Give an old MacBook new life with Linux

Elementary OS's latest release, Hera, is an impressive platform for resurrecting an outdated MacBook.
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When I installed Apple's MacOS Mojave, it slowed my formerly reliable MacBook Air to a crawl. My computer, released in 2015, has 4GB RAM, an i5 processor, and a Broadcom 4360 wireless card, but Mojave proved too much for my daily driver—it made working with GnuCash impossible, and it whetted my appetite to return to Linux. I am glad I did, but I felt bad that I had this perfectly good MacBook lying around unused.

I tried several Linux distributions on my MacBook Air, but there was always a gotcha. Sometimes it was the wireless card; another time, it was a lack of support for the touchpad. After reading some good reviews, I decided to try Elementary OS 5.0 (Juno). I made a boot drive with my USB creator and inserted it into the MacBook Air. I got to a live desktop, and the operating system recognized my Broadcom wireless chipset—I thought this just might work!

I liked what I saw in Elementary OS; its Pantheon desktop is really great, and its look and feel are familiar to Apple users—it has a dock at the bottom of the display and icons that lead to useful applications. I liked the preview of what I could expect, so I decided to install it—and then my wireless disappeared. That was disappointing. I really liked Elementary OS, but no wireless is a non-starter.

Fast-forward to December 2019, when I heard a review on the Linux4Everyone podcast about Elementary's latest release, v.5.1 (Hera) bringing a MacBook back to life. So, I decided to try again with Hera. I downloaded the ISO, created the bootable drive, plugged it in, and this time the operating system recognized my wireless card. I was in business!

MacBook Air with Hera

I was overjoyed that my very light, yet powerful MacBook Air was getting a new life with Linux. I have been exploring Elementary OS in greater detail, and I can tell you that I am impressed.

Elementary OS's features

According to Elementary's blog, "The newly redesigned login and lock screen greeter looks sharper, works better, and fixes many reported issues with the previous greeter including focus issues, HiDPI issues, and better localization. The new design in Hera was in response to user feedback from Juno, and enables some nice new features."

"Nice new features" in an understatement—Elementary OS easily has one of the best-designed Linux user interfaces I have ever seen. A System Settings icon is on the dock by default; it is easy to change the settings, and soon I had the system configured to my liking. I need larger text sizes than the defaults, and the Universal Access controls are easy to use and allow me to set large text and high contrast. I can also adjust the dock with larger icons and other options.

Elementary OS's Settings screen

Pressing the Mac's Command key brings up a list of keyboard shortcuts, which is very helpful to new users.

Elementary OS's Keyboard shortcuts

Elementary OS ships with the Epiphany web browser, which I find quite easy to use. It's a bit different than Chrome, Chromium, or Firefox, but it is more than adequate.

For security-conscious users (as we should all be), Elementary OS's Security and Privacy settings provide multiple options, including a firewall, history, locking, automatic deletion of temporary and trash files, and an on/off switch for location services.

Elementary OS's Privacy and Security screen

More on Elementary OS

Elementary OS was originally released in 2011, and its latest version, Hera, was released on December 3, 2019. Cassidy James Blaede, Elementary's co-founder and CXO, is the operating system's UX architect. Cassidy loves to design and build useful, usable, and delightful digital products using open technologies.

Elementary OS has excellent user documentation, and its code (licensed under GPL 3.0) is available on GitHub. Elementary OS encourages involvement in the project, so be sure to reach out and join the community.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, Follow me at @Don_Watkins .

9 Comments

Hi!
Great article. I wonder if the vga and hdmi connectors work well. Did you try any?

Any idea if this will work with a mid-2012 MacBook Air? I know someone who ran into a similar situation to you with the MacOS Catalina upgrade and wants something zippier on their MacBook Air which is still usable.

Good question. I know of at least one other person who's used Elementary OS to revive a 2013 MacBook Pro.

Elementary OS is now my distro of choice if I am setting up a machine for elderly users who primarily use their computer for web browsing and email. It has a great user interface that also looks good on small screens and installs with few apps so stripping out what is not needed is no big chore.

14 cents from every PC sold will be donated to a Mac in need.

I have a 2015 MacBook air with a core-i5 and 4GB of RAM and I had no issues running Mojave or Catalina. I wonder if your air had a hardware issue. Perhaps the SSD is slowly dieing.
When mine dors slow way down using MacOS however, I will be switching to Linux for sure!

I’m trying to convert a 2009 Mac mini into something salvageable for ripping audio. Any suggestions?

Just a quickl note: I have tried lots of Linux distros, not on a MacBook....but on Lenovo ThinkPads, and the issue with Wifi is sometimes spotty, but I've found that "connecting to your wifi while still in "Live USB" mode, and then installing Updates?....will usually help when you go for a full install. It doesn't always happen on every piece of hardware, but the majority of times I've helped people make the switch to Linux and I've run into there being no WiFi after an install I just re-install and perform those two steps and somehow it works after that. Just my two cents on the matter.

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