Saturday, October 26, 2013

Moving back to Linux on the Laptop

Over the last 4 years I have owned a Macbook Pro. Couple of weeks ago (couple of hours after posting my previous blog post) the hard disk went click-click (I heard it, I had headphones on at the time) and died. After about 8-10 hours of googling and trying out various troubleshooting advices, I was able to resurrect the machine by formatting my hard disk and reinstalling the operating system from the recovery disk partition written to by OSX 10.8 (Mountain Lion), in the process suffering complete data loss.

I learned later that other users who recently upgraded to Mountain Lion had the same experience - disk crash, fixed by reformat and OSX reinstall. I had upgraded because I wanted to move to Java 1.7 - Snow Leopard, the previous OS, had support only for Java 1.6. I was able to recover all of my "production" Python scripts - stuff I wrote long ago but use day-to-day almost without thinking - thanks to a SugarSync account that only partially works (but it worked "well enough" in this particular case).

I was also able to get back most of my recent code (except the work in progress stuff I hadn't pushed) from various code repositories (GitHub, BitBucket, SourceForge, etc). Most of my EBooks are also available for re-download from my accounts at various publishers (Manning, Packt). I lost almost all my music except some songs which were scattered among various devices - EMusic was kind enough to give me a $50 credit to rebuild (a kernel of) my library.

Of course, the Macbook is about 4 years old and its not as if I expected to own it forever. I did hope that I could use it for about 6 years, given that the average life of my PC based laptops are about 2-3 years and this cost almost 2.5 times as much as one of those. At that point, I had planned on going back to using a Linux based PC laptop. Having heard the sound of the disk drive, I was pretty sure it was an unrecoverable hardware failure, so I went ahead and put this plan into motion. A bit premature, as it turned out, but I guess I have to live with the consequences of my actions...

The one major reason I liked the Macbook was its long battery life - 8 hours new, 4-5 hours now, still more than adequate for my purposes. I found one such system at, a store that installs (and guarantees) Linux on popular laptop hardware. Since I have installed Linux before, I just wanted to know what hardware they use so as to maximize my chances of getting all features working under Linux.

I then took the specs for the Lenovo T530, added a few things - upgrade the CPU to a 4 core i5, increased memory from 2GB to 8GB, added an NVIDIA graphics card to support higher resolution (1600x900), and upgraded to the 9 cell (8 hours) battery instead of the 6 cell default - and placed an order at the Lenovo store. Ended up paying about the same amount (with tax) as the one advertised in

Once the Macbook came back to life, I had a change of heart and tried to cancel the order but Lenovo's return/cancellation policy is pretty draconian (at least by US standards) - once you hit the submit button, you have effectively bought it. Anyway, I figured that the disk on the Macbook crashed once, its only a matter of time before it dies again, so maybe just makes more sense to put it to pasture working on things like my kids' homework :-).

For the OS on the new Thinkpad, I had a 64 bit Ubuntu 13.04 disk from purchased earlier for my work desktop. The only issue I faced was that the installer could not recognize the wired network during installation - however, once the machine came up with Ubuntu, it was able to recognize the wired (and wireless) connections. I am able to load Google-Chrome beta (to replace the Firefox default browser), watch and listen to lecture videos (for Coursera and other MOOC classes I am taking - I mention it because I can't get sound to work on my desktop). I haven't begun to use it fully (I am still typing this post on my Macbook), but all the software I need works fine on it (so far at least).

Looks wise, of course, this is a huge downgrade - almost like swapping a sports car for an SUV (the real kind) - the Macbook Pro is slim, sleek and sliver while the Thinkpad is thick, chunky and black. With respect to the OS though, I have worked with Unix long enough so Linux design choices just seem more logical, and I have always found the Mac OSX /Application, /Library, /System, etc trees somewhat strange and non-intuitive. Plus there is just more good free stuff on Linux than on OSX, so I am guessing my overall experience with this change would be positive.

So anyway, back to using Linux for everything again :-).

4 comments (moderated to prevent spam):

KT said...

Hey Sujit, I'm on Ubuntu on a T530 myself, and just love this laptop.

I added an mSata SSD and put Ubuntu on it, which gives speed, plus the benefit of defaulting to a normal HDD for large files..

Sujit Pal said...

Hi KT, the T350 with Ubuntu is working out quite well for me too. Your SSD is a nice touch, makes things more flexible.

Jorge Luis Betancourt González said...

I've a Macbook pro 8,1 (2011) and a few months ago the HDD also die, I had to replace it for a new one. Suspiciously under Mountain Lion too. But it's all fine now with the new one.

Sujit Pal said...

Hi Jorge, while I was researching possibilities of getting my MacBook back up, I came across a thread which was speculating on the possibility of it being upgrade related - the posters on that thread had all done a Snow Leopard to Mountain Lion upgrade recently. One of the posters mentioned that formatting got the machine back to life which is why I tried it as my last resort.