Installing Linux on PowerPC Macs

It’s not particularly easy to create a bootable USB flash drive so you can try running Linux on a PowerPC Mac. It took me a couple weeks of research, asking questions of our Linux on PowerPC Macs group on Facebook, and experimenting before I could finally boot into Linux 14.04 from a thumb drive. I learned some lessons. I’m going to make it a lot easier for you to install Linux on your old PPC Macs.

I’ve experimented with Linux and BSD Macs going back to the Mac IIci era, and I’ve never had much luck. Back in the olden days, Linux was a text-based operating system similar to MS-DOS. Everything was handled through the command line in the late 1990s. This time around I wanted to create a “live” flash drive so I could make sure it actually worked before committing to installing Linux on a hard drive.

If only I’d had a blank CD-R or DVD-R, it would have been a lot easier!

Power Mac G5My original testbed was a Late 2005 2.3 GHz Power Mac G5 Dual with 3 GB of RAM and two hard drives, one with OS X 10.4 Tiger, the other with OS X 10.5 Leopard. It’s my most powerful PowerPC Mac, so I figured it would be a good way to take Linux for a spin.

Pick a Distro

Step one is to choose your distribution. After talking with others in our small-but-growing Linux PPC Facebook group, I settled on Lubuntu as a good starting point. Lubuntu is known for having a lighter-weight user interface, LXDE – similar to what Simon Royal used when he put LXLE on an old PC.

Ubuntu Linux has a simple numbering scheme for its versions. Version 14.04 was released in the 4th month of 2014, and 16.04 in the 4th month of 2016. That’s also the latest version available for PowerPC at present. You can download 14.04 and 16.04 from this page, earlier versions from this page, where you can also get version 12.04 for PowerPC, among many other architectures.

PowerPC distros prior to version 12.04 have separate 32-bit and 64-bit installers. The only PowerPC Macs that can use a 64-bit operating system are G5 iMacs and Power Macs. Anything before G5 can only use a 32-bit Linux. Starting with version 12.04 the 32-bit and 64-bit versions are part of the same package for Macs.

I suggest you start by downloading Mac (PowerPC) and IBM-PPC (POWER5) desktop CD, which is designed to be burnt to a CD-R and give you a fully bootable way to test out Linux before you commit to it. That’s fine if you have blank CD-R media or a CD-RW disc, but I haven’t burnt a CD in years and have no blanks at present.

That was also the biggest reason I had problems. Using a USB Flash Drive was an exercise in frustration.

The USB Flash Drive Problem

I do, however, have a few 8 GB and larger USB flash drives, and there are plenty of instructions online for properly formatting the flash drive and getting the bootable ISO installed. And none of them worked on my Power Mac G5. I would spend hours trying this, that, and the other thing. Formatting the flash drive was the easy part; installing the ISO and creating a bootable system stumped me.

The only method I found that worked for creating a bootable USB flash drive with Lubuntu on it required me to use Etcher, a freeware app that takes an ISO and creates a bootable flash drive from it. However, Etcher doesn’t run on PowerPC Macs. Nor does it run on my Intel Macs with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. I had to use one of my Macs with OS X 10.11 El Capitan installed, and that did the job.

In other words, you need a fairly modern Mac to create the bootable flash drive you need to launch Linux on PowerPC Macs.

I formatted the flash drive as FAT, exFAT, HFS+, Apple Partition Map, GUID Partition Map, and Master Boot Record. Etcher dutifully imaged the ISO file to the flash drive. But it wouldn’t boot.

The key is to format the flash drive using Master Boot Record and FAT. Those are not the default settings, so you’ll have to find them in your version of Disk Utility.

But It Won’t Boot

I’ve been a spoiled Mac user since 1986, and if I’d had a CD-R or DVD-R, this would have been easy. Start your Mac, hold down the C key, and it will boot from whatever is in your optical drive. That goes back to the first Macs with built-in CD-ROM drives. It’s easy, but there’s nothing nearly as easy for booting from a USB flash drive.

On most Macs, if you hold down the Option key (marked Opt on some Mac keyboards, Alt on Windows keyboard) at startup, your Mac will present you with all the bootable options on your computer. On my Power Mac G5, the options are OS X 10.4.11 Tiger, 10.4.11 Tiger Server, and 10.5.8 Leopard.

If I’d had an external USB or FireWire drive, it would have shown up as well. But no matter what I did, the USB thumb drive never showed up as an option. I couldn’t boot from it in the traditional way.

Open Firmware

Whatever the reason, my last generation Power Mac G5 will only boot from the flash drive if I startup in Open Firmware. Hold down Cmd, Opt, O, and F at startup and hold them down until text appears on the upper left corner of your display. Your modern Mac be in Open Firmware (OF, as in two of the keys you hold down to boot into it). OF is a low-level operating system with a command line interface, like the Apple II+ at work that was the first computer I used, the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 that I used at home because they fit my low-end budget, and that Zenith Z-151 PC running MS-DOS 3.3 circa 1987.

Launch OF. That can take a while, as OF tests all your system memory every time you launch it. Just hold those 4 keys down until OF tells you to let go of them.

Open Firmware prompt

As long as you only have one bootable USB device, such as the flash drive with Lubuntu or an external CD-ROM or DVD drive, you can type in the following to boot from that device on a dual-core Power Mac G5:

boot ud:,\\:tbxi

and then hit Return or Enter. That worked perfectly with my Late 2005 Power Mac G5, but it would not work with my older 2.0 GHz dual-processor Power Mac G5s no matter what I did, and I didn’t bother to try it on an iMac G5.

Lubuntu splash screen on Power Mac G5

If you have more than one bootable device, type devalias at the prompt, hit Return, and you will see a lengthy list of devices like this.

devalias

That was a bit of a rabbit trail for me. In the end I found the command that let me boot from the front USB port on my older Power Mac G5 – these are all equivalent:

boot usb2/disk@1:2,\\yaboot
boot usb2/disk:2,\\yaboot
boot usb2/@1:2,\\yaboot

But that only worked on one of my Power Mac G5s. The other three I tried simply would not boot from the flash drive. This was an exercise in frustration!

Making a Bootable Linux Hard Drive

Once I saw that Lubuntu ran decently on my ancient Power Mac G5 Dual, I knew that I wanted to install it on a hard drive so it would boot more quickly and allow me to add more software. That would have been easy on the Dual, but I didn’t want to reformat either of its hard drives, so I went through my small collection of older Power Mac G5 models in search of one that would boot from the flash drive so I could easily reformat its hard drive and install Lubuntu.

When I finally got one up and running – the third one I tried (the first one wouldn’t even boot, the second wouldn’t boot from the flash drive) – I started the installer. I really appreciate the concise, thorough, helpful explanations of what each choice means. It’s the kind of polish we don’t see with the Mac OS; Apple knows that most of us just want it to run. Ubuntu knows that we are interested in making informed decisions and that it needs to educate us through the process. Nice!

Or so it seemed. Then it wanted to upgrade from 14.04 to 16.04, but every time I tried to do that, it nattered at me about removing certain files using sudo and compressing other files – neither of which I am able to do. How can I remove 35.6 M of files when I don’t even know what’s necessary?

Okay, I should have just started with the Lubuntu 16.04 ISO, but I didn’t know it at the time. If you want to try Linux on a PowerPC Mac, choose the 16.04 Long Term Release (LTR) version and be done with big upgrades until the next LTR version, probably in April 2018.

If you’re just experimenting, you might want to use Lubuntu 17.04. And if you’re patient, you might want to wait until April when Lubuntu 18.04 LTR is due.

Lesson Learned: Burn a Disc Instead!

I wanted you to understand the frustration of trying to do things with a USB flash drive before telling you to bite the bullet and burn a DVD-R disk with the distro of your choosing. You can burn a CD-R, but that usually means trimming the Linux distro to fit on a disc. With DVD-R you’ve got lots of room for distros approaching 1 GB in size.

And you don’t have to use Open Firmware at all.

Booting from the DVD-R was a breeze after all the frustration I had to deal with creating a bootable flash drive and then actually booting from it. I wiped the 80 GB drive in a 2.0 GHz dual-processor Power Mac G5 with 3 GB RAM and installed Lubuntu. I ended up with a very nice, friendly, functional Linux machine that lets me run the latest version of Firefox on a 2005 Power Mac that was left behind with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard shipped in August 2009.

Is It Practical?

There are two questions to address here: Is it practical to continue using PowerPC Macs in 2018? And is it practical to run Linux on PowerPC Macs instead of OS X 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard?

Hardware

For those who have a Power Mac G5 Quad, the last and most powerful PowerPC Mac ever, the answer is a resounding yes. With four cores running at 2.5 GHz, you’ve got comparable power to the earliest 4-core Mac Pro. This is lustworthy hardware, although not especially practical in terms of the current it draws.

Dual-processor and dual-core Power Mac G5s are competent performers, and the faster dual-processor Power Mac G4 machines are solid workhorses as well with decent amounts of power. I wouldn’t want to use a Power Mac below 800 MHz or so with Tiger or Leopard, but dual 733 MHz or faster CPUs work well enough.

There may be tasks where processing power isn’t an issue, perhaps a home file server or web server, and there even a 233 MHz iMac G3 may provide all the power you need. Using MAMP, Tiger and Leopard can be configured as Unix servers.

Operating System

If you’re wed to Mac software, Linux probably isn’t going to be on our daily driver Mac. There is a whole learning curve going to a different operating system and using primarily free open source software that may have the power of commercial apps – but you need to figure out how to access it.

But if you want to set up a machine with an up-to-date operating system and browser that can be used more like a Chromebook than a Mac, Linux could be for you. Firefox is a staple in the Linux world, and the latest version is fast with a reduced memory footprint. I can run it on my Power Mac G5 Dual nicely. Not as nicely as a 3 GHz Core i3 iMac, but nicely nonetheless.

Honestly, I would go the triple-boot route. Today I put separate Tiger and Leopard partitions on any G4 or G5 Mac I set up, usually with Leopard getting 2-3 times as much space as Tiger, depending on the size of the hard drive. To learn to live in the Linux world, I would go with two hard drives when possible – one just for Linux, which likes to partition its hard drive just so – and one with partitions for Tiger and Leopard.

Facebook: Ouch

Facebook is a remarkably bloated environment, and you’ve probably been spoiled with modern hardware or the mobile version. Even on my dual-core 2.3 GHz G5, Facebook is frustratingly slow. You can really speed it up by going to m.facebook.com instead of www.facebook.com. That puts you in the mobile version, which has its own drawbacks but runs a lot faster than the desktop version.

Conclusion

Don’t try to do it on your own. We’ve created a helpful Facebook group of people who have managed to get Linux running on PowerPC hardware and those who are learning how. Linux on PowerPC Macs was invaluable in helping me get this far.

keywords: #ppclinux #linuxonmac

short link: https://goo.gl/anff6h

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