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Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook

4 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Sep 4, 2009 9:02 AM by Dan Horne

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Michele Simionato

Posts: 222
Nickname: micheles
Registered: Jun, 2008

Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Oct 11, 2008 11:28 PM
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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 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 look.

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 scratch.

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 much success.

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 migration.

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 the past).

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 approaching ...

Nicola Larosa

Posts: 9
Nickname: teknico
Registered: Jan, 2006

Re: Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook Posted: Oct 13, 2008 5:18 AM
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Yay free as in freedom, kudos! ;-)

Andrea Gabriellini

Posts: 1
Nickname: mindthegab
Registered: Sep, 2008

Re: Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook Posted: Oct 13, 2008 5:30 AM
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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.


Shannon -jj Behrens

Posts: 12
Nickname: jjinux
Registered: Aug, 2005

Re: Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook Posted: Aug 4, 2009 11:10 AM
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So painful. Thank you for blogging this. It's helpful.

Dan Horne

Posts: 1
Nickname: redbone
Registered: Sep, 2009

Re: Installing Ubuntu on my MacBook Posted: Sep 4, 2009 9:02 AM
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Strange that you've had problems with VMWare Fusion. I've been running CentOS on my mac for 12 months without a hitch, and I do all of my development on it....

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