OS wars and the joy of never debating on the internet

At least in OS wars, the only casualties are your time and probably some of your brain cells.

Ruben Schade made a post on Mastodon that blew up in a predictable way, with a lot of “Well, actually…” replies. He documents what he posted with an update that collectively addresses some of the responses here. He has a longer post expanding on it here.

I generally love discussions of operating systems, because they are such an important part of our lives, yet also something we don’t usually think much about–until they do something that annoys us (or don’t do something, which also annoys us).

This made me think again how I am running three OSes across two machines:

  • Windows 11 on my PC
  • Linux Mint 21.3, also on my PC
  • macOS 14 (Sonoma) on my Mac Studio

I spend most of my time in Windows, a smaller chunk in macOS, and a sliver in Linux Mint. I do this not because of a company mandate or other official requirement, but because of the choices I’ve made in the software I use for the things I do.

There are things I dislike a lot in each OS, and also things I quite like. In the end, it comes down to the software, because that’s all it really is.

They all look fine. They all run relatively well. A lot of software is available on all three platforms, but the gaps are biggest on Linux, and I spend the least amount of time there. I still don’t have a replacement for Ulysses, where I write my fiction, and I prefer editing photos in Pixelmator Photo. Both of those are Mac-only apps.

I may have a replacement for Ulysses sometime this year, and I am continually exploring other options to replace Pixelmator Pro. With the latter, the UI is a big part of why I stick with it. Good UI is important to me, because it reduces friction in using software, it lets it just blend into the background.

While my quest for the perfect OS continues, I am glad that I made a rule to never debate on the internet some years back. I don’t blame Ruben for starting the thread he did–in fact, I think it was almost charmingly naive. But the responses are so utterly predictable. There is always someone waiting to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, then argue with you about it to the point of exhaustion.

People are weird.

A few tips for a better Mastodon experience

I do most of my social networking on Mastodon these days and I’ve talked a bit before about why I like it. Here are a few tips on making it a better experience and a recap on why I like it.

Why I like Mastodon

  • It’s smaller. Sometimes smaller is better. I can comfortably work through my feed and leave Mastodon for a while and not feel that weird and unhealthy FOMO. It’s easy to dip in and out of, not a central part of my life.
  • The decentralized nature of it means it’s not subject to the whims of a giant corporation or a giant corporation headed by a narcissistic racist piece of work, or, as is sometimes the case, both! It is subject to the whims of the server you choose, but (with a certain degree of bumpiness) you can move to another server if things get really bad.
  • Due to its non-corporate nature, it has no ads. It runs off of donations, like it’s the web from 2003 or something. No ads is a benefit I cannot overstate enough.
  • There is no algorithm. For some people who just want an endless slurry of things to look at, this is a downside. To me, it means you can choose exactly what type of content you want to see, which is far more preferable.

Tips for a better Mastodon experience

  • The official phone app and web client are fine, and you have to use them to adjust certain settings, but there are a lot of third party clients that make the experience better:
    • The Mac has a ton of options covering paid, subscription-based and free. Some popular choices include Mona, Ivory and Ice Cubes (all can be found on the App Store). There are many others.
    • Windows has fewer to choose from. A decent one is Whalebird.
    • Any OS (including Linux and phone browsers) can use one of several fine web clients. Two popular ones are Elk, which has a Twitter-like look and feel, and Phanpy, which goes for a minimalist look and has some interesting twists, like boost carousels.
  • Use filters! You’ll need to set these up in the official client. Go to Preferences and Filters. You can use this to filter out content you’re not interested in. For example, if you don’t want to see something associated with a particular tag, just add the tag here. If you hate all manner of dogs, add dogs and anything tagged #dogs will not be shown in your feed. You can also specify how granular you want the tag to be filtered out (you can still allow it in conversations, for example).
  • Use hashtags! This one is simple–follow hashtags that appeal to you. I follow #sketch, as an example.
  • Use hashtags (yes, again)! If you post, use an appropriate hashtag, so others can find your post if they’re interested in the topic.
  • Avoid or reduce exposure to politics. Political debates exist on Mastodon, and you’ll generally not come out of them feeling better. Why do that to yourself? On the other hand, if this is what you groove on, go nuts! #uspolitics exists for you.
  • It may be obvious, but follow people you know (or whose posts you enjoy).
  • Boost stuff you like! Boosts will show up in the feed of anyone following you. It’s an easy way to share. Just don’t, you know, boost literally everything you see.
  • If you don’t want to choose a server, go with the default mastodon.social. It’s big and well-managed.
  • Be nice! Don’t deny people their experience or be an over-explaining jerk.
  • Approach Trending/Explore/For You (depending on the client you use) with caution. You might find stuff you like, you might not. It’s probably better to spend a little time tweaking your feed using hashtags and following people you know.
  • Remember to go outside, hug kittens and do other offline stuff. Mastodon, like any social media, should not be the thing your life revolves around.

Mastodon clients: Decisions, decisions

I am a visual person and aesthetics matter to me. Sometimes they matter (a little) more than functionality.

One of the nice things about the federated social media platform known as Mastodon is that it allows for a host of third-party clients to view its content.

I tried several Windows-specific clients and found all of them to look kind of ugly. I don’t want to use an ugly app, even if it’s functional. It’s 2023, we’ve evolved beyond MIDI files and poorly compressed animated GIFs. I eventually settled on a web client called Elk. It looks a bit like Twitter and is nice enough. Then I came across Phanpy, which, despite its terrible name, looks *really* nice, even if it’s perhaps a bit too aggressively minimalist. But it looks so nice!

In fact, I like its look so much I’ve actually started favouring it on the Mac, where I own the Mona Mastodon client. Here’s how each looks, along with the official Mastodon web client, focusing on one post, all of them running in dark mode, because light mode makes me run and hide under the bed. No scaling has been applied to the images.

Mona (Mac client):

Mastodon (official web client):

Elk (web client):

Phanpy (web client):

Some thoughts:

Overall layout: Phanpy is by far the most compact, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. It does put posts in a nicely rounded box, though, which is a pleasing visual touch. Phanpy puts the image inline with the story title and subhead, which reduces the size of the image. The others are all very similar in layout. Oddly, even though Phanpy offers the most compact layout, I think it does the best job in terms of spacing around the content, giving it a lighter feel, even in dark mode. This is done mostly by simply making the interface wider, allowing everything to spread out a bit more. Compare this to Mona, which has a bunch of empty space sitting to the right of the image.

Phanpy also does the best job of implementing a card-style interface, where each post is clearly separate from the next. Mona is also pretty good, though the contrast between posts and the background is more subtle (a to-taste thing, really).

Colour: The official web client uses a more purple-black, keeping with its theme colour, which is purple. Phanpy is a bit lighter than Elk or Mona, and I think looks a bit better.

Text: Mona wins here, with the sharpest text of the bunch. Elk is probably the worst, but still not actually bad.

Iconography: Phanpy requires you to open a post to see any icons, part of its minimalist thing. The others are all clean and functional, but not exactly delightful. They do their job. Note that several clients allow you to customize the icons. The official client probably has the least attractive icons of the bunch, but again, they are perfectly serviceable.

Options: Elk and Phanpy offer minimal options. Mona is the clear winner here, as it has options out the wazoo. It probably has options for the wazoo.

Conclusion: No one client does everything perfectly. I think my ideal would be Mona’s text/icons/non-minimalism, combined with Phanpy’s aesthetics and use of white space.

This post prompted me to dive into Mona’s options and tweak its interface again, bringing it closer to Phanpy’s. We’ll see if it sticks. The nice part is simply having the abundance of choices to start with. Now, if only a Mona-quality app existed on Windows…

Mona (after tweaking the UI per the above paragraph):

My preferred Mastodon clients

Mastodon is currently the only social media I really read or post to currently, because I like its model:

  • I curate what I want to see–no algorithm!
  • It’s decentralized, so no one “owns” it and if your server goes to poop, you can move to another
  • No ads! I am fine with ads in some situations, but online ads are almost always awful, invasive, resource-hogging and can even contain malware as a bonus

Mastodon has a web client and an app for smartphones. Both are fine, but because there are no horrendous API fees or dictatorial owners crushing third party apps, you can enjoy one of many different apps. I use the following:

Mac: Mona. This is a one-time purchase (no subscription). It looks nice and runs well.

Windows: I use two web clients because all the Windows apps I’ve tried are ugly, bare-bones, or both. I have no idea why this is, but it is (IMO). For a more Twitter-like experience, there is Elk. And for a more minimalist experience, with cute animations and the like, there is Phanpy.

Riding the elephant

Yes, I created a Mastodon account.

No, I don’t really use Twitter all that much and may use Mastodon even less, but I like the idea of being on a decentralized social media platform that isn’t about hate and being clever at the expense of others. We’ll see how it goes.

Here I am. Follow me!