How to run Ubuntu on your Intel Mac, from a USB stick.

When I discovered Virtual Box I vowed never to install Linux again. But then came the crashes. And then I upgraded to Snow Leopard. Screw this, I need some kdevelop goodness now….

So, today I found myself installing ubuntu on a USB stick. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Download, burn and boot from your ubuntu disk of choice. Running a MacBook Pro from July this year I chose the amd64 disk, as a liveCD. To boot from CD just hold down “C” when you hear the angels as your Mac turns on.
  2. Choose “try ubuntu without changing your system” from the menu to boot the OS from the liveCD.
  3. Run the install as usual, specifying the USB drive you plugged in as your disk and selecting “use entire drive” from the partitioning options.
  4. This is where it gets tricky. Restart, and hold down left option (alt). Observe that only the “proper” hard disks are listed – intel Macs don’t natively support USB booting. 😦 cheer up and boot OS X – there is a solution.
  5. Download and install rEFIt – an open source EFI bootloader for just this type of occasion.
  6. Reboot one more time, holding down option, and choose refit.
  7. Choose your “legacy” OS (it only says it in that patronising manner because it’s jealous of the MBR goodness) and fly all the way to open source Heaven without breaking your precious OS X install!

I hope you enjoy this one – you’ll need a fairly decent USB stick though. Cheap ones are terribly slow to write to, so installing and updating may take you well over the 2 hour limit of my how-tos. If you can, I recommend a proper USB HDD in an enclosure – much less worrysome and much quicker.

EDIT: This actually isn’t complete and leaves you with a grub error because the ubuntu installer is a moron and overwrites the MBR on the bootcamp drive, even though you haven’t installed it on that HDD. (my way around this on my previous laptop was to remove the HDD before starting – but I couldn’t quite bring myself to on the shiny new unibody MBP…) you need to resync the MBR with the refit EFI data using the partitioning tool here on the boot menu:

Apologies for the brokenness and thanks to bagellord (see comments) for pointing this out!


About tehwalrus

Lib Dem, Software Developer, General Geek. View all posts by tehwalrus

2 responses to “How to run Ubuntu on your Intel Mac, from a USB stick.

  • Bagellord

    This did not work for me on my Macbook Pro 4,1. It will only boot OS X now. Bootcamp and Linux do not work. It says “GRUB Hard Disk Error”

    • tehwalrus

      OK, I got this error too when I removed the USB stick. Sorry!

      I will also refer you to the official Ubuntu page about this:

      which seems to suggest that I have missed out a step at the end – get to the refit boot menu and choose this option to resync your MBR and EFI records:

      If you just want to get your system back how it was before I showed you how to break it, here goes:

      * Get your windows installer disk out, put it in the drive and boot up by pressing C as before.

      * Now what you do next depends on your version of windows. In XP, you will need to go to the recovery console (this will require the original administrator password) and type “fixboot” at the command line. In vista or 7, you should have a graphical repair console that gives you the option to reset the boot sector or MBR; not sure of the details sorry, but there will be many examples of how to do this on Google.

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