Thursday, July 4, 2013

What To Do With Your Old PowerPC Mac

In various forum threads and chest thrusting rituals, often the subject comes up, "What do I do with my old Mac?" There are the common answers like fileserver, iTunes server, even Bit Coin miner, but for this post I want to recommend an option I don't often see--Linux testing machine. As open source community projects, Linux distributions rely on the community (you) to test and file bug reports to ensure the optimum reliability of the project. And to be rewarded with a delectable spread of famous meats and cheeses (OK, maybe not).

For this we want to focus on development releases. In Debian, there's Testing and also Sid for advanced users. Ubuntu has development releases, too, but for this How-To we'll concentrate on Debian since Ubuntu is based on it anyway.

If you decide on Testing (Jessie as of this writing), you can install from a Wheezy disc and then upgrade, or you can directly install from a Jessie installer (found on this page). Debian Sid cannot be installed directly from a disc. You must either install Wheezy or Jessie first and then upgrade.

Installing Jessie directly is simple enough, so let's illustrate how to upgrade from Wheezy. Once any kind of Wheezy is installed, it could be just a base system without a GUI, you need to edit your /etc/apt/sources.list file. You'll see several download mirrors with either "stable" or "wheezy" in them. To upgrade to Testing, replace every instance of "stable" or "wheezy" with either "testing" or "jessie". If you want your system to stick with Jessie after it turns stable, use "jessie", but if you want to stay permanently on a Testing rolling release, use "testing".

Note here, Wheezy installs should list an additional wheezy-updates repository (not to be confused with the security "wheezy/updates" one), but there's no such thing as jessie-updates. Instead, as of right now, it's jessie-proposed-updates, so replace with that. To see which repositories are actually available for your release, enter your mirror's url in a browser ( in my case) and click on dists. Peter S. reported problems with this, so I think it's wrong. Just comment out the "wheezy-updates" lines (not "wheezy/updates" in the security urls) and leave it at that.

Once you got all that worked out, save and exit and run the following command to update your repositories:

sudo aptitude update

Then to actually upgrade your system, run:

sudo aptitude full-upgrade

and your kernel and all packages will be upgraded to Testing.

The procedure to upgrade to Sid is basically the same, but Sid doesn't get any security updates or sid-updates, so comment out those lines (if you don't know what "comment out" means without googling, you probably shouldn't be running Sid). Then replace "wheezy" or "jessie", whichever you installed from, with "sid" or "unstable". Then run the two commands above and your computer will explode, I mean, you'll be all set.

From then on, you can install software and report any bugs you find with Debian's reportbug program. It comes in both command line and GUI versions and includes onscreen instructions to walk you through the process. So say if you upgrade to Jessie and suddenly your sound won't work, you can report a bug against alsa-base and say "My system isn't loading the snd-powermac module. What the eff?" Or something like that.

So put those old 'Books and Power Macs to work and make those packages maintainers roll their eyes at looking up Big Endian/Little Endian problems.


  1. Aleluia!Someone that answers those threads in a good way!

  2. Well, I'm a complete Linux noob, so I wouldn't try testing, but for sure I can try stable Debian. And that's exactly what I finally found the time to do! I'm writing this because I really have to thank you. Your installation guide is immensely useful. It wouldn't have been as easy without your help. Thanks!

    1. Cool, thanks! Now's not a good time for the Testing branch 'cause it's new and there are a few bugs in the kernel, but wait a few months and maybe you'll want to try it out.

  3. I use my Powerbook G4 for web development.