A fast, refreshed, and completely awesome Mac is within your reach, but Mountain Lion isn’t the way to get there.
When Mountain Lion launched, we were abuzz. It’s a great OS, but it’s also proof of one creeping fact: Apple is intent on bringing OS X and iOS together. Whether it’s by hamstringing system-tweaking apps like CandyBar, making relatively young Macs ineligable for upgrades, or iOS-ifying the operating system (something we’ve shown you how to fix), Apple is marching towards a single user experience across all of its devices that they dictate, and that you may not particularly care for.
So what do you do about it? You have this Mac, and the hardware is still solid—but whether you don’t like the direction Apple’s headed or Mountain Lion is surprisingly slow on relatively new hardware, it just feels wrong to put it in a drawer and forget about it, doesn’t it?
One great alternative that will breathe new life into your Mac hardware (regardless of age): Install Linux on it. When you’ve finished this guide, you’ll have set up a dual-boot Mac and Linux system that will allow you to switch between operating systems anytime—meaning it’s a low risk way of trying out Linux to see if you might prefer making the full switch on your Mac. I think you might just like what you find.
Ready to give it a try? Pack your bags, we’re defecting to Linux.
What You’ll Need
The list of requirements is pretty short, but make sure you have these before you get started:
- An Intel Mac currently running some OS X 10.5 “Leopard” or higher (you’ll want to keep OS X on your system, if for no other reason than to boot into for firmware updates.)
- A copy of Ubuntu Linux burned to CD. For this post we used the latest version of Linux, 12.04 Precise Pangolin (like 10.8 Mountain Lion, but for Ubuntu), and we’d suggest you try it first too. If you’re worried your Mac is too old, check out this chart at Ubuntu’s support pages to help you pick the right version of Ubuntu for you. Regardless of your hardware, we’d recommend trying the latest version first and only moving back to older releases if you run into problems.
- The rEFIt boot manager. We’ll show you how to install it later.
We’ve walked through how to triple boot your Mac with Linux and Windows before, but this time, the process is much much simpler. Hooray for progress!
Getting Started: Install rEFIt and Partition Your Mac’s Hard Drive
Boot your Mac into OS X. If you’re lucky, this may be one of the last times you have to. First, install the rEFIt boot manager. It’s a straight-forward installation—just download the disk image and double-click the installer. To confirm that the app is working, reboot your system: if you see a startup menu like the one below, you’re good. It may take a couple of reboots to appear, but it worked on the first try for me.
Next, let’s make space for your Ubuntu installation. Now you’ll need to decide how much space you want to give your new Ubuntu installation—I gave it about 40GB—plenty of breathing room and way more than Ubuntu’s basic system requirements, but if you want to use Ubuntu full time, give it as much space as you can afford. Once you’ve freed up some space, here’s how to partition your drive:
- Select your hard drive from the list on the left, and click the Partition tab on the right.
- You’ll see the current partition layout. Click the right corner of the current partition and shrink it to the size you want. The display will show you the minimum size, so don’t worry about going too far. Alternatively, just select the current partition and type in the final size (total hard drive space – amount you want Ubuntu to have) in the Size field on the right.
- Click apply. Disk Utility will shrink the current partition for you and free up space for your Ubuntu install.
The Main Course: Install Ubuntu
Now that your Mac’s hard drive has room for Ubuntu, pop in your freshly burned Ubuntu CD and reboot. rEFIt will appear and ask you if you’d like to boot to the CD. (Beats holding down the C key.) Select the CD and let Ubuntu start up. It may take a while, but be patient. Once it’s up and running, it’ll ask you if you want to try Ubuntu (as a Live CD) or install it. If you want to get a feel for what you’re in for, give it a try first. When it’s time to install, you can just click the big “Install Ubuntu” icon on the desktop. I found that minor customizations (my Wi-Fi password, activating drivers for my wireless and network adapter, desktop settings, etc) survived the install this way, but pick the method that’s fastest for you.
Back in the day, when you clicked to install Ubuntu, you had to create and select the partitions you wanted. Now, it’s pretty much a one-click install, especially since we’re going to use all of the free space remaining for Ubuntu. Just make sure you’re not overwriting your OS X partition when the installer asks you where you want Ubuntu to live, and go grab a drink.
Install “Restricted” Software and Drivers
Linux installs on Apple hardware used to be plagued by driver problems. Whether it was getting the trackpad to work properly, finding drivers for Apple’s wireless cards (hint: they’re largely Broadcomm devices), or getting the built-in camera to actually turn on, it used to be a real pain. I can happily report that in Ubuntu 12.04 all of that headache is gone. If you do have problems though, check the Ubuntu community documentation for your model of Mac.
After your install is complete and after you’ve set up an account, you’ll get a notification that there are “restricted” drivers and software that you can install. By “restricted,” Ubuntu means that the drivers work but they’re not open source—so if you’re interested in living a fully open-source life, you’ll want to avoid them. We’re more interested in functionality than ideology (at least right now), so go ahead and install them all. You’ll get updated drivers for your wireless card, your camera, your Ethernet adapter, and more.
Next, fire up the Ubuntu Software Center. If it hasn’t prompted you by now to the dozens of system software updates you have available, it will now. Let it download and update your system software. You may need to reboot, but I didn’t—the updates took a while, but it was quick and painless. When all of your drivers are installed and your OS is up to date, you’re ready to get to work.
Let rEFIt Fix Your Partition Tables
According to Ubuntu’s Mactel installation guide, there’s a bug in the Ubuntu installer that can cause boot problems after installing and cause problems booting into OS X or Ubuntu. Thankfully, it’s an easy fix for rEFIt, you just have to boot into rEFIt’s partition tool and check. Here’s how:
- Reboot your Mac. When rEFIt appears, select the “Partition Tool” from the startup menu.
- The tool will load automatically. In most cases, rEFIt will notice the problem, and ask you for permission to sync your partition tables. Type “Y.”
- The process takes a couple of seconds, but when it’s finished, shut down your Mac. rEFIt hasn’t read the new partition tables yet, so if you try to boot into anything at this stage, your Mac will hang.
- Start your Mac again, and pick your preferred OS. If you enter the Partition Tool again, you’ll see a notification that your partition tables are in sync.
Now here’s the catch: If the rEFIt partition tool tells you that the tables are out of sync but doesn’t offer to fix them, or if you see another strange error message, head over to this section of the Ubuntu install guide and scroll down to “Fix Your Partition Tables” for a breakdown of what you should do for each type of error.
Grab Some Apps and Get Down to Business
Now that your Ubuntu Mac is up and running, it’s time to get to work. Your first stop should be our Lifehacker pack for Linux. You can download the apps from our links, or get them from the Ubuntu Software Center, which makes app installations ridiculously easy. Just search for the name of the app you want and click install. It’s as simple as that. If you’re new to installing programs in Linux and aren’t sure how to get started, this handy help page will show you how it’s done.
If you’re looking for an alternative to your favorite OS X application or utility, look through this guide to switching from OS X to Ubuntu. Each category has a list of applications that are as good (or better!) than their OS X counterparts and where to get them.
One last thing: If you’re prompted to sign up for Ubuntu One, go ahead and do it—think of it as a free backup service for your home folder and any of the documents you may store locally. Since it syncs automatically, you don’t have to worry about backing it up yourself (although we still suggest setting up Crashplan for Linux). Don’t let that stop you from installing Dropbox, but take comfort in knowing your Home folder is backed up and if you ever reinstall or move to another system, syncing it is a click away.
Enjoy Your Refreshed, Recharged Mac
If you’re new to Linux, Ubuntu is the perfect distribution for you. It’s probably one of the most point-and-click versions of Linux available, easy for beginners but still packed with features that power users enjoy. You don’t have to deal with the command line if you don’t want to (much like OS X), but unlike OS X, you don’t have a company sitting on top of the OS that’s slowly taking those power features away from you. Plus, Ubuntu is much leaner than OS X, so even your old Mac will run super-fast.
Before I upgraded to my mid-2010 15-inch Macbook Pro (the one I use today), I rocked an early-2008 15-inch Macbook Pro with a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo and a mere 2GB of memory. It sported Intel’s brand new (at the time) Penryn processor, and earned high marks from reviewers, even the editor’s choice from PCMag. When I sent my Primary Mac to Apple for a repair, using OS X Lion on it was a terrible experience, and I eventually gave up and started working on my Windows gaming PC instead. I was frustrated though: the hardware is good, and even though I hoped Mountain Lion would save it, it barely supports Mountain Lion. Installing Ubuntu not only gave my Mac a new lease on life, but my machine runs faster than it has in a long time. With luck, you can get the same results for your Mac, even if it’s not as old as mine.