How to try out Linux on an aging Mac

Don't junk your old Mac hardware just because it can no longer get new software updates. Get some new life in your old Macs with the GNU/Linux operating system! We'll show you how to "try it before you buy it" so to speak to see how a specific version of GNU/Linux, Ubuntu, will run on your aging Mac.

Why bother trying GNU/Linux on your Mac?

I have a late 2010 MacBook Air. It's not as fast or as optically pretty as my 5K iMac nor my iPad Pro for that matter. I do, however, use it daily. I'm writing this article on it. As old as it is, it's "good enough" for what I use it for and I still prefer the keyboard on it to the one on more modern MacBooks.

My MacBook Air just made the cutoff for being compatible with the newly released macOS High Sierra. I'm happy to know that for at least one more year, I'll be able to get the latest and greatest doodads, bells and whistles, and more importantly, I'll get the latest security updates (good thing too as while I'll write this, we've just found out that WPA2 has been cracked and clients will need to be updated with security patches).

However, Apple at one point will deem this well working, useful, good-enough MacBook Air as unworthy of any more updates. And as I understand the reasons why my venerable MacBook Air can't be supported indefinitely, I still find it to be wasteful that a decent-enough, capable, and not to mention still functioning computer be put to pasture because of lack of software updates.

This is where GNU/Linux comes in. GNU/Linux is a free and open source operating system very similar in many respects to the under-pinnings of macOS. It comes with modern networking capabilities, web browsers, and content creation tools. Not only is it known to run well with older hardware, but you will also get many years of software and security updates that you'd likely miss out on if you were to remain on a macOS-only installation.

See how well Ubuntu Linux runs on your Mac

You needn't throw out the baby with the bathwater and wipe your old Mac's hard drive clean before trying it out. All you need is a USB drive of a least 2GB in size and an internet connection to get started. Here's how to do it.

Get your USB drive ready

  1. Backup your Mac.
  2. Launch Disk Utility.
  3. Attach your USB key to your Mac.
  4. Select your External USB device from the list of volumes. (BE VERY CERTAIN YOU SELECT THE PROPER DEVICE).

  1. Click Erase to format your USB key.
  2. Name your USB key.
  3. Select MS-DOS (FAT) as the type of Format you wish to perform.
  4. Click Erase.

Download the Ubuntu Linux installation file.

  1. Go to the Ubuntu website.
  2. Click Ubuntu Desktop.
  3. Select the Ubuntu Linux version your prefer. If you want longterm support and stability, select Ubuntu LTS (recommended). If you prefer the latest software bells and whistles, select the non LTS Ubuntu.
  4. Download the file.

Prepare your USB key to run Ubuntu Linux

We now need to make the USB drive capable of booting Ubuntu Linux with special software. Ubuntu recommends using Etcher.

  1. Go to the Etcher website.
  2. Download Etcher for macOS.
  3. Install Etcher by double clicking the .dmg file you downloaded.
  4. Launch Etcher.
  5. Select the ubuntu install file known as an Image.
  6. Choose the USB drive you prepared with Select Drive.
  7. Click Flash to start the process.

Try Ubuntu Linux!

You're now ready to try Ubuntu linux by booting off of your newly created bootable USB key drive.

  1. Leave your USB Key installed into a USB port on your Mac.
  2. Click on the Apple Icon at the top left of your menu bar.
  3. Select Restart.
  4. When you hear the familiar "Bing" sound press and hold the alt/option key.
  5. You'll see the "Startup Manager" and you can now select to boot from the EFI Boot disk.
  6. Select Try Ubuntu Without Installing.
  7. Tap Enter.
  8. Ubuntu Linux will now boot up!

You'll be able to connect to Wi-Fi, browse the web, write up an article (or anything else you may want to do) without making any permanent changes to your existing hard drive. See how much you like it and you can eventually install Ubuntu side by side with your macOS install or go full bore with a Linux only installation (tutorials coming later).

What do you do with your old hardware?

I get a real kick out of repurposing old technology with new abilities. I really value the longevity of a computer system that can still run modern software. If I can keep it going beyond it's expected lifespan, I'm a happy camper. What's your take? What do you do with your old hardware? Let us know in the comments!

Anthony Casella
14 Comments
  • This is a great article, I want to get an old 13in and try this. Wonder how the battery life is!
  • There's a response about battery life by n8ter#AC below, it wasn't attached as a reply to this post so I thought I'd let you know
  • Battery is likely to be much worse than macOS or Windows, because the driver quality is in disparity. I tried a lot of different Linux distros on my "burner" laptop and ended up putting Windows 10 back on it. The battery life with Linux was pretty horrible. If your device gets decent battery life already, then it may still be "usable" with Linux, but I generally found power management, graphics drivers, etc. to be worse than macOS and Windows (in many cases, F/OSS drivers on Linux vs. 1st party drivers kept up to date on the latter platforms). Apart from that, I do feel like you can live on Linux quite well if you're willing to take a bit of a hit to software quality (if you use only F/OSS on macOS/Windows, this will be a non-issue). However, it's a hard pill to swallow when you already own the better software on those other platforms...
  • Not to mention sleep and wake issues. That being said, my 2011 MacBook Air gets bad battery life now as it is on macOS (because of the age of the battery) so being bad under Linux is moot in my instance.
  • I recently put Unbuntu 14 on a 2007 Black MacBook and then did an upgrade to 16 which is the current Long term support version. I can say it does 2 things: makes use of an aging Mac that's otherwise in great shape, and gives you modern browsers and software. I was able to put dropbox, slack, and with the Unbuntu app store, find a decent twitter client in Corebird. With a 13 inch screeen it is sometimes nicer to browse the web than my 11 air. The install is pretty straightforward and Unbuntu is fairly easy to use. Each version gets a little more streamlined as well. As a Mac user, of course i want to keep my Macs on the OS for as long as I can, but at some point, the software falls too far behind. Nice article Anthony.
  • Great to hear you make use of your 2007 MacBook!
  • If anyone here is actually considering loading Linux onto an older machine and still wants the MacOS look, please do yourself a favor and use Elementary OS. It's gorgeous, at least by Linux standards, and it can replicate the MacOS feel quite well. Especially on old Apple hardware. It's built on Ubuntu and they update it with fixes and features quite often. And support is great too if you run into any issues. Have been using Elementary on my Mid 2012 MBP13 for over a year now and it runs super smooth. A little hiccup every once in a blue but overall feels like I'm using a brand new notebook.
  • Thank you for this. I just want to confirm that the Elementary OS installer image file can be substituted for the the Ubuntu image file. And yes it looks great!
  • Elementary is pretty barren for usability, but great for elderly relatives you're repurposing a computer to. It tries to copy the macOS user experience, but completely missed on replicating the power. You end up with a UX that looks kinda good, but is lacking obvious ways to perform basic functions you're used to using on your Mac.
  • Depends what you mean by usability, I assume you mean of OS functions, given that it has access to all the programs Ubuntu does. Another thing to bare in mind, is that Elementary OS is still at an early stage. Development started 6 years ago, but they're on version 0.4.1. They're considered stable releases as they go through testing, but they're not indicative of the final build (which would be 1.0.0), and whenever it gets there, it will most likely have the usability you want
  • "Oh cool, I didn't know PowerPC Linux was still available" I thought, as I opened the article... good tutorial, in any case. I guess my concept of "Old Computer" is older than I thought.
  • It’s been a while since it’s I’ve used it but you could take a look at www.fixstars.com. They are the current maintainers of YellowDog Linux which runs on Power7 and PowerPC. Be certain to report back on how it goes!
  • I'm sure there are still PowerPC distros out there, a big part of the Linux community is supporting old computers.
  • Im a mostly mac consultant, but have built many win pcs also. I recycle older rigs all the time, but lately I need a personal cloud for client off-site backups. So, I'm using linux on older rigs, and some new big 4tb drives. Of course I started with ubuntu. It's fine but not near as fast as I expected. I have seen it now on all sorts of hardware. Now I am trying the new Zen-Arch installer, which has easy GUI. Youtube has a number of videos about it. Very hot at the moment. I picked the lxde desktop. Lightning. I'm not kidding. Like you just went from mech HD (ubuntu) to SSD (arch-lxde). I just made a USB installer and it seems to go right in any machine I try. So nice to leave both the MS and OS performance and BS behind. :) Even safer than Mac on the web too. I feel off the leash!