Apple, Tech, and Gaming

Linux on a PlayStation 3 or Not: My Personal Struggle

- 2011.07.20 - Tip Jar

In response to this week's Low End Mac Round Table discussion, 20 Years of Linux, I felt compelled to discuss when I was closest to experimenting with Linux for the first time and what has piqued my interest for a future attempt at discovering a different way of using older Macs (particularly PowerPC Macs) - with a version of Linux installed.

The Original PlayStation 3

For me, that time came when I purchased my PlayStation 3 this past January. I intentionally bought one of the original launch 60 GB CECHA01 units manufactured in late 2006 for two distinct reasons. The first reason was backward compatibility (in addition to many more features) with all PS2 and PS1 software. The 60 GB CECHA01 model is the only revision of the PS3 ever made with the entire PS2 "Emotion Engine" chipset included. The second reason was the fact that earlier PS3 models (manufactured before the current "Slim" PS3s) were able to run an additional operating system (Other OS), provided the firmware was under version 3.15.

The PS3 I purchased on eBay was clearly described as not being upgraded since firmware version 2.42, while the current version at the time was 3.55. Yellow Dog Linux was commonly being run on these older PS3 units (in addition to other builds), but after firmware 3.15, Sony decided to pull the plug on the ability to install - or even operate a previously installed - version of Linux due to software piracy concerns from system exploits discovered by hackers.

What was I to do?

Three Options

Option 1: Install Yellow Dog Linux and a custom version of the firmware (developed by those very hackers Sony was concerned about), risking "bricking" my perfectly functional PS3 and being banned from the PlayStation Network for life on that particular console in exchange for potentially having the best of both worlds - a PS3 running Linux that can also have the latest updates.

The Facts: Following this option, the risks tend to outweigh the rewards. I would have to always be on the lookout for the latest version of cracked (custom) firmware every time Sony decided to update in order to keep Linux going and retain the online abilities of the console. This in turn would constantly risk the functionality of my console with each "cracked" or "custom" firmware installation that might go awry. These exploits are not only risky, void your warranty (if under warranty), but also skate that gray area of legality - something to consider.

Option 2: Install Yellow Dog Linux (or another build), but don't update the firmware beyond 3.15 and not use the system online at all.

The Facts: This would mean no games that required later firmware, no Netflix or other online applications, no social gaming on PlayStation Home, and no ability to play Blu-ray discs that require later versions of the firmware (in addition to losing BD Live playback). Not such a great idea to severely limit the capabilities of a $300+ piece of hardware in exchange for running Linux.

Option 3: Go legit and lose Linux

The Facts: Sony will support you if something goes wrong, and you have the ability to use all of the features of the PSN and the PS3 hardware (minus the Other OS) as long as you stay up to date. Staying away from custom firmware and cracked code also keeps your system running to specifications and avoids potential malware and spyware that could be attached to custom firmware code. Losing the "Other OS" is a bad deal for those who purchased the system new and were actually using it as their only computer, but so many more affordable options exist to run Linux that limiting your PS3 is foolish unless piracy and "homebrew" gaming are your primary objectives.

I decided on door #3 and did things the legit way. Neither option 1 or 2 turned out to be very tempting to me. Having all the other extra features of the 60 GB console is still enough to justify the purchase, and I can run Linux on any of my Macs if I really wanted to.

Sony Ticked Off the Wrong People

I'm sure most of you are aware of how the PlayStation Network (PSN) was brought to its knees by the hacker group Anonymous. The funny thing about the whole situation is that it occurred from a chain reaction of events as a direct result and response to Sony's actions following its decision to pull the plug on "Other OS" for the PS3. It all started with the infamous George Holtz (a.k.a. Geohot) using Linux installed on his PS3 with his own custom firmware, continuing to enable the various exploits of the PS3. Here's some interesting history from Wikipedia on the Sony/Linux debacle.

Linux Someday

To close, I am still going to try Linux at some point on my older secondary G3 machines, despite my decision to eliminate that possibility from the PS3. When I went to do my first official upgrade (to firmware 3.55 at the time) on my PS3, Sony had all sorts of warnings that it would permanently disable the Other OS feature, so I can't say I wasn't aware what I was doing. However, pressing "X" to accept the upgrade and the no turning back point that ensued as firmware 3.55 installed, was bittersweet. Taking away something (Other OS) to enable what I should simply be entitled to (access to the PSN) doesn't seem right, but I believe it's still the best path to take for owners of older units.

When I eventually decide to install Linux on one of my G3 Macs, it surely will provide many hours of learning something different, in addition to simply being something new and exciting to toy around with. Besides, the novelty of turning a machine that already boots into both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X into a triple-boot machine with Linux is very intriguing. Simon Royal has some good tips how to accomplish exactly that in his article Create a Triple Boot Mac with OS 9, OS X, and Linux. LEM

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Dan Bashur lives in central Ohio with his wife and children. He uses various PowerPC G3 and G4 Macs running Tiger and Leopard. Besides finding new uses for Macs and other tech, Dan enjoys writing (fantasy novel series in the works), is an avid gamer, and a member of Sony's Gamer Advisor Panel. You can read more of Dan Bashur's work on, where he contributes regular articles about the PSP, classic gaming, and ways you can use Sony gaming hardware with your Mac.

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