linux NSP OSX

Thoughts on OSX

I recently got a new laptop for work – the base model Macbook Pro. Slightly unfortunately, I got it about three weeks before the refresh, but I don’t really care about the fairly minor changes. The slight CPU speed bump isn’t really worth worrying about, although the new penryn based chip might have been worth it, and the disk and VRAM bumps aren’t anything I care about. The multitouch trackpad sounds cool, but I’m not sure how much use it would have been anyway.

I’ve spent the last few weeks getting used to OSX and it’s quirks, and figured I should write up my thoughts on it. I’ve been using linux for about 11 years now, and it’s been my primary OS on the desktop/laptop for at least the last seven. So, I’m pretty used to how you’d do things under linux, and while people keep making claims like “OSX is just FreeBSD under the hood anyway”, that’s not really much help to me. FreeBSD and linux are different under the hood; and OSX is different above the hood – Aqua is not X.

The little things

OSX may be FreeBSD-like under the hood, but that doesn’t help a long-time linux user very much. There’s so many little differences, none of which are massive, but which take a little while to get used to. For example: you can’t mix option and non-option command line arguments: ‘chmod g+w foo -R’ is not the same as ‘chmod -R g+w foo’; /sbin/route doesn’t exist at all – you can use netstat instead of course. None of these are majors, they’re just little things to get used to.

Installing Applications

OSX is still different to FreeBSD – there’s no ports system there. So, OSX doesn’t ship with wget, just curl, but I’m used to using wget. I can install a ports system, and use that to install wget, which is actually fine… but then I try to do the same for subversion, and spend half a day compiling libraries, before giving up on that and doing a quick search for ‘subversion dmg’ on google. I like being able to use apt-get (or even yum, although I like yum much less) to install arbitrary software quickly and easily. I’m sure that using ports is much less tedious on a system which is built using ports and already has a much wider range of libraries and build-related packages installed, but it just feels clunky on OSX. My slow DSL at home isn’t helping either.

That’s only one aspect of installing applications however. Using .app bundles is in many ways a better way of managing applications than the standard approach of installing them into a common path. Want to install an app? Drag it to your Applications folder. Want to remove it? Drag it to the trash. Or use the cli if you really care. The best approximation under a traditional linux/unix system would be to install the entire application into it’s own tree under /usr/local or /opt, and there are systems like Zero Install under linux which aim to do something similar. This framework isn’t new to OSX of course, it’s been round for years.

It’s a slightly more user-centric way of doing things however, and I’m not sure how well it’ll work out in a shared environment. At worst it’ll probably mean that everyone ends up with their own versions of apps stored under their home directory, which tends to happen anyway in shared environments.

The menu bar

I’m not even sure what this is really called. Under OSX – and most previous versions of MacOS I think, the application menu bar has been detached from the application window itself. The app menu resides at the top of the screen, always, no matter where your application window happens to be at the time. I kind of like this idea, but it seems like it’ll fall down in multi-head systems, as the menu bar is tied to one display only, whereas you may want your application on the other display. I’m not running multihead at the moment, so this doesn’t bother me too much


This is a fantastic innovation, and is a much quicker way of navigating through a pile of open windows. Exposé basically shrinks all open windows so that they all fit on the screen at once – you then select one, and they all resize, with the selected one at the front.  If you haven’t seen it before, check this video.  There is  work on doing something similar with Compiz or Beryl under linux / X, but the last I looked it was nowhere near as polished as this.


Spaces is a new feature in Leopard that brings virtual desktops to OSX.  My laptop came with Leopard, so the first thing I did was set up spaces and assign keyboard shortcuts. I really can’t work without virtual desktops, so much so that when I installed Tiger onto a separate boot disk for some development work that required it, I immediately looked for a third-party addon that provided virtual desktops to Tiger – there’s a few of them round, I ended up using virtue. Spaces and Exposé integration is also very cool, and is a feature I find myself using a lot. (if you don’t know what virtual desktops are, google it ;). On it’s own, Spaces just levels up the playing field between X and Aqua in my terms – but Spaces and Exposé together take it to a whole new level.

The Dock

The Dock definitely isn’t a new concept – it’s something that’s been round on various OSes in various forms for a long time. The OSX Dock is definitely easy to use, but I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than anything else. It’s just different, perhaps. I quite like the Documents and Downloads stacks that are new in Leopard – if you haven’t seen them, they’re blow-up windows of the contents of the respective folders, which makes it easy to access them. Of course, if you have a bajillion files in your Documents folder, I’m not sure it’ll be much use to you


As far as file managers go, Finder is pretty good. I tend to not use file managers very much, but if I was forced to only use a file manager for filesystem interaction, I think you could do a lot worse than using Finder.


Spotlight is the OSX “search” tool. Other than an irritating tendency for spotlight to bog down your system when it insists on scanning a newly inserted external harddisk, I quite like it. It’s easy to find binaries (eg, what’s the OSX graphical tool for partitioning disks? Start typing disk into spotlight…), as well as searching through your documents and emails. There’s an OSS equivalent called Beagle, which is part of the GNOME project I believe, however I never cared enough to make it work properly, although I did care enough to get rid of it on at least one occasion, where the Beagle cache files consumed about 6 GB of my 10 GB /home partition.


I spend a lot of time using terminals – most of my work is done on remote servers via ssh. I went through nearly every terminal program available on linux, and nearly always ended up sticking with xterm or rxvt. More recently I adopted KDE as my linux desktop environment, and just stuck with Konsole. I found to be pretty good however, and with the addition of Visor, which drops a system-wide Terminal window much like the in-game Quake console menu, I’d have to say I’m happy. Other than the point below:

Copy and Paste, and Selection buffers

After moving to OSX I discovered how much I make use of the selection buffer in X Windows. If you don’t know what I mean by this – under X Windows, if you select a block of text with your mouse, it’s immediately available to paste (typically) via a middle-mouse click. No need to hit ctrl-c, or to find the edit window. Just select then paste. Under OSX, this only works inside, and even then it only works within the same Terminal window. I’m just going to have to put up with not being able to do this, because there isn’t really any way around it. From an efficiency point of view, it probably doesn’t save that much time compared to right-click copy or tapping option-c on the keyboard, but I still notice it, even after several weeks of getting used to it.

Different shortcut keys

OSX has the apple or option key, as well as ctrl and alt. Some of the shortcuts you’re used to still use ctrl (eg, in Terminal,  ctrl-c to cancel a program, ctrl-d to send a EOF), and most of them now use the Apple key (Apple-w to close a tab, not ctrl-w, etc). This has been fairly easy to get used to, however I normally use a Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 keyboard when at my desk, which obviously has a different key layout to the macbook pro keyboard. To make matters worse, when I’m at the office in Auckland, I use a different keyboard again. Not OSX’s fault, of course..

Remote Desktop

I’m forced to use Remote Desktop to a windows terminal server for work – we have an Exchange server, and I need to use outlook. We also use a CRM/ERP webapp which requires Internet Explorer. IE for Mac doesn’t cut it at all, and I haven’t got a copy of Office 2008 for Mac yet (and I’ve heard bad things about Entourage too). There’s no Apple RDP client, but MS have a version that is fairly buggy and annoying to use – nowhere near as nice as mstsc under windows or rdesktop under linux. I found a GPL app called CoRD which I quite like. It doesn’t support as many features as the MS client yet, but it’s doing pretty well.


I’m not sure what it is, but I just can’t bring myself to like Safari. Thankfully the new Firefox 3 Betas are showing serious performance and integration improvements under OSX, so I can just use those instead. Maybe I’ll give Safari another shot later.


Bootcamp is the OSX bundled tool for dualbooting into windows. Once you’ve setup a bootcamp windows install, you can also use Parallels or VMWare Fusion to boot windows as a VM. I set up windows a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t really used it yet, and the only reason I installed it was because I wanted to play Neverwinter Nights 2, which has no OSX version. I still haven’t played it. The tool itself is quite nice – it resizes your partition on the fly, no reboot needed.

Booting from external disks

OSX has always (I think) let you boot from external disks, which has made it easy to do system upgrades. Pre-intel, you had to boot from a firewire disk enclosure, now you can boot from either firewire or USB2. This isn’t something that really occured to me to do, until I discovered I needed Tiger to do some development work, but didn’t want to install it over Leopard. You can’t virtualise desktop versions of OSX yet, and for some reason I couldn’t install Tiger into a bootcamp partition, so I cleared off an external drive and used that. Works fine, although it feels slower than off the local disk.


As I mentioned earlier, you can’t virtualise the desktop versions of OSX, even under OSX. You will be able to virtualise the server version of OSX, assuming you’re properly licensed. I also mentioned Parallels and VMWare Fusion, the two leading desktop virtualisation suites for OSX. While both of these are fine for what they do, one of the things I was hoping to do with a new laptop was to have a serious look at KVM and other non-Xen virtualisation options now available in linux. And, well, I need linux to do that. Not OSX’s fault at all


Overall, I think OSX, and specifically Leopard (v 10.5), is a great platform. Aside from the slight inconsistencies between common features (eg, command line argument placement), it was very easy for me to adopt my entire workflow to OSX. I’ve been forced use Windows in the past for various reasons, and found it much harder to adapt – it lacked all the good things I was used to (virtual desktops, copy/paste selection, etc).

A coworker mentioned a quote he’d heard, which I haven’t managed to track down. It went something like “OSX is for unix admins that don’t have time to care.” I can mostly agree with that sentiment – if you care about a pretty workstation. From that point of view, OSX definitely just works, and I’ve got very few problems with it.  I’ve hit issues elsewhere, some of them outlined above. Most of them I’ll just have to overcome with time, and as long as I stay with OSX as my primary OS, I’m sure that’ll be fine. It’s always possible they’ll be added in the future (Spaces was added in Leopard), but for things like UI-wide selection/paste, I’m not sure it’ll ever happen.

It’s definitely a very polished operating system, and I’d much rather run it than Windows. I’m still at the point where the KDE environment I had been using for the last 18 months or so is so familiar to me that it still feels easier to use in a lot of ways, but I’m putting that aside for now.