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.
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.
- 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 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.
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.