Laptop alternatives to Mac

As computer people, we’re never happy with the state of things. But maybe that’s how it should be? Maybe. Anyway—I have been using Macs for many years, and they do stupid things from time to time (perhaps more and more with each revision, but that’s for another story). So I keep checking other platforms to time to time.

Windows has the biggest platform share after all, and we want to make sure that Firefox is absolutely awesome on it. So I decided to contribute to the cause, leave my POSIX regrets aside, and got a Dell XPS 13″ to work with. I was very excited initially. The touch screen looks like a gimmick initially, but it’s really easy to get into it and then I find myself tapping all other screens—without luck, of course! It becomes very natural.

But the rest…

Let’s start with the biggest horror of all: Windows.

Windows 10 is perhaps a little bit less terrible than I expected, but it’s still atrocious.

I spent like 30 minutes disabling useless and distracting fluff that was pinned as default on the Start menu: game widgets, news feeds, gossip stories, a calendar, a widget demanding my email credentials, spinning cubes with weather widgets, etc, etc… and I had to search on the internet to find out how to do that, because it was not clear at all.

It still requires extremely complicated sequences of actions to configure things that are very simple to configure in other systems. I don’t remember the specifics right now, because I gave up, but you had to find some registry setting to configure something regarding the lock screen or something ridiculous like that. Oh and also there were like 3 or 4 alternative ways, each one more complicated than or different to the other. And you never know if they will work, because some screenshots in the guides look like they come from the Windows NT, class of ’97 times. And you’re like: but is this still current? And yes, it is. Heritage!

I had high hopes for Bash on windows (or Bash subsystem, or however they want to call it—everything is complicated in Microsoft land). But it’s like a sort of virtual system on top of the actual Windows file system, and you address files with paths such as /mnt/c, and the repositories it uses are really old. So when you try to use things like Mercurial with Mozilla’s repository, it won’t work, because the client is too old. I felt like I was using a modern version of DOSBox, but simulating Linux.

Installing things felt like travelling back in time to when I only had a Windows XP machine. You have to go to websites, double check you’re in the correct one and not a scam, and look for the package and download it and unzip (sometimes) and install it, which involves copious amounts of clicking on NEXT NEXT NEXT and NEXT! And restart the computer. Oh, how I fondly remembered all the times I just typed brew install… Or apt-get install…

On this note: installing Git is one of the most surreal things I did. It will ask you questions you never considered as “do you want me to change carriage returns to Windows style when you commit” (and you press NO as you shake your head frantically, from side to side, as to make the NO more NO than ever) or “do you also want me to install a Bash for you?” and you’re like WHY IS GIT ASKING ME THIS? but turns out later that Git’s Bash is the only functional Bash that money can get you in Windows. Bizarre.

I also had to register for a Microsoft account to download Visual Studio so I could compile Firefox. I do not intend to program anything using Microsoft’s products on my free time, yet their registration program did not accept my @mozilla.com account because it was “corporate”, and it forced me to use a personal account instead. Please let’s all give them a nice communal shrug: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The console is awkward to use and scroll, copying and pasting is more of the same. If you paste something from a website which contains some sort of formatting or ‘escape character’, it will not remove them on paste, but they are invisible, yet when you press enter it will complain about the command being incorrect. And you can’t understand what is it that is incorrect, yet it seems fine? IT SHOULD BE FINE! And it’s because there’s an invisible character at the beginning of the line that you can’t see. As a developer, I find myself fighting this UI weirdnesses all the time.

There are high DPI quirks everywhere. When you move windows between monitors, the applications resize: sometimes to double size. Sometimes not. Some applications display minuscule text. Others show a mixture. It feels like some things are hardcoded whereas other use resolution independent units. It’s extremely unsettling, but perhaps not as unsettling as the…

… SOFTWARE UPDATES! Which will pop up from nowhere, when you less expect them. “There are updates to install!” And you click and then it will tell you that “THERE ARE NO UPDATES TO INSTALL”. And you get very confused and try to dismiss the pop up, which uses its own custom UI widgets and so it’s very hard to dismiss because the click area is very small, and when you finally manage to make that damn little window which is on top of your work go away, it POPS UP AGAIN and demands your attention again. “THERE ARE 5 SOFTWARE UPDATES!”, it says now. I really wish it said “WELL ACTUALLY, THERE ARE UPDATES INDEED”. At least it would be more in line with my perception. But anyway. You know. The updates. They sometimes require 3 consecutive restarts. I’m never sure if they’ll be done on the first or second run, so I restart and log in again, and observe the computer for a few minutes before I attempt to resume my work, because I don’t want to be interrupted once I have opened and set everything up again.

And you could disable the automatic updates, but how can you trust Windows computers without updates? You can’t. I am really scared to open the laptop after a while—has it woken up from sleep and got infected by some sort of malware in the meantime? Will I DDOS all the computers in the office?

I don’t really know how people can get work done with this; it requires an incredible amount of focus and concentration. And noise cancelling headphones: because this laptop has a fan, which will turn on the minute you least expect it. So if you didn’t have a headache after using that unpredictable terminal, now you can have one. The fan is LOUD.

And the power charger is still a brick. Despite having a USB-C connector, this still ships with a brick with a thick mickey-mouse ended cable on one side, and another thinner cable on the other side, ending on an LED that doesn’t indicate charging or charged. It just indicates power on the brick, which can be very misleading if you forget to actually plug it on the laptop, and walk away from your desk with the confidence that a lit LED gives you. And ha haaa! You come back to a flat battery because the laptop was not plugged. You need to look at the LED on the laptop front. Because the designers of this thing chose to ignore the laws of causality (I connect it and the light in the connector lights up) and least surprise (this is what other laptops do), because they either know better than us, or have no clue of how people use computers nowadays.

On a similar note, the webcam is on the lower left corner. You will look like Gulliver talking to the Lilliputians, and whether that’s bad or good, I leave it up to you.

Sigh.

I really want to be able to free myself from the Mac prison, but this is not looking very positive. Arguably you could install Linux on this laptop, and in theory Dell supports that, but I have only read reviews of people unable to make function keys work (as usual), or unable to update the BIOS because they do not have Windows installed—unless they dare running the update via a Windows emulator like WINE (and maybe… render the computer unusable if anything goes wrong). And so they cannot use some hardware ports. Hm.

There are other interesting options out there that might be worth keeping an eye on: the Huawei Matebook X (although it seems to overheat), Purism Librem and System 76’s Galago. All these seem lightweight, not-too-ugly and “promise to” run Linux. If anyone has experience with these—please let me know!

3 Replies to “Laptop alternatives to Mac”

  1. I use that very same laptop with Linux and all the problems I recall were caused by me hopping between desktop environments. I really think you should give it a try if you want to free yourself from the Mac 🙂

  2. For posterity, the “can’t update the bios” thing turned out to be entirely untrue; it’s intended to be automatic (which did seem to be broken), but even in the absence of that, it worked without issues once I found the right set of instructions. Dell’s website could certainly be better about providing those.

    I haven’t noticed a problem with fan noise (using a Precision 5520, admittedly), the power adapter isn’t something I can get worked up about, and overall I would rather use this laptop+Linux than anything else I’ve tried (including macOS), but there are certainly issues. I’ve had problems with the USB-3 network adapter causing hangs, the location of the camera is indeed nuts, and HiDPI support under linux doesn’t extend to all applications. But I really don’t enjoy the OSX GUI (or the subpar command line experience), the screen is beautiful, and having 32Gb of RAM and a fast CPU does make a difference when you are doing regular compiles of Firefox-sized projects and/or using multiple VMs.

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