Installing Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic) on an external FW drive for a Mac G4 PPC

Before you do anything that is described in this post, please make sure you have backed up all your data, even if you install it on an unused hard drive. Because it is not guaranteed that this installing of a new OS on your PPC Mac is not going to go wrong, or that you may not inadvertently choose a wrong menu item somewhere and overwrite the existing OS X partition… If it does go wrong there is no use in appealing to me because apart from providing a shoulder to cry on, there is not much I can do to help: if Linux overwrites your data, it is well and truly gone! In other words: try at your own risk.

On some days I just need to geek out a bit. My long years working in IT have left me with the affliction of spasmodic bouts of computer-tinkering-virus. Yesterday was such a day. Luckily I always find some vague justification for spending a day just tinkering with bits and bytes. The justification for this session was the fact that I am uncertain about the way Apple is doing things lately. Yes they still build the sweetest hardware and yes they still run the best OS out of the box but their way of controlling what they sell is beginning to show megalomaniac tendencies. I can stand control when it is done for the sake of stability of the system. The iPod – iTunes tie in is fine with me because it gives me a system that works and performs when I want it to. However the way Apple is censoring the App store is ridiculous. Even some big developers are stepping away from iPhone app development because they can not be certain whether their app is going to be allowed into the hallowed virtual halls of the app store or if their application is going to be denounced on some very silly grounds (like a dictionary that was refused because it contained dirty words…).

So my reason for tinkering with my Mac this time was to see if there is an alternative to OS X. And before Steve Job’s underlings send me a take-down notice: The OS is not on my computer, it is on an external firewire drive. So as far as I know no EULA’s were broken. The computer still runs the OS it is supposed to run, legally bought and I’ve got both the box and the receipts to prove it. I’m just testing here!

The alternative OS to run was of course some flavour of Linux as no version of windows runs on PPC and even if it did I would not taint my Mac with it. As my Mac is a venerable old Power PC Mac – a mirror door, Firewire 800 dual G4 1.25 to be more precise – it was by no means obvious that an easily installable solution would be available. Although development in the Linux world tends to not follow trends that strictly, so that older computers are in no way obsolete when it comes to Linux, I have had some mixed results in the past when my computer was more current than it is now. So a couple of years later, what were my chances? Well, pretty good it turned out. Here’s a quick look at how I did it. For more details, how-to’s and niggly bits just google “linux ppc mac” and you are well on your way to a fount of knowledge that is almost limitless.

First things first: find the OS. While googling I found two OS’s that I had worked with before that did offer PPC distributions: Debian and Ubuntu. I downloaded both distro’s but decided to install Ubuntu because I had the most recent experience with it. The Ubuntu PPC version is maintained by the community and as such stands apart from the Ubuntu mother ship. However Ubuntu does offer room on their forums and space on their hard disks to host the distro’s. I downloaded the Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala Mac (PowerPC) desktop CD. This is a bootable CD that runs Linux from the CD so no installation necessary. This is great to test it out on your system and then decide whether you want to install it on a more permanent basis, for which you can use the same CD. The iso-file can be downloaded here:

http://cdimage.ubuntu.com/ports/releases/9.10/release/

The first hurdle I came up against was the fact that the iso (image) file was bigger than would fit on a CD. I tried burning it with Toast and I tried it with OS X’s hard disk utility, both gave me the same error: the image file is too big for the medium. A hunt through the forums didn’t help much. Many people came up against this issue but no one really provided me with a solution (and yes I did try to burn it as an iso file, not as data). But as I hardly use optical media anymore – it’s all USB sticks and the cloud these days – I had some spare rewrite-able DVD’s lying around that were doing nothing so I decided to burn the image on one of those.

After the burn I booted up the Mac with the DVD in the drive and the ‘C’ key pressed to boot from whatever was in the optical drive (btw. click on the pictures for a larger view):

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

After a long while, after all DVD is not the quickest of media, I had a black desktop (to which issue I will return later). Apart from the black and empty desktop all looked fine and I could click and operate menus and on the whole, Ubuntu seemed to work. And to my surprise at full resolution of 1680 x 1050 pixels. The video drivers had been the bane of my previous Linux on PPC experiments.

These results were encouraging enough for me to go on and try to install Ubuntu on a spare fire wire hard drive. All you have to do for that is click the “Install Ubuntu 9.10″ icon on the desktop. However, my desktop was black and showed no icons. Luckily the UI was responding to my actions so I just went to “Places” and clicked on “Desktop”:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

And there it was: the “Install” icon. Double click it and the installation begins by asking you a few questions:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Now this is an important one!!! The choice of hard disk to put the OS on. There are all kinds of complicated terminal tricks to find out which drive is which but I am much more cavalier in my approach. I knew the sizes of my drives and I made my choice based on that. Also, the installer clearly states what system is on the drive – the sentence “This will erase Mac OS X on this drive!” gave me a pretty strong hint that I should leave that drive well alone if I were to create a dual boot Mac. The other choices I had were pretty easy to distinguish between. One was USB, one was only 160Gb while I knew my external was a 250 Gb so by a process of elimination I came to the right drive. Also, the interface indicated on this drive was SCSI2 while the other (internal) drives were marked as IDE. Another hint that I had selected the external drive. In the past I had used the trick of disconnecting any drives I really did not want to harm, which is quite possible as you are booting of the CD. However I did not feel like crawling under my desk and opening up my Mac that day so I took the educated-guess-route. Whatever you decide to do at this stage: don’t come crying to me, it’s your decision. Once Linux is on the disk, the stuff that was there before is G O N E !

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Then there remained the matter of creating a user (remember the password you put in here, you need it to log into Ubuntu later on!!!):

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

And the installation was under way. I went downstairs and had a meal. I have no idea how long it took precisely and that will depend largely on the system you put it on but don’t expect to be up and running in a couple of minutes.

After the installation was finished the moment of truth arrived. Would it work? The trick to multi boot a Mac is actually very easy, as long as the Mac can find the disks you put the other systems on: you hold down the Alt/option key while booting:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

And after a while a screen shows up where you can make your choice:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Now, I’ve read some tales of woe about the Mac not finding the fire wire drive and having to go the open firmware route to find the drive and boot from it. Luckily I was spared this as booting with the option key pressed found the fire wire drive just fine. Again, Google is your friend if such issues pester you.

After some automatic updates (nothing too dramatic) the OS was ready to go. Albeit with a black desktop that showed no icons. Not very helpful in a graphical user interface, right? So I headed to the forums. The issue was known on ATI Radeon video cards. Especially on ancient ones like my 64 Mb 9000 pro. The simplest solution was switching off all fancy graphical user interface adornments. Not something I minded too much, as this system was mainly a test of usability of the OS and not a test of how good it looked. I switched it off. Here’s how:

First go to the system menu item in the menu bar on the top of the screen, there choose ‘preferences’ and then ‘appearance’. Then click on the ‘Visual Effects’ tab:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

There you will see that ‘Normal’ is selected. Select ‘None’ and immediately the desktop appears in all its orange glory.

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

This is the standard Ubuntu theme and suits me very well for now but many other themes are provided. Again go to ‘System-Preferences-Appearance’ and now you can change the look of your Ubuntu environment by selecting the ‘Theme’ tab and the ‘Background’ tab.

Music and film plays a large role in my computer use so the multimedia capabilities of a machine need to be up to scratch somewhat. When I tried some audio and video, the sound came stuttering out of the headphones. That was no good to me as I often listen to music while working on my computer. So off I headed to the forums yet again. And again these came to my rescue very quickly. In the process of looking for answers I decided to install VLC as an alternative to the standard Ubuntu media player. I like VLC and it runs on anything that has an operating system. So here goes:

To install new software on an Ubuntu machine you can use the ‘Synaptic Package Manager’. You can find it by clicking on the ‘System’ menu and then choose ‘Administration’:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Let Synaptic do its thing for a while and then you are presented with this interface:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

In the search bar I typed VLC and hey presto, there it was. Now when you select VLC, Synaptic comes up with a dialog box that asks you what you want to do with it. Click on ‘Mark for installation’ and your done. Or almost done; with some programs, Ubuntu needs a few extra packages to make the program run. This was the case with VLC. Synaptic does this automatically and all you have to do is confirm that these extra packages are OK to install.

After the installation of VLC, I started the program which can be found in ‘Applications – Audio and Video’. I went into its preferences to change the audio driver it uses to get rid of the stuttering audio. Here’s how:

Click on ‘Tools’ in the VLC menu:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Then choose ‘Preferences’ from the menu that pops up:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

In the preference pane click the ‘Audio’ button:

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

Under the header ‘Output’ click on ‘Type’ and select the ‘UNIX OSS audio output’. This is the one that got rid of my audio stuttering. Your experience may vary. You can experiment with the various drivers a bit and see what works best for you.

From Ubuntu on PPC Mac

That’s it. Ubuntu is now running on my PowerPC G4 Mac with hardly any hassle at all. Linux is getting more and more install-friendly and the early days in which I spent days trying to get peripherals running on PC’s, typing my fingers bare on many worded sentences on the command line are gone. Granted, for some packages that have not found their way into your particular distro’s repository you still need to do the “./configure – make – make install” routine (as I found out installing Tor, which did not have a PPC compiled version) but as more and more of our work gets done in the cloud, many of our apps run in the browser anyway. I am beginning to think that installing Linux as an alternative to OS X or Windows is easy to do for the slightly more adventurous as opposed to just for the die hard geeks for whom it used to be the OS of choice. It is still not as easy as bunging in the OS X DVD and let the Mac take over but the ease of installing Linux has come a long, long way! I am beginning to warm to the penguin again.

5 gedachten over “Installing Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic) on an external FW drive for a Mac G4 PPC

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  3. natgab

    Great article. I have been running the reverse, made a image of my Mac OS 10.5 and moved it to my firewire HD. And then I loaded Ubuntu 9.04. I think more people need to be told that the open firmware will let you dual boot. Very good way of letting people test Ubuntu without removing Mac OS X.

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  5. J.C.

    I bet your internal optical drives quit working.

    A problem after 9.04

    That is still with us at 11.4

    J.C.

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