How To Dual Boot Linux On Your Mac

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.

The Problem

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.

The Solution

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

Boot your Mac into OS X. Install the rEFIt boot manager. This is a straight-forward installation -- 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 at the right, 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 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

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. Select the CD and let Ubuntu start up. It may take a while, but be patient. Once it's up and running, it will 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 customisations (my Wi-Fi password, activating drivers for my wireless and network adaptor, desktop settings and so on) survived the install this way, but pick the method that's fastest for you.

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

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 was often a painful process. I can happily report that in Ubuntu 12.04 all of that headache is gone. If you do experience problems, 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, 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

If you're new to Linux, Ubuntu is the perfect distribution for you. It's one of the most point-and-click oriented versions of Linux available, easy for beginners to get to grips with 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 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.

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.


    The last Mac OS was much better than this crappy "upgrade".
    Every time I came back from sleep, the wireless would lock up and take out my MBP with it. I got fed up with it that I just decided to install Ubuntu yesterday. Now it's running more smoother. Simple OS, easy enough to do.

    I recommend this to anyone who is raging over Mountain Lion. Enough is enough for me, I'm moving away from Apple.

      You'll be back

    BTW, if you find Ubuntu's new interface to be too out there (or slow), I highly recommend MATE.

    It's the reincarnation of the old, trust, customizable, reliable Gnome2 interface.

    Once you have Ubuntu 12.04 installed, just go to the terminal and copy and paste each of the following in turn:

    sudo add-apt-repository "deb precise main"

    sudo apt-get install mate-archive-keyring

    sudo apt-get update

    sudo apt-get install mate-core

    sudo apt-get install mate-desktop-environment

    Then, log out, click the gear, choose MATE, log back in. Voila!

    xfce in my opinion is a better interface than MATE. It works really well on old hardware.
    If you have a newer Macbook and don't like unity I would suggest trying KDE.

      Thank you, JJ. That's just what I needed to have a more comfortable test run with Ubuntu.

    now, by creating this new partition and using rEFit on my SSD macmini, will it cause any issues with my original install of Mountain Lion?

    Or is better accomplished with a new install of both?

    You can also install Linux Mint's Cinnamon DE on Ubuntu which is a bit more windowsy but a good user experience none the less.

    I tried this last year, apparently massive issues with 2011 MBP I couldnt get any linux cd to boot and every attempted work around didnt work. Does this still hold to be true from what people have heard?

    Why would you want Ubuntu on your Mac? I just dualboot on a regular PC, however if I did have a Mac, I probably wouldn't really bother with installing any flavour of Linux on it. You can check my experiences with using Linux over here

    i'd recomend mint - i'm using cinnamon (gnome 3 made to look like gnome2 but with bells and whistles).

    if you want speed - try crunchbang - very light implementation of debian with openbox - very nice and better battery life for me

    After selecting Linux after restarting my screen just shows a keyboard and stick figure person in a bubble? Please help!

    My CD reader is broken. Can you still do this whole process with a USB stick?

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