For a long time, my MacBook Air was set up to boot up to both Mac OS X Maverick and Ubuntu 14.04, i.e., dual boot. What happens is you just hold the alt/option button on startup, and the screen will prompt you to choose either the Maverick or Ubuntu partition.
Yesterday I decided to go all out with Ubuntu - no more Mac OS X - for a couple of reasons. 1) The Maverick partition took up 20 GB in my 128 GB machine. That’s a big percentage. 2) I wasn’t using Maverick for much of anything anyway, and I’ve found alternatives to those use cases. 3) The dual boot solution always felt inelegant. Having to choose a partition at startup just feels ugly.
I wanted a single boot MacBook Air running Ubuntu, and surprisingly, I couldn’t find a good guide on the Internet for this. This post is just a diary entry on what worked for me. I’m not an operating systems guru, I’m not a kernel maintainer. But if you’re in the same situation as I was and you follow these instructions, you’ll probably get what you came for.
- 13” MacBook Air 6,2. You’ll need the ~200 MB recovery partition that comes with your MacBook Air. The partition lets you kind of perform emergency procedures when things go awry. We need it; if you removed it, I can’t help you.
- SD card with 32-bit Ubuntu 14.04.2 in persistent mode.
- Wired Internet connection. The Ubuntu installer doesn’t come with the driver for the MacBook Air’s wireless card. The easiest way to get wireless Internet is to start with a wired connection and then download the wireless card driver. (As far as I know, the only way to have a wireless connection on the MacBook Air is Thunderbolt-Ethernet adaptor + Ethernet cable + Ethernet port to the Internet.)
- Back up all your files. They’re about to be erased from your machine.
- Boot up the recovery disk. This comprises holding CMD+R when you hear the Apple startup tone.
- Select “Disk Utility”.
- Partition your disk for Ubuntu the way you like it*. I allocated 30 GB to root, 4 GB to swap, 8 MB to the reserved BIOS boot area, and the rest to /home. Don’t worry about the partition format since you can format them via the Ubuntu installer.
- Boot up the SD card.
- Select “Install Ubuntu”.
- Select “Something else” when prompted to select an installation type.
- Allocate your partitions the way you decided (e.g., mount the 30 GB partition to root). Wherever possible, choose to reformat the partition. I chose ext3 as the format, but really I know nothing about disk formats.
- Let the installer do its thing. The last thing it’ll do is prompt you to restart the machine. When it restarts, your MacBook Air will now boot straight to Ubuntu!
*Refer to this stackexchange post if Disk Utility isn’t letting you create more than two partitions.
What didn’t work
The steps above look all fine and good, but I actually faced more trouble than expected to get the machine up. Here’s one method that DIDN’T work.
- Partition hard disk as stated above, but without the reserved BIOS boot area.
- Install from a USB stick (instead of an SD card) with an Ubuntu 64-bit (instead of 32-bit) installer in non-persistent mode (as opposed to persistent mode).
- After installation, the machine wouldn’t be able to find the Ubuntu partition.
- If I didn’t hold the option/alt button on startup, the screen would flash a “file not found” kind of icon.
- If I did hold the option/alt button on startup, the startup manager would fire up but with no options available.
Here’s another method that DIDN’T work.
- Partition hard disk with reserved BIOS boot area.
- Install from USB stick with an Ubuntu 64-bit installer in non-persistent mode.
- After installation the machine seems to try to boot into Ubuntu, but a black screen will appear with the message “error: file ‘/grub/i386-pc/normal.mod’ not found.” followed by a “grub rescue” prompt.
As you can see, my friends, behind every successful man is a lot of failure.
We discussed a method to have just a single Ubuntu operating system running on a 13” MacBook Air. As long as your recovery partition still exists, this method should work.
Hope this helps!