OS X Is No Longer On My Main System, But I Already Have Regrets

Written by Michael Larabel in Ubuntu on 12 March 2014 at 02:00 AM EDT. 141 Comments
With my upgrade to a new Intel Haswell ultrabook from ASUS, I am no longer relying upon an Apple Retina MacBook Pro and thus no OS X... I also switched from Unity to Xfce with my Linux environment. However, so far it hasn't been a totally positive experience.

See the aforelinked article about the ASUS Zenbook UX301LA for my reasoning in no longer using a Retina MacBook Pro for my main system. On Tuesday, now that I wrapped up benchmarking the Core i7 Haswell ultrabook with Iris Graphics 5100, I finally got around to setting up the Linux environment as my new, main workstation. The system is Xubuntu 14.04 LTS with the first SSD being an encrypted LUKS on LVM (see my recent The Performance Impact Of Linux Disk Encryption On Ubuntu 14.04 LTS article from a similar ultrabook) with EXT4 while the secondary SSD on the UX301LA is dmcrypt-based and formatted to Btrfs for other back-ups and storage tasks. The default Linux 3.13 kernel of Xubuntu 14.04 LTS is playing well with the Haswell CPU and Iris Graphics, while more details will be covered in the ASUS review on Phoronix in the days ahead.

My previous system was the 2012 Retina MacBook Pro running OS X but using VMware Fusion to run Ubuntu 12.04 LTS full-screen most of the time. I was running OS X as the base operating system the hardware was nice but Linux was a lemon on the rMBP, the battery life was better with Linux being virtualized than running bare metal on the hardware (there's since been improvements to the Linux power efficiency, etc), the occasional need to run an OS X program or work on OS X benchmarks, and all-around was a more hassle-free experience. I had been using the Unity desktop but for this new system I decided to go with Xfce as found in the Ubuntu Trusty archive. I've been using Xfce more often recently though replacing many of Xfce's applications with GNOME's alternatives like Gedit, Rhythmbox, Nautilus, etc. It ends up being a pleasant mix and not too bad.

When first setting up this new environment on the ASUS Zenbook, my first (literal) headache was with Xfce's current HiDPI support. The UX301LA ultrabook has a 2560x1440 resolution for the 13.3-inch display, which is of terrific quality and from the hardware-side I was quite pleased with it when checking it out on Microsoft Windows 8.1 that shipped with the device. Unfortunately, Xfce's HiDPI support is utter shit. Within an hour of using the ultrabook I was having eye strains and headaches. For adjusting to HiDPI screens on Xfce the main method appears to be increasing the DPI parameters via Xfce's Settings Editor with the xsettings / Xft values; that setting worked to some extent but the screen was then rather inconsistent in sizing of fonts between applications and even areas within applications.

After toying with different Xft DPI values, I set it to just over 100 DPI where the text is still rather small but at least the UI looks a bit cleaner and isn't causing massive eye-strain. With OS X on the Retina MacBook Pro, everything just scaled gracefully and even when running Ubuntu 12.04 LTS within the VMware instance there was decent scaling and a much cleaner appearance. I'm still playing around with other Xfce settings but so far it doesn't appear the desktop environment works too well on HiDPI screens. Fortunately, when I am not traveling I have the laptop connected to a 27-inch 2560 x 1440 display (ASUS PB278Q 27-Inch WQHD LED-lit PLS Professional Graphics Monitor) where the appearance is much more elegant and won't cause an eyestrain when I am working my ~80+ hour work weeks and typing hundreds of articles each month.

Besides the poor HiDPI support, a minor gripe already in using the ultrabook for less than one day is that it's a bit unfortunate Thunderbolt didn't take off more broadly outside of the Apple world. It was very convenient when using the Retina MacBook Pro and the Apple Thunderbolt Monitor of basically having to connect the Thunderbolt cable and DC power connector (which was also fed by the Thunderbolt Display) with the Thunderbolt setup additionally providing the USB connectivity via a USB hub built into the monitor. Now there's the separate power cable for the Zenbook, micro HDMI to HDMI cable to the separate monitor, and running a USB extension cable with external USB hub for connecting all of my peripherals.

Another issue is also the Xubuntu 14.04 LTS battery life on the Zenbook being about 10% shorter than when running Microsoft Windows 8.1. There also might be a big thermal issue with the Core i7 Ultrabook heating up to 90C+ when encountering full load on Linux, while those details will be saved for the forthcoming UX301LA review.

From the testing thus far, the ASUS Zenbook UX301LA is a nice piece of hardware and aside from some minor Linux compatibility issues it's running great on Xubuntu 14.04 LTS with the major exception being the HiDPI support. I'm continuing to play around with different settings and research to hopefully find a better HiDPI configuration for Xfce but so far I'm left disappointed. When running Retina MacBook Pros with Linux running full-screen within VMware, it was a much cleaner experience, even if it didn't mean using a pure open-source software stack; at the end of the day, usability and having the best experience is more important to my needs than obliging to a software philosophy when it results in a lessened experience.

Stay tuned for more updates.
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About The Author
Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.

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