Ubuntu on USB for MacBook Pro

My son wanted to be able to run another OS (Windows or Linux) on his MacBook in order to be able to run a particular game, so I spent a bit of time figuring out how to get it all going. Linux is not for the faint of heart, still, unless you dive completely in (i.e. install it as your primary OS), and on the Mac it’s a bit trickier. So I’ve written up what worked for me.

I eventually got the current LTS (Long Term Support) release of Ubuntu to work. The tricky issues were the wifi (since Apple uses a proprietary Broadcom driver), the display resolution (since my MacBook Pro has a Retina display), and persistence (getting the USB stick to remember the state of the world between uses). I think I’ve got them all licked.

I downloaded ubuntu-14.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso from http://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop. I downloaded Mac Linux USB Loader as well.

I set things up on a generic 4GB stick, formatted as FAT.

Using the USB Loader app’s “Persistence Manager" I created the persistence file. I made it 2.2GB, though I have room left over on the stick, so probably could have made it larger. Then I ran “Create Live USB” and selected the Ubuntu ISO file I had dowloaded. The Loader app selected the appropriate options for me automatically, so I didn’t have to change anything. 

I then restarted the MacBook and held down the alt/option key while it was coming up. This gives me the option to boot from the hard disk or from “EFI”. Using the arrow key and Enter, I chose EFI.

Then I got a text menu. Choose option 2 to modify the kernel boot options, then option 1 to boot Ubuntu. I then get to a screen with the boot options, and the Persistence option should be highlighted. To boot with just that option, I hit the numeral 0 key. 

The first time I ran Ubuntu from the USB I had to install a wifi driver and adjust my display properties. I also changed the trackpad scrolling to “natural” to be like my Mac settings. After I’d done these steps once, coming in with options 2,1,0 retained them across boots (“Persistence”).

To install the wifi driver, I went to the system settings (gear icon on the left panel), and chose “Software and Updates”. The last tab there is “Additional Drivers”. When I clicked there, it automatically found the proprietary Broadcom Wifi driver, so I selected that and clicked Apply. I found that the progress bar never appeared to complete, but closing and re-opening the System Settings / Software / Drivers tab indicated the correct driver. was installed Clicking on the network icon on the top right of the screen showed the local Wifi access points and, after logging in, I was good to go!

For the display, since using the Retina at its native resolution is a guaranteed eyestrain headache, I chose a 1920x1200 resolution that looks pretty good.

The trackpad settings are also in System Settings.

After I rebooted, the system came back up with these settings (again, remembering to go through the kernel boot options on the startup menu to get persistence). It even connected to my wifi automatically.

So now I have Ubuntu on a stick that works on my MacBook Pro, yay!

Copyright 1997-2017, Ben Littauer