Using Windows 10 and WSL for frontend web development
I've been an exclusively Mac developer ever since I bought a second hand MacBook (remember the all white, plastic ones?). I absolutely loved it and as I got more into software development and discovered the terminal it became hard for me to see how I could go back to Windows.
When I started my first full time engineering role the company provided a MacBook Pro and a Cinema Display. This was so exciting! Over the next few years I was provided exclusively with MacBook Pros to work on (which I recognise is a fortunate position to be in).
When Apple released the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro, with its touchbar and keyboard woes, I did begin to wonder if Windows was going to end up being something I'd have to try. Reviews online and from friends and colleagues who had these MacBooks were not positive. About a year ago I was due a new laptop and work and was given the newest MacBook Pro, at around the same time I was starting to think about buying a laptop myself so I didn't rely on my work machine for personal projects. I'm also an Android phone user, so I'm not invested into the Apple ecosystem as others which makes the potential swap to Windows easier, I think.
The rest of this post is very much based on my opinions: none of this is a recommendation on what you should do. We all have different preferences and opinions on which hardware and software combination is best for us.
Sadly I've not found the experience of the MacBook Pro to live up to either its "Pro" naming or its "Pro" price point. Whilst I think I'm in the minority of people who actually don't mind the butterfly keyboard I've found the software to have some constant issues that I've struggled with. I've had the MacBook completely shut down whilst running a workshop for 40 people because it told me it was charging the battery despite not. I have to hard reset the machine when I try to wake it from sleep at least once or twice a week in order to get anything beyond a blank screen (the first time it did this I thought it had broken). I've had regular issues with the HDMI dongle (and yes, I did pay full price for the official Apple dongle 😢) and it not connecting properly to external screens. As someone who does a reasonable amount of talking and teaching this has become a real issue to the point where I considered taking a backup laptop because I didn't trust the MBP to work properly.
Windows and WSL
I'd been following the work on WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) for some time and found it a very compelling prospect; being able to run a Linux distribution from within Windows could be a great way to make Windows more feasible for the development work I do. Coupled with the VS Code WSL plugin, which makes it seamless to run VS Code with files from that Linux subsystem, I felt it could be a viable alternative.
Taking the plunge
So I decided, given my MBP frustrations, to go for it. I did some research into machines and went for a Dell XPS, which are regularly given very high reviews online. Some (non-engineering) colleagues at work have them and spoke highly of the machine. It worked out at ~£1000 less than the MacBook Pro cost, which I figured was a very good saving - but only if I could work effectively on the machine.
Getting started with WSL
I didn't really have a clue where to start with setting up the Windows machine. I was fighting years of Mac muscle memory and took to Google to find posts to point me in the right direction. Dave Rupert's post on webdev with Windows was the best blog post I found and really helped explain some things and point me in the right direction. However, that post was written in early 2018, and somethings have changed which means the steps are simpler now. Dave mentions needing to install Git on the Windows side so VS Code can find it, but with the VS Code WSL plugin that's not needed as it plugs into the
git that you have installed on the Linux side. I also referred to the official Windows WSL installation instructions, using those to verify if a blog post was up to date or not.
I've been a solid fan of iTerm2 for a long time and was struggling to find a terminal on Windows that could get close to it. I tried a few before discovering that the next big update to Windows will include a brand new terminal app! Even better, you can download it now from the Windows store. The Windows Terminal has provided me with everything I need; it can easily be configured via JSON (so I can get my custom font in there just fine) and you can configure it to automatically connect to your Linux distribution when it starts up, saving the need to type
ubuntu everytime you fire up a command line prompt.
The new terminal, coupled with VS Code and the Remote plugin, gets me an experience on Windows 10 that's pretty much identical to my Mac workflow:
- Fire up a terminal.
- Navigate into the project directory.
code .to load VS Code with that directory active.
- Let the VS Code Remote plugin connect (this is normally quick so doesn't cause any delays).
- Start coding!
Everything within VS Code works perfectly; if I pop open a terminal there it will be in my Ubuntu WSL, I can use the Git UI without any fuss, and extensions run just fine too. I've yet to hit any snags with this workflow.
The above might make it sound completely plain sailing but there have been teething issues along the way that are worth considering if you're thinking of trying the swap to Windows:
- It's a known problem that file reading/writing via WSL is much slower than it should be. This is due to a limitation of how WSL works. The great news is that WSL2 will fix this, but it's not out yet (unless you run an "Insiders" build of Windows 10 that is slightly less stable). In practice I don't find slow read/writes to be much of an issue but you can notice it, particularly if you're npm installing.
- This is more on me than on Windows but having used OS X exclusively for so long it's taking some time to get used to Windows and its keyboard shortcuts. It was definitely a few weeks before I felt comfortable and had found some 3rd party apps that helped replicate some apps from OS X that I was missing. If you take the plunge be prepared for a bit of frustration as you and your muscle memory adapts.
- I miss the Mac trackpad. The Dell one is perfectly good, but it's not quite as nice to use. That said the keyboard is so much nicer! so this one evens itself out.
- Because I'm using this laptop for side projects and mostly frontend work I don't hit upon any limitations of WSL but there are plenty of apps or libraries that can cause issues when run within WSL. If you're expecting WSL to just work with everything I would taper your expectations slightly. That said, WSL2 supposedly fixes a lot of this (I saw a video where someone runs Docker via WSL2, which is quite cool!) so this might get better once WSL2 is out.
I've been pleasantly surprised with my journey into Windows 10 so far and it's gone much better than expected! With WSL2 and further improvements to the developer workflow on Windows I'm excited to see where we are in another 6-12 months time. It's really exciting to see Microsoft shift and take this stuff more seriously - and they are doing an excellent job!