Ubuntu 11.04 on a 2011 Macbook Air

I was in the market for a new Linux notebook. Something with enough horsepower to use as an every day machine, but small and light enough to carry around everywhere. I found that dollar-for-dollar, pound-for-pound the Macbook Air is best out there [1]. I’m also a long-time Apple user, so the decision wasn’t too difficult. That said, getting Linux to run on this machine smoothly has been a challenge.

First on my list was to get Linux running. I repartitioned the flash, installed rEFIt, then installed Ubuntu 11.04 from a USB drive. Once Ubuntu was installed I learned I was stuck at 1024×768 resolution. There is an issue with the integrated HD graphics on Sandy Bridge Intel chips and/or the physical display. There are a number of forums tracking progress on this issue. So far, a fix has not emerged.

Until driver support comes along, I’ve been using virtualization to run Linux. That’s been a bumpy road as well.

VirtualBox has an issue with i7 processors so it randomly crashes the machine.

I then tried vmWare Fusion. It does not support OpenGL on Linux, so the new Unity desktop doesn’t work. There are ways to avoid the issue, but I’d rather have the OS work out of the box than have to tinker.

Finally I tried Parallels Desktop 6. Out of the box USB appeared to not work. Thanks to a KB article on the Parallels forum everything seems to be working [2]. I’ve been running stable without a crash and with OpenGL support. Both Fusion and Parallels strongly cater to Windows users, but the fact that Parallels also supports Ubuntu well makes me a happy customer.

[1] There are cheaper and more powerful notebooks, but (in my opinion) they are bulkier, more power hungry, and not as feature-rich as the Macbook Air. The closest I found was the Lenovo Thinkpad X1. Configuring it as closely as possible to the Macbook Air, it priced in at $1824 with only 160G flash compared to 256G.

[2] After patching the plist I ran into very similar USB issues and discovered that a VirtualBox VM was “stealing” the USB device. I have not gone back to unpatch the plist and try again, but USB may work out of the box without the plist tweak so long as something else is not claiming the USB device.

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8 thoughts on “Ubuntu 11.04 on a 2011 Macbook Air”

  1. Hi there. I’m interested in this also. Booting from USB containing Debian netinst image works fine with the default Apple boot loader (IE: I did *not* use ReFIT), however the installation doesn’t detect the wireless card. So ultimately useless but hopefully not too far off!

    (This is on a Core i5 13″ Macbook Air purchased Aug 2011)

    1. This sounds very interesting. Debian’s installer should be able to pick up firmware supplied on an additional usb stick. Shouldn’t that make a full solution? (I’m awaiting my macbook air to be delivered, I’ll try it!)

  2. That is helpful, thank you. I should have paid more attention to your original research!

    FWIW, I find Virtualbox generally great on this machine, but have the opposite problem to you – I cannot pass a USB device (Specifically USB TV tuner) to VM. Which may be related to 64 bitness/kext stuff.

    1. Click Settings -> ports -> USB in VirtualBox. While the USB device is plugged in hit the port with little green plus icon and select the TV tuner device, then click OK. Then, when you boot into the VM, see if linux sees the tuner card. You can check two ways: lsusb and running the dmesg command and searching for the device in the output. If you see it in those places you should be able to use the device in the VM. Another thing to check is making sure that OS X is not grabbing the device. For example, if you plug in a USB drive and OS X mounts it, you have to eject the drive before you can use it under the VM. I’m not exactly sure how the tuner card works, but see if there is an application, or an OS X kext driver claiming the device.

  3. I run 11.04 without issues on my Macbook Air and have done so for a year. However, I have the 3,2 Air, and not the latest 4,2 Air, so I have older and somewhat crappier hardware, explaining why it all runs on my end.

    Btw, whatever you guys do, take it easy when you use “dd” since it will eaisly turn your Air into a brick (I did it twice ; )

    1. I presume you mean “dd” when creating the bootable USB drive? From the instructions on ubuntu.com/download, the command “diskutil list” will list the disks connected to the system. Run that command before plugging in your USB drive. Then plug in the drive and run the command again. The new device is the USB drive.

      Another key piece to keep in mind is that if you’re running on a factory system, OS X will be installed on /dev/disk0, so don’t use dd with of=/dev/disk0 ! 🙂

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