Installing Ubuntu Linux on a G3 iMac

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.