Basti's Scratchpad on the Internet
21 Apr 2023

OS Customization and MacOS

I was an Apple fanboy some years ago. Back then, whenever something was odd on my computer, I was surely just using it wrong. Nowadays, I see things the other way around: We're not "holding it wrong", the computer is just defective. Computers should do our bidding, not vice versa. So here's a bunch of things that I do to my computers to mold them to my way of working.

Keyboard Layout

I switch constantly between a German and English keyboard layout, and regularly between various machines. My physical keyboards are German, and my fingers are used to the Windows-default German and (international) US keyboard layout. These are available by default on Windows and Linux, but MacOS goes its own way.

However, keyboard layouts on MacOS are saved in relatively simple text files, and can be modified with relative ease. The process goes like this: Download Ukelele (free) to create a new keyboard layout bundle for your base layout1. Inside that bundle, there's a *.keylayout file, which is an XML file that defines the characters that each key-modifier combination produces. I changed that to create a Windows-like US keyboard layout. And I replaced the keyboard icon with something sane (not "A") by creating a 256x256 pixel PNG, opening it in Preview, holding alt while saving to select the ICNS format. Save the keyboard bundle to ~/Library/Keyboard Layouts and reboot. Then I remove the unremovable default ("A") German layout by selecting another one, then plutil -convert xml1 ~/Library/Preferences/, and delete the entry from AppleEnabledInputSources. Now reboot. Almost easy. Almost.

One the one hand, this was quite the ordeal. On the other, I have tried to do this sort of thing on Windows and Linux before, and for the life of me could not do it. So I actually think this is great!

Keyboard Shortcuts

My main text editor is Emacs, and I am very used to its keyboard shortcuts. Of particular note are CTRL-A/E for going to the beginning/end of a line, and Alt-B/F for navigating forward/backwards by word. I have long wanted to use these shortcuts not just in Emacs and readline-enabled terminal applications, but everywhere else, too. And with MacOS, this is finally possible: Install BetterTouchTool ($22), and create keyboard shortcuts that maps, e.g. Alt-B/F to Alt-←/→. Ideally, put this in a new activation group that excludes Emacs. It may be necessary to remove the keyboard character for Alt-B/F from your keyboard layout before this works. I've spent an embarrassing number of hours trying to get this to work on Windows and Linux, and really got nowhere2. Actually, however, most readline shortcuts such as Ctrl-A/E/B/F/K/Y already work out of the box on MacOS!

Mouse Configuration

I generally use a trackpad, and occasionally a traditional mouse for image editing, and have used a trackball. I find that any one specific device will lead to wrist pain if used constantly, so I switch it up every now and then. The trackpad and trackball, however, need configuration to be usable.

After experimenting with many a trackpad device, I have found Apple touch pads the best trackpads on the market3. On MacOS, they lacks a middle mouse click. So I created a trackpad shortcut in the aforementioned BetterTouchTool ($22) to map the middle click on a three-finger tap (can also be had for free with MiddleClick (OSS)). For Windows, Magic Utilities ($17/y) provides a wonderful third-party driver for Apple devices that also supports the three-finger tap. I have not gotten the Apple touch pad to pair reliably on Linux, and have generally found their touch pad driver libinput a bit lacking.

My trackball is a Kensington SlimBlade. To scroll, you rotate the ball around its vertical axis. This is tedious for longer scroll distances, however. But there's an alternative scrolling method called "button scrolling", where you hold one button on the trackball, and move the ball to scroll. You need to install the Kensington driver to enable this on Windows and MacOS. Button scrolling is available on Linux as well using xinput4, but I haven't gotten the setting to stick across reboots or sleep cycles. So I wrote a background task that checks xinput every five seconds, which does the trick.

Window Management

Frankly, Windows does window management correctly. Win-←/→ moves windows to the left and right edge of the screen, as does dragging the window to the screen border. Further Win-←/→ then moves the window to the next half-screen in that direction, even across display boundaries. KDE does this correctly out of the box as well, Gnome does not do the latter, and it drives me mad. MacOS doesn't do any of these things. But Rectangle (OSS) does. Easy fix. (BetterTouchTool can do it, too, but Rectangle is prettier)

Furthermore, I want Alt-Tab to switch between windows. Again, MacOS is the odd one out, which uses CMD-Tab to switch between apps, now windows. And then there's another shortcut for switching between windows of the same app, but the shortcut really doesn't work at all on a German keyboard. Who came up with this nonsense? Anyway, Witch ($14) implements window switching properly.

Application Management

In Windows and Linux, I hit the Windows key and start typing to select and start an app. In MacOS, this is usually Cmd-Space, but BetterTouchTool can map it to a single short Cmd, if you prefer.

More annoying are the various docks and task bars. I always shove the dock off to the right edge of the screen, where it stays out of the way. Windows 10 had a sane dock, but then 11 came and forced it to the bottom of the screen. Dear OS makers, every modern screen has plenty of horizontal space. But vertical space is somewhat limited. So why on earth would you make a rarely used menu such as the dock consume that precious vertical space by default? And Microsoft, specifically, why not make it movable? Thankfully, there's StartAllBack ($5), which replaces the Windows task bar with something sensible, and additionally cleans up the start menu if you so desire. On KDE, I fractionally prefer Latte (OSS) over KDE's native dock. The MacOS dock is uniquely dumb, offering no start menu, and allowing no window selections. But it's unobtrusive and can be moved to the right edge, so it's not much of a bother.

File Management

One of the most crucial tasks in computer work in general is file management. I am not satisfied with most file managers. Dolphin on KDE works pretty well, it has tabs, can bulk-rename files, can display large directories without crashing, and updates in real time when new files are added to the current directory. Gnome Nautilus is so bad it is the main reason I switched to KDE on my Linux machines. Finder on MacOS is passable, I suppose, although the left sidebar is unnecessarily restrictive (why can't I add a shortcut to a network drive?). Windows Explorer is really rather terrible, lacking a bulk-rename tool, and crucially, tabs. In Windows 10, these can be added with Groupy ($12) (set it to only apply to explorer.exe). Windows 11 has very recently added native tabs, which work OK, but can't be detached from the window.

The sad thing is that there are plenty of very good file manager replacements out there, but none of the OSs have a mechanism for replacing their native file manager in a consistent way, so we're mostly stuck with the defaults.

Oh, and I always remove the iCloud/OneDrive sidebar entries, which is surprisingly tedious on Windows.

Hardware Control

On laptops, you can control screen brightness from your keyboard. On desktops, you can not. However, some clever hackers have put together BetterDisplay (OSS for screen brightness), which adds this capability to MacOS. That's actually a capability I have wanted for quite a while, and apparently it is only available in MacOS. Great stuff!

Less great is that MacOS does not allow volume control on external sound cards. SoundSource ($47) adds this rather crucial functionality back, once you go through the unnecessarily excruciating process of enabling custom kernel extensions. Windows and Linux of course natively support this.

Another necessary functionality for me is access to a non-sucky (i.e. no FAT) cross-platform file system. At the moment, the most portable file system seems to be NTFS, of all things. Regrettably, MacOS only supports reading NTFS, but no writing. Paragon NTFS (€20) adds this with another kernel extension, and promptly kernel-panicked my computer. Oh joy. At least it's only panicking for file transfers initiated by DigiKam, which I can work around. Paragon Support says they're working on it. I'm not holding my breath. Windows and Linux of course natively support NTFS.

System Management

I have learned from experience not to trust graphical backup programs. TimeMachine in particular has eaten my backups many times already, and can not be trusted. But I have used Borg (OSS) for years, and it has so far performed flawlessly. Even more impressive, my Borg backups have a continuous history despite moving operating systems several times. It truly is wonderful software!

On Windows, I run Borg inside the WSL, and schedule its backups with the Windows Task Scheduler. On Linux, I schedule them with systemd units. On MacOS, I install Borg with Homebrew (OSS) and schedule the backups with launchd tasks. It's all pretty equivalent. One nice thing about launchd, however, is how the OS immediately pops up a notification if there's a new task file added, and adds the task to the graphical system settings.

I have to emphasize what a game-changer the WSL is on Windows. Where previously, such simple automations where a pain in the neck to do reliably, they're now the same simple shell scripts as on other OSes. And it perfectly integrates with Windows programs as well, including passing pipes between Linux and Windows programs. It's truly amazing! At the moment, I'd rate Windows a better Unix system than MacOS for this reason. Homebrew is a passable package manager on MacOS, but the way it's ill-integrated into the main system (not in system PATH) is a bit off-putting.

App Compatibility

I generally use my computer for three tasks: General document stuff, photo editing, and video games.

One major downside of Apple computers is that video games aren't available. This has become less of a problem to me since I bought a Steam Deck, which has taken over gaming duties from my main PC. Absolutely astonishingly, the Steam Deck runs Windows games on Linux through emulation, which works almost flawlessly, making video games no longer a Windows-only proposition.

What doesn't work well on Linux are commercial applications. Wine generally does not play well with them, and frustratingly for my photo editing, neither VMWare Workstation Player (free) nor VirtualBox (OSS) support hardware-accelerated VMs on up-to-date Linux5. So where MacOS lacks games, Linux lacks Photoshop. Desktop applications in general tend to be unnecessarily cumbersome to manage and update on Linux. Flatpak is helping in this regard, by installing user-facing applications outside of the OS package managers, but it remains more work than on Windows or MacOS. The occasional scanner driver or camera interface app can also be troublesome on Linux, but that's easily handled with a VirtualBox VM (with the proprietary Extension Pack for USB2 support), and hasn't really bothered me too much.

Luckily for me, my most-used apps are generally OSS tools such as Darktable (OSS) and DigiKam (OSS), or cross-platform programs like Fish (OSS), Git (OSS), and Emacs (OSS). This is however, where Windows has a bit of a sore spot, as these programs tend to perform noticeably worse on Windows than on other platforms. Emacs and git in particular are just terribly slow on Windows, taking several seconds for routine operations that are instant on other platforms. That's probably due to Windows' rather slow file system and malware scanner for the many-small-files style of file management that these Unix tools implement. It is very annoying.


So there's just no perfect solution. MacOS can't do games, Linux can't run commercial applications, and Windows is annoyingly slow for OSS applications. Regardless, I regularly use all three systems productively. My job is mostly done on Windows, my home computer runs MacOS, and my Steam Deck and automations run Linux.

Overall, I currently prefer MacOS as my desktop OS. It is surprisingly flexible, and more scriptable than I thought, and in some ways is actually more functional than Linux or Windows. The integrated calendar and contacts apps are nice, too, and not nearly as terrible as their Windows/Linux counterparts. To say nothing of the amazing M1 hardware with its minuscule power draw and total silence, while maintaining astonishing performance.

Linux is where I prefer to program, due to its sane command line and tremendously good compiler/debugger/library infrastructure. As a desktop OS, it does have some rough edges, however, especially for its lack of access to commercial applications. While Linux should be the most customizable of these three, I find things tend to break too easily, and customizations are often scattered widely between many different subsystems, making them very hard to get right.

Theoretically, Windows is the most capable OS, supporting apps, OSS, and games. But it also feels the most user-hostile of these three, and the least performant. And then there's the intrusive ads everywhere, its spying on my every move, and at work there's inevitably a heavy-handed administrator security setup that gets in the way of productivity. It's honestly fine on my home computer, at least since they introduced the WSL. But using it for work every day is quite enough, so I don't want to use it at home, too.



if there's an easier way to create a keyboard layout bundle, please let me know. I didn't use ukelele for anything but the bundle creation.


It occurs to me that it might actually be possible to do something like on Windows this with AutoHotkey (free). I'll have to try that!


The Logitech T650 is actually not bad, but the drivers are a travesty. Some Wacom tablets include touch, too, but they palm rejection is abysmal and they don't support gestures.


xinput set-prop "Kensington Slimblade Trackball" "libinput Scroll Method Enabled" 0, 0, 1 # button scrolling
xinput set-prop "Kensington Slimblade Trackball" "libinput Button Scrolling Button" 8 # top-right button


VirtualBox does not have a good accelerated driver, and VMWare does not support recent kernels. Qemu should be able to solve this problem, but I couldn't get it to work reliably.

Tags: computers linux macos windows
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