This is what happens when you buy a Mac… in 2004, anyway

So a few years back I got my first-ever laptop (well, if you don’t count the TRS-80 model 100…): a 12″ Powerbook. At the time I decided to go with Mac because I appreciated its Unix underpinnings, because I hate Windows, and because I didn’t want to deal with getting Linux to work right on a laptop. It also didn’t hurt that I got a discount on the machine. From that perspective it’s mostly been a good thing. More recently, however, the machine has become increasingly frustrating.

One major problem is that the system’s still running its original Mac OS X 10.3. Generally I’m OK with this – but software developers, it seems, aren’t. New versions of all the software I use on the thing require 10.4 or better. I don’t know specifically what it is that 10.4 provides and 10.3 doesn’t, but it’s annoying. First it was Firefox 3, then VLC and MPlayer – now even the Fink project’s ported Unix programs are all requiring OS 10.4. My resistance to upgrading has become a huge limitation in the machine’s usefulness… But upgrading (at least, legitimately, as far as I can tell) even to 10.4 would cost close to $100 – which would be a substantial fraction of the cost of buying new hardware, like a netbook.

The other option, I guess, is to run Linux on my Powerbook. Certainly, I could be quite content with such an option – the machine’s 1.3GHz processor isn’t quite up to the task of handling high-resolution H.264 videos, but it’s a small, reasonably light machine with a nice design. But there’s one snag. The good Linux drivers that would enable me to use features of the laptop like its graphics accelerator or wi-fi are closed-source, Intel-only binaries. There are free alternatives, but only if I’m willing to give up features like dual-monitor support, 3-D acceleration, and possibly wi-fi entirely. I would be happy to run Linux on what I believe is a better architecture than Intel x86 (more registers, 64-bit addressing) but these driver issues are a serious problem. I don’t think anybody has come up with a good solution to them, and given that it’s all dead-end hardware, essentially, it’s not worth my effort to try, either. In Linux on this Powerbook I’d be unable to use Blender or do slide presentations with an external display… but at least I’d be able to run Firefox 3 and up-to-date versions of VLC, MPlayer, etc… I haven’t yet determined if that’s worth the effort.

To add to all this mess – Apple is apparently dropping PowerPC support altogether in the next version of its OS. This is reasonable, IMO – it sucks to be the guy who bought a PowerPC-based Mac, but they’ve handled the transition to Intel smartly – they told people “this is going to hurt” and just went ahead and did it. The sooner you get it over, the sooner the pain stops. Contrast this to the way Palm handled their transition from M68K to ARM – emulating M68K on ARM for application compatibility, and promising (but never delivering) support for native compilation for the new processor. But what it means, more importantly, is that where the usefulness of the old Powerbook is now limited, it’s about to get a lot worse. Where before people started dropping 10.3 support, now they’re going to follow Apple’s lead and drop PowerPC support. Again, I don’t really have a problem with this, it’s a move that has to happen – but it really makes it that much harder to justify putting more money into the old Powerbook. I could upgrade to 10.4 or 10.5 now, but in a year or so I’ll just end up back where I am now – unable to install the software I want to run, unable to effectively run an alternate OS. It seems like the perfect time to re-examine whether it’s worth running Mac in the first place.

Hence, a netbook. Netbook specs are pretty pathetic by today’s computing standards – 1.6GHz single-core, low-power CPU, integrated graphics chipset, etc. – in terms of CPU power I don’t think it’ll match my 1.3 GHz G4 despite the faster clock, and in terms of graphics I expect it’d be slower than my Powerbook’s five-year-old mobile nVidia chipset, though not by a huge margin…  But the machine would be small, light, and capable of doing just about everything I do on my old Powerbook, but in Linux, running all the software I run on my desktop machine. No more dealing with X Window programs being treated as alien entities, no more having to shell out for a new OS version just to run an up-to-date web browser or video player… I’ll be able to write code with the same APIs as I would use on my desktop machine and run the code with minimal hassle. In short, I could feel at home on such a machine. I think this whole thing has helped me understand my own personal attachment to Linux.

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