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OpenBSD on the Desktop: some thoughts

I’ve been using OpenBSD on my ThinkPad X230 for some weeks now, and the experience has been peculiar in some ways.

The OS itself in my opinion is not ready for widespread desktop usage, and the development team is not trying to push it in the throat of anybody who wants a Windows or macOS alternative1.

You need to understand a little bit of how *NIX systems work, because you’ll use CLI more than UI.

That’s not necessarily bad, and I’m sure I learned a trick or two that could translate easily to Linux or macOS2.

Their development process is purely based on developers that love to contribute and hack around, just because it’s fun.

Even the mailing list is a cool place to hang on!

Code correctness and security are a must, nothing gets committed if it doesn’t get reviewed thoroughly first - nowadays the first two properties should be enforced in every major operating system.

I like the idea of a platform that continually evolves.

pledge(2) and unveil(2) are the proof that with a little effort, you can secure existing software better than ever.

I like the “sensible defaults” approach, having an OS ready to be used - UI included if you selected it during the setup process - is great.

Just install a browser and you’re ready to go.

Manual pages on OpenBSD are real manuals, not an extension of the “–help” command found in most CLI softwares.

They help you understand inner workings of the operating system, no internet connection needed.

There are some trade-offs, too.

Performance is not first-class, mostly because of all the security mitigations and checks done at runtime3.

I write Go code in neovim, and sometimes you can feel a slight slowdown when you’re compiling and editing multiple files at the same time, but usually I can’t notice any meaningful difference.

Browsers are a different matter though, you can definitely feel something differs from the experience you can have on mainstream operating systems.

But again, trade-offs.

To use OpenBSD on the desktop you must be ready to sacrifice some of the goodies of mainstream OSes, but if you’re searching for a zen place to do your computing stuff, it’s the best you can get right now.

  1. no Canonical, no Red Hat, no SUSE [return]
  2. for example, never assume bash is in /bin/bash, always use #!/usr/bin/env bash! [return]
  3. OpenBSD is the first operating system that disables Intel’s HyperThreading technology out of the box [return]
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