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Teaching an old iBook New Tricks the Ubuntu Way

A couple years ago, I tried installing Ubuntu on an old Apple iBook G3 I have with only moderate results, as shown in this YouTube video:

While I know that Adobe Flash and AIR won’t ever be supported on the PowerPC chips that run in a lot of the older Macs, the size of this iBook puts it real close to the “netbook” category. Since I don’t see myself spending $400-$500 on a new computer anytime soon, why not try and repurpose one I already have?

My expectations for this PowerPC G3 with 576mb of RAM and 10gb of disk aren’t high. I just want something with a reasonable keyboard that has WiFi and runs a web browser. It’s got all that and the current versions of Ubuntu (8.10 as I write this) will support the wireless (which it didn’t back in 6.06, which was when I took this video), at least in theory. Why not give it a try? Details after the jump.

The first step is getting the Ubuntu distribution. It’s not

officially supported anymore, according to the [PowerPCFAQ for Ubuntu][1], but the community does maintain [downloads for PowerPC Ubuntu][2]. This is one time where downloading the ISO using Bittorrent is highly recommended as it is likely to be much faster than the straight download.

After burning the CD and sticking it into the iBook, I powered the iBook up, holding down the ‘C’ key to tell the Mac to boot off CD. The installation, however, could not find the CDROM! Fortunately, it’s a known issue with [a relatively simple workaround][3]: switch to another console, type in modprobe ide-scsi, and try detecting the CDROM again. Sure enough, it found the CDROM.

The next hiccup was minor: it was able to detect both network the wired and wireless adapters. However, during the installation process, WPA does not appear to be supported. Hopefully, it supports WPA once I’ve installed Ubuntu, but for now, I selected Ethernet and pressed onward.

One thing I noticed about the installation process: it offered encryption, both at the (mostly entire) disk level as well as at the home directory level! I only opted for the directory-level encryption for my user. I’ll have to see how well it works.

A few hours later, I booted up and the screen looked like someone sat on the screen. Turns out that’s a rather common problem easily solved by editing /etc/yaboot.conf, replacing both append lines with:

append="nosplash"

To solve the “low resolution mode” problem when the graphic login attempts to start, I had to modify /etc/X11/xorg.conf with a couple of lines (bolded below):

Section "Device"
Identifier      "Configured Video Device"
BusID           "PCI:0:16:0"
Driver          "fbdev"
EndSection

Section "Monitor"
Identifier      "Configured Monitor"
EndSection

Section "Screen"
Identifier      "Default Screen"
Monitor         "Configured Monitor"
Device          "Configured Video Device"
DefaultDepth    24
EndSection

Two more problems: sound and the fact I couldn’t actually start any applications. Sound is easy to fix, add the following to /etc/modules:

snd-powermac

To make it take effect without a reboot, execute the command sudo modprobe snd-powermac.

Finally, the most annoying bug I’ve found: I can’t start applications from the GNOME Desktop! Apparently, a library was compiled with the wrong flags. The instructions for fixing it are [documented here][4], and since they break with any update where I forget to uncheck updating the library, this basically means I have to remember to uncheck this library every time I update–not likely–or not do any updates at all–also not likely. End result: Ubuntu PPC is unusuable.

Next, we’ll try this with [OpenSUSE][5] to see if we fare any better.

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[1]: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/PowerPCFAQ [2]: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/PowerPCDownloads [3]: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=964904 [4]: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=1003273&highlight=ibook+applications [5]: http://www.opensuse.org


C-List #Cybersecurity Celebrity, Podcaster, #noagenda Producer, Frequenter of shiny metal tubes, Expressor of personal opinions, and of course, a coffee achiever.