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year of the linux desktop

posted 2024.02.20
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open source enthusiasts have been awaiting the year of the linux desktop since about when i was born. unlike windows and macOS, linux is open source, meaning all the code is freely available online. it is an ongoing collaboration between thousands of mostly volunteer developers. as such, here’s how linux compares to mainstream OSes:

linux offers two huge benefits:

this has made it the dominant OS by far in servers, because those are used almost exclusively by power users, and user friendliness in the sense most people would use it is nearly irrelevant.

the #1 issue with linux since forever is that it does not have the same amount of resources behind it as windows and macOS. this means it struggles constantly with:

because of these issues, “the year of the linux desktop” has become an aspiration and a joke, in the same way that nuclear fusion plants are “always just ten years away”. but linux has made progress in usability over time (and arguably the mainstream OSes have made progress in the other direction), so it’s not quite as aspirational anymore.

in the year 2023 i got a linux desktop, so i will set out to answer the question of whether 2023 was the year of the linux desktop. (i know it’s 2024 now but i wrote most of this in 2023.) in particular i am using linux mint on a PC i built in april. before that i used a macbook pro and before that i used windows 10 on a PC i built in 2015. i also use windows 11 on my work laptop. so i feel fairly qualified to compare the three operating systems.1


this one is a big loss on linux’s side. it took me a couple days to get it to boot correctly. and for another couple weeks i continued to troubleshoot fairly basic issues. for example:

the other OSes had no such trouble with basic functionality after the OS was installed (or laptop was acquired).


one of the biggest drawbacks of linux has always been application compatibility. basically no one develops anything with linux as a high-priority target, except devtools. but surprisingly almost everything i use works on linux these days without much hassle.

i grade linux as a step behind windows but on par with mac here.


the main stability issue i have with linux is that any update to core parts of the OS (like my kernel or graphics drivers) have a 40% chance to ruin enough things that i have to load a backup. but sometimes doing the same update again seems to work. idk. but unlike windows i’m never forced to update, so i only update every few weeks when i have time to deal with issues. updating is very fast compared to the other OSes btw.

other than that, the OS never crashes for me and the only application crashes are discord (as mentioned above) and vital (ditto). mac doesn’t crash often, but it does often get stuck so you have to force quit. youtube in firefox is bizarrely bad for that. but otherwise mac is quite stable. windows is a bit janky in my experience too, but it fails in smaller and more frequent ways (like making me log in 4 times in a row). the worst is that sometimes Power BI has issues loading a report, then i try to close it in task manager, but task manager crashes. overall i grade linux as “maybe slightly worse than the others” at stability.


i have to concede that linux UI was clearly designed by programmers. which isn’t to say it’s ugly, or that it’s not functional, but it does look 10 years out of date. think windows 7. the other two OSes, meanwhile, look sleek and modern. i think windows is still a bit ugly—and if you poke around you will find pieces of UI unchanged since windows XP—but it’s a “polished” ugly, the kind of ugly your boss will never notice. macOS looks quite nice.

and in terms of the little details, i think mac wins here. in terms of consistency and ease of navigation (especially file navigation), mac excels. windows is ok and linux is slightly worse. one of my big gripes with linux is the fonts. because it’s open source, it comes bundled with only open source fonts, which means none of the most common webfonts (helvetica, arial, times new roman, comic sans, etc) are available and you get substituted with, like, “Ubuntu Sans”. i tried downloading these fonts manually, but for some reason in headers i only get the ugly condensed bold version of helvetica.

first-party software

linux doesn’t have “first-party software” in the same way mac and windows do. each distro has its own set of utilities, and other than that it’s just third-party. some of it was developed with linux in mind, but not by the same team that made your distro. for example the main office suite for linux is LibreOffice. which has all the basic functionality of a modern office suite and not much more.

one glaring hole is image manipulation. if you need to draw or do more than rotate/crop, you’re out of luck. i mean, there’s krita, but it’s a bit of a hassle for routine tasks. (don’t even talk to me about GIMP.) but the other utilities are very plain and just do their job. Sound manages sound. Themes lets you select an interface theme. and so forth.

windows has the office suite, which is extremely powerful but also annoying. they integrate beautifully,2 and Excel/Word/Outlook/etc have tons of features, but they are also slow and remarkably unstable. what drives me craziest is the pop-ups. every application, even after months of usage, seems to think i want little pop-up tips. i don’t!!! and i have no idea how to disable them. it’s like all they learned from clippy is that there shouldn’t be a paper clip.

mac is a little disappointing to me. Mail and TextEdit are great, as are their more involved creativity applications. iMovie was goated as a 13-year-old (and has changed remarkably little since). but the office suite, like Pages/Numbers, is disappointing. it works, but it’s nowhere near as powerful as microsoft or google’s office suite, and it’s a little too quirky for its own good. and like linux, mac lacks any first-party drawing application. the best you can do is annotating an image in Preview.

user friendliness

this one is where linux makes big strides. i think this is best exemplified by what it doesn’t do. for example:

windows looooves to shove all of its products in your face. i keep hearing they put ads into the file explorer, which i don’t experience on my work laptop, but it’s something they would do. but here’s a real example that does happen. in the bottom left of the screen there’s a widget with the weather, except sometimes instead of saying “Sunny” it’ll say like “USD-EUR +0.2%” as if i wanted to see changes in conversion rates. and sometimes it will show a red notification icon. this can only be cleared by hovering over the widget to reveal a news sidebar filled with random politics, gossip, and clickbait. that same news shows by default in every new tab in edge. the red icon only appears when there’s “breaking news”, such as “judge says trump has to do thing.”

windows also tries to make you use its first-party applications whenever possible, especially edge. i’ve also run into some issues from it trying to open mail in Mail instead of Outlook. oh btw don’t even think about closing Cortana. whatever that does. mac is less annoying about this. some things will always open in safari for no reason, but it’s not that bad.

both mac and windows also keep on the kid gloves. mac especially. this is probably good for non-tech-literate people so they don’t give themselves viruses, but mac gets in your way so much that i had to look up how to open ordinary third-party applications on it. mac also offers very little customization because they are so in love with their default UI design. it is a good design though.

linux meanwhile lets you do whatever. you might have to enter a password but that’s it. you can mess things up this way, but if you don’t do anything weird then you won’t.


linux is kind of a high-ceiling low-floor operating system, where as mac is low-ceiling high-floor. windows is somewhere in the middle. as a skilled user willing to waste some time and unwilling to compromise, i prefer linux. i have a lot of annoying issues, but i can also do things that other OSes won’t even let you try. windows or mac are probably more “efficient” for anything except programming, but there are some affronts which i cannot abide.

  1. as a true cosmopolitan, i have also used android phones for four years and iphones for seven. 

  2. one thing that amuses me about office is that every application can run every other application. Teams can open Power BI reports, Outlook can open Word documents, Word can open Excel tables, Edge can open Teams chats, and so forth. not every pair works, but many of them do.