Enterprise Software

10 things Linux does better than OS X

OS X is heralded for its friendliness, but according to Jack Wallen, it falls short in many other respects. Find out why he says Linux is superior in everything from flexibility to portability to cost.

OS X is heralded for its friendliness, but according to Jack Wallen, it falls short in many other respects. Find out why he says Linux is superior in everything from flexibility to portability to cost.

It may sound strange, seeing as how OS X is based on a Linux variant and is widely considered to be the most user-friendly operating system available, but Linux does a number of things better than everyone's favorite iOperatingSystem. Before you shun the thought, read on. You might be surprised at your resulting opinion.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Flexibility

If you've used OS X, you know it's user-friendly but not very flexible. In that regard, OS X is very much like Windows: You get what you have and there's not much you can do with it. If you don't like the layout of the desktop, you can move the Dock to either side, you can shrink it, or you can make it auto-hide. You can also add third-party applications and themes the desktop. Outside of that, you're out of luck. Say, for example, you would like to have only the Dock on your desktop (with the taskbar features integrated). You can't do it. That taskbar is as much a part of OS X as the Blue Screen of Death was in Windows 95. Linux is a different story. You don't want the taskbar but you like its features? No problem. Add whatever features to whatever taskbar or panel you want. Linux can pretty much take any configuration you throw at it. And if you still don't like what you have, install a different desktop or window manager and you're good to go.

#2: Open source

One of the biggest issues that Linux users have with OS X is the license. Apple took a BSD kernel to create its own Darwin kernel, released it under the Apple Public Source License (which was accepted by the Free Software Foundation), and then layered on top of that proprietary software to create OS X. At one point, Apple created OpenDarwin, which was a collaborative effort between Apple and the open source community. That project lasted four years before Apple took it down because it felt the effort to create an open source Darwin operating system had failed. In 2007, PureDarwin was created to continue the work that was developed with OpenDarwin. The PureDarwin project has come a long way and can even run Linux-based window managers (such as Enlightenment) on top of it. OS X, however, is still locked tightly together and can't compete with the openness of Linux.

#3: Command line

Although most OS X users would balk at this (saying they have no use for the command line), most power users know the command line is crucial to serious administrative tasks. In this department, OS X falls way short of Linux. With Linux, you can do pretty much everything you need from the command line. With OS X? Good luck. Sure, OS X does have a fairly good set of command-line tools, but for the power admin, it's just not enough. This is one area of OS X that I simply can't figure out. Why didn't Apple just migrate the Linux coreutils over to OS X? There are projects aimed at getting coreutils to compile on OS X, but it would have made more sense to have this by default. The coreutils package is a huge toolkit that contains nearly every basic command you need. OS X had to reinvent that wheel. But this goes beyond the coreutils package. What about installing via command line? What about command-line security? What about starting/stopping services from the command line?

#4: Hardware requirements

I have two Macs in my household. One Mac is an old iBook running at 800 Mhz with a 512 MB of RAM. That machine is slow with OS X running on it. But with Yellow Dog Linux, that little laptop runs much snappier. Same hardware, different OS. The other Mac is a G4 1.2 processor with 1 GB of RAM. I have an equivalent Intel machine running Ubuntu 8.10. The machines do not even compare in performance. The Ubuntu machine is faster on all levels (from boot to application launch). Taking a look at the minimum system requirements for OS X and Ubuntu, you see:

OS X: 876 MHz or faster CPU, 512 MB of RAM, 9 GB of disk space

Ubuntu: 700 MHz x86 processor , 384 MB ofRAM, and 8 GB of disk space

So obviously Linux can run on lesser powered machines by default. And Ubuntu 8.10 is not the most optimized of the Linux distributions. Mandriva Spring 2008 has even fewer requirements (claiming to run on ANY CPU and only 256 MB of RAM).

I have read of benchmarking tests claiming that OS X outperforms Ubuntu 8.10 soundly. But real world results would seem to contradict those claims. I ran a less-than-scientific test with the Mac iBook G4 1.2 and the Ubuntu 8.10 on a 1.2 processor. Both machines had 512 MB of RAM. On the Ubuntu machine (running the Enlightenment window manager), I was able to open up the following applications before the machine began to bog down: Firefox, OpenOffice Writer, OpenOffice Calc, OpenOffice Impress, Scribus, The Gimp, Amarok, GnuCash, Thunderbird, Basket, Audacity, Gqview, and aterm. The OS X machine was a different story. With OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, and iTunes open, the machine started to crawl. There was a noticeable degradation in performance. That's an OS running 14 applications vs an OS running four applications before the OS comes to a crawl. I don't know about you, but I would prefer the ability to run 14 apps.

#5: Security

In the most recent "Pwn 2 Own" competition, both the OS X and the Windows Vista machines were hacked, whereas the Linux machine was not. Of course there are pundits across the globe who will argue this one from all three sides, and finding unbiased results is akin to finding a definitive answer to the age-old TCO argument. But I can say, unequivocally, after 10-plus years of experience with Linux, that I have never had a machine or server compromised in any way. This, of course, is not to say that OS X is unsecure. But Linux simply is better equipped in the area of security. How? Tools. With tools like iptables, fwbuilder, and SELinux, Linux can lock down in many ways, on many levels. So you take a similar kernel but you add to that kernel-level tools to heighten security, and you can quickly see how Linux overpowers OS X in the area of security.

6. Portability

Another area where Linux shines over all other operating systems is in its ability to migrate an installation from hardware to hardware. Linux has an uncanny ability to be able to relocate. I have taken complete hard drives and moved them from one machine to another. So long as the architecture was the same (in other words, not moving from a x86 to an x86_64 machine), the migration always seemed to work with little to no adjusting. OS X, on the other hand, is landlocked to the machine it was installed in. Also, with Linux, you can take certain directories and move them from machine to machine. This works well with the /home directory. Having the ability to migrate your /home directory from one machine to another can make building machines a snap. With OS X, you'll always be reinstalling from scratch.

#7: Cost

This is a big one for many people. First, you have the cost of the operating system alone. Linux is free. Period. OS X is currently selling for $129.00. Next is hardware cost. The cheapest Macbook you can purchase is $999.00. You can purchase a $399.00 laptop that will run Linux like a champ from any given dealer. Add on top of that the cost of the software you will need, and you can run up a fairly large tab. Linux? Nada. You can have an office-ready Linux machine that will tackle most every task you put to it for the cost of the hardware alone. Mac? Not so much. So if you're looking to cut costs (and who isn't, in this economy?), Linux is the way to go.

#8: More available software

This may come as a surprise to you, but Linux has far more software available than OS X. In a completely unscientific test, I did a search for both Linux and OS X on freshmeat.net (an index of UNIX and cross-platform software). Here are the numbers: Linux 11,781 results. OS X 1,477 results. Of course, many would say that it's not a fair search because freshmeat.net is decidedly an open source leaning repository. With that in mind, lets turn to Google and search for OS X Software and Linux Software. The results: OS X 19,100,000 hits. Linux 45,700,000 hits.

One of the things that separates Linux from all other operating systems is that for every task in Linux, there are numerous tools available to undertake it. Let's look at the task of word processing. For Mac, you have Microsoft Office and OpenOffice as the major players, and then you have minor players, like Bean, Nisus, Mellel, and NeoOffice. With Linux, you have the major player OpenOffice, and then you have the minor players Textmaker, Abiword, Hangul, EZ, Kwrite, gedit, nano, vi, emacs, Flwriter, Ted, Siag Office, LaTeX, EditPad Pro, etc. You get the picture. And yes, you can install Linux apps on OS X with Fink. I've done this. It's not a good solution because the software often is prone to crashing or not running at all.

#9: Not so dumbed-down

I have tried to come up with the phrase that is the opposite of "dumbed down," but I've had no luck. So work with me on this one. One thing that Apple did very well with OS X is dumb down the operating system interface to the point where most all tasks are easy for anyone to do. But there are those who do not want that dumbed-down experience. With Linux, you can have a desktop experience on every level. You can have the full-on, dumbed-down experience akin to OS X with either GNOME or KDE. Or you can go to the complete opposite and use the console as your desktop. Or you can experience anything and everything in between the two. With OS X, many power users feel like someone is holding their hand throughout the experience. With Linux, you can let go of that hand from time to time or even chop the hand off and replace it with a hook. When you're using the Apple desktop, OS X is in control. When you use the Linux desktop, you are in control.

#10: Keyboard efficiency

One of my biggest pet peeves with OS X is the fact that there is no normally functioning Delete key. Instead you have to hit fn + Delete to get the delete key to work as it should. This is pretty common practice with the OS X keyboard, which is about as efficient to a hard-core programmer as a salad is tasty. And it's not just the Delete key. The End key doesn't do what you would expect, either. To get to the end of the line, you have to add the fn key to the End key (so fn + End will get you to the end of the line.) Another issue — mouse buttons. I know this is a fundamental design that makes sense to Apple. But the majority of people like two mouse buttons. And with Linux, you actually get THREE mouse buttons. With those three mouse buttons, you can even do a simple copy and paste function (highlight text with a left mouse button and then click the middle mouse button to paste). The Linux keyboard is just far more efficient than the OS X keyboard.

Other issues?

Those are 10 simple things Linux does better than OS X. Are any of the above deal-breakers? Quite possibly. Do you have an issue with OS X that Linux handles better? If so let us know.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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