A fast, refreshed, and completely awesome Mac is within your reach, but Mountain Lion isn’t the way to get there. If you want to maximise the power of your machine, it’s time to move to Linux.
When Mountain Lion launched, we were abuzz. It’s a fine OS, but it also proves that Apple is intent on bringing OS X and iOS together. Whether it’s by restricting system-tweaking apps like CandyBar, making relatively recent Macs ineligible for upgrades, or iOS-ifying the operating system, Apple is marching towards a single user experience across all of its devices.
You might not care to live in that world. We’ve already shown you how to get rid of some of Mountain Lion’s annoyances, but that won’t work for everyone, and doesn’t help Mac owners with older machines or who find Mountain Lion surprisingly slow. Enter Linux.
A Linux installation will breathe new life into your Mac hardware (regardless of age): If you work through the steps outlined in this guide, you’ll have a dual-boot Mac and Linux system that will allow you to switch between operating systems whenever you want. It’s a low risk way of trying out Linux to see if you might prefer making the switch full-time. I think you might just like what you find.
What You’ll Need
Make sure you have these before you get started:
- An Intel Mac OS X 10.5 ‘Leopard’ or higher (you’ll want to keep OS X on your system, even if for no other reason than to boot into when you need firmware updates.)
- A copy of Ubuntu Linux burned to CD. For this post we used the latest version of Linux, 12.04 Precise Pangolin. If you’re worried your Mac is too old for the current version, check out this chart at Ubuntu’s support pages to help you pick the right version of Ubuntu for you. In general, 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 the process is now much much simpler. Hooray for progress!
Getting Started: Install rEFIt and Partition Your Mac’s Hard Drive
rEFIt boot manager
Next, let’s make some space for your Ubuntu installation. You’ll need to decide how much of your hard drive it gets. I allocated it around 40GB — plenty of breathing room and way more than Ubuntu’s basic system requirements. If you want to use Ubuntu full-time, give it as much space as you can afford. If you don’t have that much space free, delete or backup unneeded files. Once you’ve freed up some space, here’s how to partition your drive:
- Open Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility.)
- 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 minus the 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
With earlier Ubuntu installations, you had to create and select the partitions you wanted. With the current version, it’s essentially 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 hot drink.
Install “Restricted” Software and Drivers
Ubuntu community documentation
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, and your Ethernet adaptor.
Next, fire up the Ubuntu Software centre. 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 to download, but it was quick and painless to install. 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 easily fixed:
- 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. 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 centre, 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 favourite 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
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.
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.