Ubuntu 12.04 on my MacBook Air 11"

Posted by TobyKurien
TobyKurien
I am an electronics engineer, software developer of over 15 years, and lover of
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 28 April 2012
in Digital Blogs

Ubuntu screenshot with Screenlet and VLC running

After 4 months of using Mac OS X Lion on my new MacBook Air (MacBookAir4,1), I've decided to give Ubuntu 12.04 (http://ubuntu.com) a try. There's no argument that the MacBook Air hardware is top notch, so let's see if it works well (maybe even better) with Ubuntu. I decided to go the dual-boot route.

Installation
Installation was easier than I expected. Here's the process:
- Download Ubuntu and create the USB drive as per instructions: http://www.ubuntu.com/download/help/create-a-usb-stick-on-mac-osx
- Install rEFIt (from http://refit.sourceforge.net/) on OS X, install the pkg file within the dmg.
- Reboot a few times till rEFIt boot menu shows up on boot.
- Select Mac and hold down shift to activate disk check. A progress bar will appear under the Apple logo to show progress.
- Run Disk Utility and create a MSDOS partition for Ubuntu (I made mine about 50Gb, but even 20Gb should be fine)
- While you're here, right-click on your home folder > Get Info. Under permissions, allow everyone read access (so that you can read the files from Ubuntu). Don't worry about write access as it's difficult to get Ubuntu to write to your Mac partition, though not impossible.
- Insert the Ubuntu boot USB and reboot, select "Legacy OS" from rEFIt.
- Install Ubuntu into the new partition by following the install prompts
   - I manually selected /dev/sda4 with Ext4 mounted as /
   - I chose not to have a swap partition - it wears the SSD anyway and I have 4Gb of RAM. If you love leaving hundreds of browser tabs open and you never close your browser, you'll definitely want a swap partition.
- Reboot and select Ubuntu from the rEFIt boot menu.

Post installation configuration
Before I get into what works, what doesn't, etc., let's run through the post-installation steps:
- Install all updates! It should be over 450Mb. This is very important as there are lots of fixes since the ISO was cut. Don't start fiddling until you've done this.
- Activate the proprietary driver (when prompted)
- Go to System Settings > Mouse and Touchpad > Touchpad > Enable Two-finger scrolling. This will allow 2-finger-drag to scroll and 3-finger-tap to right-click.
- I got used to the Lion "natural scrolling", so I wanted to reverse the scroll direction. To do this, just create the file .Xmodmap in your home directory with the following line:
     pointer = 1 2 3 5 4 7 6 8 9 10 11 12
- I like to swap the Alt and Cmd keys (as I did in Lion as well). To do this:
  - System Preferences > Keyboard Layout > Options > Alt/Win key behaviour > Left Alt is swapped with Left Win
- In Firefox, go to Edit > Preferences > Advanced and enable smooth scrolling.

- In Ubuntu Software Center, search for and install MyUnity. This will allow you to configure fonts and other aspects of Unity. Use it to reduce the System and Monospace font sizes.

The low-down
I'll do this in the form of an FAQ:

Does everything work?
Everything does work! This includes screen, keyboard, multi-touch trackpad, USB, Wifi, Bluetooth, keyboard back-lighting, suspend, and most impressively, the Thunderbolt port with an external monitor attached!

So suspend works? Is it fast like Mac OS?
Yes it is, although when you shut the lid, you will see the Apple logo go off, then on again briefly, before finally switching off. It resumes almost instantaneously, as fast as Mac OS.

The external monitor - does it pick up the right resolution and allow desktop spanning/cloning/etc?
Yep!

What about multi-touch? Can you do 3-finger swipes? 4-finger swipes?
By default, you can do a 3-finger tap to bring up drag handles, 3-finger drag to move the window about, 3-finger pinch to minimize/maximize, and a 4-finger tap to bring up the dashboard. Ginn is installed allowing you to extend this, however it doesn't appear to work (hopefully will be fixed soon). Similarily Touchegg also does not work. Once these apps are fixed, you'll be able to configure any sort of multi-touch gesture. The default gestures are cool though.

Is it stable?
Yes and no. I get quite a few software crashes on bootup, although they are background apps that seem to be crashing. I have had very few app crashes and no OS crashes, so it seems quite stable.

So no bugs?
There are a few noticeable bugs, the most annoying one currently is that once you suspend, on resume, the touchpad freezes, so you'll need to attach a mouse. That's the most serious bug and will hopefully be fixed soon (I've seen bug reports filed for this).

What about battery life and speed? Is it faster than Lion and does it use less battery?
I haven't tested this extensively, but it does feel faster than Lion (marginally), and battery usage seems to be about on par. On idle, I think Lion is more frugal, but under use, Ubuntu seems more consistent, netting anywhere between 3 and 4 hours of usage (estimated), where Lion can be anywhere between 2 and 5 hours.

Any immediate advantages of Ubuntu over Mac OS?
Couple of things I noticed immediately: the weird key at the top left (plus/minus) is treated like the key it should be (tilde/back-tick), Cheese app gives a much clearer preview through the webcam than Photo Booth and the image is not inverted, and I can swap the Alt and Cmd key universally. Also my Cyborg RAT7 mouse works properly.

_ Are you ditching Mac OS for Ubuntu?_
Not quite. I am switching to Ubuntu as my main OS, but I will leave Mac OS because I still want to be able to use XCode and iMovie. Heck I might switch back to Mac OS if I run into issues with Ubuntu. I like that I have choice.

What do you miss from Mac OS?
Smooth scrolling. In Ubuntu it's very inconsistent - some apps scroll smoothly, others are jerky, and yet other have reversed scrolling (after my trick to get natural scrolling). I will also miss the Mac OS Dashboard - I used that a lot and I think Ubuntu needs to do something similar.

Sounds good! I think I'll boot up the live USB and give it a try!
Awesome! However, please note that the software on the live USB is quite out of date so many things won't work as they have been fixed in updates (e.g. multi-touch gestures).

Concluding thoughts
The above is all based on only two days with Ubuntu on my Macbook. The novelty factor is high and I really did miss Ubuntu, but Mac OS is a polished and beautiful OS so I had no complaints. It is great that Ubuntu works so well on the Macbook Air that I can switch to it, while still having the ability to boot back into MacOS should I need to. Feel free to ask questions in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

*Updates*

Fix for the touchpad freezing after suspend - open Terminal and type:

sudo gedit /usr/lib/pm-utils/defaults

Scroll down to the line that reads:

# SUSPEND_MODULES=""

and change it to read:

SUSPEND_MODULES="bcm5974"

then save. That fixed it for me although I seem to loose multi-touch gestures after suspend, so it's not a permanent fix.

As for a Dashboard replacement, go to the Software Center and install Screenlets. This lets you put some really great-looking widgets onto your desktop - perfect for a multi-monitor setup.

I am an electronics engineer, software developer of over 15 years, and lover of science and technology.

Comments

Muscadecipio
Muscadecipio
I am a 40-something computer geek who years ago decided that technology would ei
User is currently offline
Muscadecipio Friday, 22 June 2012

Always good to have choices.

Cool post Toby. I have been a fan of Ubuntu since the beginning and have often used it as a dual boot with my Windows machines. I think the problem we all have is the one you discovered, that some things just run better under Windows or MacOS or whatever. If I only surfed the 'net and sent emails then Ubuntu would be perfect but then I have to be persky and want to run games and apps that aren't supported. My solution for now will have be Ubuntu on the laptop and Windows on the desktop. At the moment I am just trying to conquer my android smartphone - ah the learning curve.

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