It’s not me, it’s U(buntu)


I start my new job at mySociety on Monday. I’m sure to be writing a lot about that in the days/weeks/months to come but one of the cool things about it compared to other places I have worked before was that I got the opportunity to pick my own laptop (within a quite generous budget — which I could have topped up).

Given my beloved Macbook Air is a bit battered and bruised these days I decided to take up the offer and started to do a bit of research in earnest.

I’ve been using a Mac for quite a long time now by choice — usually alongside a Windows machine of some kind for the various enterprise tools at work. This has often meant carrying two laptops and having to do an awful lot of OS context switching. It hasn’t exactly been the optimum way to work!

Anyway — the prices of the new Macs are headspinning and I’m not quite convinced with just having a USB-C connection and nowt else.

Given the vast majority of my time is spent in the browser I considered a Chromebook — in the end though I thought I needed a bit more grunt and there are still a few non browser based applications I like to use. Also without seeming too superficial lots of them look pretty bland.

My ‘Launcher’ on the XPS13

Pretty much every reviews site had the Dell XPS13 at the top or in the Champions League positions and it is a beautiful looking machine so I started to have a proper look at it. The fact that it was available with Ubuntu 16.04 pre-installed was a big selling factor. I’ve been curious to see if I could move from macOS / Windows and work in a totally open source environment for a while and joining an organisation with the open credentials of somewhere like mySociety seemed like the perfect time to try (plus browsers are browsers so it isn’t as scary as in the past!)

So I took possession of the laptop* just after Christmas. Up to a point it all went smoothly. It looks amazing. The screen is fantastic. Out of the box everything initially seems to work well. It finds my wifi. All the pre installed applications work perfectly (I think) and I spend a bit of time messing about and it all seems good.

Then things start to spin out a bit. Can’t get it to play nicely with my printer nor monitor. The Ubuntu Software centre doesn’t seem to be working properly and everything I try to install gets caught in an infinite ‘waiting to install’ loop. The screen starts to do some weird (and quite disconcerting) flashing. I get warnings that pop up and seem pretty worrying.

In years gone by I might have freaked out (well freaked out more!) but I’ve been around enough proper techy folks now to understand their real superpower = Google + StackOverflow.

So after two hours of looking up error messages and diving down the Google rabbit hole reading things where I understood every third sentence, carefully typing things into Terminal (with crossed fingers) and trying not to swear too loudly I ended up seemingly updating everything on the laptop and after a restart found myself with what felt like a totally new machine. One where the software matches the smashing machine. So I’m now glad I didn’t bounce it off the wall (which felt like an option at one point).

The thing is buying a high end laptop with the (almost) latest version of Ubuntu pre-installed is probably the closet to an off the shelf experience for anything Linux related and it still took me hours of doing things in Terminal (which terrifies me) and trying to translate ‘help’ that seemed to be written by sys-admins for sys-admins. Now I am techy-adjacent so with a bit of head scratching it was all doable and it has I think been worthwhile (though it is early days) but a user friendly experience it wasn’t!

Anyway I have my laptop ready for day one — along with my first IRC client in about a decade happily docked alongside the Linux Slack client with no generational conflicts so far — so lets see how I get on!

*it isn’t the Developer Edition of the XPS13 — just the vanilla model pre-installed with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS