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I have an old MacBook white (Model 2,1 mid-late 2007) which won't upgrade beyond Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6). I have previously installed Debian with a dual boot by using rEFIt and booting from a DVD disk, but the DVD drive doesn't seem to reliably read disks anymore

I would like to install Debian or BSD on this MacBook, either as a dual boot, or as the single OS -- alternatively, any current linux distro or even Windows 10 would do.

I have tried a few things, all without success. For the record:

  • Burn .iso (or .cdr) image to DVD (Mac won't read disk)
  • Create a live Debian USB (with MBR partition) with rEFIt
  • Create live Debian USB with Mac Linux USB Loader (will boot on newer Macs, but not on MacBook2,1)

I've seen something about manually putting a GPT table on the USB drive, or creating a separate EFI partition, but since it's more technical and time consuming I didn't get around to it.

Main question: is there a reliable way to boot and install Linux, BSD, Windows (anything not OS X)?

Bonus points for running the OS live from the USB -- since after 10 years HD may fail some time soon.

Thanks for helping with recycling an old friend and protecting the environment.

EDIT: both replies, as well as all HOWTOs I could find operate under the assumption that I should be able to hold 'opt' on boot and choose the USB stick. That's not what happens when I have BSD or Linux there, but I am able to choose a USB stick with Mac OS X and install from it. So the question becomes, what is the difference that prevents that from being done with Linux/BSD?

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A bit late but I hope this can help someone. I have a 2,1 (mid-2007) macbook that refuses to boot from anything that isn't an Mac OS X installer. The DVD drive is dead which is a problem that I suspect its common on old laptops. It also refused to boot a 32 bit linux installer from external DVD drive. With and without refind.

Anyway I've managed to install Ubuntu 16 LTS using a weird method that can vary from distro to distro. It might also work on *BSD as long as refind has a driver to read its partition. In any case you will need some advanced knowledge about whatever you are trying to install.

  • Have Mac OS X Lion on a bare minimum partition. I think 20GB is enough. You'll have to live with that on your drive and stuff like firmware updates can make a difference so I recommend installing all the Lion upates.

  • Install refind. Be sure to include the correct driver (or all the drivers with the --alldrivers option).

  • Create a partition using the remaining space. I don't think you can create empty partitions with diskutil. Other tools like fdisk and gpart might work but in the end you just need a partition. In my case that partition was /dev/disk0s4.

  • Make sure to unmount that partition. You can dd some zeroes into it to prevent Mac OS X from mounting it again.

  • Install virtualbox. The latest version that can work on Lion is 4.3.40.

  • Chown the partition to current user. This is required for the next step.

  • Create a VMDK from our partition's block device. In my case the command was "VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename /Users/ulzeraj/VirtualBox\ VMs/rootfs.vmdk -rawdisk /dev/disk0s4"

  • Create a virtual machine using the raw vmdk as its virtual disk and install your desired 32 bit Linux distribution as if you were installing a simple VM. The only catch is to install it on /dev/sda (no partitions - remember that you are already inside a partition). I can guess that some installers might not be happy with this. The installer may also complain about not using swap but you can fix this later.

I've used Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. I had to use the livecd mode to format /dev/sda as EXT4. When prompted about where to install a boot loader I've selected to continue without a bootloader.

If everything went fine refind will detect your new OS and boot it by running the kernel. Legacy mode doesn't work because we don't have a boot loader.

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I personally installed FreeBSD on a G4 machine via USB, so I don't see why you can't do that with a 2007 MacBook.

But going back to the original question

is there a reliable way to boot and install Linux, BSD, Windows (anything not OS X)?

Yes. There is a site called Linux on Laptops (I linked the Apple section) that outlines what laptops are compatible with Linux. Specifically for Debian, they have a Wiki that describes exactly how to install it on a Mac.

As mentioned before, I am partial to BSD. FreeBSD has USB images specific to UEFI machines available for download.

There is also excellent HOWTOs available to assist you in this process.

As for your "Bonus Question"...

Bonus points for running the OS live from the USB -- since after 10 years HD may fail some time soon.

Why would you do this and not replace the hard drive?

A SATA1 interface is 1.5Gb/s

A USB2.0 port is 480Mb/s

Rough math tells us USB is 1/3 the speed of a drive. A brand new SanDisk SSD is less than $50 online. It doesn't make sense to sacrifice that much performance for that small price.

  • Thanks. I known it's compatible because I installed it via DVD before (not without some fiddling) but using the Debian wiki instructions to make a USB (whether with dd or unetbootin, with rEFIt on the mac or not) simply doesn't show the disk when the computer boots. Any ideas? I'm new to BSD, so I can't say I'm doing everything right there. I'd buy a new disk if I can reliably install any OS, but it's a waste if it's for OSX 10.6. – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 14:45
  • What do you mean "it doesn't show the disk?" Are you holding down the opt key when booting? If you existing HDD is working, install there. Once you get it working, buy and install an SSD. – Allan Mar 17 '17 at 14:56
  • Yes, I hold the opt key, it shows boot options, except it's only the HDD, not the USB stick. That's the fact of the matter, a GPT disk with OSX 10.6 will show up fine, anything with linux I tried so far will not. – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 15:18
  • Have you confirmed that the Linux stick is bootable and partitioned correctly? – Allan Mar 17 '17 at 16:14
  • I will boot on any PC with UEFI, it will also show up on a newer Mac (if it's one create with a tool like mac linux usb loader it go live fine, if it's a dd image it may not, but I guess we're not there yet.) – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 17:48
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Your Macbook seems to be 64-bit EFI and 64-bit CPU. So the best reliable way is:

  • Boot USB stick in EFI mode. You must use the amd64 iso. It supports EFI and BIOS (legacy CSM) mode. 32-bit supports only BIOS mode. You don't need Mac Linux USB Loader or anything special. UNetbootin seems to be OK.
  • Install Linux or BSD
  • Optional: install rEFInd (not rEFIt - now old) from OS X after the successful OS install. Don't worry, rEFInd knows that you already have rEFIt and it will take care of everything.

I have seen this: a Mac that has 4 USB ports. It boots from only one. Maybe you need find the friendly port too?

  • I'm not sure what boot in EFI mode means, as far as I understand that it's a partition the volume or a property of the image, but maybe I just don't know enough. The mac has 2 USB ports, one firewire, but I did assume they were all the same and maybe just got unlucky when plugging the drive. – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 15:21
  • nope, no luck switching ports, only the HDD shows. – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 15:41
  • EFI is the software built into the computer that controls the boot process. Maybe rEFInd will be able to boot your usb stick. If you decide to give it a try, I recommend using default options "./refind-install" described here – luciano.x Mar 17 '17 at 16:37
  • No. I've tried installing rEFIt and later rEFInd, but the stick is nowhere to be found in the regular boot menu or rEFIind's. – Twisted Mersenne Mar 17 '17 at 17:44
  • Nope. The Macbook2.1 has a weird configuration which requires it to have bootable 32-bit EFI. See here, here, or here for more info... – n1000 Nov 11 '17 at 21:59

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