxy S4 has dedicated physical buttons for bringing up a contextual menu and going backwards in the stack of interactions. The Nexus 7 presents these buttons in software, but differently, moving the button for the contextual menu to some ellipses that show up in the upper-right corner of the screen. The HTC One repurposes the company logo that mars its front face as a button that, when tapped, shows recently used apps. This too is done in software on the Nexus 7, but on the S4 by tapping the iPhone-like physical “home” button twice. Even in 2013, Android can’t seem to agree what the fundamental, always-available actions are and how they should be presented to the user. As a consequence, I found myself hitting the wrong buttons after moving from one device to another throughout my day.

Everything from Android’s name to its styling speaks to an aesthetic that’s technical and a touch retro-futuristic. After years on iOS, parts of Android look and feel cool, but the slightly anxiety-inducing cool of science fiction. The skeuomorphic approach that’s now been abandoned in iOS 7 may have been goofy, but it was the logical extreme of Apple’s clear intent that the iOS experience should blend seamlessly into the real world. Android exists primarily in digital space; iOS is largely an extension of the physical. Android was earlier to the trend towards flat design, but its flatness is cold and computational. The flattening of iOS in the upcoming release retains light and dimension while borrowing from print design traditions. It remains to be seen whether Apple’s approach with have legs, but Android could stand to take some further risks in the design department to make the OS humane and approachable.

The Holo theme – while fine for widgets, the Settings app, and other essential bits of the OS – evidently affords too few guidelines and interactions to steer the development of full-fledged apps. The best Android apps either invent their own UIs wholesale or borrow from their iOS counterparts. Holo interface elements, then, intrude on those custom UIs in context menus and dialogs. As with the fragmented button roulette issues described above, these factors illuminate Android’s lingering incoherency. Let’s not even speak of the system fonts, ugly but ignorable on a phone and downright offensive on a tablet. No, while much improved from several years ago, one does not use Android in 2013 for its looks.

Nor, unfortunately, for its stability. Everything from third-party apps to the Settings app and system launcher crashed with alarming frequency. I had a couple of days of reliable performance from the S4, but pretty soon it was running hot, draining battery like mad, and crashing frequently. This with essentially no customization, and even a highly recommended power management app policing cycle-hungry apps. Yikes.

Android is presently the only fully-baked mobile operating system that’s more open source than not, but other such efforts are coming to market. Mozilla has their Firefox OS, which seems to be targeted mostly at low-end phones and looks somewhat like Palm’s failed WebOS. Canonical has their own phone thing which seems to be built around the notion that people want to use their mobile devices as full-fledged PCs; where it doesn’t cater to that questionable idea, it seems to offer the usual mobile UI tropes. (I backed Canonical’s Edge fundraiser out of a desire to see more competition in the mobile space, but I don’t expect either Ubuntu mobile or Firefox OS to succeed, brutally.)

The fact that the Replicant project exists to provide a fully free Android distribution tells at least part of the story of Android’s pseudo-openness. Android is not free software by the Free Software Foundation definition, to the extent you decide that matters to you. Android is the mobile OS to which copyfighter Cory Doctorow lent the dubious distinction of failing well, and it must be described with couched phrases like “relative openness”.

There’s no question that Android is, as the FSF puts it, “considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones”. Still, if you’re making an ethical commitment to free software, Android will not help you meet that commitment fully. I appreciate that you can buy Android devices with legitimately unlockable bootloaders, but that’s still not Freedom Zero. Rooting an Android device and jailbreaking an iOS device are basically the same act: warranty-voiding, dependent on third-party software that may come with security risks, totally unsupported and disdained by manufacturers.

That Android remains middlingly open, unwelcoming to those who haven’t bought into the Google ecosystem, and still fairly abrasive to use despite its advances is a shame. I was hoping to thoroughly enjoy Android this time around because I’m excited about Fairphone, a mobile device built with social justice in mind that will run Android by default. Perhaps a more open mobile OS will emerge as a better partner for Fairphone and other forward-thinking device manufacturers, hopefully one that surpasses Android in reliability and usability.

The State of Linux on Laptops

Macs became the machine of choice for developers around the same time that open source stopped being controversial and started becoming an essential part of practically every technology-enabled business. Personally, I switched from Linux back to the Mac when I found out that OS X was built on an open source foundation. When you think “software developer” today you wouldn’t be off-base to picture a person sitting in front of a MacBook sporting a GitHub sticker. But there is a kind of cognitive dissonance to this: open source software being used and produced on hardware made by a notoriously secretive company with a mixed and complicated open source track record, running on an operating system that is increasingly locked-down.

Being an open source advocate who uses Apple products engenders the same ethical unease I felt as a vegetarian before going fully vegan: committing only partway because, dammit, I wanted cheese on my veggie burger. Windows is a non-starter for me for any number of reasons, and so Linux is the only alternative I investigated.

In brief: trying to run Linux on a nice laptop is still pretty dire in 2013. For context, I’m not just talking about getting the OS booting, but having everything from function keys to power management working smoothly on a light, powerful machine with ample battery life.

The longstanding answer to the quandary of Linux on a laptop is “get a ThinkPad”. After a read-through of the comment thread on this crowing post on Lenovo’s blog about a redesigned ThinkPad model, you might reconsider that advice. Whatever goodwill the ThinkPad brand retained Lenovo is rapidly squandering when not apparently installing back-doors for the Chinese government. The only truly desirable notebook Lenovo manufactures today, the X1 Carbon, has a lousy screen, takes no more than 8 GB of RAM, and won’t ship without some version of Windows on it. (While ThinkPads are thought of as Linux-friendly laptops, don’t forget that purchasing a ThinkPad is voting by dollar for Microsoft and pre-installed bloatware; your decision to put Linux on the thing goes unnoticed by the powers that be.) While I initially liked the X1 Carbon’s predecessor several years ago, my affection for that model died quickly during real world day-to-day usage. I remain skeptical of Lenovo-era ThinkPads, and, having cut my teeth on an old IBM-era 500 series brick, a touch bitter about the once-great brand’s decline.

Dell now sells an ultrabook aimed at developers, the XPS 13, which runs a pre-installed version of Ubuntu. Its hardware is, like the X1 Carbon, presently due for a Haswell refresh and only takes up to 8GB of RAM (I have VMs, many VMs). The forums for this machine aren’t exactly filled with happy campers. And while the XPS 13 may ship with open source software, the roadmap for the hardware is far from transparent. Dude, I sincerely question you getting a Dell.

As best I can tell, the only decently-specified, reasonably light laptop you can buy with Linux preloaded today is the Galago UltraPro from longtime Linux-friendly PC hardware vendor System76. Dig around a bit and you’ll see that this portable is a rebranded Clevo W840SU-T. Clevo’s press release claims that the unit “feels good as you look”. I’m glad the laptop feels good, because I feel pretty dismayed looking at pictures of the thing. It somehow manages to be the chunkiest, clunkiest ultra-light laptop I’ve ever seen. Reviews are scarce as units are just now shipping, but hopefully it performs better than it looks.

With enough time, you can get Linux running on anything; that’s kind of the point. But at the end of the day, my problem with Linux on laptops has less to do with Linux than the perpetually sorry state of non-Apple laptops. I don’t mind spending an afternoon tweaking config files and recompiling the kernel, but you can’t recompile crappy hardware. I’d love to see, for starters, a single PC portable vendor who’s put half as much thought into the design of their power adapters as Apple puts into theirs. The reason so many programmers have switched to Macs over the past decade isn’t just OS X and nice third-party Mac software; Apple remains the laptop manufacturer to beat in an era where desktop computers have all but vanished in most development shops.

The State of Linux on the Desktop

I’ve not paid particularly close attention to the desktop Linux world over the last several years, but I was shocked to find just how fractured it is today. Gone are the days of distributions you could count on ten fingers. Linux distributions have now branched out into spins, slight remixes that add a few packages here, remove a few there, and change some default settings around. You might today run a spin of a distribution that is itself downstream from Ubuntu, which is in turn based on Debian. More than that, at some point in the recent past Ubuntu became the enemy, dashing the primary hope for any unifying direction in the desktop Linux world.

Desktop Linux today makes Android’s fragmentation look like a mere broken teacup; the GNOME vs KDE war of yesteryear seems like an old-timey family feud by comparison. The GNOME community has sub-subdivided itself over the move away from a traditional desktop environment in GNOME 3, resulting in an even more bewildering set of choices for desktop Linux users. For example, the increasingly popular Mint distribution alone has spawned both the MATE and Cinnamon projects.

It’s hard to know where to start with this dismaying and backwards duplication of effort, but such is the prerogative of those who spend their time contributing to those projects. For the rest of us, it is never the year of Linux on the desktop. Beyond maintaining a commitment to free software, the benefit of running Linux remains oddball tools like tiling window managers (though happily OS X now has a handful of closed and open source ways to get tiling behavior). Trying to compute like a normal with Linux is, after all these years, still an exercise in masochism.

Conclusion

It looks like I’ll be heading into 2014 still with Apple kit in hand and still uneasy about it. For my personal uses, nothing has emerged that warrants leaving the Apple ecosystem, but I continue to hope that will change for the sake of more competition, openness and user freedom, and to encourage more responsible corporate behavior on Apple’s part. For that reason I’ve backed projects like Fairphone and Ubuntu Edge despite my skepticism, and I’ll be rooting (no pun intended) for them from the sidelines over the next few months.

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