Reflections on a Macless month

On December 23rd, my MacBook Pro died. The screen started flickering, and the entire graphical layer died. The underlying Unix system was still responsive, and I could SSH in, but that was it. Rebooting the machine, it would run for a while, then die with the same fault.

I used rsync to create a full backup–I already had a Time Machine backup, but better safe than sorry. After a couple more reboot cycles it stopped booting entirely.

I took the machine to the Apple Store. Based on the problem description and my apparent cluefulness, they said they’d need to get a replacement motherboard. Unfortunately, motherboards for my particular model of MacBook Pro are apparently in short supply, so I’d have to wait.

I took the machine home. Christmas came and went. In the new year, I got a call from the Apple Store. The replacement motherboard was in. They warned that they could only reserve it for me for 6 days. I said that wasn’t a problem, and was at the store half an hour later to drop off the machine.

The next day I got a call. Swapping the motherboard hadn’t fixed the problem. The machine needed to be sent to the main Apple service center. Make it so, I said, confirming that I had a full backup.

The service center received the machine…and put the repair on hold, because they needed another part that was in short supply. And so I waited, without a Mac, using Linux for all my computing needs.

Yesterday the service center flipped the status on my Mac to repaired, pending return shipment. Just now, it arrived back in my hands by overnight shipment.

The accompanying paperwork says that they replaced the motherboard, the display, the cooling fan, the DVD-RW drive, and some internal cabling. Basically, I have the original casing, hard drive and keyboard, and the rest is new. So once again, the extra cost of 3 years of AppleCare has proven to be an excellent move, this time saving me from having to drop $1500+ on a new machine.

I’ve had similar experiences with IBM (and Lenovo) laptop hardware. Always buy the extended warranty for a laptop. Consumer Reports agrees. It’s not like I’m rough on my hardware–I travel infrequently, I’ve never dropped a laptop, and I’ve never spilt coffee in one either. It’s just that laptop hardware is inherently less reliable than desktop hardware–you have smaller components, and more heat-producing hardware in a tighter space. My Mac probably died when it did because I’d just been encoding and burning four different DVD projects.

So, what was it like using only Linux instead of Mac and Linux for almost an entire month?

On the whole, not bad. Linux does the job for most day-to-day tasks. The two places where it still falls down are sound and video.

Ubuntu 9.10 has seen major regressions in sound functionality–any kind of Flash audio frequently results in fragmented looping, like a CD skipping. Applications also tend to grab the sound interface and not let go, preventing anything else from playing sound until you quit them. The user interface for volume control is a total disaster too, and Bluetooth headsets don’t work.

In video land, there just isn’t anything to compare with iMovie HD plus iDVD. OpenShot looks promising for the editing piece, but it’s still very young.

There are quite a few other Mac apps I missed. iTunes doesn’t really have a good equivalent, functionality-wise. Organizer software on Linux isn’t as advanced. But if you don’t use sound for anything more than soundtracks to video, and don’t do much video editing, then Linux is probably good enough. It’ll certainly cope with web browsing and office documents.

Would I switch? Well, if you ever need to jailbreak a Mac, that’s the day I switch. Failing that, I suspect Apple can keep far enough ahead of Linux that switching won’t be a temptation.