Installing Linux Mint 19.1 on a Late-2010 MacBook Air

We have a still perfectly usable Late-2010 MacBook Air, but with macOS 10.14 Mojave dropping support for Macs older than 2012 (it’s possible to extremely-hackily install it on older machines but I’d rather not go down that route), I decided I’d try installing Linux on it. The MacBook Air still works fine, if a bit slow, on macOS 10.13 but I felt like a bit of nerding!

Installation

My distribution of choice was Linux Mint, which is Ubuntu-based but less with the constant changes that Canonical keep making. The first hurdle right out of the gate was which “edition” to choose: Cinnamon, MATE, or xfce. There was zero info on the website about which to choose, I started with Cinnamon but that kept crashing when booting from the installation ISO and giving me a message about being in fallback mode. It turns out Cinnamon is the one with all the graphical bells and whistles, and it appears that an eight-year ultralight laptop’s video card isn’t up to snuff, so I ended up on “MATE” edition, which looks pretty much identical but works fine.

My installation method was using Etcher to write the installation ISO to a spare SD card. Installing Linux requires you to partition the SSD, I added a 2GB partition for the /boot partition, and another 100GB to install Linux onto. It doesn’t matter which format you choose as it’ll be reformatted as part of the installation process.

The installer is quite straightforward, but I chose the custom option when it asked how to format the drive, formatted both the 2GB and 100GB partitions as ext4, with the 2GB one mounted at /boot and the 100GB at /. The other part is to install the bootloader onto that /boot partition, to make it easy to get rid of everything if you want to go back to single-partition macOS and no Linux.

Post-install

The next hurdle was video card drivers. Mint comes with an open-source video card driver called “Nouveau” which _works_ but isn’t very performant, and there was lots of screen tearing as I’d scroll or move windows around. This being Linux, it was naturally not as simple as just installing the official Nvidia one and being done with, because that resulted in a black screen at boot. 😛 I did a massive amount of searching and eventually stumbled across this answer on AskUbuntu which worked where nothing else did: I followed those instructions and was able to successfully install the official Nvidia drivers without getting a black screen on boot!

At this point I realised that the brightness keys on the keyboard didn’t work. Cue a whole bunch more searching, with fix being to add the following snippet to the bottom of /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/nvidia-drm-outputclass-ubuntu.conf:

Section "Device"
  Identifier     "Device0"
  Driver         "nvidia"
  VendorName     "NVIDIA Corporation"
  BoardName      "GeForce 320M"
  Option         "RegistryDwords" "EnableBrightnessControl=1"
EndSection

BoardName being the name of the video card.

The last hurdle was getting the _other_ function keys to work (the audio and media keys), which was resolved with a simple sudo apt install pommed, and now I have a fully-functioning Linux installation, with working sleep+wake, audio, wifi, and brightness!

I’m certainly not going to be switching to it full-time, and it feels like a lot more fragile than macOS, but it’s fun to muck around with a new operating system. And with 1Password X, I’m able to use 1Password within Firefox under Linux too!

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