Time for a serious Ubuntu experiment

I’ve had a Chromebook for over three years now, bought with the idea that when I’m not actually in my office, I spend nearly all of my time in Chrome anyway, so maybe a $250 laptop is all I need. That idea turned out to be correct. I started looking into Chrome Apps, and even wrote a book for O’Reilly about how to develop them. My committee work for the Conference on World Affairs (CWA) uses Google Docs mostly, so that made the Chromebook even more useful.

Still, there are two kinds of things the Chromebook can’t do: Handle my photography post-processing, and develop and maintain my mostly-PHP websites, such as the one I built for the CWA.

So, I thought, maybe a Linux computer could do more of what needs doing than a Chromebook? I had an unused monitor, a bunch of unused keyboards and mice, so all I’d need would be the computer itself. I had several of those, too, huge monsters that are heavy, too large for the space on my desk, noisy, and power hungry. Not at all the sort of thing I’d want anywhere on the main floor of the house. And, if I have to go downstairs to use the Linux machine, I might as well just use my iMac. I wanted something cheap, quiet, small, and low-power.

What a great excuse to get a little Intel NUC! They’re available from just over $100 to $400+ depending on how powerful a CPU you want. I decided that a Core i3 NUC would do fine. The NUC plus some essential parts (WiFi card, memory, and SSD) cost me about $355 at Amazon. For that I got 4GB of RAM and 250GB of “disk.”


The best thing about the NUC is that it screws to monitor’s VESA mount. I strapped the NUC’s transformer to the monitor as well, as you can see in the photo. It’s an all-in-one!

Ubuntu has come a very long way since I last played with it a few years ago. I found a utility for the Mac that copied the live-disk ISO to a USB stick, booted the NUC off that, and Ubuntu installed without a hitch. It even found the WiFi card. (I used an Intel card, to increase the likelihood that its driver would be installed automatically.)

Ubuntu is really well done. All sorts of things worked without the hassle that I used to expect with Linux. A USB3 external drive, a Bluetooth mouse, and my Epson scanner worked perfectly with no need to install any drivers. (I couldn’t get my ancient Apple wireless keyboard to pair, but maybe a solution to that was just beyond my grasp.)

Installing Apache, MySQL, and PHP on Ubuntu were very easy, as you’d expect (they’re the last three letters in LAMP), and my favorite MySQL admin tool, MySQLWorkbench installed easily, too. There was a hassle getting it to connect to the instance hosted by Siteground, but that was their fault (quickly and courteously corrected by them), certainly not Ubuntu’s.

I’ll miss Coda for editing and updating the website, but a utility called weex works very well to copy just changed files to the server, so I don’t really need Coda for that. I haven’t bothered to chase down all the various Linux text editors to see which one I like; the included gedit seems to be OK, at least for now.

Installing Chrome required a few dependencies to be chased down (Chromium is in the standard Ubuntu repository, not Chrome, but I wanted Chrome), but it, too, got installed in just a few minutes. Of course, it’s identical to the version on the Chromebook and the Mac, so everything worked as it should have, and my apps worked, too. (An advantage of Chrome over Chromium is that it gets updated by Google and doesn’t rely on the Ubuntu update system.)

Anyway, based on the first few days, this Ubuntu/NUC computer is going to be just fine. My photography has to stay on the Mac (but see last paragraph), because while Linux photography apps, such as Darktable, show promise, they’ll probably never catch up to Lightroom and the Topaz plugins I like, and I have no plans to produce inferior photography just to further the cause of open source.

Still, treat this as a glowing review of Ubuntu, and of the NUC, too.

My long-term plan is to see if I can use the Mac for photography only, which means using just my own Ingestamatic, Lightroom (with the Topaz plugins), and Photoshop. If I can get that far, I can move my photography work to a Windows system, since those apps all run on Windows, and then use the Mac only for truly Mac-only jobs, such as maintaining my Mac apps. Why do this? Two reasons: I hate Apple, and my iMac isn’t fast enough any more to be pleasant to use. I don’t want to spend more money with Apple, so a fast Windows box may be the answer. But, I’m not there yet. I need to see how far I can get with Ubuntu on the NUC first. Stay tuned.