The Low End Mac Mailbag

Linux Is Also Leaving PPC Macs Behind, Jumping Ship for Intel, and Hardware Problems

Dan Knight - 2008.06.05 - Tip Jar

Second Thoughts on Linux for PPC Macs

From Jeffrey Kafer:

Dan,

Your point of using Linux on a low-end Mac to stay current certainly sounds appealing. However, I think it is harder to actually do in practice, and the number of choices available for PPC Linux is diminishing quickly . . . perhaps suggesting that the problem will be more difficult in the future. Yellow Dog Linux, who is the only distro that I know of that specializes in PPC Linux, has already discontinued support for G3s. Gentoo, who also has strong Mac PPC support, has significantly fewer PPC apps in Portage than they do for x86. In other words, you cannot stay "current" on PPC with everything that Gentoo offers for x86. Ubuntu and her KDE and Xfce sisters have already discontinued PPC as an officially supported platform, relegating it to a community-supported distribution. Hardy Heron (8.04) is out for x86, but I can't even find a PPC .iso to download yet. Several other major Linux distros no longer offer their current releases for PPC (e.g. Mandrake/Mandriva), and an even greater number never did and likely never will. It's not that there is not a future for Linux on low-end Macs, but at the moment it appears to be getting dimmer, not growing more bright.

Although I do use Linux, I am not a big fan of Linux when there is a *BSD alternative available. FreeBSD is available for PPC, but it is a "Second Tier" platform. OpenBSD does not have exactly as much support for PPC Macs as for x86, but it is a good choice if one happens to be a security nut and can tolerate its quirks. Fortunately, NetBSD's support for Mac PPC appears to be as strong as it ever was, and it appears to still be growing. All three major *BSD distros support Mac PPC in one form or another, and all but one of the three support it nearly as well as x86 - and without a G3 cutoff. Linux can make no such claims. I think the future for *BSD on PPC Mac may be somewhat more encouraging than Linux on PPC.

Nonetheless, I would not choose either *BSD or Linux over a Mac running the current Mac OS, or even one version earlier than current. In other words, I find that the total experience of using the most current PPC Linux or *BSD for PPC is not quite comparable to using the previous generation Mac OS (e.g. 10.4.11 today), but usually better than using an older one like 10.3.9. I use both *BSD and Linux to supplement my Mac experience today; not replace it. But given the diminishing nature of Linux for PPC, the question remains at to whether I will prefer the future version of PPC Linux or *BSD for PPC on a G4 laptop or G5 desktop over 10.5 when 10.7 finally arrives. Only time will tell.

Regards,
Jeffrey

Jeffrey,

I have to admit that I'm absolutely sold on the Mac OS. I've worked with Ubuntu on a PC notebook: It worked, but it paled compared to OS X.

For people who need to use an up-to-date browser, whether that's for banking or YouTube or something in between, anything older than Mac OS X 10.2 just isn't going to cut it - and you're pushing with 10.2.8. For Macs with no 10.3 support, Linux could be a real alternative to replacing the hardware. For Macs that can run Tiger, at present there are a multitude of up-to-date browsers, and I expect that to be the case for a few years minimum.

The flip side of the "Linux/BSD instead of an outdated version of the Mac OS" argument is the multiplicity of distros. There are several versions of BSD Unix and far more versions of Linux. And then there are the GUI shells: KDE vs. Gnome and all that. If anything is going to prevent these *nix variants from having the impact they could, it's the multiplicity of options. There is no single Linux or BSD, but Mac OS X 10.4 and Windows XP are what they are.

It's amazing what the Open Source community can do - and a shame that they can't all work together on really making something terrific. Instead some work on BSD, some on Linux, some on Gnome, some on KDE, some on Ubuntu, some on Red Hat, etc. Not only would this provide the potential to create something truly awesome, it would also mean a much larger PowerPC developer community rather than them being divided among so many different distros and projects.

Low End Mac has had writers promoting Linux on Macs since at least 2000, when Eric DeStefano put LinuxPPC on his SuperMac S900. We've had quite a range of writers share their Linux-on-Mac experiences, but eventually they either lose interest in the project or see no need to continue writing about it. Linux is a minority operating system, and the Mac is a minority hardware platform, so there isn't a huge Mac-Linux community. On the other hand, when we do publish articles about Linux, they pull in quite a few readers, and there are enough PPC Mac users to keep development of PPC Linux and BSD going.

Dan

Which Linux for PPC Macs?

From Faisal Ali:

Mr. Knight,

I recently read your article titled "Left Behind by Mac OS X or Up to Date with Linux?" and was wondering if you might suggest a good flavor of Linux for use on an old G4 iMac. Basically, I'd like to try out Linux, but I don't want to have to tweak things too much. I've heard of Ubuntu, which is supposed to be ready to go "out of the box" so to speak, but it appears they no longer support PPC architectures. Any suggestions?

Thank you for your time.

Faisal Ali

Faisal,

There are over a dozen distros that support "New World" (1998-2005) PowerPC Macs, including Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, openSUSE, Slackintosh, and Yellow Dog. The major exception is Ubuntu Linux for PowerPC, which has been "community supported" since version 6.10.

Although I've used Ubuntu Linux on a PC, I haven't tried any Linux distro on Macintosh hardware. I've sent a note to our staff asking any of them with Linux experience to share their discoveries. Some columns you might want to look at until then:

Dan

Linux Leaving Older Macs Behind?

From Chris Kilner:

Dan:

It's not only Apple that is leaving the PPC platform behind - Linux is sorta doing the same thing. Old World Macs haven't been able to run a recent kernel in years. Most distros, especially the lightweight ones like Zenwalk, DSL (Damn Small Linux), Puppy Linux, etc. don't have a PPC version. Others clearly eschew the Mac and try to be XP-like, such as PCLinuxOS.

If you look at the most common Linux distro, Ubuntu, they officially stopped supporting the PPC with version 6.x - i.e., you won't find a link to a PPC version on the official Ubuntu (or Kubuntu or Edbuntu or Xubuntu) download sites - if you want to run the latest 8.0.4 "Hardy Heron," you need to look to the unofficial ports: http://cdimage.ubuntu.com/ports/releases/hardy/release/

While distrowatch.com lists 26 "active" PPC versions of Linux, the most recent PPC versions for many of these date from the 2004-2006 era when Apple was still building PPC hardware. Even PPC versions that are up-to-date aren't necessarily supporting older Mac hardware - for example, Yellow Dog v6 doesn't officially support G3s and has some audio and sleep problems with many G4 portables.

The majority of Mac users without Linux experience will want a mature, up-to-date desktop version (further narrowing the field to Ubuntu, Debian-GNU, Yellow Dog, or openSUSE) and will probably want a Live CD version to test things out first, which I believe are only offered by Ubuntu and openSUSE.

I've installed Ubuntu and Xubuntu (Fiesty and Gutsy via Live CD and Alternate install) on Macs and PCs - while it was slightly easier than getting OS X 10.2 installed on a PowerBook 3400, it was a far cry from what most Mac users are used to from Apple system installs. I ultimately found Panther and Tiger to be better on the older G3 hardware. However, like you, I hope that Linux continues to be developed on the PPC so that when Apple abandons the platform, Linux will be a viable alternative for up-to-date computing on PPC Macs. As it is, Ubuntu 8.0.4 will have long-term support for security updates until 2011, so it will be supported a little longer than Apple will probably support Tiger.

Peace,
Chris Kilner

Chris,

Thanks for writing. The whole Linux thing is more than a little confusing, and every attempt to simplify things seems to bring just one more distro to the table. Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu - what's the difference? Why choose one over the other?

One of the nice things about Linux is the number of Live CD images you can download, burn to CD, and try before you decide whether you want to install it. As I write this, I'm downloading the 8.04 Ubuntu Live CD for PowerPC, which I hope to try on a G3 iMac, G4 eMac, and my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. Then I'll finally have some hands-on experience with Linux on Mac hardware. [UPDATE: Booting from the Live CD resulted in a 400 MHz iMac that shut itself down, a Power Mac G4 with unsupported video (the stock card), and an eMac that showed the Ubuntu logo, flashed a message about wireless, and then gave me a black screen. This does not bode well.]

Linux and BSD are great ways to repurpose old hardware and keep it from becoming obsolete. If they can make installation as easy as Windows and the Mac OS, they'll have eliminated a big obstacle to their wider use.

Dan

Left Behind by OS X

From Gary Kohl:

Wow, I thought Microsoft confused people with their 7 (or however many it was) versions of Vista. What you are proposing would lead to absolute confusion in the Mac community as people tried to figure out which of umpteen versions of OS X they needed to use. I think anything more complex than a single version with functions that the user can choose to turn off (and thereby use on older equipment) would create worse user head-scratching than figuring out which version of Vista is which.

Older Macs can continue to run all the software they have always run. To expect any more after a period of years is to ignore the realities of software development and the evolution of the Internet. Software always requires more horsepower as it evolves - this is not Apple's fault. The Internet continues to add richer and richer multimedia functionality - again, not Apple's fault. At some point the older Macs simply won't be able to deal with the current state of the application environment. This may be unfortunate, as thanks to Apple building machines that last seemingly forever one would wish to continue to use them as one always has. But sooner or later it's time to realize that old machine needs to be repurposed. Quit complaining about what the machine can't do and find a new use for it. After 10 years those still using machines that shipped with OS 9 have more than gotten their money's worth out of the equipment. My 9-year-old Yikes machine has been upgraded to run OS X reasonably well, and works great as an Internet/email machine - plus it still runs OS 9 games. But I don't expect it to do any more than that - just like I didn't expect my Betamax to play DVDs nor my record player to play CDs.

As someone who has used numerous versions of Linux dating back to MKLinux in the late 90s, I doubt very many Mac users would put up with even the most recent, more user friendly versions of Linux. No version of the many I have tried comes anywhere close to being able to simply boot up after installation and allow the user the ease of the Mac. Frustration with networking, printing, drivers, etc. still continues even in the latest, greatest Linux distros. And any Mac user would be appalled at the state of consumer audio and video applications in Linux. There are lots of them, they're free, and they suck. And the clear trend, as Linux tries and tries to conquer the desktop, is to add more of the same GUI complexity as the Mac and Windows - and as a result of the extra horsepower needed, those old Macs can no longer run it than they can 10.6.

So I recommend that we continue to enjoy old Macs for what they can do, not get frustrated with what they can't. Apple either slows down the pace of innovation and we all use our machines forever until Apple goes out of business, or they continue to innovate and we realize the day will come when it's time to buy a new machine.

Gary,

What I was proposing was not a number of versions of Mac OS X, but a version of Mac OS X that would let the user decide whether the Panther, Tiger, or Leopard user interface better meets their needs on the hardware they have. There's really nothing in the core 10.5 operating system that can't function on a G3 Mac - it's all the extras like a 3D Dock that demand G4 horesepower. Since the Finder is just an application, why not allow users to choose less demanding Finders if the Leopard UI overwhelms their otherwise adequate hardware?

For some types of work, particularly video, raw computing power is very important, and for that hardware, an OS like Leopard isn't a problem. But for the most common tasks - email, word processing, using a browser - the hardware simply doesn't need to be that powerful, but by coupling the Leopard UI with the underlying operating system, there's no way to run Leopard-only software on those old Macs even if they don't require all the bells and whistles of the new GUI.

It's not a matter of trying to play DVDs in a Betamax or Blu-ray in a DVD player; it's more like being able to listen to today's CDs on a 10-year-old CD player. We just want to access today's Internet using a modern, up-to-date browser after Apple leaves us behind without buying a new computer, and we can't even count on the open source community to keep supporting old versions of the Mac OS. It's either buy a new computer or switch to Linux.

I don't have to have a new car to drive on the expressway, and I shouldn't need a relatively new computer to use the Internet. I realize that the Web is a moving target, and that's why we need up-to-date browsers even if our computers may seem outdated. If we can't have that with older versions of OS X (which is bound to happen someday), Linux will give us access to the latest version of Firefox. It may not be as use friendly or easy to install, but it will provide an option for keeping our low-end Macs on the modern Internet after Apple leaves us behind.

Dan

Your Latest Piece Is Inappropriate

From Philip Ershler:

Dan, I am very disappointed that you are railing at Apple based on some very questionable rumors. This piece is not up to your usual standards.

Phil

Phil,

The article dealt with two realities: 1) at some point, perhaps 10.6, Apple is going to drop PowerPC support, and 2) at some point up-to-date browsers and other software won't be available to those using older versions of the Mac OS. There's nothing inappropriate about that or about speculating as to when we can expect Apple to eliminate PPC support in OS X.

The gist of the article is that while Apple will eventually leave older Mac hardware behind, Linux provides an alternative - a free operating system that's constantly being updated with a wealth of free, open source, up-to-date software. It's not OS X, but for those with old hardware who need, say, a fully up-to-date browser but don't have one for their version of the Mac OS.

I think the whole thing is very appropriate to our audience, as it is a reality they will inevitably have to face if they keep their older Macs.

Dan

Jumping Ship for Intel?

From Michael Gimeson:

I give it to Apple for fixing the iSub, and not only that it seem they fix that issue that the iSub had to be turn up a lot for any bass to come out.

I have been reading how people are starting to get ready in a few years to jump ship to Intel chips as PowerPCs ship starts to sink. The need for more power has drove the consumer to the store for a faster PC, but at what point does all this power make no sense for someone who does basic thing on their computers? I find it pointless for people who have a nice setup at this point to upgrade to an Intel Mac for just the point of speed or eye candy, but then again there are people who like that crap. At least Apple is giving it user a choice, unlike Microsoft, which is the reason I made the leap to Apple. I'll be staying with my old friend a Power Mac G4 DA Dual 533 MHz until the bitter end. To that point, your site (Low End Mac) has helped me keep my old friend running in top shape.

Thank You!

Michael,

The goal behind Low End Mac has always been to help people get the most value out of their Macs, particularly older ones. As long as your Mac meets your needs, there is no need to replace it.

Of course, that doesn't put much money in Apple's pockets, so they keep building powerful new features into the operating system, which increases hardware requirements, and then release software that requires that version of the OS. In this way Apple hopes to entice you into buying a new Mac every few years - or at least a new version of Mac OS X and your favorite apps.

As long as your Mac meets your needs, keep using it. If you reach the point where you need more power or a program it can't run, that's when it's time to move forward and pick up a newer Mac - and the market in used PowerPC Macs is going to be solid for several years, so maybe you'll find a Power Mac G5 with two or four cores will meet your needs - and for a lot less money than a Mac Pro.

There are legitimate reasons for going Intel, and they involve the need for more raw power (digital video, for instance) or the need to run x86 software (Windows, Intel-only Mac apps, etc.). Even a dual 1.8 GHz G4 upgrade for your DA or a 2.7 GHz Power Mac G5 don't approach the power of today's dual-core Macs, although they may provide all the power you need when your dual 533 MHz G4 is no longer powerful enough. (The 2.5 GHz Power Mac G5 has as much raw power as a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo iMac.)

Dan

Don't Blame Leopard for What May Be a Hardware Problem

From Felix Lizarraga:

Hi Dan,

I fully read John Campbell's rant, and of course you gotta feel for the guy. A lot of people have been stung by Leopard's bugs at one point or another. I personally had a happily smooth Leopard experience - in unsupported hardware as well as supported - until patch 10.5.3 jumbled up my Internet connection. The solution provided by Apple (starting in Safe Mode and then restarting) has improved things, but not fully fixed them, at least not for me.

In Campbell's case, however, he seems to be experiencing extreme problems that have not been widely experienced by a majority of users, and that, as Dan points out, are probably arising from firmware or hardware issues. What is more, it surprises me to see him lashing out at Apple, Apple zealots, and even poor Justin Long (who is just an actor paid to look smug in the ads and might not even be either smug or an Apple lover, for that matter), while leaving out the most likely source of his problem - his particular brand new iMac and the vendor he got it from.

It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that if a new computer is experiencing problems that none of your old machines is having, and that most people haven't even heard of, then the new computer should be the possible culprit. Campbell should take it up with PC Connection. If they sold him a lemon, they should replace it. End of story.

Now, if he goes through the replacement process, say, twice, and all the machines suffer the same issues, then I say: Go blame Apple, snotty Apple fanatics, even smug-looking-for-hire Justin Long! But, as of now, I don't see any evidence of Leopard or Apple being responsible for Campbell's particular dilemma...

Just my two cents.

Best regards,
Felix Lizarraga

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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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