Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apple Alternatives

I have been an Apple computer fan for many years - in fact longer than most, through the (very) skinny times when the share price was junk and it looked like the future was dark indeed, if there was any future at all. I have owned macs since the very early models, fond memories of my venerable IIci still stick with me, I had a performa 6400 juiced up to the eyeballs with so much extra circuitry that it weighed twice as much as when I bought it. I have owned powerbooks, macbook pros, a macbook air, a mac book mini, an iPhone, an AppleTV (version 1) and those are just the ones I can remember.
Lately though, the shine has worn off. We have had a bit of a breakup, and like any really good breakup the blows seem to keep coming. From the Apple control over what I may run on my iPhone, through the abandonment of the AppleTV v1 (and the apparent expectation that like a good little customer I will come back for more and buy a v2), to the recent announcement that Java (the platform I have made a career around for the last 15 or so years and, continue to do so) will be deprecated on Mac OS X, it is clear that Apple's direction and my own no longer align even a little.
This leaves the question of what alternatives exist though. Even with the stifling level of control over my decisions exercised (on my behalf?) by Apple, I am honest enough to admit that, when you use it as recommended on the packet, Apple hardware does work very well indeed. For example, the AppleTV, iPhone and Mac Mini combination formed a very slick (if pretty limited) entertainment and multimedia back bone, the experience gave a nice portable remote control through the iPhone interface, the media selection available over the oh-so-silent mac mini (always running) and the AppleTV connected to the TV and audio receiver in the front room filling the house with sound (and sometimes movies, rented from Apple - that side of AppleTV always worked nicely, but it was a bit of a one trick pony).
Apparently I am not the only one thinking along these lines. Gizmodo, PC Mag and others offer plenty of reading on the matter. What follows is my own list of alternatives in use right now as alternatives for the way I used the Apple products in my life. I will start with the easy ones first.
Work / Home Computers
This is dead easy - for almost as long as I have been a mac fan, I have been a Linux fan (indeed, I have been a unix user much longer). Ubuntu linux has come on in leaps and bounds in recent releases and on most of my work machines I have been developing in Ubuntu for several years, in fact I stopped buying mac laptops some time ago in favor of more powerful, less expensive alternatives that run Linux well, and have been perfectly happy. I hear all the time how desktop linux is still too hard for regular people to use (usually from friends who are actually developers) but I wonder how many of them have actually tried? For me, Meerkat (the latest version of Ubuntu) is wonderfully friendly, super easy to install, lightning fast to use (especially on much faster hardware that often costs half of what the Apple alternative hardware does) and in recent incarnations, quite pretty as well.
So this one is easy - commodity PC hardware running Ubuntu Linux. As a bonus, the Java platform works superbly on Linux, and will continue to do so. What is new is that I have begun stripping Mac OS X off of my remaining Apple computers and replacing them with Linux (which works just fine with the hardware and also makes the boxes feel faster than under OS X). This future-proofs these computers beyond the useful life they would otherwise enjoy (once Java starts falling behind or is removed from the Mac OS completely). It goes without saying that Linux allows me to do much more with these machines for their uses here, for example I can share any directory across my home network easily, on any protocol (Mac OS X restricts the directories you may share using, for example, Windows file sharing protocols, unless you buy the server version of OS X - Linux of course has no such restriction - very useful for sharing my large music collection that is kept on an external drive with all of the machines and devices in my house).
This has been covered already on my blog, but several months ago I switched to Android (a Nexus One device on T-mobile) and have never looked back. I won't rehash in great detail, but the Nexus One does quite literally everything I used my iPhone for and a lot more, including Google latitude updates constantly running in the background (so that Jackie can see where I am and how long before I get home in the evening, with no effort necessary on my part), integration with Google voice that even seamlessly takes over international calls and charges me 2c per minute through the Google voice plan when I dial to the UK direct, tethering and wifi hot spot included in the regular T-mobile plan and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I take so much for granted now that I don't even think about it (note that I can even tether my Kindle to the Nexus One wirelessly and download books and content anywhere, same with my netbook or laptop).
Recording studio
For a long time the Apple Mac Mini has been the computing cornerstone of my home recording studio (used to record the Java Posse podcast
It still is, but now it runs Ubuntu! Making the switch was dead easy, and the result is a Mac Mini that runs faster, cooler and more reliably. It will no longer talk to my stock AppleTV (which is one of the reasons I modded the AppleTV - more on that later), but it does serve as the backbone for my home multimedia system too, and as a bonus makes all of my music available to me anywhere in the world where I have an internet connection. Skype runs just fine on Linux for video conferencing, pulse audio in recent versions of Linux gives a more flexible alternative to Apple's core-audio for recording purposes (it's like using Mac OS X with audio hijack built in), and Ubuntu has had its own app-store (called Ubuntu Software Center) for a few years now which makes finding and installing software a breeze (and removing it without trace similarly easy too).
As well as the Mac Mini works with Ubuntu though, I probably won't buy another. Options like the Acer Aspire Revo (roughly the same power, much less expensive) or the System 76 Meerkat Ion (still less expensive, much more power) offer far more bang for the buck. I will keep the Mac Mini for a while and then replace it with something like these machines (or whatever is available that's even better at the time).
Home Entertainment
This was the big one to work out. As mentioned, the combination of iPhone, AppleTV and Mac Mini made a slick, if pretty limited, home entertainment system with nice features like genius playlists, remote control from the iPhone, access to my whole music library and so on. Once I got rid of the iPhone and converted the Mac Mini to Ubuntu, the AppleTV was not a lot of use (Apple does not allow the AppleTV to connect to any other kind of server than iTunes, through use of a closed API).
The first thing to do was to jailbreak the Apple TV and install Boxee on it. This alone made the AppleTV ten times more capable than it ever was in stock form, allowing things like Pandora, Hulu and many other internet sources of entertainment to be used from the box. It also meant that the box could once again see my entire music collection over the network from the Ubuntu mac mini. Playback of web flash content is even possible, although the horsepower is not quite enough to make it super smooth (it will do at a pinch if you just want to catch up with an episode of something you missed), however alternative internet content that uses one of the formats it understands natively (h264 for example) play back very nicely, so sources like CNet TV and Revision 3 work brilliantly. Music playback of Pandora, Live 365 and many others are flawless too.
I then picked up an old Roku Soundbridge and installed Logitech's Squeezeserver to drive it (the Roku can emulate a squeezebox, although I would recommend people looking to do this look into the real Squeezeboxes as well, since they can do some tricks like sync with one another in different rooms to provide seamless entertainment throughout the entire house - I love the Roku but I will probably upgrade at some point).
Remote control from the Nexus One is also possible, using an app called SqueezeCommander which I have to say is every bit as slick and easy to use as the iPhone Apple Remote was.
The result, between Ubuntu, Roku Soundbridge and SqueezeCommander is a home entertainment backbone that is every bit as nice to use as the Apple stack was, and can do a whole lot more besides (like playing BBC radio streams for example). Genius playlists were a little tricky until I found the MusicIP plugin for Squeezeserver (yes - it has plugins that are easily installable from the web UI - much like an app store you might say :-) ). In truth, this was a little fiddly to set up, and I would say there is an opportunity for an even easier genius playlist plugin for squeezeserver, and maybe there will be in time. On the upside, MusicIP is more configurable and seems to produce better mixes than Apple's Genius (I don't think I will be the only one to notice that certain tracks *always* seem to get played in Genius no matter what the seed song - it just doesn't feel quite random enough, and of course you can't change that - on MusicIP of course, you can change it to your preferences).
Final Thoughts
There are other advantages to choosing alternatives to Apple. For one, you start getting out of the "it must work with Apple" mindset. For example, earlier in the year we picked up an HD Tivo, which actually looks like it might be the one box that can unify the video media experience in the front room. It can also stream movies found on the network (using a Tivo server that runs on Linux and scans your machine for videos which the Tivo can then see easily). If Tivo can just work out some kind of deal for Hulu content, they would indeed be the one box.
Likewise the Google TV looks very interesting, and has the advantage of integrating very well with my Android phone. Since the new AppleTV 2 will be pretty much useless with my current setup (since nothing else in the house uses Apple now), it is much more likely that we will pick up the Google TV at some point, and I have much more confidence that it will continue to work in a heterogeneous environment and continue to be supported (not to mention that it already allows third party apps to run).
It's also worth mentioning that pretty much every alternative device in use is running Linux. From the Tivo, through the Roku soundbridge, to the Nexus One, Linux has arrived, it's already everywhere, and indeed it really is the alternative to Apple.