The 2007 plastic MacBook lives again with Mint-y Linux awesomeness
All technology eventually goes the way of the Dodo. A very appropriate phrase for what I am about to describe because the Dodo while perfectly adapted to survive in its environment was hunted to extinction much like the Core 2 duo MacBooks from 2007.
The TLDR for this post is that Linux is still extremely performant on old hardware and thanks to Mac “plist” tricks that helped me get my SuperDrive working, amazing open tools like Refind and the fantastic “iso” modifying script from Matt Gadient, I could get Linux Mint from Linux Format issue 233 DVD running on this old hardware.
I had multiple motivations for this resurrection: My topmost motivation was to re-experience how seamlessly this hardware had performed back when it was running Mac OSX 10.7.5. Typically, I spend most of my time in the terminal (iTerm2/Terminal), a code IDE ( Sublime Text or Pycharm), 8–12 open tabs of google chrome and 1–2 PDFs from my Dropbox account open in Preview. For more than a year now, I was tired of this measly combination of Apps leading to constant beach-balling on my 2017 MacBook Pro-Retina with touch-bar 1TB SSD and OS X High-Sierra (despite having16 GB of RAM). The fact that I had noticed this on two separate 2017–2018 Macbook Pros told me that like others had hinted on the web, this was not specific to my setup.
My second motivation was to get the newest Google chrome running on this “old” hardware. Although equipped with a 64-bit capable Core2 Duo CPU, in classic Apple(and then Google) fashion, it stopped allowing OS updates on this CPU and eventually Google chrome stopped updating since the OS version was no longer supported. As a 20+ year Linux enthusiast, I wanted to get Linux working on this old hardware and then see if the newest Chrome would be usable on this machine. My final motivation was to have a laptop testbed for the awesome DVDs that came with my monthly Linux Format subscription. Something about getting a new DVD every month to poke around with just made it seem like it was the 1990s again: not to mention how after Canonical dumped Unity, I was really curious how the new Gnome centric 64 bit distros stacked up on this ancient hardware.
The Journey begins: Quite a few posts had recommended an external DVD to be better to boot off on most old Macs. Some people had gotten a linux install to work from a USB key, but I figured I would go the “easier” route and just pop in the Linux Format DVD instead of making bootable USBs. I quickly realized that the built in-combo drive on this plastic Macbook had croaked ages ago and I had also gotten rid of my third party USB DVD-ROM ( with the DVDs and owning one of these I feel doubly ancient!!). Thankfully I had an apple made Superdrive handy, and in near pristine condition. However, I immediately ran into a roadblock because Macs with built in Combo Drives won’t support external Apple SuperDrives. Apple had probably decided that this was a bad idea ( I wonder what their motivation was). The drive would not show up in DiskUtil not even accept my install DVD. Fortunately, my Google-fu was good on that day and thanks to this excellent post, I could drop into the Recovery mode and set a plist switch to enable booting off this external USB-DVD device.
Once I did that, the superdrive did show up in DiskUtilities and did accept my LinuxFormat DVD. Holding down “option/Alt” after a reboot, it showed the bootable DVD with an EFI-label, but never ever booted into the Linux Format menu ( or GRUB). I tried to hold down “C” to get it to boot directly from the DVD, but it immediately went to booting of the Macintosh HD. Some more googling and I imagined it was a boot loader issue and decided to try and install the excellent Refind boot manager.
Refind is a super easy to use boot manager!. With just one ./refind-install invocation and a reboot, I could get the refind boot manager to start booting my DVD ( or so I thought). I quickly realized that there was something fundamentally different with the DVDs that Linux Format and other default isos from distributions distribute. They were all made for 64 bit EFI firmwares or dual Bios-UEFI/EFI-64 bit firmware. If this is all gobbledegook to you…it still is to me!
After some poking around I realized that this EFI mismatch of having both Bios and EFI on the DVD boot information confused the hell out of this old Macbook EFI firmware. This was manifested in the DVD “booting” for a few seconds and then the Keyboard goes dead and it asks you to “Select CD-ROM Boot Type”. This was however co-incident with the keyboard being dead, and even hacks where you hit “1” and enter after you pick the DVD as a boot source in the Refind menu did not work for me.
EFI, UEFI, 32-bit EFI and modern distro DVDs: I had never spent the time to understand what motivated the move to UEFI/EFI vs Bios. I know it was a security feature from manufacturers wanting to lock things down. After some reading, I realized that this MacBook from 2007 probably had a 32 bit EFI firmware on a 64 bit CPU machine.
Some quick googling then brought me to the most amazing effort from a game programmer and Linux enthusiast Matt Gadient . A page full of “Linux DVD images (and how-to) for 32-bit EFI Macs (late 2006 models)” . I quickly proceeded to download and install the Fedora 26 Workstation Live (64-bit Mac) — 1.5 GB and was thrilled to get past the Refind and start booting Fedora. This was indeed awesome, proving that my Linux Format DVD probably had to be modified the same way that Matt Gadient had modified all the distro iso’s.
Matt’s website had the download for the c code that strips complex Bios/EFI combos to just Bios’s that I then proceeded to download. As a next step, I downloaded the Linux Format 233 DVD iso and then ran it through the script, just as the instructions said.
Finally I burnt the modified iso to disk and rebooted the machine. First Refind was able to quickly show me a boot menu with the DVD boot option. Once I clicked the “Penguin with the DVD at its feet” icon, GRUB loaded up I was able to get the LXF233DVD menu to show right up!
Installing Linux Mint: From here on I was in familiar territory. I tested the Live DVD to make sure the Wifi and graphics worked. I even installed Google Chrome, and it worked perfectly! So much for this being old hardware that Apple and Google didnt want me wasting my time with Chrome on :-).
I then booted back into Mac OS X and formatted my HDD to have two partitions. One with all of my Mac stuff and the other which I formatted with ExFAT ( wouldnt have mattered). Here, I have to give Apple credit. Having played around with LVM in Linux. Re-partitioning the Mac HD with Disk Utilities was such a breeze! and so much better a user experience than the alphabet soup of LVM commands to resize an LVM volume.
Popping back in my “Bios-ified” LXF233 DVD , I then proceeded with the install. I had a bried hiccup with the disk partitioning. Where I had to pick the cutomized partition option. I then picked my Ex-Fat partition, and clicked “minus/-” below in the UI. This converted it into “free space”, which I then clicked and after a few “+” options I added a biosgrub , swap and root volume formatted as ext4 as shown below.
I was thrilled to see the “Install Now” light up.Also importantly, the excellent Linux Mint installer recommended I create the biosgrub partition and swap space and picked the right disk for “boot loader installation” as shown above.
The installation was super quick! I then rebooted. Picked the Penguin with the HardDisk at its foot that said “Boot Linux (Legacy) from whole Disk Volume” and was booting into Linux Mint from the Linux Format DVD.
Whats Awesome is that Linux Mint on this old hardware is extremely performant. I am able to use the latest Google Chrome, watch Youtube and even write this post on the resurrected plastic Macbook from 2007.
Heres to Dodos walking the earth again!