A few weeks ago we ran an article about how to install Linux on a Mac, and it generated a lot of comments. One of the more common themes in the comments was “Why run Linux in a virtual machine? Why not just install it as the only operating system on a Mac?” This week, I’m grabbed the old 13-inch white 2008 MacBook that I converted to a Chromebook last year and installed various Linux distributions on it just to see how well it operates.
Why would I want to do this? This MacBook is about nine years old and frankly, it just doesn’t have the ability to run newer versions of macOS. Sure, I could keep it on a previous release of Mac OS X, but where’s the fun in that? So what I’ve done is tried to install five different versions of Linux on the MacBook — Ubuntu 16.04.2 “Xenial Xerus”, Linux Mint 18.1 “Serena” with the Cinnamon UI, Antergos 17.4, KDE Neon, and Fedora 25 Workstation. I’ll talk about the installation process for each and about how they operated — or not — on a Intel Core Duo 2 2.4 GHz MacBook.
Since I did not currently have Mac OS X running on the old MacBook, installation was simple. All I needed to do was to download the latest version as an ISO disk image, attach an Apple USB SuperDrive to my iMac, pop in some blank DVD media, and burn the ISO image to the DVD. To be honest, the preparation took much longer than the actual installation.
To perform the install, I inserted the DVD into the Combo Drive on the MacBook, powered it up while holding the Option key, and then selected EFI Install from the disk choices that were available. Upon doing that, the DVD began to load and I only had one question to answer: did I want to install Ubuntu as a second operating system on the Mac (side by side with Mac OS X), or did I want it to be the only operating system (see image above)? I chose to make it the only operating system. With that, the installer took care of asking for a user name and password, then installed the operating system and a group of standard apps.
To be honest, the performance of this operating system on this older Mac was quite slow. From pressing the power button to login took about 98 seconds, followed by another 65 seconds for the desktop to appear. Launching the System Settings (like System Preferences in macOS) took 19 seconds! Other apps were somewhat better — the Firefox browser loaded in 3 seconds, LibreOffice Writer (the word processing app included in the Ubuntu distribution) in about 8 seconds, and once the LibreOffice core had loaded, the Calc (spreadsheet) and Impress (presentation) apps loaded in about 3 seconds each.
Several issues were encountered – I had a repeating system error that didn’t seem to be causing any problems other than wasting my time with a bug report, it didn’t load the firmware for the iSight camera, and the shut down command never worked (restart worked perfectly). Once the device never made it past the login screen. On the plus side, the installation found the Wi-Fi network and attached to it properly, Bluetooth worked, and Ubuntu was even aware of an Epson printer on the network.
The standard Ubuntu desktop is so Mac-like that any Mac user will be able to navigate his or her way around the operating system and apps with ease. Sure, the “dock” is on the left side of the screen (see image below), but it’s very intuitive.
Linux Mint 18.1
The next Linux distro installed on the MacBook was Linux Mint 18.1. As before, the installation was quite simple and Mint was much faster to load than Ubuntu — 73 seconds from power-on to login, and just 15 seconds for the appearance of the desktop. Firing up system settings was instantaneous.
For a fast productivity-based Linux installation, Linux Mint is pretty impressive. The distribution comes with the entire LibreOffice suite, and the utilities packed into this distro cover all the bases. In terms of issues…well, there was a big one that I didn’t have the time to resolve: the installation failed to detect the Wi-Fi card in the MacBook, so the only network solution was Ethernet. Multiple attempts to resolve the Wi-Fi issue were unsuccessful; your mileage may vary. Unlike Ubuntu, Linux Mint shut down properly every time and did so very quickly.
Although the Mint desktop environment looks a bit more like Windows 7 than macOS (see image below), it’s still easy to navigate.
Antergos 17.4 “Live”
Antergos is based on the Arch Linux distribution, and is an example of what’s called a “rolling release” distro. That means that your Antergos operating system and applications are updated almost immediately once those updates are released. Antergos uses the GNOME 3 desktop environment, which gives it a clean and uncluttered look (see image below).
Unfortunately, like Linux Mint Antergos did not detect or install the drivers for the Wi-Fi card, and installing the OS onto the hard disk requires an internet connection. As such, I was only able to try the distro from DVD and didn’t have the opportunity to benchmark load times.
Like Linux Mint, KDE Neon is based on Ubuntu. Similar to many of these installations, KDE Neon loads off of the DVD and then features an app to install the OS onto a hard drive. But that’s where I ran into problems with KDE Neon; it went through the installation process, then failed to write the boot loader — the key piece of software that allows the Mac to load the operating system from the hard drive. So once again, the installation just didn’t work properly. It’s a pity; the user interface was quite sleek.
Fedora 25 Workstation
One of the other main Linux distributions is Fedora, and after having miserable success with some of the other distributions I decided to give Fedora 25 Workstation a try. Fedora installs a bit differently in that you download the Fedora Media Writer app to your Mac, which immediately downloads files and writes them to an installer USB drive. This drive can be used to try out Fedora 25 Workstation, and if it fulfills your needs, the OS can be installed onto your Mac’s hard drive.
Well, the MacBook was old enough that it wouldn’t boot from a USB drive. Fortunately, the Fedora Media Writer had downloaded an ISO image so I burned that onto another DVD to try it out on the MacBook.
Fedora installed OK, but like most of the other distributions, it failed to find the Wi-Fi card in the MacBook. It also wouldn’t shut down the MacBook properly on its own.
The Final Word
The only Linux distribution I tried that worked properly after installation and worked properly with the Wi-Fi card in the MacBook was Ubuntu. Sure, it’s possible that the other distributions could have been made to work with some time and effort. Being a Mac user for 33 years, I prefer to have things “just work” and Ubuntu — slow as it was — is the only Linux distro that worked with relatively few quirks.
After all of that work, I’m going to see if I can find an older version of Mac OS X that will run on this MacBook.
Further reading: How to Run Android Apps on Your Chromebook or Mac…or Not