Macs in the Enterprise

Linux on PowerPC Macs: Debian Runs Nicely on a G3 iBook

- 2008.06.11 - Tip Jar

The recent discussion here at Low End Mac about Linux being a viable alternative for otherwise left-behind Mac hardware got me to thinking.

First, everyone has a different definition of "left behind". If your primary or even sole purpose is writing, you can be quite happy with an SE/30 running Microsoft Word 5.1a, as long as you have a way to get your files from that system wherever you need them to be, be that by ethernet, LocalTalk Bridge, a local printer, or even floppy disk.

Most, however, accept that a system has been left behind when it won't run the most recent two versions of the Mac OS. That's when the software writers stop making their programs backward compatible, in many cases, and when you begin to hear that the latest browser or plugin is not compatible with your system.

That places a whole passel of G3 Macs on the soon-to-pass list with the forthcoming release of Mac OS X 10.6. I'm not as pessimistic as Dan Knight: I think there are plenty of G5 Power Macs and iMacs out there that will still be supported - and maybe even some of the higher-end G4 PowerBooks - but then I may be naive, too.

In any case, while that may or may not happen, with Leopard being unavailable to them every G3 is already one foot in the grave. As such, planning ahead by looking at other opportunities can only be a good thing.

New Life with Linux

In the Windows world, even the most graphically intense flavors of Linux can add years of pep to the life of older hardware, and mini-distributions can revive relative octogenarians for a few more trips around the park. Maybe Linux can do something similar for our aging Macs.

Having recently divested myself of many of my aging Macs, I was left with only one really viable candidate for testing purposes, a 700 MHz "iceBook" that I'd recently inherited. While it could run Mac OS 9.2.2 like a house afire, Mac OS X 10.3.9 was a little on the slow side with only 384 MB of RAM. I thought it was a perfect candidate for some sprucing up, so I set out to figure out how I could best bring this little beast into the modern era.

Picking a PowerPC Distro

My favorite mini-distribution is Puppy Linux. They've recently released version 4.0, and I've had good luck with it on Intel hardware, including a brief jaunt with it on my MacBook. Unfortunately, there are no PPC builds of it to be had for love nor money, so I had to put it out of my mind. DSL (formerly Damn Small Linux) is another excellent low-resource distribution, but again, no PPC variant.

My need for Mac support eventually led me to Slackintosh. I love Slackware and had high hopes for Slackintosh, but I was unable to ever get the system to boot correctly. I suspect I was doing something wrong, and in true Slackware tradition, there's no obvious answer for how to tell when you are, so I had to also leave that one behind.

I'm also a fan of Ubuntu, but I thought perhaps it would be a little overwhelming for this hardware, and as it's no longer officially supported on the PowerPC, it wouldn't be the latest and greatest - and if I'm not interested in up-to-date software, why not just stick with OS 9?

So I finally landed on Debian ("the universal operating system"). Still supporting PPC, still with a basic text installer, and still rock solid. I downloaded the netinstall CD image, burned it to CD, and I was on my way.

The installer even went so far as to detect the AirPort card in the iceBook and offer that as a way to connect to the Internet to complete the installation. Opting for faster, I plugged in the ethernet and set to downloading everything that was needed for a basic install plus laptop features and a desktop environment. In less than an hour the system was prompting me for a reboot, and I was ready to proceed.

Running Linux on a 700 MHz G3

Linux has never been much of a speed demon on launch, and Debian on a 700 MHz G3 with a slow laptop hard drive is no exception, but if you play your cards right, that may not be such a problem (more later).

The machine booted up just fine for me right out of the chute and presented me with a login screen. Entering my credentials, it dropped me at a very generic Gnome desktop. The software chosen for the Desktop system include perennial favorites like OpenOffice.org and the Debian version of Firefox, Iceweasel. (Nice serendipity there, Iceweasel on the iceBook.)

The system is totally responsive, and while large programs like OpenOffice take a while to fire up, they're just fine once you're using them.

It does feel faster than when I had OS X 10.3.9 installed (or even an abortive attempt to use 10.2.4). Apps load faster, the UI is peppier, and it feels a bit like a new laptop again.

The only thing that seems not to have worked straight away is the onboard sound card. I'm told by Linux that there is no sound card, so that will require some tinkering. AirPort works fine, as does automatically going into sleep mode when you close the laptop lid. Upon reopening it, after a few scary text errors on the screen, you're back where you left off. If you are the sort who doesn't tend to run a battery into the ground, you may not have to reboot this thing until the next time you upgrade the kernel - much like OS X.

The mouse is a little jittery, and the tap to click is a little hypersensitive. This is an issue that I recall from using Ubuntu on many PC laptops, so there may be a solution to it. Obviously, Linux isn't quite the same as OS X. Things don't always "just work" anymore, but the improvements are immense.

I took a marginal machine and made it one that comfortably runs software that's compatible with the latest releases from Microsoft, and with a little tinkering it will likely be just as solid as OS X in terms of reliability.

No, I won't be editing any movies on here, nor playing any graphically intense games, but as far as it goes, the iceBook is back to being a contender for a while longer - hopefully long enough for someone to get around to porting Puppy to the PPC architecture, which will perform the same magic all over again. LEM

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