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Dust Off That iBook: Ubuntu MATE PowerPC Support Is Coming

Popular Linux distribution aims to breathe new life into old PowerPC hardware

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Lubuntu - Lightweight & Safe

Lubuntu used to be the favored choice

In an era dominated by Intel, 64-bit and multi-core processors the idea of actively opting to use an old PowerPC computer seems…hipster-ish.

Not that it should. Few of us would raise a stare at the sight of an old single-core Intel Atom netbook being used in a cafe, nor question the ‘point’ of turning an old Intel Core Solo tower into a cheap DIY media server.

But someone choosing to use an iBook? Ewww.  

(Apple’s push for cultural obsolescence, where people drop year old products like hot potatoes for fear of being seen as “last gen”, played a big part in shaping this perceptual difference. But that’s a different post for a different blog).

While Apple don’t support their old world Macs any longer, they’re still out there. As Linux so often proves, old hardware can be brought back to life. Once cutting edge machines now a little long in the tooth, granted, are still capable of plenty of things.

So before you drag that polycarb-clad iBook or PowerPC Mac Mini to the trashcan, why not give Ubuntu MATE PPC a whirl?

Ubuntu MATE PowerPC Ready for Testing

Although official Ubuntu PowerPC builds were canned officially after Ubuntu 6.10, the community took over spinning regular desktop builds (support for which stopped entirely back in 2013).

Lubuntu picked up the slack thereafter and continues to release PowerPC builds of its LTS releases to this day.

But choice is a good thing. And Ubuntu MATE, with a Long Term Support release firmly under its belt, is stepping up to the plate, ready to blow the dust of G5 iMacs and G4 iBooks left lingering under beds and huddled up in damp garages.

PowerPC – Know Thy Limitations

PowerPC is not a dead platform as is often assumed. The architecture fell out of grace with the Cupertino elite, and thus mainstream desktop computing, but PowerPC (now ‘Power ISA’) remains in use elsewhere, servicing the needs of super computers, games consoles and even space robots! It’s also still actively supported by the Linux Kernel.

On the flip side, just because a Linux distribution will run on an old 800MHz PowerBook does’t mean it will run well or without issue. Depending on the device, there may be graphics driver issues (the single biggest issue when running PPC Linux builds), non-working Wi-Fi and possible performance issues. Lowly processor speed, limited RAM and an old, well worn mechanical clicky hard drive are all factors of an old PC that can’t magically improve with a fresh OS.

Finally, not all apps available on a regular x86-based version of Linux can be compiled for or are compatible with PowerPC (e.g., Chromium, Flash).

Help Test Ubuntu MATE 14.04 LTS (PowerPC)

But none of the above matters if your device spends 365 days tucked under a pile of 2005-era Mac Format magazines. Repurposing an old and unloved PPC machine with Ubuntu MATE makes for a neat weekend hack, a novel “can do”, and is a great way to get involved in a community project.

Download Ubuntu MATE 14.04 LTS (PowerPC)

While it’s still early doors for Ubuntu MATE on PowerPC, and it remains a little way off being classed as wholly stable, what is there works well enough. You can browse the web with Firefox, watched videos in VLC, and get all misty eyed over the GNOME 2.x era layout and all related goodies.

As is typical for Linux PPC builds, Yaboot is used as the default boot loader. GRUB also features to make booting from an ISO a little easier.

We’ll be keeping an eye on PPC builds going forward, and we’d love to hear your feedback on it too. If you try the test builds out let us know how you fare in the comments below.