How Does Ubuntu 9.04 Measure Up to Mac OS X?

Bypassing Windows altogether, Mark Shuttleworth has stated that OS X is the operating system to beat. With Ubuntu's 9.04 now in wide distribution, we look at how it stacks up with the competition.

Apps Apps Apps

The worst-kept secret of the OS wars is that Apple sells OS X to consumers by selling its applications, not by selling the OS itself.  Sure, occasionally a new Dock feature will make it into John Hodgeman and Justin Long commercials, but most of the hard marketing is done on iPhoto, iTunes, iWork and the rest.  Ubuntu, of course, ships with far more bundled applications than OS X, but from a usability perspective the system defaults are where the head-to-head comparison belongs.

The “iLife” bundle of consumer-level media apps has rough parallels in Ubuntu’s default media suite, except for the still-tricky video editing and authoring pair iMovie and iDVD, and the Web design tool iWeb.  The music player Rhythmbox is the closest to its Apple counterpart iTunes (excluding the major-media-company content store, of course), and F-Spot is an easy-to-use substitute for iPhoto.  Audio editor GarageBand is trickier; both Audacity and Jokosher are slick consumer editing programs, but neither is installed by default. 

Video editing continues to lag behind on Linux, but some stable and easy-to-use editors are approaching the usability of iMovie, such as PiTiVi. There is currently no DVD authoring tool matching the ease of Apple’s iDVD.  I personally have never been a fan of the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) sites produced by iWeb, but they are popular and there is no equivalent packaged for Ubuntu — the last real contender, Kompozer (a KDE application), has been dormant since 2007.  On a bright note, although not officially part of iLife, the video players QuickTime and DVD Player are easily equalled by Ubuntu’s Totem, perhaps surpassing them when you consider supported formats.

Ubuntu’s OpenOffice, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude more powerful than Apple’s iWork — no surprise when you remember its long development history.  Likewise, the Internet combo of Firefox, Evolution, and Pidgin is more powerful than Apple’s Safari, Mail, Addressbook, iCal, and iChat, while remaining easy to use.   Linux is built for Internet communication, so it should be no surprise that its core applications have been refined over the years. 

Apple’s XCode and Automator are both highly-respected developer tools, but again Linux offers more, and for a specialized task like software development, the ground rules are different — coding an application can’t be as simple as creating a playlist in iTunes, what matters more is ease of use over the long run, where Linux tools like Eclipse have a strong history.  So, too, Apple’s multi-boot solution Boot Camp pales in comparison to the installation options available through Ubuntu’s installer and GRUB — Boot Camp is Windows-only, and only allows for two OS partitions.

For most utility applications, the two OSes are on approximately equal footing.  But Apple does have two strong offerings with no workable parallel in Ubuntu: Time Machine and iSync.  Time Machine is an integrated backup tool, which simplifies the process of backing up user data, settings, system files, and applications.  In contrast, although there are scores of backup programs packaged for Ubuntu in the Apt repositories, none of them are enabled by default, and most are significantly harder to use than Time Machine.  Searching through the Ubuntu forums, most users who do backups (which is not many) seem to either tweak or hand-roll an rsync-based solution, or perform manual backups.  Clearly there is room for an integrated solution.

OpenSolaris has a snapshot function built right into GNOME which makes use of its ZFS file system. Linux has all the tools required for a very powerful backup regime, such as rsync and hardlinks, indeed some projects have already emerged, such as FlyBack and TimeVault.

iSync synchronizes PIM data (contacts, calendar events, to-dos) between OS X’s desktop applications and mobile devices.  To the best of my knowledge, no mainstream Linux distribution ships a PIM sync application; most rely on the built-in import/export tools of their default email client (limiting them to VCARD, CSV, and other tricky file conversion options), or at best have a handful of outdated single-platform utilities buried somewhere in the package repository.  Certainly nothing approaches the mobile device detection and automatic sync provided by iSync.  This is a shame when you consider how much more important mobile platforms are becoming every day, and especially when you consider that there are open source sync solutions out there — some, like Funambol, extremely robust.

Apple’s MobileMe (formerly .Mac) online service also deserves mention; it is not a desktop application, but it does provide services useful to the desktop like online synchronization.  Ubuntu has already proven its chops with integrated online services, notably the bug reporting tool integrated with Launchpad.  Regardless of whether Canonical would ever want to offer a for-pay IMAP and Web hosting service like MobileMe, the easy integration with existing desktop apps of MobileMe is commendable. Ubuntu has recently attacked this area with the release of Ubuntu One, which allows users to sync files and share work with others or even to work remotely. The service is still in beta, but it looks promising.

Finally, don’t forget how easy it is to download and install apps on Ubuntu.  Thousands of packages are available through the official repositories, and only in rare instances will you need to download and install a package manually.  By contrast, Apple’s software download service is woefully underpowered and a pain to navigate.  Installing a package on OS X generally involves hunting for the project’s Web site, downloading an image file, opening it, authenticating yourself with your password, then manually copying the application onto your hard drive.  Synaptic’s point and click is considerably faster, and handles configuration automatically.

Grade: C+, for big gaps in coverage in particular areas (like backup and video editing), plus missing defaults where Linux apps do exist (like audio editing and sync).  As with the previous section, part of this grade is due to weaknesses in underlying applications, but the end result is the same for the user.

Apple Ubuntu
iTunes Rhythmbox
iPhoto F-Spot
iMovie none; several are under active development
GarageBand no default; Jokosher and Audacity are good options
iDVD no default; several are available in repositories
iWeb none
QuickTime Totem
DVD Player Totem
Mail Evolution
Safari Firefox
iCal Evolution
iChat Pidgin for IM, Ekiga for VoIP
PhotoBooth Cheese
Front Row no default; Elisa and MythTV are available
Addressbook Evolution
iWork suite OpenOffice
MobileMe none; Conduit and others are in development
Time Machine no default; many options in repositories
iSync none; Funambol is an independent solution
XCode Eclipse, Anjuta, KDevelop and more available
Automator Many scripting languages available, though none target desktop as a whole
Boot Camp GRUB
Aperture no default; Rawstudio and UFRaw are good options
Final Cut none; Cinelerra is unstable, Lumiera still far from release
Logic Pro no default; Ardour is available
Shake no default; Blender does compositing in addition to 3-D<

Table: OS X applications and Ubuntu alternatives

Next: Software Updates

Comments on "How Does Ubuntu 9.04 Measure Up to Mac OS X?"


Seeing as you recently had an article on how powerful Kdenlive was becoming, I\’m surprised it wasn\’t mentioned as an alternative to IMovie or Final Cut.


The main issue today keeping people out of GNU/Linux and in Windows, desperate though they may be to get out, is the difficulty and most often impossibility of getting commercial Windows apps to work under Wine. This is the greatest issue facing Linux today, the issues in this article are all secondary to it. I think this article shows that the issues it touches are being dealt with effectively, often with enormous success.

When apps can be installed and made to run at all under Wine, one still needs to keep them running over the long term. Installing DirectX, .NET, Visual C++ libraries, or even other apps can render some or all apps under Wine mysteriously inoperable. I have used it constantly for three or four years, and to say it has been rough sailing is an understatement. Wine has had a magnificent history, and has had great success. When it works, it can work very well. However, all too often it can stop working at the drop of a hat. I don\’t see this as a long term solution.

It is urgent that software publishers be helped out of the closed-platform mindset. Commercial software apps need to stop being written in you-know-what IDE and written with tools and frameworks that are reliably cross-platform, like QT4 and wxWindows (any other suggestions out there?). For GNU/Linux to really hit the mainstream, people need to have true choice of platform, and that must include commercial native Linux apps. When you buy an app at Amazon, Fry\’s, or WalMart, it needs to run natively under Windows, MacOS, and GNU/Linux out of the box. No hassle, no Wine, no further actions required.

Every time I suggest to people that their penitence will end once they switch to Ubuntu, it\’s \”Will CS4 work?\”, \”Will [insert random commercial Windows game here] work?\”

It is no exaggeration to characterize this as nothing short of the single greatest emergency facing GNU/Linux today on its path towards mainstream acceptance.


@ hhemken:
I disagree with your insistence that Linux must honor Microsoft-based products. One effective point of the article is that, in a number of categories, there are products that are nearly equal to, and some superior to, similar to Apple products. And since many of the Apple products mentioned are SUPERIOR to similar Microsoft-based products, I think Linux, and especially Ubuntu, is becoming recognized as a major operating system on par to Mac OS X and Windows, in part for the large number of programs that accomplish the same goals as Windows-bssed programs. I think more and more people and business will be willing to abandon Windows and its problems for Linux, in part because of the ever-growing list of Linux-based apps as well as better security and lack of commercial crapware.
And I think Shuttleworth is right: the target for Ubuntu is Mac OS X, not Windows. Windows is already in decline — just note the reluctance of business users to upgrade from XP to 7, let alone Vista — and that will become more apparent as time goes by.
(If developers like Adobe, for example, truly wanted to make their products cross-platform, couldn\’t they develop Java-based versions?)
One of the points of the article I think it hints at but doesn\’t make clearly is that Ubuntu is still too much like Linux, in that it\’s still too geeky. Most people who switch from Windows to Mac OS X appreciate how well-designed and intuitive the GUI is, how they can get more done in X than they could ever do in Windows. The OS X GUI is easier to figure out for most people than Windows or most forms of Linux. Ubuntu has gone the furthest in bringing a relatively simple, intuitive, well-designed GUI to Linux.
If anything, the Ubuntu community needs to change those aspects of Ubuntu that is hard to non-geeks to figure out. For example, why not give the Update Manager as simple an interface as Software Update in OS X, so that a user can just authorize the updates that are ready for download and installation, without confronting them with cryptic package names? An expert mode could be chosen if the user wants to see the details of what they are downloading and installing. Also, Ubuntu should give more prominence to the Add/Remove Programs feature, by making it something like the App Store for the iPhone, including better descriptions of what all those Linux programs do, and the chance for readers to rate and comment on them.
The simpler and more intuitive, and less Linuxy, Ubuntu becomes, will help it become accepted as a viable operating system, raising its popularity above both Windows and Mac OS X. But that depends much more on growing the number of quality programs that will run in Ubuntu and improving Ubuntu\’s reliability and ease of use, not enslaving it to a declining platform.



I agree with your remarks, but they don\’t address what I believe to be the emergency. Users want their commercial apps to work now as a precondition to moving to GNU/Linux. They are not geeks such as ourselves, who have been willing to wait years and years for apps to appear and mature. I didn\’t mean to restrict myself to Windows, although that is the larger market by quite a stretch, and MacOS users will be less likely to switch than Windows users because Mac users don\’t seem to be particularly unhappy. If anything, as far as Windows is concerned, they are even more of a smug and snickering lot than Linux users. 8-)

My point is that commercial apps in general need to run natively under Linux as a pre-condition to large-scale popular use. I don\’t see Java as a solution. I use jEdit and OpenOffice all the time, and there are minor annoying issues that tend not to be present in compiled C/C++ apps. Their memory footprint is still larger as well.


Thank you for this write-up. I would like to take issue with a few points.

Installation: Linux may be easier to install for the cognoscenti. It\’s not as intuitive for a novice. (Someone who thinks that they\’ll gain more RAM by uninstalling programs and deleting old pictures.) I\’m not advocating disc-based installs, just that they are easier for one to understand.

Apps Apps Apps
Since the mac does not ship with Final Cut and since the cost is significant, it\’s unfair towards Ubuntu to get graded on this. For the average user (one that will not use extensions) Safari = Firefox. iChat is better than pidgin for ease of use. Mail is a much nicer program than Evolution. Looks better and is faster. Mail talks to everything. Evolution, like Thunderbird, is good at pop and IMAP. Exchange support is weak. I realize this really only affects SMBs.

For office productivity, one should really choose to compare Microsoft\’s Office for Mac, since that\’s the real choice for business. To expand on what hhemken says, familiarity is what drives the herd.

As far as Wine:
There\’s no incentive for publishers to potentially lower their profit margins by spending dev time achieving cross platform nirvana. The cheapest folks on the planet (we *nix users) are not going to be thrilled to spend $1400 on an Adobe product, no matter what platform it\’s on. Publishers would spend more and earn less.

The brilliant folks in the OSS community that are developing competing free products are paving the path to mainstream acceptance. Wine is a stopgap…a bandaid…albeit a comforting one.


I used to be a happy camper with my Mac OS X laptop in my previous job. Since switching jobs I haven\’t had the luxury of using Apple\’s machines so I\’ve had to go with the company standard and use a \”PC\” laptop. For the last three years I\’ve been trying out Windows XP, Vista and different Linux distributions (mainly Ubuntu and Fedora) on my laptops with unsatisfactory results. The anti-Windows sentiment has worn off during that time but the instability and performance problems of the Windows platform is extremely frustrating.
For me the main problems with Linux and Ubuntu have been hardware support and compatibility with company software infrastructure.
Since the laptop are the new desktop power management and suspend to ram/disk are extremely important. On many occasions this has been a show-stopper for my migration to Linux.
Our company uses MS Exchange email server which doesn\’t work properly with Linux based client software. We have the Outlook web access but the usability is pretty poor with browsers other than MS IE. The company VPN is another thing that doesn\’t work with Linux.
Other than these, unfortunately, Ubuntu just doesn\’t have the \”wow\” factor Macs have but right now I\’d just settle with a platform that allows me to be productive with my work.


Yeah. I appreciate articles like this, keeping the dream alive. But, I\’ve been banging away at Linux (and for many years somewhere in there, FreeBSD) since 0.9. I did the laptop dance for a long time and even wrote one of those beloved writeups for how to get a now bygone version of FC5 to work perfectly on a particular, aging Dell laptop.

I\’m 40 now. I have kids. I just don\’t have time to screw around to get my OS to work when I have to do computing that is integral to my personal life and work. I just want stuff to work. No amount of comparison with MacOS or Windows will tempt me away from those OSes if the analogous important apps don\’t work flawlessly on a Linux distro (be it with VMware, Wine, etc., or natively)

So my laptop (which is also my desktop) is duel boot, Ubuntu 9 and Win Xp. As a Fedora user I felt dirty and weak moving to Ubuntu… but you know… it just works. That\’s what I need, so that\’s what I have…. even if I much prefer yum over apt-get.

I\’m a geek and I\’m succumbing to this. Linux is just not ready for real-world demands.


Here\’s a post I have on Linux and other operating systems:

In addition to my points in the blog post, I\’ll say this: Linux only stands a chance when someone realizes the complete mess that open source is and starts supporting commercial software and demands that open source licenses be voided or universally compatible to install on the OS. The issues with license conflicts and closed source software are not the concern of the users. We don\’t care! We just want stuff to work and be able to install software, regardless of whether or not it costs money. I don\’t care if some ASLv2 library can\’t be used with some GPL application. I just want them to work.

Plus, most Apple users spend money on software as long as it works. The number of people that actually buy CS4 is large. The number of people that buy iWork and other third-party non-free software is even larger. So, why spend money on software when there is a free alternative on Linux? Because OS X just works all the time and I never have to worry about licenses or figuring out why some little thing isn\’t working correctly. Plus, it looks a LOT nicer than Linux does. Unless you spend hundreds of hours getting Compiz perfectly installed and configured, Linux won\’t look nearly as good. Since time is money, OS X is actually cheaper if you do the math.


One other thing I forgot to mention is that all of Apple\’s applications integrate really nicely with each other and they work beautifully with my iPhone. Safari, Mail, iCal, Address Book, and integrate seamlessly. I can pull information from Safari into Mail, Mail into Address Book or iCal. That type of integration is possible on Linux, just much more difficult since most of the applications are written by different entities. Plus, I wouldn\’t even want to try and get my iPhone to sync up with Linux.


I think too that integration between applications is one of the more important goals for gnu/linux desktop systems, mostly if you compare to Mac Os X.
Being a KDE fan, I see that\’s there\’s a lot of things that can be better in my favourite desktop, but we are going in the right direction.


This is a very biased article. Name someone who has removed Mac OS X from their computers and installed any version of Linux, including Ubuntu. It simply doesn\’t make sense to do that.

Linux needs critics, not fanboys.


Very well said. I\’m glad someone else also sees what could very possibly be the most urgent problem.

(Keep in mind though, that CrossOver Linux can be very helpful in this situation. It even runs Microsoft Office flawlessly. I suggest taking a look.)

No one loves Mac OS X more than me. That said, my perfectly-functioning Mac laptop has been sleeping in a bag on the floor ever since I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on a $400 el-cheapo laptop. I am just truly impressed with how far Linux has come. Everything I want is there, and nothing that I don\’t want is. And unlike Apple, it\’s not like the guys at Ubuntu had any *idea* what type of machine I would want to run it on, yet everything simply works right out of the box. Amazing!


I am using both OS X and Ubuntu 9.04. Ubuntu is much faster (although I have it on much faster hardware than my imac 2.66), cut and paste works far superior to OS X, opensource applications work great. I think it is a real competitor. Running the livecd version Ubuntu detects everything including airport correctly and looks great on the 24\” screen however, I do not have a dual boot machine at this point. I am waiting for snow leopard to make a final judgment.

Apple\’s strength at this point is the hardware and commercial software. The display is superb, the hardware is high quality, the os is very stable.


There are a lot of issues that both sides can used to fight this battle. Looking at the code, there are a lot of things that can be said both positive and negative. From the code perspective, Apple has it made… They are not trying to figure out what hardware you have in order to make the system work.

From a hardware perspective…
Many of the \”fanboys\” are using equivalent hardware (e.g. they have dedicated graphics chips without a shared memory architecture, they use 7200rpm drives with large caches, and leading edge or better network cards that support industry standards [or prestandards]). This means that Linux \”just installs\”. They have the benefits of the OS properly configuring compiz and all of the \”WOW factor\” items off the bat…
Many of the \”naysayers\” are using corporate hardware (especially laptops) or the cheapest system they can find, with shared memory graphics in which the OS team has determined that it is too hard to auto configure compiz because of the variables and settled for the \”good enough\” bare configuration. This setup does not give the \”WOW\” environment that the others are talking about so these semi-techie users head for the blogs only to get too frustrated at points to have a good opinion of Linux.

This is the equivalent of running Vista on a netbook. YES, it does run on a netbook, but horribly slow and with no \”AERO\” interface. It does not have the \”WOW\” factor either and if we were allowed to tinker with the code and configurations more, I\’m sure we could come up with ways to make AERO work on a netbook but it would be for those willing to do lots of work.

MY POINT… My wife\’s Vista works awesome on her 4GB RAM ASUS laptop. My Ubuntu 9.04 works awesome on my 4GB RAM Dell laptop. My sister-in-laws OS X works awesome on her 4GB Apple laptop. Apple is the only vendor which you don\’t have to be selective on the hardware with. They tailor their systems explicitly for their software and vice-versa. But if you are more selective of the hardware in your system (whether laptop or desktop), you can have a great experience out of the box with either Windows or Linux.

The answer is: There is a choice. The question then becomes: What will you choose?


@a.sicofante I actually run only Ubuntu on my macbook pro, I have removed os x. I dual booted for a while but just wasn\’t using os x and didn\’t want it anymore. Now I wish I had bought a cheaper pc with similiar hardware specs for 1/4 the price.


I ran Windoze Xpee Pro and Ubuntu (Hardy) on the same old IBM Thinkpad T40 but I\’ve upgraded the memory to 2G and the disk to 120G and replaced the CD/DVD with a later IBM model. For a long while I ran both in parallel. During that time Windoze has had 3 different Firewalls (none very good) and I\’ve bought 2 different anti-virus, and lots of utilities over the last 3 year. The result – a PC that can run well but not for long. Each update could kill it dead and often did as PnP screwed the hardware drivers and installed nothing I own. I also know it WILL get virus attacked – again.
Ubuntu Hardy installed with ease once I gparted the hard disk. No hardware issues apart from configuring ppp for the stupid cellphone modem. I\’ve upgraded to 9.04 and have nearly abandoned Windoze . Ubuntu has been a solid performer for me – a few ease of use issues but nothing major (Hey I started back in the dark days of pre-DOS CPM). Ubuntu just works and I appreciate that.


You guys are on crack. You compare a no maintenance *nix distro like OS X to Ubuntu? And you give Ubuntu updates an A+?

First of all, How did you (Ubuntu geeks) manage to munge Firefox? It\’s the default browser that ships with Ubuntu and it isn\’t up to date in even the latest distro, (8.10 and now 9.04). So let\’s say an end user hears about the latest FF and tries to update it on their Ubuntu machine. This is no big deal on windoze or OSX, they simply click \”check for updates\” right in the browser and it\’s done. On Ubuntu, that menu item is GREYED OUT. GREYED OUT? On Ubuntu, why are end users expected to wait f-o-r-e-v-e-r for browser updates or deal with a python script back door workaround to do something as fundamental as updating the default browser? Give me a break. Then there\’s the idea that they\’ve gotta deselect Firefox updates or they\’re forcefed an older version by Ubuntu\’s automatic updates. This is beyond a joke. It is a huge turnoff.

Either make a different browser your default or get out of the sed|awk|grep|csh dark ages and make updates transparent automagic for end users. Don\’t get me wrong. I\’m a fan of Linux from way back. But the last few days I\’ve spent my considerable time downloading OS86 kalyway torrents so I can strip Ubuntu off my Acer Aspire One and use an OS that is not so high maintenance.

I\’m delighted to see the Linux community finally focusing on the correct target to compare itself to: OS X. But I think you guys need to spend a little less time assuming everyone is a *nix sysadmin and spend some time using your distro a few days to perform common tasks like updating the web browser before you release it. Whatever you do, don\’t give yourself an A+ for a C- end user experience or you\’ll be asking why Linux adoption is so low 100 years from now.


Linux is a very similar to OS-X and visa versa. Apple took a open source OS BSD it grows because of Open source and both OS-X and Linux benifit. Windows has no such process. OS-X and Linux are part of a common Os family when one progresses so does the other.

Apple was smart to use Open source but putting its own twist just look at all the themes out for both Windows and Linux to emulate its look, but what is underneath OS-X is closer to Linux than Windows will ever be. So its comparing oranges with oranges.

For general use Linux works fine, OS-X just looks better and besides that there is a Apple following that is almost a religion, Linux I dought will ever get there. Windows will never get there.

I use all three OS\’s and I find they all can do what the user wants, but like many people I really just want to read my e-mail I care little whats under the hood.


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