I receive a ton of great questions about using Linux, but it’s challenging to answer them all personally. Going forward, I’ve decided to write answers to some of these questions so a wider audience can benefit from them. One recurring theme that’s constantly hitting my inbox centers around installing Linux on an older MacBook.
Here’s the question:
Hi Jason! I recently read your article on elementary OS and agree that it is great on older hardware. I would like to install a Linux distribution on my wife’s older Apple macOS machine. Have you had any experience installing any Linux distro on a Mac? I’ve heard there are issues when trying to install non-Apple software on Mac hardware.
Well Michael, Apple’s recent iMac and MacBook Pros contain some pesky updates that make this problematic, Linux can easily breathe new life into your older Apple hardware; specifically ones that were produced in 2013 or earlier.
Basically, if you’re looking at Mac hardware produced after late 2015, you’re going to run into some roadblocks – specifically with storage drives. The Linux community is making progress here, but it’s not a smooth enough experience for me to recommend to the average user.
The good news is that based on both my personal experience and some research, Mac hardware produced in 2013 or earlier should deliver a great Linux experience! The outlook is even brighter as you reach further back into the Mac timeline, especially with relatively “under-powered” hardware like the 2011 Mac Mini that Apple has rendered obsolete.
How To Install Linux On Your Mac?
First and foremost, let me point you to this guide by Vincent Castro. It ended up being a wonderful resource, specifically when it comes to getting your WiFi up and running on a similar MacBook.
Castro approaches this from a developer point of view, but the instructions are direct and quite easy to follow.
If you’d like a general guide on burning a Linux ISO to a USB stick so that you can test it “live” without installing it to your hard drive, I’ve written one here (instructions for Mac users too):
My takeaway is that Ubuntu, Manjaro and elementary OS can all be installed easily (others should work; this is my own personal experience), but there are some rough edges. For example, Manjaro KDE’s desktop didn’t scale too nicely on my Late 2013 MacBook Pro’s Retina display. Everything felt a little too small, but that’s an easy fix by diving into the system settings and setting up your preferring scaling percentage.
Overall hardware detection is great, though. Just make sure that during the installation of your Linux distribution, you select “Install 3rd party drivers/software.” This will especially help with WiFi adapter operation and Nvidia GPUs.
I Recommend Ubuntu 19.10 Or Elementary OS
Ubuntu 18.04 and elementary OS presented a perfect looking desktop out of the box, but there were two small problems: the function key for adjusting my display backlight didn’t work, and sometimes the internal Broadcom WiFi adapter wasn’t recognized.
So if you have a USB to Ethernet adapter or USB WiFi adapter (many of these will be recognized automatically), you’re good to go.
If you don’t have either of those options, you can easily tether your Android phone to your Mac and share its internet connection via Bluetooth (it won’t be blazing fast, but it will get the job done). Pair your MacBook with your phone, and choose “Network Connection” on the Linux distros Bluetooth option when connecting to your phone.
Once you’re online, run the following 2 commands in Terminal (hit the Command ⌘ key and search for “Terminal”):
sudo apt update
sudo apt install firmware-b43-installer
(This assumes you have a Broadcom WiFi device which is highly likely. To find out, open a Terminal window and type: lspci)
Note that this is probably the only time it will be necessary to use the command line.
Ubuntu is a fantastic option, but I have to give an enthusiastic nod toward elementary OS, especially if you are comfortable with how macOS looks and feels. It’s inspired by macOS, certainly, but distinguishes itself in many areas and feels less like a “clone” the more you dive in. It’s simple but beautiful and the learning curve is practically non-existent.
OK, What About Old Windows PCs?
Linux is also a fantastic alternative for reviving older Windows PCs that are sluggish or simply can’t run Windows 10 whatsoever. Check out what happened when I installed Peppermint OS on an ultra-budget Asus VivoBook:
If you still have questions about running Linux, reach out to me via my contact page and I’ll be happy to help.