Linux on the Low End

The Ins and Outs of Booting Linux on the Mac

- 2006.07.31

Some Macs need extra help booting Linux. Here's the how and why of booting Linux on different Macs.

I've received some emails (below) about this, so I thought I would post a quick article to explain how and why Linux boots on different type of Macs.

Unfortunately, "Old World" Macs cannot boot a Linux install CD. Due to the way that Open Firmware 1.x & 2.x work, the Mac must have the Classic Mac OS installed (not OS X). It only needs to be a very basic installation that includes any extensions for an installed processor upgrade's backside cache.

Once the Mac OS is running, the BootX program is used to reboot the system into Linux. Whenever you shutdown Linux or reboot your Mac, the Mac OS will start, and then you have to use BootX to start Linux once again.

The "New World" boot loader, yaboot, doesn't yet have support for Old World Macs. (Although this is in the works, it's not ready - and unfortunately may never be ready. More on that when I get the info.)

"Old World" Macs are any Macs with beige colored cases (and usually PCI expansion slots). This includes all the pre-G3 PowerPC machines and the PowerBook G3 "Kanga", the G3 Wallstreet Series I and Series II, and the original Beige G3s.

This doesn't include NuBus Power Macs, because while they have a PowerPC processor, they don't have an Open Firmware BIOS. Support for these machines is limited due to the lack of Open Firmware and lack of drivers for some of the hardware.

The NetBSD Project has a bootloader called "quik" that will boot an "Old World" Mac directly without having the Mac OS installed. "quik" is also able to boot Linux. However, it's not very easy to set up due to some issues with the way Open Firmware was implemented on many of the "Old World" Macs. I'll eventually cover installing NetBSD and will go over using "quik" at that time.

"New World" Macs started with the colored iMacs and include all the Power Macs since the Blue & White G3s and the Lombard PowerBooks. These machines are able to boot a Linux install CD directly and are able to boot directly into Linux. They don't have to have the Mac OS installed.

Most Linux distributions available for the PowerPC support the "New World" Macs.

Intel Macs have limited support for Linux, but this is something that will improve as the machines mature. Someone had Linux running on the new MacBook Pros before Windows was up and running on them.

Since Low End Mac is more about older Macs, I will probably not be covering these machines (unless I end up getting one, which is unlikely anytime soon).

The primary video card in you're Mac must have an Open Firmware BIOS on it. However, once Linux has started, most PC-based PCI cards will be recognized by Linux and can be usable even if they are not usable with the Mac OS.

I apologize for not going over this sooner, and I hope that this clears things up. I will be posting a list of which Linux Distributions support which types of Macs and the major features of each distro soon.

Linux on the Low End Mailbag

Problem Booting Ubuntu LiveCD

From Dan Palka:

I tried using an Ubuntu LiveCD for PowerPC on my G4-upgraded 8600, but it just ignored it completely. My PowerBook G4 and iMac G3 booted from the Ubuntu CD fine, though.

Any ideas?


Hi Dan. The problem is that the "Old World" Macs cannot boot a Linux CD. You'll have to get the BootX program from here:

The program has to be run from Classic Mac OS. It will not run from OS X.

You'll also have to copy the appropriate kernel and initrd files onto the Mac OS hard drive. The yaboot boot loader that is used on the "New World" Macs will not work on your 8600.

I have been in contact with someone who will hopefully be rewriting yaboot to work with the "Old World" Macs, but this hasn't happened yet. Further, there are some issues with the Open Firmware in those Macs, which you can get more info on from the NetBSD Support Page.

My next article will deal with how to obtain and install BootX and how to get the Linus installer up and running. It will also go over how (and why) to set up your hard drive for Linux. It should be up on Wednesday. I'll be going over openSuSE v10.0, but I'm planning to do a review/install of Ubuntu soon.

Toying with PPC Linux

From James Taylor:


I just thought I'd drop a line to let you know how informative and helpful your article is (and will be, as I see it's an ongoing set), and I look forward to more information as you progress.

I have an aging G4/733 (well, it's not that aging), and I have been toying with the idea for quite some time of converting it to Linux. I still use OS X on my main G5 machine (but in the future, even this machine might become Linux as PPC becomes a memory in Apple's lineup). Your series is going to be the impetus for me to give Linux a go on PPC. (I have used Linux off and on in the PC realm since downloading the 30 or so floppy images for Slackware 0.99 back in college. I never got X working, but it was a great console-based connection to the school's Unix machines. We used SLiRP to fake a connection to the HPUX boxes via modems.)

I flirted with Windows for a time, but I recently donated my last Windows machine to a woman whose HP died. Now all my PCs are Linux ("sort of" servers), and my Macs are my primary computers. (I am a software engineer by profession, so I tend to have an entirely too high machine-to-person ratio.)

Anyway, thanks again for the article.


Hi James. Thanx for the praise.

Right now I'm working on helping people install Linux onto the "Old World" machines, because they require a little more work in order to them to get them running properly. I'm going to cover the "New World" machines soon.

It's easier to get Linux installed and running on them, but there are still some other considerations for them compared to installing Linux on a PC. Most Linux distributions offer more support for the "New World" machines with Yellow Dog Linux being a PowerPC only distro.

The only computers I run Windows on are really old machines with very little RAM. LEM

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