Got an Old PowerPC Mac? Resuscitate It with Linux.

Got an Old PowerPC Mac? Resuscitate It with Linux.

Apple has long left the PowerPC based Macs of old behind; however, any G4 or G5 based Mac is still a very capable machine.  Most of the G5 Power Macs I have come across are dual-core G5 machines and some of the iMacs are as well.  Apple isn’t releasing updates for the last supported version of Mac OS X that will run on PowerPC based Macs.  Firefox and Chrome are also both unsupported on PowerPC based Macs, so even if that old Mac still works, continuing to use it as it is means you are vulnerable to all sorts of security issues, so you are also losing out on a modern browsing experience.

So if you still have a PowerPC Mac, you can get some more use out of it by installing Linux.  While I won’t lead you through all of the details in this article, I will let you know what Linux versions you can run on those last PowerPC Macs.

What Distros are there?

Now that the PowerPC based Mac is pretty much done, this list is getting slimmer every day.  With that said, there are many Linux distros that work great on G5 and even G4 based Macs.  I’ll list them and their features below.

Lubuntu 12.10

Got an Old PowerPC Mac? Resuscitate It with Linux.

The latest version of Lubuntu 12.10 was released on the same day as the rest of the Ubuntu based distributions, and it actually has a spin for PowerPC based Macs.  The L in Lubuntu stands for its desktop environment, LXDE.  LXDE is a light weight desktop that looks a lot like Windows XP, but is a bit less garish than the Blue and Green default style on Windows XP.  If you like the old school Windows interface, then you’d like this one a lot.

Unlike other Ubuntu remixes, there’s both a live CD and the alternate text-based install disk, which is the one I used on my G5 because the standard live disk didn’t work on my G5.  Once it was installed, I had to configure X windows by hand.  There were also some issues getting sound to work, but I was easily able to resolve them.  However, once configured, this distro ran the best of the ones I’ve tried.  It may not be the best one for those new to Linux because of these issues, but if you want to try this route, feel free to comment below, and I’ll see if I can help.

Fedora 17

Fedora 17 ran fairly well, but the fans in my G5 all kicked up to high-speed for no good reason.  Also, the Gnome 3 interface may not run as well without the proprietary drivers (which don’t work on any PowerPC Mac).  There may be a way to fix some of these issues, but I couldn’t come across a way to fix them, and there’s a better solution below.

Ubuntu 12.04 LTS

Yeah Ubuntu 12.04 sounds like it’s old, even though it was only released in April, especially since the newest version was just released.  There are some things that just don’t work well with 12.04, but if you just use the 2D version of Unity you should be pretty happy.  The installer worked magnificently, and once I logged into the 2D version of Unity, it works just like it should.  Since it’s a Long Term Support version, you should have a solid period of support left, so this is a pretty good option for those who like a no fuss, little muss version of Linux.  The best part is it’s available while the 12.10 version isn’t in the default Ubuntu flavor.

Other distros

Other distributions that should get a look are Debian and Yellow Dog Linux.  Of the two, Debian is probably the one I would try next.  Yellow Dog has long been supported on PowerPC based Macs, even having some support on even older Macs, but I don’t recommend it as it’s a little less up to date than other distributions.


I know some will ask an important question: Why do this?  Well, if you have an old PowerMac that you can’t use for Mac OS X any more, and you’ve already replaced it, then the question should be why not?!  Linux is freely downloadable, and these old machines make perfect little servers and even limited desktops.

The only issue you may have for general web use is Flash.  Adobe has never and will never release Flash plugins for PowerPC based Linux machines.  That’s really the only thing that may not work for every day web use.  The only other problem would be that if you need specific packages which aren’t compiled or aren’t available for Linux on PowerPC.  One example would be the Google Chrome browser or its open source counterpart Chromium, neither of which are available for Linux running on PowerPC.  The good thing is that most other components are there, so you may never even notice that you missed those packages.

Another reason you might want to do this is to be a good steward to our planet.  Wouldn’t that PowerMac look better actually getting some use rather than collecting dust in your closet (or crushed up in a landfill)?

So if you have an old G4 or G5 PowerMac, Powerbook or iMac lying around, then what are you waiting for?  Download one of the above distros and try it! And then let me know how it’s working out for you.

If you need help, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to get you going.

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About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.