Revive a PowerPC Mac Running Linux

4 minute read
| Deep Dive

I’m about to show you how to turn that old Mac hardware you have into something useful. It doesn’t matter if it’s an ancient PowerBook G4 or a slightly more recent model of MacBook. Just because it can’t run the latest and greatest version of macOS doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to put it out to pasture. In this article, I’ll show you how you can revive a PowerPC Mac running Linux, like I’m doing on the PowerBook G4 I’m using to write this article.

Revive your PowerPC Mac running Linux

Merge Tux and that old, tattered PowerPC Mac, and create something beautiful (Image Credit: Gergely)

The Trouble With Old Hardware

The main challenge you’ll run into with older hardware is that Apple considers it obsolete and stops supporting it. When that happens, you might think you’re out of luck and need to retire what used to be an excellent machine. However, I’m here to tell you that even a 2005 PowerBook G4 can still run modern operating systems, with some TLC and tinkering. I was able to revive that PowerPC Mac running Linux.

My current build is running Lubuntu, a lightweight flavor of Ubuntu. The beauty here is that PowerPC is still alive, well, and fairly well supported.

What Can You Do With Older Hardware?

Curious what you might be able to accomplish with a PowerPC-based laptop? Here’s what I’ve been able to accomplish so far, since I revived my PowerBook G4 and brought it up-to-date with a Lubuntu installation.

  • Write Markdown documents using Remarkable, a very excellent Markdown editor
  • Create and edit Word documents and Excel spreadsheets using LibreOffice
  • Surf the web
  • Handle email tasks
  • Create web pages
  • Much, much more

Getting the Revival on for Your PowerPC Mac Running Linux

What you need to get started depends on what type of optical drive you have in your G4- or G5-based PowerBook or Mac. If you have a DVD drive, you can simply burn the ISO image of Lubuntu 16.04 to a disk and start that way. My PowerBook G4 has a CD-R/W drive, though. Because of this, I had to create USB install media.

Assuming you’re fortunate enough to be able to boot from a DVD, it’s really simple. Just burn the ISO to a blank DVD, insert it into your PowerBook or other PowerPC-based Mac, and press the “C” key while the computer boots up.

My DVD Drive Doesn’t Work, Though

If you are comfortable with Terminal on your newer Mac, this is still pretty simple. Heck, even if you aren’t comfortable, the job can be done. Here are the steps you need to take.

  1. Take note of what the filename is for your ISO image of Lubuntu 16.04..
  2. Insert your USB Flash Drive.
  3. In Terminal, find out the device ID for your USB Flash drive. Type this command into Terminal:
    diskutil list
  4. Look for the name of the USB flash drive, and remember what it’s called. It should be something like /dev/disk2s3.
  5. Now, we’re going to unmount the USB flash drive so we can work directly with it in Terminal. Do this by typing this command in Terminal, replacing disk2s3 with the device identifier for your USB flash drive:
    diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk2s3
  6. Once that step completes, it will be time to create the USB flash drive installer you need to start installing Linux.

Creating a USB Installer for Lubuntu

You’ve got your USB flash drive prepped, and you know what to call it. Go ahead and issue this command in Terminal to create the USB installer drive. Change “lubuntu.iso” to the proper filename, and be sure to use your disk identifier in the of= parameter.

dd if="/Users/[username]/Downloads/lubuntu.iso" of=/dev/disk2 bs=1m

It’ll take a few moments (or longer) to complete. Once done, you’ll be ready to insert the USB installer into your PowerPC-based computer and boot from the stick. This part isn’t so easy.

Using OpenFirmware to Find Your USB Installer

Many PowerBooks and other PowerPC-based Macs use OpenFirmware, allowing you to boot from devices that don’t show up otherwise. This is how you might do a net boot, for instance, or boot from a USB drive. Note that not all PowerPC-based Macs support this, but most do.

To get into OpenFirmware, you’ll need to reboot your PowerPC-based Mac. When you hear the startup chime, make sure you’re pressing and holding Command-Option-O-F. Keep holding those four keys down until you see the OpenFirmware prompt.

Now, find out if your USB disk has shown up. Type this at the prompt:

dev / ls

Look through the list of devices for an entry like usb0, usb@1b,1, etc. Hopefully, one of them will have disk@1 beneath it. If not, type this at the prompt:

probe-usb

Now you should see the right USB device. Take note of what it’s called, then type this:

devalias

This gives you a list of aliases for the devices. Find the one matching your USB device (usb0, usb@1b,1, etc).

Booting Your PowerPC Mac Into the USB Linux Installation

Finally, type this to boot from that device. Replace usb0 with the actual device alias you found previously.

boot usb0/disk:3,yaboot

Once it boots up, which could take some time, simply follow the instructions to get your PowerPC Mac up and running using Linux. I won’t go into the finer details of partitioning the disk, since the assumption here is that your installed version of OS X is too dated for you to want to keep it.

If that doesn’t work out, you might consider a netinstall of Linux. In a future article, I’ll outline how you can go about doing that.

If you want to see first-hand the PowerBook G4 running Linux and you’re attending MacStock July 15 and 16, find me. I’ll be happy to show off my Frankenstein’s monster of technology.

4 Comments Add a comment

  1. leeeoooooo

    Whatever happened to the Black Lab and Yellow Lab Linux that ran on these when the PowerPC was still new?

    Linux has always been the best way to revive ‘obsolete’ hardware. I was running it on 386s when everyone else had started buying Pentiums.

    I still run a full install of the bleeding-edge “current” release of Slackware Linux on my old Asus EeePC 2G Surf (from back when netbooks were new) ever since the Knoppix Linux it came with stopped working right. Added a fast, fat SD card and I have all the room I need. The 256M of RAM is a bit tight. I can’t run KDE and Facebook always crashes, but as long as I don’t do those two things (xfce works fine) I have a wonderful busy box that fits in my jacket pocket!

  2. cubefan

    One of the other great things old Macs do well is boot from a Firewire drive, even a drive in another machine.
    I installed OS X Tiger from a DVD to a Clamshell Macbook [Indigo Blue] that only had a CDROM.

    Another option is BSD Unix on a PowerPC – since OS X’s roots are in BSD Unix they play really well together.

    With a Mac, you can.

  3. SLHoldout

    As useful and well-written as this article is, it has an incorrect assumption: namely, that support for old Macs will continue in Linux. In fact, 32-bit PowerPC support is going away in most flavors of Linux, especially ones that are based on upstream Debian (see http://tenfourfox.blogspot.com/2016/11/debian-drops-powerpc.html). This affects Ubuntu and all of its various flavors, for starters, as well as Mint. I believe that the only Linux distro with 32-bit support that will be left is Gentoo; while well-documented, Gentoo is not for the faint of heart.

    PowerPC support still exists in NetBSD, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD.

  4. Jeff Butts

    Good point, SLHoldout. PowerPC support (at least, 32-bit PPC support) is going away in Debian. With that said, the process should be the same for the BSD flavors. I chose Linux for this particular project because I thought that’s what most of the readers would be familiar with, aside from the BSD underpinnings in OS X. I’ll do a BSD install and either update this article, or publish a new one, outlining that procedure.

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