Ubuntu on a Macbook Pro

I’m not abandoning Mac OS X, but you knew it had to happen—I have installed Ubuntu on the Macbook Pro as a dual-boot. It hasn’t been easy, mind you. Previously, I had done a few dual-boot setups with Ubuntu and Windows or Ubuntu and some other Linux distro or even Ubuntu and an older version of Ubuntu. Ubuntu on a Macbook Pro is a totally different experience.

So first I went to the Ubuntu wiki to find out if it was worth my time. According to the Macbook Pro 3,1 page, everything works pretty much out of the box with Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx). That was encouraging. Then I read up the generic Apple Intel installation instructions. They didn’t sound too complicated. Install rEFIt, repartition the hard drive, install Ubuntu in the new partitioned space. Easy, right? Well, not so easy. Here are a few bumps I encountered along the way:

  • rEFIt didn’t install correctly. After you install it, you should reboot and see the rEFIt menu. No menu. So I had to do some digging and found out there is a script you can run in the terminal to sort of reinstall rEFIt.
  • I couldn’t resize my hard drive through Disk Utility or BootCamp. Both failed, claiming there wasn’t enough free space, even though there was plenty (at least 70 GB after I backed up my files to an external hard drive and deleted them, planning to copy them back later). So, believe it or not, I took the hours to completely reinstall Mac OS X from scratch and then repartition the drive.
  • Since Ubuntu can’t reliably write to HFS+, I put my music, pictures, etc. on a shared FAT32 partition. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t really dig that. If I try to skip to the next song, I get about five seconds of the rainbow circle of death before the next song will actually play. The symlinks from the FAT32 partition also broke at first, too, because initially it was mounted as /Volumes/Storage but then it suddenly became /Volumes/STORAGE. After fixing everything to point to the upper-case mount point, the links appear to be working again.
  • Ubuntu would not install the first five times I tried. That’s right. I tried five times. It kept failing in the middle of the installation, claiming the CD was bad or the CD drive was bad or the laptop was too hot. All of those things could have been true to some degree. The CD had a little bit of dirt on it, which I tried to clean off but couldn’t get completely clean. The CD drive was definitely bad. In OS X it was pretty good at reading commercially produced CDs and DVDs but would sometimes reject homebrews (it would spin and try to read for a minute or two and then just spit the disc out). Also, unlike my wife’s new Macbook Pro, this old MBP overheats like nobody’s business. You could probably fry an egg on it. Eventually, I did something that worked, and I’m not sure which part of it did it. I turned the computer off for the night (let it cool down completely). Then I immediately booted it up and while Ubuntu was installing, I never left it alone. I played gBrainy. I looked in the file browser. I changed various settings. I didn’t let the CD rest and give up. So I don’t know if it was having it cool or constantly engaging the live CD session, but eventually Ubuntu did get installed.
  • I installed the Nvidia driver, but then Hardware Drivers instructed me to use a more recent driver. After that, suspend didn’t resume. But then I removed the old driver and rebooted, and resume from suspend worked fine, as did Compiz.
  • The touchpad works extremely well for two-finger scrolling, but the touch sensitivity is a bit much (and can’t be adjusted, as far as I can tell), so I have to be careful not to tap the touchpad accidentally when trying to scroll; otherwise, I end up clicking. If I turn off tapping to click, then I can’t right-click by tapping down two fingers. A bit annoying.
  • Control is a rather small key on the Mac keyboard, but for most navigation it’s used more often than the Cmd key (the Super key, for all intents and purposes). The key placement is a bit odd when you’re used to coming from Mac OS X or even from a regular Windows keyboard. Takes a bit of getting used to.
  • I thought Skype was broken, but it wasn’t. I set my account to offline instead of invisible, and apparently if you’re offline you can’t do the Skype test call (it just fails immediately). I didn’t know that, so I was trying all these crazy fixes like uninstalling PulseAudio or whatever. Turns out it just works fine if you’re invisible or online.
  • The Picasa from the Google repositories is broken with the latest Lucid kernel. If you download the .deb straight from Google, though, it works just fine.
  • I had a 32-bit Ubuntu CD already, so I didn’t really want to bother downloading 64-bit Ubuntu to take advantage of all 4 GB of RAM (and waste another blank CD, since Macs can’t boot from USB). I guess that would have been interesting to try, but 32-bit works quite snappily with only a bit more than 3 GB of RAM being recognized.

Overall, I have to say Ubuntu works quite well on a Mac. I think it even runs a bit cooler, too (still very hot but maybe not hot enough to fry an egg on). My plan is to keep playing around with both (sometimes boot into OS X, sometimes boot into Ubuntu). With a FAT32 partition for files, I have that luxury, except that I will have to be in OS X to import into iTunes and iPhoto—Rhythmbox and Picasa on Ubuntu will automatically watch folders for new files.


  1. Did you have any problems with the keyboard and mouse randomly hanging? The problem was so bad I couldn’t even use Ubuntu much and went back to OS X.

  2. I will be interested to see how this works out for you, long term. I have been looking into buying a used MBP, although I would probably do a clean install rather than dual-boot.

  3. You can keep OS X on an external hard drive and install the firmware updates via USB/Firewire.

  4. “since Macs can’t boot from USB”

    Intel Macs (and a few earlier PowerPC Macs also I believe) can boot from USB, at least to the Mac OS (assuming it’s a version that will run that model). I don’t know if a Mac will boot from a Linux OS via USB, but I would guess it ought to.

  5. This may be too late, but i THINK Mac OS can read from JFS partitions, so you may want to use that instead of FAT32 for your itunes folder.. I think i remember my sister’s macbook running on JFS volumes.

  6. Oops.. forgot to include this little tidbit. If you’re not uncomfortable with trying out Fedora, you can boot Fedora from a USB on Macs. The Fedora DVD releases include an EFI boot USB image that can be dd’d onto a usb.

    In addition, you will not have to burn a DVD, after you boot into the USB stick, you’ll be able to install either through NFS or http.. On your machine with the ISO, just mount the ISO and point the installer to the NFS export etc.

  7. I’m wondering if this is still an issue, I want to create a 30G OSX partition, a 30G Linux partition and then have the rest be FAT32 so they can both read/write to it. I plan on having my Dropbox on there, and all of my Music files, so I’m wondering if iTunes is still going to have issues with that? Googling is only pointing to ways to use iTunes between OSX/Windows successfully, but that’s not my issue. Thanks.

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