Head-to-Head Desktop Comparison: Ubuntu 12.10 vs. OS X Mountain Lion

Monday Jan 21st 2013 by Matt Hartley
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See how the two operating systems compare from a casual user's perspective with regards to installation, software and hardware.

Over the years, many people have speculated about when Ubuntu will be ready for the casual computer user. Some individuals have compared Linux distributions to other operating systems, such as OS X.

In this article, I will be offering a unique comparison between Ubuntu 12.10 and OS X Mountain Lion. Since I have access to both operating systems in my home office, I was able to take the time to narrow down where each operating system excels and where improvement is still needed. I have also attempted to do so without bias or platform-specific hype.

To begin, let's jump right in and start by comparing the processes for obtaining the operating system.

Obtaining the Operating System

For the sake of this article, I did a clean installation of both Ubuntu and OS X on existing hardware. OS X was installed on a Mac, and Ubuntu, on a PC. Downloading and installing OS X Mountain Lion was a new experience for me, since you need to fulfill one of these requirements to get a copy of the operating system:

  • You must have access to a Mac running OS X to purchase and install Mountain Lion from the app store.

Or

  • You must purchase a new Mac with Mountain Lion pre-installed.

There is nothing wrong with obtaining Mountain Lion in this fashion. However, the lack of optical media for installation could be a serious downside for those broadband Internet users who happen to be restricted by bandwidth caps. How big of an issue is this? If you rely on cable Internet for home use here in the States, odds are excellent that downloading an operating system is going to cut into your bandwidth allotment.

Now some of you might be thinking this isn't a big deal because everything you need is going to be included in the 4 GB+ installer, right? No, not even close. You will also need to install select printer drivers (likely downloading them) and apply the latest patches and updates. If, however, you don't have bandwidth caps, this isn't a big deal, and Mountain Lion $20 price tag is widely considered to be a great deal.

Flipping the switch over to the Ubuntu 12.10 installation, users are presented with two very different ways of obtaining Ubuntu:

  • Download the ISO file, burn it to a DVD or apply it to a USB flash drive for $0.

Or

  • Purchase a DVD for $7.99 from Canonical.

Winner: Because OS X has stopped making physical media available, Ubuntu is the clear winner here. Let's put it this way—if you install a new hard drive in a PC and need to reinstall Ubuntu, you simply use the bootable DVD and re-install.

With Mountain Lion, however, you need to either have a working OS X install or bootable startup media if you're installing to a new hard drive. Perhaps this isn't an issue for everyone, but it's enough to give me pause.

Installation of the Operating System

If you're performing an installation of Mountain Lion, odds are, you're either upgrading an older OS X release or you've purchased a new Mac that came with this operating system release.

For users of older releases of OS X, Mountain Lion is available through the app store, as discussed previously. Once downloaded, Mountain Lion allows you to either run an upgrade install or do a clean installation instead. For most people, an upgrade installation is going to be the best choice. This allows you to update easily your existing OS X installation without any hassles whatsoever. The actual installation happens after your Mac reboots. The update installation allows you to keep pre-existing data such as applications and settings.

One area that bothers me, however, is in trying to install Mountain Lion onto a Mac containing Leopard. As you may have discovered, this isn't allowed. You're required to upgrade to Snow Leopard first, and then you can upgrade to Mountain Lion.

So what about a clean installation? You could potentially perform a clean installation of Mountain Lion. However, the casual user would be way out of their league trying to do a clean installation. While this may be a simple approach for you and me, the casual Mac user would be mystified trying to follow such an installation guide.

Performing an installation of Ubuntu is possible in one of two ways: You can either perform an upgrade install from an existing Ubuntu installation, or you can boot from Ubuntu media and create a new clean installation. One glaring red mark against Ubuntu is that you must upgrade over the Internet, as CD upgrades are no longer supported. As discussed above, updating one's operating system over the Web can affect you if you're dealing with severe bandwidth caps from your ISP.

Despite the limitations on upgrading Ubuntu, performing a clean installation is a snap with compatible PC hardware. Following the directions above on obtaining Ubuntu, you simply boot the media selected and begin the installation process. The actual Ubuntu clean installation process mirrors OS X's upgrade installation method in simplicity. However, like OS X, there are limitations as to which version of Ubuntu can be seamlessly updated without a clean installation. Only a previous release of Ubuntu or a LTS release is upgradable to the latest release.

Winner: I think both operating systems need to stop their dependency on the Web for upgrade installations. Ubuntu wins with regard to a clean installation thanks to easily obtainable media from the Canonical store mentioned in the previous section above. OS X, by contrast, requires a bit more effort to perform a clean installation.

Operating System First Impressions and Software

Both Mountain Lion and Ubuntu 12.10 provide a fairly polished feel right out of the box. I also found that both operating systems offer an application store to locate and install new software. And both operating systems support cloud storage and notifications.

Where the two desktop experiences begin to divide is what is provided out of the box and what's not. Ubuntu offers LibreOffice, a fully functioning office suite. OS X offers Reminders, Notes, AirPlay, Calendar, plus a number of other applications. However, most of the applications each operating system offers out of the box can be downloaded for the other OS. For example, OS X users can easily install LibreOffice, and Ubuntu users can install reminder, note-taking, AirPlay and calendar applications easily from the Ubuntu app store. While there are some applications available for one operating system and not for the other, generally speaking there are comparable alternatives out there for both.

Where the two desktop experiences differ greatly is that OS X has the advantage of syncing with Apple-branded portable devices and Ubuntu currently does not. The up and coming Ubuntu Phone could potentially offer some relief for Ubuntu in this area, but currently it's a definite sore spot for new Ubuntu users. The reason why this matters is that support for these devices is assured over time. As Android device owners realize, the ability to mount one's Android device is hit and miss. Apple users rarely experience this as their Apple-branded devices "just work" without any hassles.

Both operating systems provide a similar dock-like experience. Unfortunately, Ubuntu users find themselves tied to application discovery from the Dash whereas OS X users have access to their file manager for locating software. Other areas where OS X embarrasses Ubuntu include voice dictation and parental controls. Having extensively tested dictation software solutions for Linux and various parental control apps such as Gnome Nanny (which doesn't work), I can safely say Ubuntu is really lagging in this space.

Despite Ubuntu's challenges in the areas listed above, I've found that Ubuntu has a clear advantage in the customization space—themes and alternative desktop environments. If Unity frustrates the end user, they can easily install an alternative desktop manager. For the less geeky, themes are also available that provide a higher degree of customization than what can be found in OS X.

Both OS X and Ubuntu offer a solid means of backing up their desktop. Ubuntu's use of DejaDup targets individual directories instead of true system-wise snapshots. It works best for backing up your home directory and leaving the rest of your system alone. Sadly, this doesn't backup your applications, rather only your application settings and other home directory contents. The contents of your Ubuntu backups can either be saved to the Ubuntu One cloud service or to a local storage device.

On the OS X front, iCloud performs a similar function. If you're wanting to back up to a local storage device under OS X, you would do so via Time Machine. Where OS X differs with its localized storage is that instead of merely storing directories locally with Time Machine, this backup tool offers incremental system "states" from which seamless restoration is possible.

Winner: Both operating systems offer tons of applications and an app store for downloading more. OS X wins by providing refined features such as dictation and parental controls. Ubuntu wins with desktop control and customization. Where things become fuzzy is with OS X's Time Machine. Out of the box, the Time Machine/iCloud combo wins over DejaDup. However, Ubuntu users could install a Time Machine-like program called Back In Time which offers rsync functionality and mirrors much of Time Machine's abilities. The Time Machine/iCloud combo wins from the end user's ease-of-use perspective.

Pre-Installed Hardware Choices

When someone wants to install OS X (legally), they're doing so on a Mac or buying a new Mac with OS X pre-installed. On the other side of the arena, however, you can install Ubuntu on anything you wish. In addition, Ubuntu (Linux in general) goes out of its way to make this installation process as painless as possible by supporting a wide range of hardware choices. OS X is designed for Apple-branded hardware only. And while one can, in theory, install OS X on a PC, this isn't considered legal, and it's certainly not simple.

Ubuntu users will find that a quick search engine query will show off a number of solid Ubuntu-specific PC vendors who will support Ubuntu out of the box. You'll also find that there are far more hardware choices for Ubuntu pre-installed than there are Mac choices.

For diehard users of the two operating systems, this may not be a concern. After all, both platforms offer enough pre-installed choices to satisfy their individual audiences. But for anyone who values hardware selection over an operating system, this could be an issue.

Winner: With regard to pure hardware selection for pre-installed choices, Ubuntu buries OS X. Both operating systems are available on well-supported hardware. However, Ubuntu has the advantage of being able to support non-Ubuntu specific devices thanks to DVD and USB bootable media and licensing.

Final thoughts

I could easily make an article series out of this, since this comparison barely scratches the surface of the differences between the two operating systems. I'd love an opportunity to dive headfirst into application titles, peripheral compatibility, and so forth. But instead, I'll close this article with the following thoughts.

Ubuntu wins with cost and overall value. OS X wins with refinement and tight integration. Ubuntu offers its users greater choice by providing FoSS and proprietary applications in their app store, while OS X limits their offerings to freeware and paid apps. The differences between Ubuntu and OS X range from vision down to individual user need.

Which operating system is the best? My advice is to read everything above carefully and determine what's important to you. Speaking for myself, Ubuntu (and other Linux distros) will continue to be where my time is spent. They offer me the experience that best meets my needs. Your own experiences may vary.

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