Operating systems: now and then, what next?

Ubuntu on HP Elitebook x360 (screenshot).There are multiple operating systems you can operate. Some are feature-rich, some not so much. While those who are enthusiastic and passionate about these kinds of things continue to be passionate, the actual differences between systems where you can operate are growing less and less important, year by year.

The basics of digital environments are today “good enough”, pretty much everywhere you go.

There are certain significant differences still, of course. Windows has the legacy of great popularity over decades in highly heterogeneous, work and private use contexts. It has a huge backlog of software and hardware that has been created or supported in Windows computers. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It is very difficult to produce a new version of the OS that would not conflict with some software, or some driver-hardware combination out there, as the recent hurdles of Windows 10 upgrade installations have proved.

Apple Macintosh users have more often been left in the cold, as there has been many devices which never came with drivers to make them work with a Mac. There has been arguably a lot of high quality, professional software available for Macs, but in purely numeric terms, Windows software ecosystem is order of magnitude larger.

A bit similarly, iOS (the operating system for Apple mobile devices) is limited by design: there are many restrictions for modifying and customising the default operation and setup of an iOS system. On the other hand, the software developers can rely on highly standardised environment, and users get a very reliable (even if unified and rigid) experience.

There are thus obvious pluses and minuses with the various philosophies that operating systems have adopted, or have been based on.

The current leader, Windows 10 is overall strong in diversity, meaning here particularly the software and hardware support. Be it business software, services or games, Windows is the default environment with most alternatives. On the other hand, a Windows user is challenged by certain loss of control: both the operating system and much of available software and system add-ons and drivers are proprietary. The environment is effectively filled with black boxes that do something – and the user can in most cases only hope that what goes on is based on the right and correct principles. And as there are multiple actors in all Windows installations, the cumulative effects can be surprising: there is Microsoft, trying its best both to introduce new functions and technologies, while at the same time maintaining backward compatibility with their long history of legacy systems. Then there is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), like Dell or HP, who typically configure their Windows computers with their own, custom-made tools and drivers. Then comes the user, who also installs various kinds of elements into this environment. There is the saying “tårta på tårta” in Swedish – cake upon cake. No-one is capable of carrying responsibility of how the entire conglomerate operates in a Windows computer. In many cases the results are good enough, and the freedom of choice and diversity of support for multiple use cases is what the users are looking for. On the other hand, there is also a well-documented history of bugs and problems related to the piling up effects of the sprawling and ineffective software ecosystem.

As the leading open-source alternative, Linux is known for rather effective use of computing resources. A typical Linux distribution runs well on even ageing computer hardware, and on modern, powerful systems one can really experience what a fast and reliable OS can mean. There are (of course) certain downsides to Linux, as well. The main challenges in this case lie in the somewhat higher threshold of learning. While there are increasingly easy distributions that come pre-configured with graphical tools that allow the non-expert user to take hold of their system, and configure it to their liking, the foundation of Linux is in command-line tools and text-format configuration files. Even today I find that after a new, out-of-the-box Linux distro installation, I feel the need to spend perhaps an hour or two in command line, hunting and installing the various tweaking tools, add-ons and other elements that are lacking in the default installation. But Linux is getting better. Particularly the support for new hardware is now much better than what it used to be ten years ago. While the laptop computer user of Linux in the past would in many cases find out that most of the controllers, special keys and other elements of one’s device would not work at all, or only after considerable efforts, today the situation is different. Most things actually work, which is great. But if something does not work in a Linux installation, one is mostly left to one’s own devices (and for hunting for help in the various community websites online). However, as an alternative example, Lenovo recently announced that they will certify their entire workstation portfolio to run Linux – “every model, every configuration” (see: https://news.lenovo.com/pressroom/press-releases/lenovo-brings-linux-certification-to-thinkpad-and-thinkstation-workstation-portfolio-easing-deployment-for-developers-data-scientists/).

I myself recently configured two laptops with a dual-boot, Windows/Linux setup: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and HP Elitebook x360 1030 G3. I considered both more challenging devices from a Linux perspective, since these are both two-in-one, hybrid devices with touch screens, which means that they most probably rely on many proprietary drivers to keep all their functionalities running. There were certain challenges (in BIOS/UEFI settings, in configuring the GRUB2 system boot menu, and in the disk partitioning), but Linux itself actually did handle both devices just fine. I was using the most recent, 20.04 release of Ubuntu desktop distribution, but there are several other alternatives that could work just equally well, or even better. Elitebook x360 is my main daily driver, and while my Windows 10 installation makes it run burning hot, fans blowing, Ubuntu is snappy, quiet and cool. And I actually can operate both the touch screen and touchpad with gestures that I have fully customised to my own liking, the active pen is also working fine with the screen, and there are only a couple of things that fall short of Windows 10. The special keys for controlling brigtness do not work (I use control sliders instead), and probably neither does the infrared camera (for facial recognition & login) and the LTE modem (I have not tested it though). One thing that I noticed is that this system sounds currently much better under Windows – the sound system is Bang & Olufsen certified, and they have probably configured the sound drivers and equalizers for optimal sound delivery, as the audio quality of music under Windows perhaps the best of any laptop I have used. But there is a highly detailed software tool, called PulseEffects, available for Linux that allows one to create a customized audio profile – if one is ready to dedicate the time and effort for tweaking and testing. That is the reality of Linux still, for good or bad; but luckily most of the essentials for work use will run just fine, directly out-of-the-box.

As a complete opposite of the high “tweakability” of Linux, iOS/ipadOS systems limit the user possibilities to a radical degree. The upside is then that an iPhone or iPad is very easy to use, one can always find the same settings from same places. It used to be that Apple mobile devices had excellent battery life and system reliability, but could only do one thing at a time. With the launch of iOS/ipadOS 13 (and coming version 14), multitasking became a certain kind of option in iPad Pro devices particularly. One cam also buy (a premium, and rather expensive) “Magic Keyboard” add-on to iPad Pro, and it will come with really nice scissor keys, plus a touchpad that allows mouse-and-keyboard style control of iOS. With iOS 14 there will be some more user-configurable elements added, such as (Android-style) widgets into the desktop. There are inevitable complications related to the added capabilities. iPad Pro which is constantly polling the touchpad (or, burning the back-light in the keyboard) does not have as long battery life as one without it. The multitasking and various split screen modes in ipadOS are rather clumsy and hard to control without considerable dedication into learning new gestures and skills of touch control.

Thus, I would say that we are currently in rather good situation in terms of having several good alternatives to choose from. I myself prefer to have both Windows 10 and Linux installed in my main computers, and keep them updated to their most recent versions. But I also use iOS, ipadOS and Android daily, and all of them have their distinctive strengths and weaknesses. If something does not work in one environment very well, it is often better to try something different, rather than trying to force the operating system out of its own “comfort zone”. I suspect this basic situation will remain the same in the foreseeable future, too.

On Tweakability

Screenshot: Linux Mint 19.2.
Linux Mint 19.2 Tina Cinnamon Edition. (See: https://www.linuxmint.com/rel_tina_cinnamon_whatsnew.php.)

Two years ago, in August 2017, I installed a new operating system into my trusty old home server (HP Proliant ML110 Gen5). That was a rather new Linux distro called ElementaryOS, which looked nice, but the 0.4 Loki that was available at the time was not an optimal choice for a server, as it soon turned out afterwards. It was optimized for a laptop use, and while I could also set it up as a file & printer server, many things required patching and tweaking to start working. But since I install and maintain multiple operating systems in my device environment partly out of curiosity, keeping my brain alert, and for this particular kind of fun – of tweaking – I persisted, and lived with Elementary OS for two years.

Recently, there had been some interesting new versions that had come out from multiple other operating system versions. While I do most of my daily stuff in Windows 10 and in iOS (or ipadOS, as the iPad variant is now called), it is interesting to also try out e.g. different Linux versions, and I am also fan of ChomeOS, which usually does not provide surprises, but rather steadily improves, while staying very clear, simple and reliable in that it does.

In terms of the particular characteristic that I am here talking about – let’s call it “tweakability”– an iPad or Chromebook are pretty much from the opposite ends of spectrum, as compared to a personal computer or server system running some version of Linux. While the other OSs excel in presenting the user with an extremely fine-tuned, clear and simple working environment that is simultaneously rather limited in terms of personalisation and modification, the bare-bones, expert oriented Linux distributions in particular hardly ever are “ready” straight after the initial setup. The basic installation is in these cases rather just the starting point for the user to start building their own vision of an ideal system, complete with the tools, graphical shells, and/or command-line interpreters etc. that suit their ways of working. Some strongly prefer the other, some the opposite style of OS with their associated user experiences. I feel it is optimal to be able to move from one kind of system to another, on basis of what one is trying to do, and also how one wants to do it.

Tweakability is, in this sense, a measure of customisability and modifiability of the system that is particularly important for so-called “power users”, who have a very definite needs, high IT skill levels, and also clear (sometimes idiosyncratic) ideas of how computing should be done. I am personally not entirely comfortable in that style of operation, and often rather feel happy that someone else has set up an easy-to-use system for me, which is good enough for most things. Particularly in those days when it is email, some text editing, browser-based research in databases and publications (with some social media thrown in), a Chromebook, iPad Pro or a Windows machine with a nice keyboard and good enough screen & battery life are all that I need.

But, coming back to that home server and new operating system installation: as my current printer has network sharing, scanning, email and all kinds of apps built-in, and I do not want to run a web server from my home any more either, it is just the basic backup and file server needs that this server box needs to handle. And a modern NAS box with some decent-sized disks could very well do that job. Thus, the setup of this Proliant server is more of less a hobby project that is very much oriented towards optimal tweakability these days (though not quite as much as my experiments with various Raspberry Pi hobby computers, and their operating systems).

So, I finally ended up considering three options as the new OS for this machine: Ubuntu Server 18.04.3 LTS (which would have been a solid choice, but since I was already running Ubuntu in my Lenovo Yoga laptop, I wanted something a bit different). The second option would have been the new Debian 10 (Buster) Minimal Server (probably optimal for my old and small home server use – but I wanted to also experiment with the desktop side of operating system in this installation). So, finally I ended up with Linux Mint 19.2 Tina Cinnamon Edition. It seemed to have the optimal balance between reliable Debian elements, Ubuntu application ecosystem, combined with some nice tweaks that enhance ease of use and also aesthetic side of the OS.

I did a wipe-clean-style installation of Mint into my 120 GB SSD drive, but decided to try and keep all data in the WD Red 4 TB disk. I knew in principle that this could lead into some issues, as in most new operating system installations, the new OS will come with a new user account, and the file systems will keep the files registered into the original User, Group and Other specifications, from the old OS installation. It would have been better to have a separate archive media available with all the folder structures and files, and then format the data disk, copy all data under the new user account, and thereby have all file properties, ownership details etc. exactly right. But I had already accumulated something like 2,7 terabytes of data into this particular disk and there was no exact backup of it all – since this was the backup server itself, for several devices in our house. So, I just read a quick reminder on how chmod and chown commands work again, and proceeded to mount the old data disks within the new Mint installation, take ownership of all directories and data, and tweak the user, group and other permissions into some kind of working order.

Samba, the cross-platform file sharing system that I need for the mixed Windows-Linux local network to operate was the first really difficult part this time. It was just plain confusing to get the right disks, shares and folders to appear in our LAN for the Windows users, so that the backup and file sharing could work. Again, I ended up reading dozens of hobbyist discussions and info pages from different decades and from different forums, making tweak after tweak in users, groups, permissions and settings in the /etc/smb.conf settings file (followed every time to stop and restart the Samba service daemon, to see the effects of changes). After a few hours I got that running, but then the actual fun started, when I tried to install Dropbox, my main cloud archive, backup and sharing system on top of the (terabyte-size) data that I had in my old Dropbox folder. In principle you can achieve this transition by first renaming the old folder e.g. as “Dropbox-OLD”, then starting the new instance of service and letting it create a new folder named “Dropbox”, then killing the software, deleting the new folder and renaming the old folder back to its own default name. After which restarting the Dropbox software should find the old data directory where it expects one to be, and start re-indexing all that data, but not re-downloading all of that from the cloud – which could take several days over a slow home network.

This time, however, something went wrong (I think there was an error in how the “Selective sync” was switched on at certain point), leading into a situation where all the existing folders were renamed by the system as server’s “Conflicting Copy”, then copied into the Dropbox cloud (including c. 330 000 files), while exactly same files and folders were also downloaded back from the cloud into exact same folders, without the “Conflicting Copy” marking. And of course I was away from the machine at this point, so when I realised what was going on, I had to kill Dropbox, and start manually bringing back the Dropbox to the state it was before this mess. It should be noted that there was also a “Rewind Dropbox” feature in this Dropbox Plus account (which is exactly designed for rolling back in this kind of large situations). But I was no longer sure into which point in time I should rewind back to, so I ended up going through about 100 different cases of conflicting copies, and also trying to manually recover various shared project folders that had become dis-joined in this same process. (Btw, apologies to any of my colleagues who got some weird notifications from these project shares during this weekend.)

After spending most of one night doing this, I tried to set up my other old services into the new Mint server installation in the following day. I started from Plex, which is a media server and client software/service system that I use e.g. to stream our family video clips from the server into our smart television. There is an entire, 2600 word essay on Linux file and folder permissions at the Plex site (see: https://support.plex.tv/articles/200288596-linux-permissions-guide/). But in the end I just had to lift my hands up. There is something in the way system sees (or: doesn’t see) the data that is in the old 4 TB disk, and all my tricks with different users and permission settings that I tried, do not allow Plex to see any of that data from that disk. I tested that if I copy the files into that small system disk (the 120 GB SSD), then the server can see and stream them normally. Maybe I will at some point get another large hard drive, try setting up that one under the current OS and user, copy all data there, and then try to reinstall and run Plex again. Meanwhile, I just have to say that I have got my share of tweakability for some time now. I think that Linux Mint in itself is indeed perfectly nice and capable operating system. It is just that software such as Dropbox or Plex do not play so nicely and reliably together with it. Not at least with the tweaking skills that I possess. (While I am writing this, there are currently still over 283 500 files that Dropbox client should restore from the cloud into that problematic data drive. And the program keeps on crashing every few hours…)

Gestures and multi-touch: Logitech T650

As operating systems evolve, so do the ways of interacting with them. While older laptops might have still the processing power or even the disk space to run e.g. Win8 or Win10, it is often in the control, or human interface hardware where the support is lacking. Adding an external keyboard and touchpad might be a way to give some extra life to an older system, while the downside of such “hybrid system” will unavoidably be that you’ll lose the simplicity of being able to just open the laptop cover and quickly start working. Setting up the external keyboard and external touchpad might make nevertheless sense for longer working sessions. In my case, I suffer from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and simply cannot work with non-ergonomic mouses, keyboards or touchpads – and I regularly rotate and try all sorts of mouse replacements and other add-ons.

Logitech T650
Logitech T650.

My optimal system at the moment is based on some very nice gear Logitech has developed. Both on my Macbook Pro and Vaio Z3 I have now set up the illuminated bluetooth keyboard by Logitech: K810 model for Vaio, K811 for Mac. The key travel in either of these, otherwise pretty excellent PCs is just too shallow to allow for high-speed typing – at least for me, your mileage may vary. Logitech K810/K811 is so excellent piece of design and engineering, with such an outstanding typing experience, that I just cannot stop marvelling at it every day I use these things – and I have purchased several, despite the rather steep price. My lurking nightmare is that Logitech will some day cancel this product, or somehow alter and ruin the design and functionality – so I just might again go out and get a couple extra ones to my spare parts closet, just to be on the safe side.

While I really like the touchpads of Macbooks, the touch behaviour in Windows systems has been much more problematic. In modern Windows 10 systems the touchpads apparently are getting closer to the Mac standard, and there is also the additional interaction affordance of touch screen in many Win10 models (something that Apple has stayed away in their laptops, while the touch interface of iPads and iPhones is of course very good). I happen to like the combination of touch screen and mouse/touchpad – it feels natural to handle screen directly, and it is also good for ergonomics to change the manner of manipulation every now and then – even while if touch screen would be the only mouse replacement, it would not really work.

For older Windows 7 devices like my Vaio Z3 there is no luxury of truly working multitouch gestures or anything like that – the touchpad in this Vaio is small, cramped and operates so erratically that it can pretty much drive you crazy, particularly if you have used something like Macbook Pro, with a really good touchpad and multigesture OS X that supports it.

While originally purchased for my other, Windows 8.1 equipped home computer, I recently took the Logitech T650 external touchpad to work and tried setting it up with my Vaio. While the small “Unifying” connector now takes up one precious USB port (no bluetooth in T650), I was surprised how well this Logitech touchpad works with Windows 7. The newest version of Logitech’s SetPoint software works really well also under Windows 7, and the two-finger, three-finger and even four-finger gestures really transform the speed and ease of use for scrolling and handling many documents and different software running simultaneously in my Vaio. The operating system is originally not really optimised for this kind of use, and there is no e.g. “expose” style overview mode in Win7, but Logitech add-on software provides that feature, as well as several others. The main problem is that if you are constantly running from meeting room to another like I do, there is not really time to set up the laptop, set up the keyboard and touchpad, switch on all of them, make sure that they connect correctly (sometimes they do not – a reboot might be required); and then, at the end of meeting to switch off and repack all three things again – just to repeat everything at the next room. But I guess I’ll just need to live with that at the moment. The multitouch gestures and solid typing experience that Logitech provides are so much better than the alternatives.

Logitech T650 multitouch gestures
Logitech T650 multitouch gestures.