What Is the Best Linux Distribution for an Old Apple MacBook?

TL;DR: Use Pop!_OS or Elementary OS.

I have admired Apple hardware for quite some time now. It is usually well-made, elegant, and holds up when other laptops do not. I’m looking at you HP, Acer, and Dell. I have an older MacBook Air from 2011, which is the second MacBook I ever purchased, sitting on my desk. As one might imagine, it has not been able to receive updates from Apple for quite some time now and I have been thinking of how to keep using it securely. I could technically use it with the last supported macOS edition, which I believe is High Sierra, but that would eventually contain vulnerabilities that would never be patched. So, this is where I decided to turn to the Linux community.

I have been a casual user of Linux for a number of years now. I have even produced some Linux-based content for the Back From the Future Show podcast we ran in 2020, teaching our listeners how to better use the command line interface. I have used Ubuntu, Elementary OS, Manjaro, Linux Mint, Pop!_OS, Parrot OS, Kali Linux, and even Arch on occasion in virtual machine environments. I can officially say, “by the way, I use Arch.” But, the one place I never had a thought to use any flavor of Linux was on my old MacBook Air.

Until this month.

I have been trying to find a friendly, easy-to-use distribution of Linux that supported my older MacBook Air hardware fresh out of the install process. One would think 10 years would be long enough for Mac hardware support to be baked right into every distribution on the market, but one would be sadly mistaken. I tried installing many of my previous favorite distributions on my old MacBook Air, only to find disappointment. Let’s discuss.

Elementary OS

First, I tried Elementary OS. I was initially delighted at the hardware support. All of the soft buttons on the functions keys worked as expected: the screen brightness keys, keyboard brightness key, and sound keys worked flawlessly. The MacBook Air trackpad gestures were all supported and customizable in settings. I thought to myself, “I got lucky on the first try!” But that’s about the time things started to fall apart for my experience. First, I noticed that the battery indicator would not show a full charge for the battery, although the laptop had charged overnight and stayed plugged in. Then, I started to see how limited the settings were overall, which could have been a limitation of the desktop environment, but it was also not something I wanted to have to work too hard to change. Lastly, everything seemed a little fuzzy. It was not something I could find a way to resolve. That is when I decided to try something new.

Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Parrot OS, Manjaro

The next few distributions we can pass over rather quickly, because there were major hurdles with a number of them I was not willing to fight to overcome.

  • Ubuntu
    • I like Ubuntu a lot, which is why this experience was the most upsetting. I used the Ubuntu Live image to boot from a USB drive, so I thought everything would go flawlessly. I installed Ubuntu over my install of Elementary OS, but when I tried to boot into the install of Ubuntu I would only see a black screen. This was the case with every single attempt to boot into Ubuntu. So, I moved on.
  • Linux Mint
    • Linux Mint is another tried and true desktop I have used in many virtual machines in the past and enjoyed, but it failed me with a complete lack of Apple trackpad hardware support. Apple trackpad gestures were not part of the KDE environment out of the box and I did not want to dig for hours to find out how to get it working, so I moved forward.
  • Parrot OS
    • After installing Parrot OS I was super-hopeful. I chose the Security distribution, because I work in the cybersecurity field. It installed quickly and I was delighted at all of the software that came with it. The desktop environment was lightweight, but highly configurable. Sadly, it also lacked any support for the Apple trackpad clean off the isntall. So, I had to take a pass on it after a few days. I was very disappointed.
  • Manjaro
    • Manjaro is the darling of the Internet in the Arch community, so I decided I would give it a fair shake. I installed it and used it for a day or two, but came to the conclusion that it also did not have good support for gestures on the Apple trackpad. I moved on quickly, as I was also not super-familiar with the ‘packman’ package manager.

Pop!_OS

Finally, after watching a few videos on this newer Ubuntu-based distribution, I installed Pop!_OS. The install went smoothly and it booted right into the OS quickly, which came as a surprise after my lackluster experience with Ubuntu earlier in the month. I will just touch on what makes me believe I will be sticking with Pop!_OS.

  • Apple hardware support is phenomenal right out of the gate. Gestures work! Scrolling is a little faster than I would like, but that seems to be the case with every single distribution I tried.
  • The level of polish is beyond any other distribution I tried this past month.
  • The ease of use is beyond even that of Elementary OS.
  • It is backed by a company that makes remarkable hardware and wants to provide an Apple-like experience to the Linux community–this shows through in the OS, too.

To answer the question that I could not find an adequate answer online for a month ago, “What is the best modern Linux distribution to use on an older MacBook (Air),” the answer is Pop!_OS or Elementary OS.

My Pop!_OS experience has been so pleasant, I have written this entire article on my old MacBook Air from 2011 running Pop!_OS. It has not started to overheat (as it did with some other distributions) and the battery indicator shows a full charge. (Yes, I have changed the thermal paste twice in the last few years, for those that may be sensitive to the heating issues.)

Please, let me know your results using older Apple hardware with modern, secure, updated distributions of Linux.

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22 thoughts on “What Is the Best Linux Distribution for an Old Apple MacBook?

    1. I’ll admit it might be more convenient if they had, but honestly if it bothered you enough to cause your comment then linux of any kind is probably not for you

    2. Mission accomplished. Just joking. I think you’re correct in a way, even if your way of expressing it was a little off-putting. I’ll take your feedback and add more links in the future.

    1. Pop!_OS. I do love it. It’s Gnome for now (which is a plus), but I can’t wait to try out their new incoming Cosmic Desktop when it launches!

  1. Did you install elementary tweaks? That gives you more options to customize. I have been trying multiple linux distros and elementary OS has been the only one that supported all the touchpad gestures out of the box and looked and ran so smoothly on the 2012 unibody 13″ macbook pro I got upgraded to a ssd and 16gb of ram in dual channel.

    I tried Pear OS and even some kde neon and kubuntu and just would take a bit to customize more than I would like to have that mac look and feel while everything seems to translate well on Elementary OS and also being able to get installed the wireless wifi driver.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ryan. I did install Tweaks, but still found it to be a little too constricted. I need to write a new article on what I am running on my old Mac now: Fedora Workstation. I did enjoy the ease of use with elementaryOS, but I found it too restrictive.

  2. I have tried those and so many others and if you want the closest mac like experience with everything including wifi and the facetime camera to work ootb for old macbooks, ubuntu budgie at least 20.04 lts. It is very fast and snappy, and you can add touchpad gestures, tiling and window snapping and even a cupertino desktop layout and mojave and big sur desktop and icon theme you can click and apply.

    1. How did you get the touchpad gestures incorporated? That’s one of the biggest reasons I have trouble leaving Gnome!

      I do like some Ubuntu, especially with this most recent update. Budgie, while low resource usage, feels clunky and old to me. Perhaps I just need to go full window manager and never look back!

    2. I just tried Ubuntu Budgie (latest version) and launching firefox hard crashes the entire machine. Chromium can be installed but doesn’t launch from menu, only CLI.

      Sorry, these are fundamental to an OS…trying Pop next.

      1. Do you think it’s an interaction between Budgie and the browsers? I ask because Pop is based on Ubuntu, just with a highly tweaked Gnome theme, and you might have similar results. Those are some odd issues, to be sure. I wish you better luck with Pop. Don’t forget Fedora. I’m using Nobara now and loving it.

  3. My destro is PopOS! It’s very nice, but does not support WiFi correctly. It can see the SSiD but can’t connect. So 7/10

    1. That is one of the issues with Linux: sometimes you need proprietary drivers that are just not included in the base image. Sometimes, like with the case of Ubuntu, you can choose to enable third-party, proprietary repositories during install, but other distros do not allow this during install. It’s a Crapshoot.

      If you want to troubleshoot it, consider looking at the official WiFi documentation over on System76’s site. In order to install things, you will either have to download and transfer the packages to your laptop via USB or use an Ethernet cable to put it on the network in order to get WiFi working. It’s a chore…

  4. Thank you. I found this both interesting and informative. Based on your experience with Pop OS I shall give it a spin on my 2015 Mb Pro. My experience to date is given below………

    I was prompted to try Fedora mostly out of idle curiosity. I had briefly tried Linux (ubuntu) years ago, when it was was included on a PC magazine CD. It was around the time I was wrestling with Windows 3 while I was still using Dos. My initial exposure to Linux was a brief one. I had “real” work to perform on the PC so stuck with the novelty of windows and the software/operating system I was beginning to know.

    In my dotage I have time to burn, and have recently started using laptops and Macbooks. Now I needed to know more about Linux, if for no other reason than to keep my grey matter active as I approach old age head on.
    My elder Mac (sentimental fav) is an i5 dual core 2013 Macbook Air, family hand me down. It was running Monterey OS 12.4. in 4GB without issues. Currently running Fedora 36. More on that later.

    My daily driver is an intel 8400 desktop running Windows 11 with 32GB. Windows 11 is modified under the hood for mainly security and performance reasons.
    My other Mac is a 2015 Macbook Pro running Monterey 12.4, given to me because the owner was convinced it was possessed by evil spirits. Who am I to judge? The Mac did exibit strange and random behaviour!

    Initialy I was dual booting Linux alongside Windows 11 on the desktop PC. I have a total of 4 hard drives, NVME SSD and 2 HDD on the desktop PC, and as many additional partitions of various types. Windows also struggled to install untill I disconnected drives. It meant I did not always have a smooth newby Linux install experience. Ditto the uninstall process. But I persisted. In hindsight Linux was the least of my problems. My hardware was the problem and I just got sick and tired of disconecting-connecting things to facilitate another distro install, and I tried a lot of distros, including Pop OS, Mint, Zorin (pro and lite) Manjaro etc etc. All worked ok, what bothered me on the whole was the old “Windows look”. The “new window” look also failed to impress me. I went to and fro with Fedora all the while. I guess the learning experience was necessary, but I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble sticking to Fedora. Admittedly I was under whelmed by the Fedora experience at first, probably because I couldn’t let go of my Windows habits. I gave up on my desktop and just use Win 11. For now anyway.

    My Linux sucess story is my Macbook Air. True to form I tried several distros before Fedora. Eventually it was a simple matter to boot to a Fedora created usb stick and do a clean install of Linux 36. Straight out of the box Fedora performed admirably. Fedora and the Macbook trackpad seem to be made for each other. Multi-tasking is somewhat Macbook like, only better. I love to tinker and refine my computer experience, and Fedora gives me endless opportunities for that. I am still learning what linux is all about, and I enjoy every minute of that. In the meantime the experience reminds me of my brief ownership of an M1 Macbook Air, only better. This old girl has Magsafe and proper ports. The performance compares favourably.

    This week a family member acquired his first laptop. It was woefully underpowered and had only 4GB of ram. Little wonder then that its performance was slothlike trying to run Windows 11. I installed Fedora, and you can guess the rest.

    1. Geoff, that is quite the story. Thanks for leaving a comment. I had actually switched my distro to Fedora 36, as well, but when I started running Pop_OS on my main desktop, I have decided to switch back. Just tonight, I’m having a hard time installing it again on my MacBook Air 2011 via Ventoy. I’m having to make a boot disk the old-fashioned way, with one ISO on one drive.

      I’m glad you are loving Fedora. It’s such a good distro. Plus, they have a KDE spin, if you get bored with Gnome. You could also look at Awesome Window Manager.

      Again, thanks for stopping by, and I hope to hear from you again.

  5. Just a word of warning. I soured on Apple ecosystems and decided to go Linux. Bought a Dell and tried a few distros before settling on PopOs. Now, a year in, decided to get entirely off MacOS. Installed PopOS on my MacBook Pro 2018. *None* of keyboard, trackpad, or wireless work. And the fixes look like a major pain … assuming they even work at all. Looks like it’s back to MacOS on that hardware until I can replace it.

    1. I am saddened to hear that. Perhaps someone in the community knows if someone has open-sourced some drivers for the newer Macs.

      Also, try Ubuntu or Fedora and let us know how that goes. Pop!_OS can be weird sometimes.

  6. I own a 2013 MacBook Air (I7, 8G RAM, 512G SSD) that I really like. I kept it going over the years by installing a new high capacity battery and also NOT updating the OS beyond Sierra. Why? Well Apple has a nasty habit of slowing down their products over time. They’ve been caught doing it but it’s still their business model. At any rate I had to bite the bullet and upgrade my OS because I couldn’t upgrade many of my apps any longer. So I installed Big Sur. It ran really fast and all was well for 18 months. Then I was bit with the Kernel_Task CPU throttle. Basically it slows your CPU with “no ops” because the OS thinks it’s overheating, which it wasn’t of course. I rolled back to other MacOS versions but the issue persisted. So I went Linux shopping. I installed Ubuntu 20.4 LTS this morning. I like it and it runs extremely fast but I don’t like the trackpad support. It seems to freeze on occasion and the scrolling is too quick (not adjustable that I can find). Tomorrow I’ll give Pop!_OS a try. Thanks for your article.

    1. If Pop!_OS doesn’t fit the bill, try out Fedora. I ran that for a while with good success on my old 2011 MacBook Air.If you need nVidia support, go with Pop!_OS. If you have Intel or AMD graphics, almost any distro will perform fairly well.

  7. Did you have any issues with the webcam? I can’t make the webcam work on elementary os on my mba 2015. None of the online tutorials have worked for me… I want to keep elementary, but it looks like PopOS is next in line. So, that’s why I ask about your facetime webcam experience… does it work? Did it work out of the box?

    1. I didn’t have any issues with the webcam. I am not sure what might be happening with the newer Mac, but it worked fine on my 2011 under Elementary OS. It worked out of the box for me, but apparently your mileage may vary. You might try Manjaro and look through the AUR for drivers. I’d burn an ISO of that and give it a shot.

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