2011 macbook air linux update

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been playing with Ubuntu on my 2011 Macbook Air, and I’m happy to report that it’s now much more usable than when I first installed it. There’s a kernel module hack that fixes the display issues, allowing the Intel driver to run at the panel’s full 1440×900.

Having the Intel driver running instead of the fbdev driver means that OpenGL and visual effects (and Unity, if you’re in to that sort of thing) work, as does brightness adjustment, and I suspect it’s the reason that suspend and resume now work, too. Patching the kernel manually would be a pain, but the (updated) setup script from the Ubuntu forums now takes care of this for you, along with the keyboard and trackpad driver patches.

Ubuntu 11.04 on the Macbook Air, with all the important stuff working

I also had a chance to test the Ubuntu 11.10 beta. I haven’t tested it with the video fix above (though it is supposed to work), but I did notice that the my 5Ghz 802.11n network worked with it, so it seems like the 5Ghz issues I’m having with 11.04 have been fixed.

All of the important stuff is working, then, at least for my needs. There are some minor keyboard niggles — I haven’t been able to adjust the keyboard backlight brightness, and the volume keys are incorrectly mapped — but the biggest issue is with the trackpad. It works, including two-finger scrolling and two- and three-finger taps and clicks, but it doesn’t feel quite right, particularly when scrolling.

It seems like a minor thing, but the trackpad is central to the user experience, and when basics like button presses and scrolling rely to a degree on gesture recognition, it matters a lot that they’re detected reliably and respond appropriately. The multitouch driver is under active development, though, so I have no doubt it’ll improve.

I really enjoying benchmarking this thing, just to see how much power has been crammed in to it. Compiling Ardour 3 from SVN seemed like a good test of overall system performance: it managed it in 14 minutes and 50 seconds, just under two minutes faster than my 3Ghz Core 2 Duo desktop. It’s definitely no slouch!

9 thoughts on “2011 macbook air linux update

  1. Pingback: switching back: the 2011 macbook air | woo, tangent

  2. Please forgive, if my question is too trivial, but which version(s) of ubuntu did you successfully install? I have a [macbook air 2011 (core i7 – 1.8Ghz]) And I have no problem getting the install disk to boot (via cd and dd to partition), but so far, have tried three versions, 11.04 (32 bit) and 11.10 (32 & 64 bit) and they all crap out about 3 mins into the install complain about some un-recoverable error. The screen is basically unreadable, so there are no usable error messages, other than “an error has occurred.”

    Any Ideas..?

    Thanks You!

  3. Please disregard the above, it started working when I used the “Alternate Install” 11.10 / 64 bit.

    I ran your script, and everything seemed to go ok, except for the section where it prompts for the location of an ‘apple driver..?’, then it says cannot find, ‘apple-such-n-such driver’. It reboots ok, but I lose my pointer all-together…
    So my mouse basically takes a dump, and had to do a fresh re-install to get my mouse working again… I am not sure, what’s causing it, I am tempted to run just the “fix-i915′ script… Any thoughts..?

    Thank you!
    btw: you must have put some time into this script, nice work.

  4. The trackpad works very well for me, as long as I put
    Option “MaxTapTime” “0”
    in the InputClass section of xorg.conf.
    That makes the two finger scrolling seem much more stable.

  5. Have you guys noticed any big issues with running Linux on the air regarding the following:

    1. Battery Life
    2. Too many HD Writes (reducing the life of the SSD)
    3. External Display / Thunderbolt IO
    4. Keyboard Backlight

    I haven’t tried installing Linux on my Air, yet, but those are a few of the things I’m worried about. Particularly, after spending $1500 on this system, I don’t want to batter the life of the SSD since it’s “practically” impossible to replace.

    If I can just get over the $100 – $200 I have spent in software on OSX, then I’d love to make the switch permanently. I’m just afraid of losing the “experience” that comes with this machine, even though I would much prefer Linux any day.

    Hands down, this is the most beautiful hardware I’ve ever laid my hands on — but I spend half of my time SSH’d into a Linux box to do any “real” work. I’d love to skip the overhead and just run Linux directly … choices like these suck :(

  6. With Ubuntu 11.10 and the setup script, I’ve had no trouble with the keyboard backlight (it works just fine, and can be adjusted using the keyboard, much as under OS X), and I just haven’t worried much about the SSD — I haven’t enabled any swap, and I believe that modern SSDs have pretty lengthy lifespans anyway, so I haven’t seen it as much of a concern. Overall, I’d say OS X hits the disk harder than Linux does in general anyway.

    I haven’t tried an external display or any kind of Thunderbolt device; I suspect the display might work, but I don’t think there’s any kind of Thunderbolt support yet. Battery life is definitely worse under Linux than under OS X, but it’s not too bad — about 5 hours or so with my typical usage.

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