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Linux on a PowerBook G4

Disclaimer: IANALP (I am not a linux person). I'm used to HP-UX and Solaris. Your mileage may vary. These are not all inclusive notes, just little pointers to where you may have to go. Use Google.

Here are some quick notes on loading a Powerbook G4 (667 Mhz, 1024 MB RAM, ATI Radeon video).

First of all, I couldn't find a partition utility that could non-destructively re-partition hardrives. That means that if you want to make any changes to sizes of disk slices, you kill everything on the disk. Not fun.

(So what does that mean in real life? I partitioned and reloaded OS X something like a dozen times. Every distro wants their own slices set up just so, or no slices at all. The final working Debian install below has the OS X slice first (/dev/hda9), with the subsequent slices (3 of them, a bootloader, swap, and a big old root) as /dev/hda10, /dev/hda11, and /dev/hda12. (Note that Apple uses the lower numbered 'mystery slices' hda0-8 for their own purposes. Don't mess with them)).

Most distributions want you to use the disk utility that comes with the Apple OS software (I have OS X - Jaguar) to slice the disk up, then load your Mac OS (if any) and then load the *nix.

Hopefully you don't mind destroying your hard drive, or you left some free space for linux to live in when your Mac OS was originally installed.


First I tried SuSE from . According to their webpage: "Important note: It is not possible to generate installation CDs from a complete download. Instead, perform the FTP installation."

I am used to loading from CD's, so this network only install was little scary. I tried it anyway. I followed the installation instructions on their page, got the machine to boot and start the installer dialog, but no matter what mirror I used, their servers/my bandwidth/network gremlins/whatever made it impossible to ever finish loading anything from them. (Note that I have good broadband inet access). After futzing around with different mirrors (which all seem to have a different path to the install files...) I gave up on SuSE.

Yellow Dog Linux

I tried them next. From OS X, I downloaded and burned an ISO image from . (Note: use the disk copy utility to burn an image, don't just drag files onto the blank cd...) I then booted from CD, and started the installer. Their installer is very pretty and idiot proof. It DOES NOT have any partitioning tools, so you have to make sure that you have slices set up as they specify before starting their installer. This distro fired right up, no questions asked, found all devices, started X, not a single glitch. The only problem was that they just released the "New! Improved! You gotta buy it!" YDL 3.0, and I was not content with the older YDL 2.3. I wanted a journaling file system (ext3) for example, which does not come with the free YDL2.3. I liked the Yellow Dog updater system to get the latest files (yup).


Thought I'd give Mandrake a shot. Downloaded 3 ISO images from, burned them and rebooted. Nice, nice graphical installer. Lots of options, more powerful (but not as idiot proof) as YDL. Integrated partition tool. Assumes that you have just left a portion of your hard drive unused (unlike YDL that assumes you have pre-made the disk partitions) and then creates the partitions for you.

After reboot, the system came up, but apparently the newer linux kernels handle mac keyboards differently than older ones, and my keyboard was completely scrambled. I couldn't type anything at all. I'd boot to OS X, Google for fixes, reboot to Mandrake, try them, be unable to type anything, reboot to OS X, find something else, etc. You get the picture. Gave up after futzing with it half a day. (Note: After the fact I found some reference to sending the kernel the string "keyboard_sends_linux_keycodes=1" at boot time sets the keyboard up correctly).


OK, so I picked Debian next. Debian reminds me of "old school" linux distros from way back (think redhat from 5 years ago). I did a hybrid install, booting from a net install CD, and then getting the rest from the internet.

I got the install ISO image from , burned it, and then booted. The installer is text based (kind of old-school ugly after seeing the mandrake) but is fully functional. I installed what I wanted and rebooted.

The stable release of Debian is Woody. This apparently is in wide use, but for me, it did not detect my Radeon graphics card, so X was inop. I did the dual boot boogie again, bounce to OS X, look up a fix, reboot to Woody, try it, have it not work, bounce to OS X, etc. over and over again. There is a couple quite good (althoug a bit dated now, perhaps) how-to's available I used to guide me (see ref below). Most referred to getting/making a newer kernel, and getting a newer XFree86 server.

Oh boy, talk about a waste of time. I went around, and around, and around, with new kernels and packages. I tried the famous benh kernel, and actually got it to boot, but it didn't support my ethernet card.

While I was at it, I learned about apt, the Debian package installer and fell in love with it. Apt is fscking cool.

OK, so after days of futzing around with Debian, I ran across someone (I lost the reference, but here's a big anonymous thank you) on a discussion group who suggested that instead of installing the "stable" apt packages, try the cutting edge "testing" packages. This requires you to modify your /etc/apt/sources.list file. Basically you replace alll references to stable with testing in the file, and then do an "apt-get update", and then "apt-get dist-upgrade". This tells apt to use testing, not stable packages. Then do an "apt-get upgrade" to update all installe packages.

Woo-hoo! New kernel (2.4.18-newpmac), new toys, new everything! I did have some issues with setting up the X server, but I found out all the proper settings with the package fbset ("apt-get install fbset", then run it "fbset -x"). Fbset dumps out the proper facts and figures to stick in your /etx/X11/XF86Config-4 file. Debian seems legendary for having X issues, so Googling for "Debian xfree86 config" or some such will bury you with helpful hints.

I installed the pmud power management package. It seems to work.

You have to manually add a line to /etc/yaboot.conf (i.e. macosx=/dev/hda?? where ?? is the slice OS X lives on) to get yaboot to prompt for dual boot. Don't forget to run ybin to write the new config to the boot sector...

I have yet to try or fix:


P.S. Sorry for the ugly html (No links, etc.) I will clean it up someday. I just had all of this rolling around in my head, and needed to do a brain dump before I forgot it all.

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