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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Installing Ubuntu Linux on a G3 iMac

by Ken Newquist / May 23, 2007

I love it when a geeky plan comes together. A few weeks ago I heard a story on the Geek Acres podcast about a grade school teacher who installed Ubuntu Linux on a bunch of iMacs that had been donated to his school. I have a lime-green G3 iMac at home that's been running Mac OS X 10.3 … but is just crying out for experimentation.

I used ScooterDMan's original article as my starting point, and decided to try installing the same version of Ubuntu Linux that he did: the low-profile Xubuntu, which is designed to run on older hardware.

Video Challenges with Xubuntu

I downloaded the Xubuntu disk image, and then followed its directions for creating a bootable "Xubuntu Live" CD using Mac OS X's Disk Utility program on my Macook Pro. I inserted the finished CD into the iMac, watched the very cool-looking Xubuntu logo appear … and then frowned when I the boot ended with a blank, gray screen. I re-booted, this time disabling video support, and got a lengthy report explaining exactly why my Mac couldn't handle the CD and suggesting that I go through it to figure out what the problem was.

Instead, I turned to Google, and a quick search turned up the forum post "Easy Way to Install Ubuntu on iMac G3" (this page is on; the original link doesn't work any more). which explained that the problem was a video conflict between the Live CD's settings and the iMac's hardware. This was fixed by editing the xorg.conf file to disable a module and change the HorizSync and VertRefresh values to work with the iMac.

With that fix in place, the Live CD was able to load, and I was able to give Xubuntu a test drive. Satisfied that it would work on the iMac, I then did an install that blew away Mac OS X and installed Xubuntu in its place. About 30-45 minutes later, the machine rebooted and I had a working version of Xubuntu installed on my iMac.

The minor video hiccup aside, the process was painless. The OS appears to be a little faster than Mac OX 10.3, but I didn't spend much time playing with it. Xubuntu delivered exactly what it said it would -- a no-frills version of Ubuntu that would run on old hardware -- but I felt my iMac could do more.  It's has a 400 mhz G3 processor with 512 MB of RAM and an 80 GB hard drive, and I figured it could do a damn good job of running a true Ubuntu install, with all the bells and whistles added in.

Upgrades. We need upgrades.

I burned a Ubuntu 6.06.1 (Dapper Drake) ISO, followed the same workaround specified for the Xubuntu Live CD, and then happily installed it onto the iMac. It went well, and provided a much more well rounded set of pre-installed software than the leaner Xubuntu, including Open Office, Firefox, Thunderbird and a bunch of audio/video utilities. Updating the OS and the various software packages was a snap, and Ubuntu itself is running quite briskly on the iMac.

In exploring the OS briefly last night, I did discover a few potential drawbacks:

  1. I couldn't find a Ubuntu 7 install for PowerPC-based computers on the Ubuntu web site. A little digging revealed this CNet story, which explains PowerPC-based computers are no longer officialy supported by Ubuntu. We may see the PowerPC Ubuntu 6 updated to Ubuntu 7  on an unofficial basis. (note: per the comments below, there is an community-supported Ubuntu 8 build). 
  2. There's no Firefox 2.0 package for Ubuntu 6; the best it can do is Firefox 1.5. This should be good enough for my purposes, but it's disappointing.
  3. It's easy to add supported apps to Ubuntu through the add/remove programs menu, but it's not so easy for apps that aren't listed there. My attempt to install Audacity 1.2 on Ubuntu 6 ended with a bunch of errors saying that dependencies hadn't been satisfied. A Linux-savvy co-worker explained it's possible to switch Ubuntu from browsing the "Universe" of supported software packages to the "Multiverse" of unsupported ones, and that may make finding and installing apps like Audacity a lot easier.

Overall, I'm pleased with the results to date. The iMac is running well, and my brief experiments with OpenOffice show the Mac to be as responsive as it was under OS X 10.3; possibly a little faster. I'm planning on spending some time this weekend writing on it to give it a more thorough evaluation, trying out more Open Office features, experimenting with audio and video play back, and seeing how Flash and other browser-plugins work. The end result of that will be a follow-up post comparing and contrasing running Mac OS X on the iMac vs. Ubuntu.

I'll also be turning my 4-year-old daughter loose on it this weekend as well, since ultimately this will be "her" computer to play on while I'm working away on the PowerMac. She used it before in its Mac OS X incarnation; I'm interested to see her impression of the less shiny Ubuntu desktop.

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An interesting experiment! I have a similar G3 iMac, which is my daughter's (age 8) machine. She says it's too slow when visiting such sites as webkinz and club penguin, which are Flash based.

I was curious if using a Linux distro with an up-to-date Firefox/Flash install would give Flash a speed-up, but from your report, it seems like G3 Linux distros are fading into history, as well.... Too bad.

Unfortunately the other snag I hit during this experiment is that Flash won't work on a G3 processor (or any PowerPC processor for that matter) and that was ultimately the deal-breaker. I think there's an open source alternative to Flash on Linux that can still view Flash files, but I never tried it out.

I too have a old iMac G3 333mhz. I have been trying Xubuntu on it with mixed results. I am sending this message using it though. I second the disapointment in finding that Firefox failed to support 6.06 to Firefox 2 even though Dapper OS is supported through 2009.
It was the one reason I went to Linux was to have a up to date browser. Little did I know FF 1.5 was it. I will probably go back to Panther 10.3 and use Firefox 2.
The other issue with Flash is a big problem with today's web sites. I have quickly found out that even Linux is geared towards PC's then Mac's. In fact I guess 8.04 is strickly PC. Well, it was fun while it lasted and I am only out time and a couple of CD's. It's back to OS X for me.

Yeah, I've got to agree -- ultimately the best thing you can do with these old iMacs is throw Panther on them. It's fast enough for browsing, and you have a better chance of having current web browsers.

One thing to be considered is that if you don't install the desktop environment when installing Ubuntu, you actually get a pretty good home server. For desktop use, though, I would install OS X or OS 9 over any flavour of linux.

Also, there is an Adobe Flash release for linux, but I don't know if it'll work for you. Have a google if you're still trying with this.

That's true -- and I've thought about making it a server, though it's lack of a wireless card hampers me there. I've thought of getting a USB wireless dongle for it as a possible solution (on either the Mac or Linux side).

The problem with Flash on Linux isn't that isn't available, it's that it doesn't support PowerPC processors. There is a generic Linux Flash substitute, but I don't know if it supports PowerPC; I'll have to look into that if I try this again.

i have come very close to geting linux on my imac g3. i have the live cd runing but cant get it to install. i normally just click the desktop icon and go thru the install process but when i try that it says unable to mount volume. is there a terminal command to install from live cd? i hope for a fast responce as i had some trouble geting the live cd to run

I think you need to tell your Mac to boot from CD -- put the disc in the drive, reboot your Mac and hold down the C button as the Mac comes back up. That will force it to boot from the CD, which should get you into the Live CD.

I'm trying to install Ubuntu linux on an iMac G3 266, (266MHz G3, 64Mb RAM), and the installer keeps giving me random errors, for example, sometimes the installer freezes about about halfway thru loading the components off the CD, sometimes it tells me there's no boot partition on the cd and sometimes it just quits to a black screen. Ive tried every configuration I can think of (including typing 'expert' at the boot prompt and installing only the nescessary stuff), and I even burnt a new cd thinking that was a problem, but to no avail. Is there anything im obviously doing wrong? Thanks a lot for all your answers. Best regards, Mike Stevenson from android development

Other than trying the Xubuntu installer and making the video configuration tweaks I mentioned, I can't really offer any more advice. It's been about 3 years since I did this experiment, and I've since reverted to using Mac OS X on that machine (I may re-install Xubuntu when I move this computer into my workshop in the basement ... assuming I ever create my workshop in the basement :)) but for now it's an OS X machine.

I have Xubuntu running on my iMac G3 lime-flavored slot-loading, and it is great! Two problems, though: no sound :(, and 1024x768 runs off the edge of the viewable screen. I was hoping you could send me your /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to refer to, and that maybe you'd have some insight into these audio problems. Just let me know..

Unfortunately I don't have that file any more. Once I got Xubuntu up and running, I ended up wiping it in favor of an older flavor of Mac OS X.

The link "Easy Way to Install Ubuntu on iMac G3" appears to be broken. Could you post those instructions on here?