Content, not the container

I’ve decided to do away with my collection of records and cassettes. Truth be told, I haven’t listened to them in years or I’ve obtained CD or MP3 versions that I play through computer, media centre or mobile phones.

I used to be fascinated by all the old formats but reached a point where I started running out of space for them. Sorting through my cassettes last night I realised that have digital versions of three quarters of them and most of the rest I likely never will listen to again.

I find the same with my collection of video games and books. There are a few books I will like to keep in a physical form but many I will only have as an ebook, particularly one I will only read now and again, or reference books.

As there are only handful of games on each platform that I enjoy, I don’t want to have consoles upon consoles around the house.

Emulation of these systems is an ideal solution – the original games can be played on one system pretending to be another. The controllers may not be “authentic” but the experience is largely the same.

I frequently play games from my childhood using Commodore 64 and Amiga emulators, sometimes arcade machine emulators as well. On occasion, I will acquire a remake for a more recent system (in the hope that the remake is faithful to the original and not a “reimagining”). The original is often crafted to create an atmosphere that makes the best use of the host system, remakes often are a mechanical imitation that copies the look without recapturing the feel.

There is further justification for emulation as well – as equipment gets older, it starts to fail. ROMs develop what is known as “bit rot”, the chips losing or corrupting the information stored on them.

With eBooks, it pays to shop around if you are using a tablet rather than a dedicated ebook reader – even then you may be able to access books from different purveyours. Try, if you can, to source your books in an unprotected epub format. With the apparent exception of the Kindle, all readers are able to read these, along with PDF. The concern with eBooks is that the publisher may remove books from your collection without warning, apology or compensation. Of if they cease trading, as has happened a lot in Japan recently, you may lose your books when your devices stop functioning.

Choosing an operating system, or chainsaw juggling for beginners

No matter which system you choose, you’ll always be at risk of provoking someone. In the last few years, I’ve found myself switching between Windows, Mac OS and Linux – the latter being my preferred system of the moment, though I veer from one to another like a drunkard leaning against a lamp post.

Of Mac OS X and Linux, there is much to admire in each but despite their similarities, they also represent drastically opposing philosophies.

A year ago I wrote about how I had invested in a new second hand PC to renew experimentation with Linux after using a Mac for several months. Due to taking two weeks off work for surgery, I had plenty of time to experiment but after spending two days configuring the system to my liking, I went back to the Mac. After a few weeks though, Linux became my main system for the next six months.

Until I did a fresh install of MacOS and switched again – but only for a few weeks.

I’m finding myself vacillating between two systems as neither seems entirely right for my requirements – Linux is the more flexible of the two but prone to be rough around the edges, feeling unpolished and unfinished. MacOS is more polished and slick but leaves a feeling of compartmentalising the user, as well as costing a lot more. I do like how nicely Apple products work together but not how Apple try to block out everyone else.

There are other reasons to dislike Apple as well.

1. Most Apple products are manufactured by Foxconn, a company well known for mistreating and underpaying its staff.

2. Apple have very shady practices regarding taxes – they route their profits through numerous subsidiaries and pay only a fraction of what they should.

3. Apple are also prone to vexatious litigation – suing rival companies, even if they don’t have a fully formed case or their position isn’t justified.

I understand to a degree why Apple like to keep their platform closed – aside from keeping a tight grip on their revenue stream, it ensures that hardware and software are tightly integrated. They don’t have to allow for every conceivable hardware combination.

Given the opportunity, I’d probably do something fairly similar myself – after reviewing the available hardware configurations, I’d develop a custom Linux distribution based on the accepted profiles and support only that hardware base.

After watching several documentaries on Steve Jobs and then reading his biography, I find that as much as I dislike the man, there are many aspects of his management style that I would imitate were I to find myself in a similar position.

One of the stumbling blocks I’ve faced previously with Linux is that I’ve not purchased hardware with Linux in mind – I’ve not reviewed the Ubuntu hardware compatibility list for notebooks, desktop PCs or accessories. Some peripherals, such as the Brother laser printer, worked without any effort – plug and play as it should be. Other accessories, such as my Epson scanner purchased before I had any real interest in Linux, proved much harder to work with. After much research online, I discovered how to extract the firmware from the Windows drivers and how to edit the configuration files appropriately.

Video drivers proved to be the toughest challenge – both my 2007 Acer notebook and my 2010 Hewlett Packard desktop went unrecognised. The ATI Radeon HD 2300 in the notebook was sufficiently obscure that even ATI themselves frequently forgot that the chipset existed. The Intel 965 integrated video controller should have been properly supported but as I learned, even Intel only want to support the most recent distributions so Ubuntu 12.04 LTS was already too old to be supported by September 2013. Neither configuration was properly supported until I found myself obligated to upgrade my installation to 14.04 LTS. Even then, the ATI chipset is not supported to its full potential – playing full screen YouTube video, for example, stops and starts fitfully, the audio popping and crackling all the time.

Gradually, I found that if I was prepared to do the necessary research, I could overcome any of the frustrations I encountered with Linux – my confusion in restoring backup files created previously, installing functioning video drivers, tweaking Google Music Manager so that I could access the options screen after the first installation or so forth.

Ultimately, I conclude that although I have issues with Apple, their products are very “together” – I still recommend them to anyone who would like to use a computer but isn’t very technically minded. Linux is more for those who like a hands-on approach and don’t mind getting their hands dirty under the hood. Plus, Linux is a great way to re-purpose ageing but otherwise useful hardware and the vast majority of software is free.

Other niggles I face, such as a lack of a proper iTunes client for Linux, are compensated for in some ways by a reasonably comprehensive and often more cost effective alternative in Google Music. Although there is a client for each platform to upload and download music, the store itself is easily accessed via a web browser. Books, magazines, television shows and motion pictures can be viewed by the browser as well.

Only on rare occasions do I still buy music through iTunes, either someone is having a promotion offering credit at a substantial discount, or its a store exclusive. In future, I will likely buy Google credit though their discounts are smaller and quite infrequent.

My next project is to either get my Time Capsule to work natively with Linux as a backup device, or to replace it with something else that will. I’m reluctant to sell the Mac Mini as well, if only because I may yet change my mind and go back to using MacOS X again for a while – in which case, the Time Capsule will be useful again. For now, I’m planning to re-purpose it into a flexible Apple TV and media centre.

Windows, I think, has no real place in my computer room – I’ve already installed Linux on my brother’s system due to the age of the hardware he was given, and I recently installed Ubuntu 14.04 on my wife’s notebook due to our increasing mutual frustration with Windows Vista. Once we’ve finished converting our VHS video tapes to DVD, likely I will replace it altogether on her system. I have WINE installed on both my Linux systems for the handful of Windows applications that don’t have a native analogue, or the Linux version of the software isn’t as good.

Sadly, I can’t get iTunes to install in a usable form under WINE, and its too slow to operate under a virtual machine. Windows may survive in my collection solely for that purpose.

Reasons why I like Apple and Mac OS X

1. It just works
2. When you plug something in, it figures out what driver is required and installs it for you
3. Apple products are very tidily and neatly designed to work together – Mac, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV co-operate pretty seamlessly – and include most of the software that most people need for everyday needs
4. Having their own stores and support network means that if you have issues, you always have access to someone who will sort it out – often for no charge

Reasons why I dislike Apple and Mac OS X

1. Its a very closed system even though it incorporates some open source software
2. Apple products and accessories have a reputation of being very expensive compared to other platforms
3. Apple have a rather questionable security and privacy commitments – they seem to alternative between declaring their superior security and trying to downplay security incidents (collecting data for NSA, collecting private information even when you have turned those functions off or iCloud being hacked)
4. They will tap into your device to undo unofficial modifications (such as jailbreaking) and remove files (primarily apps) that they no longer wish to support
5. Apple also have a very chequered history regarding environmental responsibility and human rights – failing to use safe materials, failing to dispose of waste products correctly, ensuring that their workers and contractors are paid a fair salary and have a good working environment

Reasons why I like Linux

1. Its open source and community developed – all the work is being done by people who share a common purpose and believe in what they do
2. Its free
3. Its easily configured and customised to suit any purpose

Reasons why I get frustrated with Linux

1. Because it is community developed, often projects are undertaken as a hobby as and when the developer feels like it – there’s no guarantee that any task will ever be finished

2. There are a lot of divisions and fractions within the community so you are often bombarded with many different people telling you what you should do and what the best version of the software is

3. Whilst Linux supports an awful lot of hardware, there’s no real guarantee that your hardware will be properly supported (if at all) or will continue to be supported in the next versions