I did spend the last couple of days installing the latest Ubuntu 8.10 (beta) on my MacBook.
Premise: I hate installing and configuring operating systems. I
would rather work on my "Adventures" and other projects I have in my
(long) queue of things to do. However, I have been waiting for 18
months for this OS X -> Ubuntu migration and I absolutely wanted to be
done with it. Here I will document my findings.
I bought my MacBook on April 2007 because I expected MacOS X to be
quite similar to Linux (after all it is a Unix, right?) and that it
would have been quite easy to adjust, coming from a Linux background.
However the truth is that I never fully adjusted.
The major issue I had was the pain to keep in sync the MacBook with
the Ubuntu desktop I use at work. By keeping in sync I mean to
install on the Mac the same software I am using at work (subversion,
postgres, rdesktop, openvpn, freetds, odbc drivers, boost, numpy etc
The problem is that I had to repeat the uninspiring job of installing the
libraries (and the dependencies!) twice and in subtly different ways:
so if a library X was broken in Ubuntu and I had to spend a couple of
hours googling for workarounds and solutions on the net, the same
library was broken in a different way on Mac OS X. Then, I had to google
four hours in the Mac forums to solve the issue there: it takes longer
for the Mac since I am still unsure of the right places where to
Sometimes a library works out of the box on the Mac and does
not work in Ubuntu, but most of the times it is the other way around.
Also I had a lot of trouble in the past with fink, macports and darwin
ports. Once, when I finally got a running system it was broken by a
selfupgrade in misterious ways.
After a few hours of effort, I realized that I did not want to spend
days googling for solutions, so I reinstalled everything from
One thing that really disturbed me was
that having installed a working library (matplotlib) with
easy_install without problems,
after a few months it stopped working since it required new versions
of some libraries (I think libfreetype or something like that) which
was available only if I did the upgrade to Leopard. However, I do not
want to make the upgrade to Leopard!
Just a few days ago I installed
Python 2.6 (using the Mac installer), but Tkinter did not work out of
the box and frankly I had no desire to debug the issue. In Ubuntu, by
installing from sources, I had no issue at all, I did install
tcl8.4-dev and tk-dev first with apt-get and I was done.
On top of that, the choice of
libraries available with apt-get in Ubuntu is much larger than the
choice available with fink, more updated and more importantly the
system is much more reliable in my experience (of course I am biased
by a long time familiarity with Linux).
I am sure that many Mac fans
will say that for them it is easier to build stuff on the Mac than on
Linux, but this is not a point. The point is that I need to install
the stuff on Ubuntu first, and it is a pain to repeat it on the Mac.
Thus, for a long time I had tried to use Ubuntu on the Mac but without
First, I tried the virtual machine approach: I tried
first Parallels, then Fusion, then VirtualBox. Unfortunately I have
not been happy with any of them. The commercial solutions are
especially targetted on running Windows on the Mac (which I do not
care) and not on running Linux on the Mac. VirtualBox is better in
this respect (and it is also free) but I would not say it is 100%
reliable - Parallels and VMWare are not very reliable either, in my
experience, especially for what concerns the USB support.
Apart from the problem with USB devices, there is also the problem of
the communication between the Mac and the virtual machine (cut and
paste, shared directories, etc) which in my experience did not work
well. Moreover there is certainly a performance loss and with a
virtual machine on, my Mac started to be much less responsive.
Then, I tried to got the dual-boot route. However my first experiments
with the Ubuntu 7.04 live CD made clear that a lot of my hardware was
not supported (the iSight camera, the microphone, the wireless, etc)
and so I decided to wait. The situation improved a little six months later with
Ubuntu 7.10, so I installed the boot loader rEFIt and I tried to boot
from an Ubuntu installed on an external USB hard drive: unfortunately
I could not get it to work.
Moreover, there was also work to do
to compile all the needed drivers so I decided to wait
again. I tried with Ubuntu 8.04 six months later, but still without success.
Finally, this week I tried the Live CD of Ubuntu
8.10 beta and I discovered that the wireless was working out of the
box, as well as Bluetooth, audio and video, and apparently even the
'suspend' mode, so I decided that this was the right moment for the
It was not an easy job. Since booting from an external drive did not
work in the past, I decided to resize the internal hard drive (I did
not want to wipe it out: what if I later discovered that Ubuntu is
killing my batteries, or that something else was seriously broken?
clearly I wanted a way back to a working environment). However, diskutil
will not let me do resize the drive: I figured out the problem was that the
drive was fragmented. An Internet search seemed to confirm my
hypothesis, and at least a guy in a forum said that he solved
the issue by defragmenting the drive first.
So I looked for a defragmenter for Mac: there are hundreds of
pages saying that defragmentation is useless in Mac OS X and
this is perhaps the reason why there are so few defragmenters
available. I was looking for an open source free command line
tool, but I could not find any, even asking all my Mac-fan
friends. The only defragmenter I could find was a commercial
one named iDefrag. I got a copy of it and I
tried to defragment my internal drive.
I was able to do so: however, when I tried to resize the disk,
I still got the 'no space left on device error 28' message,
just the same message I was getting before defragmentation.
I immediately figured out that I needed to run the 'Compact'
option after the defragmentation: unfortunately, iDefrag
would not let me run it.
The problem is that in order to get complete defragmentation you need
to unmount the drive, but clearly you cannot unmount the system drive.
I realized that I would need a Mac recovery CD, but I have just the original
installation CD and I am not sure if it can work as a recovery CD, and
how to run iDefrag in that situation.
I was stuck. At this point I tried a drastic measure: if I could install
Mac OS X on the external drive and if I could boot from there, then I
could unmount the internal drive and run a full defrag on it.
However, could the Mac boot from an external USB drive, even if
formatted with the Mac file systems in the right way (I mean with
the GPT option for Intel Macs)?
A search on the Internet said that officially Apple does not support
this kind of boot, except from firewire drives: nevertheless at
least a guy on the Internet reported a success even with an USB drive.
I decided to take the risk to waste a lot of effort and I did it.
Installing Mac OS X on my external drive took a few hours (I needed
20G, so I had to repartition it and in the process I accidentally
deleted some stuff I did not want to remove, but this is another
story). Finally, the moment of truth arrived, when I tried to boot
from it: luckily, it worked the first time!
That was a major success, but my work was only at the beginning: I had
to run a full defragmentation on the internal disk now. For some
reason at the beginning I could not umount the internal drive, but
after another reboot I was able to do so. The full defragmentation
took a couple of hours (I have an 80G disk, which was half full) but
finally it went well.
At this point I tried to resize the internal drive, but I could not;
I rebooted, this time from the internal drive, and I tried
again: the second time was the good one and I resized my disk from
80G to 50G, leaving 30G free for the Ubuntu partition.
At this point I booted from the Ubuntu CD, and I installed the system
in the traditional way. The only disturbing bit was that I expected to
get at the end of the installation procedure a question on where to
install GRUB, but the installer did everything by itself.
This was the last and the more delicate step: I rebooted again expecting to
see the rEFIt menu but nothing happened: the Mac would not boot!
Luckily, I remembered that I had forgot to press the "alt option" key.
By retrying and by pressing "alt option" I got the rEFIt menu, which
allowed me to choose between booting from Max OS X and booting from
Ubuntu: I chose Ubuntu and it worked!
I am writing this message from my newly installed Ubuntu with my good
gold Emacs perfectly integrated with my environment
(Aquamacs on the Mac is very nice, but the spell checker
never worked). For some reason now the cursor (both in Emacs, in the terminal
and in other application) is dazzling fast with respect to the Mac, whereas
is was dog slow.
I have discovered
that Ubuntu is able to read the Mac partition (except some files/directories
which do not have the right permissions) even if it cannot write on it.
I am copying now all my stuff from the Mac partition to the Ubuntu
partition, since from the other side I should not have trouble reading/writing
the ext3 file system (I remember I had found an utility to do that in
I have installed subversion and openvpn and I am checking out the trunk
from the office; in the mean time I am playing with compiz that seems
to work, wherea on my desktop in the office for some reason
it causes my system to freeze once in a while.
The webcam does not seem to work out of the box, but I have found instructions
to fix it, so I guess it can be made to work. I am also dubious about the
suspend/hybernate support, I will have to try and to see how it works.
For the moment however I am quite happy: if I can get everything working
I will eventually wipe out Mac OS X and have an 100% Linux laptop running,
which it what I wanted from the beginning, but I could not buy at the time
(nowadays one can buy 100% Linux laptops like the eeePC quite easily,
but this is another story I will leave for another post).
UPDATE: I have been using the suspend mode for a while and now I
am confident that it works. Moreover, I was able to get the webcam to
work, by following the instructions in the Ubuntu MacBook
Wiki. There I have also found how to fix the volume (the audio was
working, but with a very low volume). Now I am still fighting with the
microphone, but the moment where my MacBook will become 100% Linux is
A quick note on defragmenting on a Mac. I went through exactly the same steps as you did for the very same reason (installing Ubuntu on a MBP) but I proceeded differently wrt defragmenting the laptop's hard-drive. Using SuperDuper you can make a bootable copy on a USB drive. Then boot from the USB drive (I think you need refit installed to be able to do this) and 'reverse-SuperDuper', from the USB drive to the laptop's drive. After that I was able to repartition the internal drive and allocate enough space for the Ubuntu installation. Needless to say, you want to have another bootable copy of your disk just in case... And yes, it takes time, a long time.