Installing Ubuntu 14.10 on a MacBook Air for Dummies

I am mostly happy with the 11″ MacBook Air (2013 model) as my primary workhorse. Even though it has its downsides (see previous blogpost), it mostly works reliably, has long battery life and is highly portable. What I don’t like at all, is MacOS (Yosemite is an improvement, but I still find it to be a highly inefficient and strangely restrictive system), so I decided to dual-boot with Ubuntu 14.10 for a while to see how that works out.

There are plenty of tutorials out there about installing  Ubuntu or other operating systems on a variety of older and newer MacBooks. I am not an engineer or technical person, but I have I would say above average Ubuntu and computer skills, but still I found the landscape of tutorials out there to be a bit lacking, and I think short of official guidelines from Canonical or anything, I want to try to condense the existing tutorial steps, distilling from all of them what – from reading all of them – turns out to be best practice.

Note: MacBook support in Ubuntu has improved drastically, even from 13.x to 14.x Ubuntu. At the same time, all new Macs run on fairly standard Intel hardware, so compatibility issues are also mostly out of the way (exceptions below). You should know however that there are drawbacks when using Ubuntu rather than MacOS. It’s just better optimized for this hardware, at least right now.

So this tutorial will explain in fairly layman’s terms how to: install Ubuntu 14.10 alongside MacOS Yosemite on a 2013 MacBook Air 11″, instructions will likely apply to similar models.

Preparations:

  1. Download Ubuntu 14.10 amd64 (Desktop, 64 bit) here and create a bootable Ubuntu USB medium (follow these instructions)
  2. Backup your files (please also backup the downloaded Ubuntu .iso file as such, I will explain why later)
  3. Optional: create a MacOS Yosemite recovery medium (follow these instructions) if you want to be on the safe side

Step 1: Partition your hard drive

The harddisk utility in Yosemite is not the greatest, but this is fairly straight forward. Please note you will only be able to create a partition for Ubuntu from free drive space, so I highly recommend cleaning up your MacOS installation well in order to maximize free disk space.

Note: This is by far the biggest issue I have encountered – I was unable to partition my harddrive. Even after undoing the logical volume setup, I was still unable to create a partition. What did the trick for me was booting into recovery mode and verifying and repairing the disk from there, and then using the disk utility there to resize the partition.
Then what you’re going to do is create one partition for /boot and one for a swap file which should be at least as large as your RAM. Optionally, create one for your /home folder.

Step 2: Installation of Bootmanager rEFInd

To dual boot and switch OSs most conveniently, we’ll install rEFInd boot manager, which has a graphical UI and works without a problem, unlike MacOS‘ own boot manager, which won’t help us enough. Go to the rEFInd page, download the package, unpack, and from the terminal, execute the install.sh script. Very straightforward, if in doubt consult the installation instructions at their page.

You should do a quick restart to confirm rEFInd was properly set up. Your Mac will boo with a nice menu that gives you various options.

Step 3: Install Ubuntu

This is the easiest part. However, it can get tricky. If you reboot and have your Ubuntu USB plugged in, rEFInd will let you boot into that live Ubuntu, and you can „try Ubuntu“ and go online with it (you really should connect to the internet before installing). Then click „install“ Ubuntu, follow the steps. It will ask you to erase the disk (you will lose everything), or do „something else“ (this is what we’ll do), which will open the partition manager. Locate the previously set up partition and assign it to mount at / and use ext4, pick the smaller partition you created and assign it to be „swap“. That’s it. If you want to be fancier, you could have one partition mount to /home to use as separate home directory. Then click install and wait for it to finish, restart and you’re done.

Step 4: Fix WiFi issues

Now boot into Ubuntu. Remember I told you to also back up the Ubuntu .iso file you downloaded? To fix WiFi we are now going to add this .iso as a software source (the driver is included there), and then install the proprietary Broadcom WiFi driver from there, to get you online (unless you want to use some form of wired internet connection, then go directly to „additional drivers“ and activate the Broadcom WiFi driver).

It took me a while to figure this out. Just ignore all the forum topics out there. It is so much simpler:

All we need to do is tell the software sources settings that if we activate the Ubuntu 14.10 „CD“ as a software source, it should actually open the .iso file. To do that, open a terminal and assign the iso file to the /media/cdrom mount point with „sudo mount /pathtotheiso /media/cdrom“ then in software sources make sure the CD software source is checked in the first tab. Now refresh and go into additional drivers, you should see the Broadcom driver which you can now install, as it will pull the driver from the iso.

Once your WiFi works, connect, and go to software updates, update and install all upgrades you can get. You’re all set. I would recommend to hold off on anything else, and do a complete update of all stuff first before you go into setting up Ubuntu for yourself.

Notes and conclusion

Aside from the WiFi fix (which could vanish should Canonical decide to auto-detect and install the right driver there, as it does when you try Ubuntu from the USB directly), and the yet lack of fully tested support for Thunderbolt (mini display port functionality works), Ubuntu looks great on the Mac already. There are some reports about switched key bindings, and problems with the touch pad. The touch pad works, also multi gesture, but it is not as flawless and snappy as in MacOS. The biggest drawback to date is the fan noise and the heat. I am sure though that someone is working on a kernel fix to get that under control. However, Ubuntu has those problems with other hardware as well.

I hope this helps, enjoy the freedom of Ubuntu on a Mac!

Sources:

I scoured tons of message boards and read a variety of tutorials, but I want to name these few, which I thought were the most helpful in my quest. The rest of my experiences is pieced together from cross-checking message boards and Googling some aspects.

Sebastian

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