How do I install and set up Linux on a Mac?
Linux is an interesting and slightly less well-known operating system - although Macworld's tech-savvy readers are likely to know at least a little about it. In the dual world of Windows vs Apple, Linux sits off to one side, powering serious servers and being used by software developers.
There are lots of great reasons to be interested in Linux. Like Mac macOS it has a heritage with Unix (or at least a Unix clone called GNU). Some Linux desktops, like Ubuntu Unity, are similar in nature to the Aqua user interface (the one used in macOS).
Linux is also incredibly versatile, designed to run on everything from mobile phones up to supercomputers. This makes it ideal for installing on older computers, such as the old Polycarbonate MacBooks. These won't even run the latest version of Mac OS X, let alone macOS. But they will run an up-to-date version of Ubuntu Linux without breaking a sweat.
Linux is loved by developers, and for good reason. If you're into coding it can be great to move into Linux. It turns out that macOS is (in many ways) better than Windows for software development, but Linux is even more comfortable to work in.
Its open-source nature ensures that code is freely shared, and programs and solutions are often just an "apt" away (don't worry, you'll learn what apt is later).
Apple Macs make great Linux machines. You can install it on any Mac with an Intel processor and if you stick to one of the bigger versions, you'll have little trouble with the installation process.
Get this: you can even install Ubuntu Linux on a PowerPC Mac (the old type using G5 processors). And we're not talking about an old version of Linux. We're talking about Ubuntu 16.04 (or even the latest Beta of 16.10). Both are available as PowerPC image files thanks to some pretty active community support and demand to use old G5 Macs as servers.
You can even run Linux on an M1 Mac!
How to install Linux on a Mac: Which version of Linux to pick
The first thing you need to know is that there are different versions of Linux around. These are known as "distributions" and each offers a different experience. Which one you pick depends on what kind of experience you want. Here are some to choose from:
- Ubuntu. This is the most popular choice for beginners, and it uses a desktop interface called Unity, which is very similar to macOS. It's probably the best place to start.
- Linux Mint. This has made waves recently, and is a great alternative to Ubuntu. You can pick a range of desktops (Cinnamon or MATE are the most popular). While Unity feels like OS X, Mint feels a little more like Windows.
- Kubuntu. This blends the Ubuntu version of Linux with a different desktop called KDE Plasma. The desktop is generally considered to be more powerful, and certainly has a lot more features.
- Debian. It's a bit more complex to setup than Ubuntu or Mint. But Debian offers a lot of features and is used widely in server software.
- Fedora. This tends to be at the cutting edge of technology and you'll often find features here that make there way into other distributions (and even macOS) down the line. Crashes a lot though and isn't great for beginners.
We'd suggest you start with Ubuntu, but it's pretty easy to install all different versions of Linux and there's nothing stopping you from trying out all three (and more) before settling on the one you want.
How to install Linux on a Mac: Use virtualisation software
By far the best way to install Linux on a Mac is to use virtualisation software, such as VirtualBox or Parallels Desktop. Because Linux is capable of running on old hardware, it's usually perfectly fine running inside OS X in a virtual environment.
VirtualBox is a free environment, although Parallels Desktop is more powerful and an easier installation, so we'd advise using Parallels Desktop for Mac first. A free 14-day trial is available from Parallels.com. Follow these steps to install Linux on a Mac using Parallels Desktop.
- Download a Linux distribution file and save it to your Downloads folder. The file will have an ".iso" extension. Click here if you want to download Ubuntu.
- Open Parallels Desktop and choose File > New.
- Choose Install Windows or another OS from a DVD or image file. Click Continue.
- Parallels automatically finds all the compatible ISO files on your system. Highlight Ubuntu Linux (or the one you want to install) and click Continue.
- Fill out the Full Name, User Name, Password and Verify Password fields. Click Continue.
- The virtualisation file will be saved in your Users folder by default. Click Location if you want to change it, otherwise just click Continue.
Parallels will install Linux inside the virtual environment. Click it in the Parallels Desktop Control Center to start using it.
How to install Linux on a Mac: Replacing OS X/macOS with Linux
Running Linux inside a virtual environment is all well and good, but if you're a more seasoned Linux user you may want to replace OS X completely and run just Linux. If so, you'll free up more of the computer's resources and get a great Linux machine.
Installing Linux on a Mac isn't quite as straightforward as installing it on an older Windows machine, and you need to make a few tweaks in the installation process. You'll need a USB Thumb stick (with at least 8GB of spare space). You will also lose your macOS/OS X installation (we don't recommend trying to dual-boot OS X and Linux, because they use different filesystems and there are many reported problems).
Be warned that you'll also lose your OS X Recovery Partition, so returning to OS X or macOS can be a more long-winded process, but we have instructions here on how to cope with this: How to restore a Mac without a recovery partition
Here's how to go about installing Linux on a Mac:
- Download your Linux distribution to the Mac. We recommend Ubuntu 16.04.4 LTS if this is your first Linux install. Save the file to your Downloads folder.
- Download and install an app called Etcher from Etcher.io. This will be used to copy the Linux install .ISO file to your USB drive.
- Open Etcher and click the Settings icon in the top-right. Place a tick in Unsafe Mode and click Yes, Continue. Then Click Back.
- Click Select Image. Choose ubuntu-16.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso (or the image you downloaded in Step 1).
- Insert your USB Thumb Drive. A reminder that the US Flash drive will be erased during this installation process. Make sure you've got nothing you want on it.
- Click Change under Select Drive. Look carefully and pick the drive that matches your USB Thumb Drive in size. It should be /dev/disk1 if you only have a single hard drive in your Mac. Or /dev/disk2, /dev/disk3 and so on (if you have more drives attached). Do not pick /dev/disk0. That's your hard drive. Pick /dev/disk0 and you'll wipe your macOS hard drive You've been warned!
- Click Flash! Wait for the iso file to be copied to the USB Flash Drive.
- Remove the USB Flash Drive from your Mac.
- Shut down the Mac you want to install Linux on and attach the USB stick.
- Power up the Mac while holding down the Option key.
- Choose the EFI Boot option from the startup screen and press Return.
- You will see a black and white screen with options to Try Ubuntu and Install Ubuntu. Don't choose either yet, press "e" to edit the boot entry.
- Edit the line that begins with Linux and place the word "nomodeset" after "quiet splash". The whole line should read: "linux /casper/vmlinuz.efi file=/cdrom/preseed/ubuntu.seed boot=casper quiet splash nomodeset --. (See screenshot, below.)
- Press F10.
- Ubuntu boots into trial mode.
- Double-click the icon marked "Install Ubuntu".
- Select English and choose Continue.
- Select "Install this third-party software" option and click Continue.
- Click Yes to the /dev/sdb alert.
- Select "Erase disk and install Ubuntu" and click Continue.
- Ensure that Select Drive is displaying the main hard drive. Click Install Now. Click Continue in the alert window.
- Select your location on the map and click Continue.
- Choosing your keyboard layout and click Continue.
- Enter the name and password you want to use.
- Click Continue and Linux will begin installing.
- When the installation has finished, you can log in using the name and password you chose during installation.
Above: Step 12
When you install Linux on your Mac, it removes all of the OS X installation including the recovery partition. If you want to reinstall OS X, you'll have to create an OS X recovery disk using the thumb stick.
And that's all for now. If you think running Linux on a Mac is impressive, by the way, wait until you hear about the 16-year-old who installed Linux on an iPhone 7.