A Mac User’s Guide to Linux By Josh Blagden | JB - Mac Help | JBlagden

A Mac User’s Guide to Linux By Josh Blagden


Considering Apple’s recent hardware moves, some Mac users might be considering switching to Linux. The reason for switching to Linux is so you can have an operating system which has a similar look and feel to OS X (depending on the desktop environment), and most of the same Terminal commands. Linux isn’t exactly an easy switch, particularly because there are so many distributions to choose from, and also because -  in rare situations - you have to delve into the command-line to fix problems.


Choosing a Distribution

One of the hardest things to when you’re starting with Linux is picking a distribution. There are probably hundreds of distributions. As a Mac user – or rather, former Mac user - you’ll probably want to choose a distribution which is similar to OS X. Well, that’s not quite as simple as you might think. Even though one distribution might look different from another, the visual difference is actually due to a difference in Desktop Environments. There are a number of desktop environments, from the Windows-like LXDE to the more Mac-like Pantheon. Gnome 3 is also a good desktop environment, and it’s far more common among Linux users than Pantheon, especially since most Linux users switched over from Windows. Surprisingly, certain programs can have different behavior in different desktop environments – for example, a program might work perfectly with the LXDE desktop environment, while it might have issues with the Unity desktop environment. For this reason, you might want to go with a common desktop environment, like Gnome 3. Also, different distributions are for different skill levels. For example, Slackware requires a lot of skill due to the extreme level of customizability – all the way down to the specific version of the Linux kernel that you want to use.. Debian can also be a little difficult to work with, particularly due to the repositories being overwhelmed. Ubuntu on the other hand, is much easier to work with and has more reliable repositories than Debian, which makes it much better for beginners.


Software Availability

There’s a lot of open source software for Linux, however the same is not true of most proprietary software. Open-source software can be installed via a package manager (i.e. Ubuntu Software Center or Synaptic) or Terminal. Though, with proprietary (closed source) software, you’ll have to go to the developer’s website and download the software from there. So far, the only software I’ve had to download from the developers’ sites are Skype, Dropbox, Microsoft Core Fonts, and the drivers for my Kodak All-in-One printer. Fortunately, most open source software is free, though some is paid.  To ease the installation of open-source software, you might want to compile a list of the software you’re using, preferably with the installation commands, so you can quickly reinstall your software if you end up having to reinstall Linux for any reason (i.e. OS failure, hard drive failure).

Finding Similar Programs

There are some programs in Linux which are close enough to their Mac counterparts, or in some fortunate cases, the same.  Open-source programs are generally cross-platform, some examples being Handbrake, VLC, and GIMP.  Some common proprietary software is available for Linux, like Skype, Telegram, Chrome, Firefox,  and printer drivers. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of closed-source software which just isn’t available for Linux, some examples being Adobe CS6, iMovie, iPhoto, Final Cut Pro X, and Pixelmator. For proprietary programs which are not available on Linux, you either have to 1) Find a way to run the program in WINE 2) Run the program in a virtual machine in Virtualbox or Parallels or 3) Find an open-source alternative. 

Here’s a rundown of some similar programs, though this list might be a little Ubuntu-centric:


System Preferences = Settings

Mac App Store = Ubuntu Software Center, Synaptic Package Manager, repositories (Terminal: sudo apt install)

Adobe Photoshop, Pixelmator = GIMP, Krita

AdobeLightroom = Darktable, RawTherapee

Adobe Illustrator = Inkscape

Microsoft Office, iWork = LibreOffice

Quicktime Player = VLC

Mail = Thunderbird, Geary, Evolution

Safari = Chrome, Chromium, Firefox

iMovie, Final Cut Pro = Kdenlive (free), Lightworks ($438)

Adobe Audition, Apple Garageband, Apple Logic Pro = Audacity Ardour, LMMS

Adobe Indesign = Scribus

iMessage = Skype, Telegram, Rambox


Installation Difficulty

Installation of Linux varies by the distribution. If you go with something like Debian, the installation can be a little difficult, or it can be rather easy with something like Ubuntu or a variant of Ubuntu. Ubuntu’s installation is simple, and it can allow you to install some third-party media-consumption software easily as part of the installation – just make sure to check the box for “Install third-party software for graphics and Wi-Fi hardware, Flash, MP3 and other media”.


Open-Source vs Closed-Source

One of the interesting things about Linux is that it’s open-source and so are most of its programs. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, open-source software is software whose code can be viewed and edited by anyone, while closed source is software whose code is confidential. Don’t get hung up on open source software. A lot of Linux guys go with an all-or-nothing approach where they’ll only use open-source software – though, they might use closed-source software on rare occasions. I’m much more pragmatic in that I really don’t care whether or not all of my software is open-source – I just want to be able to function. Two great examples of this are Skype and Telegram; both are closed-source, but I really want to be able to use them. Another great example is the Microsoft Core Fonts Installer – it’s closed source, but you need Times New Roman for work and school. Another great example is the driver for my Kodak Verite printer – sure, they’re proprietary, but at least I can print and scan without having to buy a printer which has open-source drivers. Besides, I’m not very interested in reading thousands of pages of source code – I just want to be able to function, and you can’t function without being able to use Times New Roman, not to mention proprietary codecs like MP3, DOCX, PPTX, and PSD. For those of us who don’t want to read a large program’s source code, the practical benefit of open-source software is that you can trust the program more because the source code is publicly available, and it’s more likely that it will have continual development because someone can always pick up a project if the original developer drops it. Open-source software is also useful for developers, or budding developers, because you can read the source code and see the inner workings of the program.



Whether or not you should make Linux or Windows is up to you, and depends on your preferences and also your software needs. If you can manage adequately with open-source software, that’s great – you can hop on the Linux bandwagon. Otherwise, you’ll either have to switch to Windows, or just deal with the shortcomings of the new Mac hardware – though “new” is a relative term, considering that many of the Macs have been without any hardware updates in years. I’m at the point where pretty much all of my computing is just web browsing, email, documents, gaming and content consumption, so Linux is fine for me. But if you need some proprietary software that just won’t run in Linux, you’ll have to go to Windows – an understandable move, considering the huge amount of Windows-only software. I prefer Linux over Windows, but that’s just me.


© Joshua Blagden & Justin Barczak 2013-2015