Installing Ubuntu 12.10 on a MacBook

29 January 2013
Ubuntu 12.10 on my MacBook

Ubuntu 12.10 on my MacBook

This past weekend I undertook the effort to install Ubuntu 12.10 on my MacBook as a second operating system. It was quite an interesting process and I have to admit, it went much more smoothly than I expected. My MacBook is an old unibody Macbook5,1 (not a MacBook Pro) from late 2008 – the first with the unibody construction before they became the MacBook Pros. I installed Ubuntu alongside of OS X 10.8 and was quite surprised to find out that it works almost faster than OS X does. The installation process was pretty straight forward, but I had a bit of trouble with getting my wireless card to work as well as the graphics drivers from NVIDIA working properly. In the end though I managed and it even took a lot less time than I had expected when I set about to do it.

How I did it

This is the part that everyone will probably just skip to (thus warranting its own subheader), so I will begin, keeping it as simple and to-the-point as possible.

Before actually starting, the first thing I did was browse around the internet to see what information I could find about installing Ubuntu on a MacBook from people who had already successfully done it. It was somewhat difficult to find information pertaining to installing Ubuntu 12.10 on the exact model of MacBook I own since it is a bit older, but in the end, I made do with a couple of sites. The first one gave step-by-step instructions on how to install Ubuntu 12.10 on a MacBook Air from mid-2011. I used those instructions in combination with information found on Ubuntu’s website about installing an older version of Ubuntu on the exact model of MacBook I have. Between the two, I was able to install the latest version of Ubuntu on my older MacBook.

What I did was the following. First, I installed rEFIT. At first I had a problem getting my MacBook to boot to their interface, but I quickly realized it was because my hard drive was encrypted. So, I let my MacBook sit over night while it decrypted the hard drive. Then I had to uninstall rEFIT entirely and reinstall it. After that it worked perfectly.

The next step was then to create a bootable USB drive with Ubuntu on it. Again, I followed the instructions on the first site after downloaded the 64-bit iso from Ubuntu’s website. I then partitioned my Mac’s hard drive using the built-in Disk Utility app that comes standard with OS X. I gave Ubuntu a 100 GB partition to ensure plenty of space (I have a 1 TB drive). Before I did this, however, I made sure to backup all of my files using TimeMachine. While Disk Utility does not need to completely format the drive to create/edit partitions, it is always a good practice to backup your files just in case something goes wrong in the process.

After this, I restarted my Mac with the bootable USB drive plugged in. I held the Option key until I was given a choice to boot from the USB drive. The normal Ubuntu installation process then started and was smart enough to recognize that OS X was already installed. It gave me the option to install Ubuntu alongside of OS X. After choosing this option, all I had to do was choose the new partition I created with Disk Utility and it installed without a single problem.

Right out of the box, Ubuntu worked surprisingly well on my MacBook. The biggest problem I had was that my wireless internet did not work. After a bit of searching, I found the solution on the second site. Essentially, I had to install the proprietary Broadcom STA drivers, then go into System Settings and tell Ubuntu to use them rather than the default drivers.

I had to repeat the same process for the graphics drivers. At first I chose the wrong drivers which, after a reboot, led me straight to the terminal rather than the Unity interface. From the terminal, I had to uninstall the incorrect drivers, then install the correct drivers using apt-get. After doing that, Ubuntu booted right back up into Unity. While the graphics worked with the default drivers, it was not a smooth as it could have been. After installed the drivers from NVIDIA though, there was a noticeable difference in performance. Unity’s animations were much more smooth and the system’s performance significantly increased.

Other than that, there really wasn’t much I had to do to get Ubuntu running smoothly. The only other thing I did was change a couple of the system settings to be a bit more Mac-like (for example, I changed the trackpad to use two-finger scrolling rather than using the side for scrolling) as well as customize the desktop environment a little bit.

Now that I’ve explained how I did it, I should explain why I did it. The answer to this is pretty straightforward: because I wanted to. I really had no practical reason for doing it and while most people may think it’s a waste of time, I rather enjoyed doing it and am very satisfied that I was able to get it to fully run and take advantage of all of the MacBook’s hardware.

The results

Since installing it, however, I have run into some practical reasons for having it installed. The first of which is that I was absolutely amazed at how much faster my old MacBook runs with Ubuntu. OS X 10.8 is optimized for faster hardware and is more demanding, but Ubuntu breathes new life into the older hardware. The machine has a 2.4 GHz Intel Duo Core 2 with 8 GB RAM, a 1 TB drive, and a NVIDIA GeForce 9400M with 256 MB dedicated VRAM. By today’s standards that is a slow machine and OS X 10.8 just does not run as smoothly on it as Ubuntu seems to. While I don’t want to replace OS X – after all, that is one of the reasons you buy a Mac, I do think I will be using Ubuntu for some of the more demanding tasks I use my computer for.

And yes, before anyone asks, since I installed Ubuntu, I had to download the Steam Beta:

Steam on Ubuntu

Steam on Ubuntu

Unfortunately, of all the games I’ve purchased, only Amnesia: The Dark Descent was available for Linux. I do hope more come in the future! I would love to be able to play Civilization V on Ubuntu. Also, I should note that installing Steam and trying to run Amnesia somehow broke Ubuntu. It now only boots into the terminal (again) which is the same problem I ran into before while trying to install my graphics drivers (see above). Time to go do a bit of digging to figure out what exactly is wrong!

Update: Last night I managed to fix the problem created by installing Steam. I booted into the terminal, ran an apt-get update/upgrade, then removed the NVIDIA drivers and reinstalled them. That worked perfectly and now I can play my one Linux-compatible Steam game without a problem.

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About the Author

Alex Seifert
Alex is a developer, a drummer and an amateur historian. He enjoys being on the stage in front of a large crowd, but also sitting in a room alone, programming something or writing about history.

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One Comment
  1. 27 July 2013 9:42 am  link

    Interesting! Wanted to install Ubuntu on my old macbook for ages. Wondering why it is necessary to install rEFIT, since the Ubuntu DVD should just figure it out by iself, no?
    Troubled to hear about the driver issues, they shouldn’t be there and might trouble a non advanced computer user – such as myself.
    Thank you for good article, i will use it when/if i install Ubuntu on my own macbook.

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