Installing Linux in place of OS X on an older Mac

Former title: Installing Ubuntu Linux (or Mythbuntu) in place of OS X on a Mac Mini (changed because this article is now less specific to Ubuntu or the Mac Mini).

Important
This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on a blog called The Michigan Telephone Blog, which was written by a friend before he decided to stop blogging. It is reposted with his permission. Comments dated before the year 2013 were originally posted to his blog.

All computers have their day in the sun, and then something new comes along that makes them less desirable. I have a Mac Mini that I acquired sometime around the time OS X Leopard came out, probably in 2009. As time went by it became slower and slower and I finally replaced it. However, it seemed a bit of a shame to have it just sitting in a closet doing nothing, so I decided to see if I could put Ubuntu Linux 12.04 (at that time the most recent LTS version) on it. I started out by trying to follow the instructions on this page (the Single Boot/MBR option) but ultimately it turned out to be not nearly that complicated. NOTE THAT THIS WILL NOT GIVE YOU A DUAL BOOT SYSTEM; THIS IS REPLACING OS X WITH UBUNTU LINUX, AND ALL YOUR EXISTING DATA ON THE HARD DRIVE WILL BE ERASED!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

Also: THIS IS FOR EXPERIMENTAL AND INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. This is what worked for ME. This MAY or MAY NOT work for you. It may even brick your system (if that should happen, try doing a PRAM reset before you totally panic). It did not do that to me, and I have never heard of anyone having that problem, but your hardware may be a bit different than mine, so I make NO guarantees!!! Here’s all I wound up having to do:

  • Connected a USB keyboard and mouse.
  • Before proceeding I made sure I had the latest firmware upgrade – that is very important since you can’t do it once you have installed Ubuntu, and the rest of this might not work if you have old firmware. Another thing you can’t do is disable the startup chime so if you don’t want that after Linux is installed, find a way to turn it off before proceeding (I wanted it, and it’s used in the instructions that follow, so I didn’t search for a way to disable it, and I don’t recommend you do either).
  • Inserted my old OS X Leopard installation CD (any OS X installation CD that works with the Mac should be fine for this procedure)
  • Rebooted while holding down the “C” key
  • Accepted the default language (English) and pressed Enter
  • From the top menu bar, I selected Utilities | Disk Utility
  • In Disk Utility I selected the internal hard drive in the left hand side panel. You have to select the drive itself (it shows the brand name of your drive), not the partition
  • Clicked the Partition tab, selected 1 Partition under the Volume Scheme (instead of Current)
  • Clicked the Options button and selected “Master Boot Record”
  • Clicked the Continue button (this erases the hard drive)
  • When the above finished, I quit Disk Utility, then quit the installer
  • The Mac rebooted — at that point I clicked and held the leftmost mouse button until the CD ejected
  • Inserted the Ubuntu Install CD, then power cycled the Mac Mini
  • At the startup chime I pressed the “C” key to boot from the CD
  • When the Ubuntu CD boots, you are given the option to install Ubuntu directly, or to try Ubuntu (which takes you to the Ubuntu desktop). As it turns out, I could have simply ran the installer. Instead, I did it from the desktop because I was following some instructions that said you have to type in some things during the install, and you need to have access to a terminal window to do that. But when I tried to type those things in, Ubuntu rejected them with errors, so I just let it complete the install (answering the questions it asked during the install). I did NOT select any special partitioning, etc. – I pretty much did a plain vanilla installation, generally accepting the defaults except where they weren’t appropriate or weren’t what I wanted.
Important
NOTE: If, when you boot into the Ubuntu installation CD, you are greeted with a screen that asks you to “Select CD Rom boot type” but you cannot select anything because neither the keyboard nor the mouse are functional, or if you get a black screen at some point early in the install process, then you may need a special build of Linux intended for use with 64-bit Macs that use a 32-bit EFI. Such models were mostly manufactured in the last half of the 2000’s. In that case you can try the solution offered here, if you can understand the instructions, or you can see if you can find a suitable ready-made .iso file at Matt Gadient’s site (note that even though it says “late 2006 models” in the title, those builds should work with late 2006 and later 64-bit Macs that use a 32-bit EFI).

When the install was finished (after quite some time), I rebooted. The only unusual thing was that after the reboot, the screen remains white for about 20-30 seconds right at the start of the reboot. Then after that delay, it finally decides it will load Ubuntu. That still happens and while it makes the startup take a bit longer, I’ve seen worse. The reason for this (and a possible fix) can be found here: Reducing the 30 second delay when starting 64-bit Ubuntu in BIOS mode on the old 32-bit EFI Macs.

Oh, and the sound was muted by default for some reason, and the volume slider set all the way down. After I unmuted it and turned up the volume slider, the sound worked normally.

The wired network connection worked fine. I don’t use WiFi here so I did not test that. If you have issues with those, or any other issues see GNU/Linux Debian on a Macbook Pro 11-1, which contains some additional hints that may make things run more smoothly (or work at all) after installation. I would use any hints on that page only if you have one of the specific issues that the author had. Another page with possibly useful additional hacks to make this work is Mac book pro 11.3 Linux customization (2): grub and hardware, which may be helpful if you have issues with an unrecognized Intel Iris GPU or Thunderbolt, but again I would only use these if you really need them, since this article is from 2014 and such hacks may no longer be necessary (by the way, this blog has several other pages of rather technical hacks for using Linux on a Mac Book Pro, and while many users will not need any of them, you can search that site for the phrase “Mac book pro 11.3 Linux customization” to find the other articles).

The only real hitch I found was that it wouldn’t boot if I didn’t have a video display connected! I have no idea why that was the case but there is a hardware workaround described on this page. Hope you didn’t misplace your Mac Mini’s DVI to VGA adapter! I had a 100 Ω resistor handy and that seems to work fine (it’s probably about 40 or 50 years old but what the heck, carbon resistors don’t change value that much just sitting in a junk box). If you can’t find the DVI to VGA adapter, I have read that at least one user placed a resistor directly into the DVI port between pins C2 and C5; you can use this pinout diagram to find those pins. However, I have not tried this, so I make no guarantees. Either way, the point is that the resistor goes between the analog green signal output and the analog ground return. If you can’t find the adapter, can’t get this to work, or if you just don’t want to mess around with a resistor, you can try a DVI Emulator/Dummy Plug that includes an EDID chip, that may be available from Amazon or eBay. A DVI 1920×1080 or 1920×1200 model should be sufficient. Such a device fools the Mac Mini into thinking a display is connected.

After I had this running for a year or two I read that Ubuntu doesn’t control the system fan properly. You can do this in some newer versions of Ubuntu (and possibly other Linux builds) to get fan control to work. First, try using your chosen Linux distribution’s Software Center or package manager to search for and install the macfanctld package (after you check for updates). If that doesn’t work, try this (assuming you’re using a Ubuntu or Debian based distribution):

sudo apt install -y macfanctld

On my system at least, it appeared that this did cause the fan to run a bit faster but not enough that I really noticed it. Once it is installed, you can type man macfanctld at a Linux command prompt to get configuration instructions. Changes to temperature limits and minimum fan speed are made in the file /etc/macfanctl.conf.

Also, although I have not personally done this, I have read on a couple of pages that you can enable automatic reboot after a power interruption by adding one line to /etc/rc.local (this may be Ubuntu-specific, but you can always remove it if it doesn’t work):

setpci -s 0:1f.0 0xa4.b=0

If you have smb or samba installed (it is installed by default in many distributions) and find that your samba/smb log files fill up with complaints such as “Unable to connect to CUPS server localhost:631 – Connection refused”, here is a workaround. In the [global] section of /etc/samba/smb.conf add these lines:

printing = bsd
printcap name = /dev/null

Then from a command prompt restart samba:

sudo service smbd restart

Long ago I read a post on Reddit where the author said, “After months of headaches and tinkering I’ve finally found the stupid way to let Linux work properly on Macs. Just add acpi_osi=Darwin as boot parameter.” Unfortunately I did not save a link to that post so I have no idea if still valid advice, and therefore I would only try it if something (particularly Thunderbolt) isn’t working right and you can’t resolve it any other way. If you understand Linux kernel stuff see the final paragraphs of this page for a discussion of this setting, also see Section 2 on this page. If you don’t use the Thunderbolt port then you probably don’t need this, and you may not anyway.

By the way, I had intended to try Linux Mint but they no longer offer a version that fits on a CD, and I still have about a gazillion blank CDs (plus I already had Ubuntu 12.04 burned to CD) and since the Mac Mini doesn’t have a BIOS in the traditional sense, there is no way to install from a USB stick, so Ubuntu it was. For what I plan to do with this, having Mint would be no advantage. Many older Macs have issues booting from a USB memory stick, although one site I read said that they might be able to if you use UNetbootin to transfer the Linux image file to the USB stick. I did not attempt that, so I cannot say whether that works. I got it to work using a CD, but I do realize that CD and DVD burners are becoming somewhat of a scarce item these days.

Note that nowhere above did I mention a program called rEFIt, nor did I mention BootCamp. I didn’t need either of those.

Had this not worked I could have always reinstalled Leopard, but again, for what I was doing with this system (running a Tvheadend backend, for one thing) Linux was probably a better choice, but I still wanted to be able to use this as a backup regular desktop computer, should the need ever arise.

One final note: This is the xorg.conf I used with my “headless” system. It came from this blog post and I did have to save it as /etc/X11/xorg.conf and not the filename shown in the post (in newer versions of Linux I believe this location may have moved yet again, so you may need to search to find the correct location for the xorg configuration for your distro). Note this is only something you might consider using if you have installed a version of Linux that includes a desktop; you don’t need this if you have a server-only version of Linux that has no desktop installed (one where you do everything from a Linux command prompt):

Section "Monitor"
  Identifier "Monitor0"
  Modeline "1920x1080_60.00"  172.80  1920 2040 2248 2576  1080 1081 1084 1118  -HSync +Vsync
  Modeline "1024x768_60.00"  64.11  1024 1080 1184 1344  768 769 772 795  -HSync +Vsync
EndSection
Section "Screen"
  Identifier "Screen0"
  Device "VGA1"
  Monitor "Monitor0"
  DefaultDepth 24
  SubSection "Display"
    Depth 24
    Modes "1920x1080_60.00" "1024x768_60.00"
  EndSubSection
EndSection

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