The Low End Mac Mailbag

PowerPC Linux, Old Macs Not Up to the Modern Web, New iMac Nightmares, and More

Dan Knight - 2008.06.10 - Tip Jar

Linux on PowerPC

From Nathan Hill:

I'm just responding real quick to your conversation about Linux as one option on PPC Macs to keep up-to-date software.

Like another reader pointed out, support for PPC machines in Linux is fading quickly. I just don't think there is a large enough base of support and programmers for the work to be done. Plus, as long as Apple keeps the specs of motherboards and other pieces of hardware under wraps, the Linux community won't be able to write appropriate drivers.

Case in point, drivers for Broadcom devices in Linux (like AirPort cards) may never be a reality. So, if you have a Mac with an AirPort card, you will need to get a different wireless adapter or plug in through ethernet. Apple could easily remedy this by releasing some sort of specs for the cards . . . or even making one available for the open source community to use.

Other examples from my own experience - Mac video card drivers may also be non-existent. Though ATI or Nvidia might have released some binary drivers for PCs, they won't work on their Mac versions. Power management is also atrocious. If you don't mind your PPC's fan being on full blast during use, it will work - laptops then become terribly noisy. Toss in sleep as another feature that may or may not work.

Of course, your mileage will vary. In my experience, Xubuntu worked okay on a Pismo PowerBook G3 (500 MHz G3) with a generic Orinoco wireless PC Card. Ubuntu worked decently on a PowerBook G4 12" (1.5 GHz), but the fans were on full blast. I could also never enable any cool video features despite the PowerBook's ample video RAM. Ubuntu or Xubuntu LiveCDs would freeze during boot on a Digital Audio Power Mac. I've also been tinkering with OpenSUSE, and I need to give Slackintosh a better go. Also, Debian may have a little more PPC support than Ubuntu even. However, I cannot seriously recommend any of them unless you want something to tinker with and spend time getting to work properly. I think the PPC guys in the Linux are doing great work with what they have though.

Finally, the Achilles heel for PPC Linux is the lack of a real simple multi-boot option. I haven't found one yet. I would love one to look just like the "option" boot where you can get a clear, simple display of all startup disk options available on your machine. No text. No need to reformat the entire partition table and fight with where Linux and Mac OS X sit on certain partitions. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but until that happens, Linux is better on a LiveCD than on the hard drive.

Nathan Hill


Thanks for sharing your experiences. I've tried a Ubuntu LiveCD on three different Macs - 400 MHz iMac G3, 1.25 GHz eMac, dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 - with no luck at all. I'm downloading Xubuntu 6.06 and plan on trying it next. [Update: I can boot my iMac into Xubuntu 6.06. I see the startup screen, see the list of modules loading, but end up with a black display. Closer!]

Yes, lack of support for AirPort could be a huge factor, as more and more of us live the wireless life. The one error message I was on my eMac before it gave up was about the AirPort Extreme card being unsupported.

It sounds like Apple will be putting the focus specifically on Intel-based Macs with Snow Leopard. Let's hope that as they make the move away from supporting PowerPC Macs, they'll release the information the Linux community needs to get the most out of our old Macs when our old versions of the Mac OS are no longer sufficient to the task.


Linux on PPC Discussion

From Otto Schlosser:

Hi, Dan. My response to the "which distro?" question is the same one I always give when someone asks me which PC or OS to get - "What do you want to do with it?" I run a Windows network, use Macs by choice, and tinker with Linux, so I can usually give a balanced response.

In this case, I have an idle Sawtooth G4 that is too underpowered to run Tiger well, so I made a project of trying PPC Linux on it. Unfortunately, none of the major distros can cover all my bases - either they have trouble with my network, or they can't handle streaming media, or they have drivers missing. I continue to try out new ones as I become aware of them, so it has become a lot like playing golf - I may never be able to do everything I want, but I can always try to learn from my mistakes and improve a little more.

Otto Schlosser


At this point, I'm only trying LiveCDs. Ubuntu 8.0.4 didn't work with the three Macs I tried, but I'm currently downloading Ubuntu 6.06, Kubuntu 6.06, and Xubuntu 7.10 to see if I might have better luck with those versions. All I'm looking for is an operating system that will work properly without excessive fiddling and let me browse the Web.


Linux & *BSD on Older Machines

From Tom Buskey:

I've been using Linux, MacOS, Sun Unix since '92 or so. Pre web.

I ran Linux on my 486, but damned if I can find a halfway modern distribution for anything before a Pentium II.

I tried running Linux on a Sun Sparc system, but damned if I could find a modern distribution.

I once tried to run Linux on my Power Mac 7100 but got hung up on mklinux. And where is it now?

I once tried to get Gentoo on an iBook 800 MHz dual USB.

I run Fedora 9 on an AMD AM2 system and my Intel Dual core at work.

I run Ubuntu 8.04 on my P4m 2.4 GHz laptop.

I used to run Red Hat 6.2 on a P150 laptop.

I ran NetBSD on the 486, the Sparc and a IIcx.

I've run OpenBSD there as well.

The good news is that I can find recent builds of NetBSD/OpenBSD for the 486/Sparc/IIcx and probably the 7100. I'm convinced running recent Linux on anything other then fairly current x86 hardware is doomed to fail. The base supported hardware falls off eventually.

I've been looking for a Linux to run on a P166/32 MB/500 MB laptop to run as a picture frame. I suspect I'm going to have to go back to an old distribution.

If you want current security patches, you're going to have to run a BSD I suspect.

If you don't care, think of it like sticking with System 7.5.5

Caveat Linux

From John Muir:

Hi Dan,

Linux is something of a panacea. You have essentially limitless freedom to hack, and tinker, and trial and troubleshoot any way that you like. Great stuff. But then you realise you've been at it all day and scarcely made any progress. If you've really caught the bug, days are just the start of it.

With great power comes great responsibility.

When you run Linux you have to look after yourself. That is the fundamental difference. If software updates go bad, the cleanup is yours to do and can be very complicated. If hardware is unsupported by a community maintained driver, then you're out of luck. Don't forget the limited selection of commercial software. Not many people champion the open-source GIMP over Photoshop, though it is a much more even choice between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office.

Apple are a hardware company first and foremost. It's not their main interest that we can run our machines for many years beyond their purchase and warranties, as they really need to keep on selling systems. More than that: Apple prides itself on seamless user experience. The contrast with Linux is striking. Its openness and lack of centralisation results in a very different environment, further even than Windows from the integration of "it just works" that we are so used to.

Linux is a promising option for PowerPC Macs, as they are inevitably left behind by Apple. I've run the latest Ubuntu on my 867 MHz 12" PowerBook G4 - first from the Live CD and next from a partition on its upgraded 250 GB drive - and in most areas it is fully functional. But it certainly no longer feels like a Mac - until I've booted back into Leopard.

(Naturally, I've upgraded the RAM as high as it will go. There was a big difference between 640 and 1152 megabytes in Leopard which wasn't nearly as obvious back in Tiger. I've even been learning to code with the latest Xcode and iPhone SDK, which although unsupported on PowerPC do work for the most part on my mobile Mac. But it is definitely better to have an Intel desktop back at home for whenever my five-year-old machine's shortcomings catch up with me!)

You were right to frame the choice as between being left behind on a no longer current version of Mac OS X, or keeping up to date with Linux. That is definitely one way to look at it. Experience, however, tells me that there's more distance between the platforms than there is between each one's regular releases. Linux may be a good way to experiment with older hardware once it really is left out in the cold by Cupertino, but I think it's likely better to keep the system's last supported OS X handy as well, even if it is eventually forgotten by the latest software.

As I've often heard at Low End Mac: even when your Mac is finally unsupported by the latest OS X, it still does more now than it did the day you bought it. Overall, I think it's a good equation.

John Muir


Thanks for sharing your perspective. Yes, it's always been true that by the time a Mac is no longer supported, the last version of the Mac OS to run on it will make it much more capable machine than it was when it first came out - perhaps slower with all the extra functionality, but definitely more capable.

Apple and Linux are absolutely on opposite ends of the spectrum: Apple gives us the "it just works" experience and innovates. Linux provides a "we're working on it" experience with lots of rough edges as it mimics Unix, Windows, and the Mac OS to varying extents. It's an awesome undertaking, but there is the old adage about too many cooks....

Anyhow, good advice to keep a late version of the Mac OS on old Mac hardware alongside whatever Linux distro you want to work/play/experiment with.


Old Macs Not Up to the Modern Web

From Gary Kohl, following up on Left Behind by OS X:

Whether or not you are proposing a number of versions of OS X, I believe that that is how it would be perceived by the public. The differences between the versions of Vista I think do make for a relevant comparison. All use the Vista core, just as you are proposing using the OS X.5 core. The difference between the Basic and Premium versions is just what you are proposing for the Mac OS - turning off the fancy GUI. But all this gains you in the Windows world is the ability to run Vista on an XP level machine. I believe that turning off the eye candy in OS X.5 would gain only a similar increase in compatibility - you still would not be able to run it on a G3. The muscle in OS X gains you much more than the pretty interface - it's necessary for multimedia advances (think Core Audio and Video), for multiprocessor and multithreading functioning, etc. - the core of the OS is much more robust to cope with much more robust hardware and more demanding applications, not only to make things look pretty.

The very fact that Apple has taken computer out of its name is an indication of the importance of audio and video to the company. In pursuit of their presumed goal of multimedia dominance through iTunes, QuickTime, the iPod and Apple TV, they will be forced to continue to load the OS with power hungry features in support of these products (which are undeniably very important to their bottom line these days).

I also believe that this level of OS power is necessary even for mundane tasks such as the Internet. Flash and Java, along with streaming audio and video, have come to dominate so much of the Internet these days for most users that you need not only a modern processor but a modern video card and fast bus and memory architecture to cope. Compared to my Mac Pro, my 1.25 dual processor MDD runs Flash notably slower even with 1.25 GB of RAM and a 64 MB video card. Now it may be that you intend to use your classic Mac for sites which are primarily static in nature (such as LEM), but the truth is that the vast majority of Internet users are looking for those media rich features, and browsers will be programed to cope with them.

This is not the same Internet as 10 years ago, and the changes it has undergone will only accelerate. This is why I do think that the DVD/Betamax comparison is a valid one. We may still call them computers and refer to the Web as the Internet, but the changes in both have been so vast that their 10-year-old selves differ radically from their modern counterparts. Static web pages served to 56k modems then; streaming video and audio over DSL and Fios now. Glorified word processors and calculators then; content creation on even the most basic computer now (yes, I know I'm stretching the truth here, Macs have always been used for content creation - but for home use that wasn't their primary focus. Today, people see their computers as audio and video centers in a way that wasn't possible previously). Audio and video usage dominate the desktop today, and Apple has perceived this change better than any other computer company and has succeeded wildly because of it. I would argue that you would have to gut the OS of this type of functionality to get it to run on 10-year-old machines, not just reduce the GUI, and Apple has absolutely no incentive for doing that. It goes against every trend in the industry.

I do understand the desire for a modern browser for older machines because just last year I had to give someone one of my Macs so that they could run OS X to use modern browsing features. But I would bet that 95% of those users who might switch to some version of Linux to get a modern browser would come running back in short order. Linux doesn't "just work", and that's what Mac users are looking for and are used to. It does not do audio and video with ease. Even with Linux this is the new Internet, and the vast majority of people will want to use all of its features - and Linux doesn't make that easy. Getting Flash and Java and streaming audio and video to work under Linux can be a daunting task - not to mention no iTunes Store.

You don't have to have a new car to drive the expressway, but a 10-year-old car is not the same as a 10-year-old computer. Computer years are closer to dog years than human years, and unfortunately some folks want to drive a Model T on the Autobahn.

Thanks for the well thought out (as always) and articulate reply (wish I wrote so well). The great thing about LEM for me - beyond it being a great resource for my older equipment - is the way it makes me really think about the computing world. Much appreciation and continued success.

Gary Kohl


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, the nature of computing has changed. A dozen years ago, Apple made a big splash with its first PowerPC Performas, full-fledged multimedia powerhouses that could use CD-ROM based software, access the Internet, and capture and edit video. (See The Martinettis Bring Home a Computer, Apple's 30-minute infomercial from 1994, broken up into 1/2/3/4/5/6 segments on YouTube.)

We may damn the Performa 5200 and 6200 as the worst hardware designs in Macintosh history, but at the same time the introduced people to things that would be part of their futures - eWorld for connecting with others, importing and working with video, included multimedia software, etc. Nearly 15 years later we take all of that for granted.

Today we wonder how we can get better YouTube performance from an old G3 iMac - and we find that an older, less taxing version of Mac OS X (10.3.9) works better than the last version to support the G3 (10.4.x). And that you can fiddle with lower screen resolution and going to thousands of colors to smooth things out a bit. No, it's not perfect, but it's impressive what these old Macs are capable of.

Over 10 years time, we've gone from 200-300 MHz G3 Macs with a single CPU to dual-core iMacs running in the 2-3 GHz range. It's a huge leap in processing power, and nobody is going to say that these antiquated Macs are ideal for streaming video on the Web, but that doesn't mean they need to be retired. They're going to be great for word processing, spreadsheets, email, basic Web browsing, managing your iTunes library, storing your collection of digital photos, etc.

There are basically two options when you find a website your browser can't handle: upgrade your system or find a browser that can handle it. Our hope is that when your Mac running Jaguar, Panther, or Tiger runs out of Mac browser options, Linux will be able to provide access to up-to-date browsing technology on those old Macs. This would be helped vastly if the Mac/Linux community would work together and focus on a single distro or family of distros rather than being spread out over so many different PPC Linux projects.


Linux: Preparing for the Worst

From John Hatchett:

Loved your column about the use of Linux in older Macs. I have the same concerns about using PowerPCs with future versions of OS X. That's one of the reasons that I put Xubuntu on my Pismo. I want to be prepared, just in case.

You have started a interesting discussion, but I am in agreement. With Xubuntu, G3 Macs can still be useful computers.

In all probability, I will have to buy an Intel machine in the near future. I have some plans to mod an old Next Cube and put a mini in it. I figure that a mini is going to be the cheapest way to get an Intel Mac. Apple may be driving me to buying Intel, but I will try to do it on the cheap.


I see Linux on PPC as a way for preparing for the worst. At some point some technology is going to come along that isn't going to be supported on PowerPC Macs with Panther, Jaguar, or Tiger - but it will probably be available to Linux. If we can keep PPC Linux alive and well, we may not have to abandon our old Macs when that new technology arrives.


Ubuntu vs. Kubuntu vs. Xubuntu

From Jeffrey Kafer:


Not all Linux Distros follow the same model even though they share similar kernels (some patch their kernels and some use unpatched "vanilla" kernels) and GNU toolsets, they can have radically different installation and user experiences.

At one end of the spectrum are the meta-distros like Gentoo, that bend over backwards to make everything possible a choice. If you want custom, that's the way to go, but there is little or no default anything. Installation is for the patient, well informed, and well read. For example, Gentoo can be used with KDE, Gnome, Xfce, and numerous other window managers and desktop environments, but not one comes by default. You must choose one. Since the optimum method is to compile from source with kernel options, and compiler/optimization flags selected for your specific platform, one should expect several days or more to install the OS and some applications.

One the other hand are some streamlined Distros for x86 that basically provide you only one choice for everything, such as Zenwalk. Its not intended to be highly configurable; it is intended to work one way. Flexibility is sacrificed, but stability and performance are both very good.

Then there are the majority that are in between. They give you a default and permit you to change it. Ubuntu is that way. It provides the Gnome desktop environment, however you could change it to something else like KDE by using the provided tools to download and install the KDE package. However, if you really want Ubuntu with KDE, you can get Kubuntu and KDE is the default. If you want Ubuntu with Xfce, then you can get Xubuntu and Xfce is the default. There is even a Fluxbuntu for x86 that use the Fluxbox window manager by default. In other words, its the same thing bundled differently, trying to be easiest (works right out of the box) for the widest possible audience.

Of these, I prefer Xubuntu, which uses Xfce, simply because it is the most responsive of the bunch that I've tried. That said, I've tested a lot of Linux Distros for PPC Macs, and I've found every Linux distro more CPU and RAM demanding, including longer boot times, than Mac OS X. The only thing I've found less demanding than the current Mac OS, other than a previous Mac OS, is a *BSD variant running a light desktop like Window Maker.

Regarding desktop environments, I might characterize them as follows: KDE is the biggest, attempts to be the most integrated with itself and its K-Apps and perhaps the most Windows-like. Gnome is #2 of the big two in numerous ways, but I've found it to be a more enjoyable experience and more stable. I am a bigger fan of the smaller desktop environments and window managers like Xfce, Window Maker, and the like. I have never had any kind of performance issues or stability problems with the likes of those.

I may have misspoke in my earlier email. It was probably the Xubuntu version 8.04 for PPC that I was not able to find when I last looked. Judging by your lack of success with Ubuntu, perhaps I should consider my self lucky that I didn't find it.



I've downloaded Ubuntu 6.06 and Xubuntu 7.10 LiveCD images and burned them to disc. Doing the same with Kubuntu, but the download manager says that one is going to take hours. Next project will be trying these discs in the 400 MHz iMac.

I wish Apple would provide different desktop environments for those who don't need or don't really have the hardware for the latest and greatest GUI. Imagine a version of Leopard that could run a very simple GUI on servers and old Macs. It could emulate or simplify a lot of the fancy things Leopard does and make it more widely accessible. But Apple ties the desktop and core operating system together very tightly - and makes the bulk of its money from selling computers - so there's little incentive to do so.

That's one place where Linux gets it right - and even Vista, which degrades its GUI for older hardware.


Leopard/New iMac Nightmares

From John Campbell:

I'm surprised that my post actually received a response, but not really by the response itself. Actually I appreciate both yours and Mr. Lizarraga's responses. And although I am inclined to disagree with Lizarraga's conclusion and underlying message, he was very polite in his response. That being said, I do feel there is some questionable logic at play, especially with regard to who really is to blame in my situation (Is Apple, by default, infallible? Is any consumer electronics company?). Of course, I'm not really concerned with who is to blame. I would just like my product to work, at least as advertised, and if that expectation is too high then perhaps their commercials need to change to "It mostly works" or "It works if you buy the newest model with the OS preinstalled." It's not that I'm naive in believing that things will always just work (that's just stupid), but there is an underlying method and philosophy to Apple's strict integration [control] of their software and hardware. The fewer models available make it possible for them to test their reasonably software products on most available stock configurations. But if this philosophy falters, then there's no real functional advantage to buying Apple over building your own inexpensive OS X-compatible box.

On the subject of Firmware Updates:

Dan and Felix both mentioned the Firmware Update issue. Over the course of the two times I installed Leopard, the first time the Software Update dialog prompted an EFI firmware update. I followed the instructions to listen for the unusual tone and my firmware was then updated. I've actually run the firmware update twice just to make sure it was in place for the next install (although since its home is on the hardware, I was probably being over-cautious). I forgot to mention that I did this, but I guess since I assumed it was pretty much automatic during the install process, I neglected to include that information.

It's actually a good thing that Mac OS X alerts me of firmware updates... This is quite a switch from the Windows world, where most if not all of my PC's have gone almost their whole lives without BIOS and some driver updates.

On the relative obscurity of my problem:

I would expect that the number of people who actually have the 24-inch white iMac model isn't quite as large as those who have the 20-inch and 17-inch models. Perhaps this is a wild assumption on my part, but these other models are more affordable and in ampler supply. If I'm not mistaken, the 24-inch white iMac model was one of the later incarnations of that lineup before the aluminum editions came out and Tiger was the stock OS. Tiger on my iMac performed without a hitch, so I could see why there isn't a rush for these customers to run out and pick up a copy of Leopard. But I'm not the only one. Also, check the last post here on Apple's forums.

I think it's just a matter of the probability that results in my obscure situation:

  1. Who actually has the model I have?
  2. How many even care about running Leopard if their stock OS runs fine?
  3. How many are reporting the issue or discussing it?

I think I will move to Tiger for the time being, but I can't absolve a company of an error it is clearly responsible for. This is where I have to disagree with Felix's response. If it is a hardware issue, PC Connection didn't make the computer. They simply sold it. They didn't make the software, they just included it. While I don't have any problem holding them to customer satisfaction, I find it puzzling that people will find it more reasonable to blame a company that simply sells the product over one that actually designed and manufactured the product. This sort of apologist attitude is growing with Apple's fan base, and I think a healthy amount of criticism holds a company accountable, making it possible for us to be consumers and consumer advocates. If we allow our enthusiasm for Apple's aesthetics and innovation to prevent us from being critical of their missteps, then we do a disservice to each other because there will be no motivation for them to improve.

Some notes:

-I thought these lines were funny...

"It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that if a new computer is experiencing problems that none of your old machines is having, and that most people haven't even heard of, then the new computer should be the possible culprit."

-I thought my old computer was the culprit! Elementary, my dear Watson!

**cue bubble-pipe**

"Now, if he goes through the replacement process, say, twice, and all the machines suffer the same issues, then I say: Go blame Apple, snotty Apple fanatics, even smug-looking-for-hire Justin Long! But, as of now, I don't see any evidence of Leopard or Apple being responsible for Campbell's particular dilemma..."

-Replacement? Is it possible for the white iMacs? I don't dig the aluminum/glossy combo. They look slick, but my very well lit room could be a glare nightmare and I happen to like the white frame... it seems more 'Apple' than the newer iMacs. (But images do seem to 'pop' with richer contrast on the new glossy displays.)

-Apologies to Justin Long. I don't find his commercials nearly as annoying as many people have reported on these internets. If I buy Die Hard With A Vengeance on iTunes, will Mr. Long forgive me?


It's not an easy call when you upgrade both hardware and OS at the same time. Your best bet is to call the local Apple Store, assuming your are so blessed as to have one, and schedule an appointment with a genius. These guys (all the ones I've met thus far are male) know their stuff.

If that's not possible, your next recourse would be returning the product to PC Connection - not because they built it, but because they sold it to you. While Apple is ultimately responsible, the reseller acts as its agent in this kind of transaction.

Another possibility would be to find a local authorized Apple dealer or repair center.

But maybe you're lucky and it's just some weird interaction between your hardware and Leopard, and going to Tiger will give you a perfectly stable machine. You'd still want to figure out the problem, because at some point you may need to go to Leopard. (And it could be any part of the computer, such as a RAM module or hard drive that Apple bought from another company.)

Every company produces a klinker now and then - and every good company will stand behind its product until you are happy with it. I'm sure Apple will take care of things one way or another.

Let us know if Tiger works for you.


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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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