Macbook Triple-Boot with OSX Leopard, Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.04

Well, since my macbook decided to screw up after a failed software update under OSX (thanks Apple) I decided to rebuild my system from scratch.

Since I’ve been considering doing this study-from-home Games Development course, I need Windows and I don’t too much fancy paying for it, Windows 7 is available legally for free, so I decided to use that. Since this was a new build, I upgraded to Leopard since my old OSX install was Tiger and my old linux install was an old Intrepid install that had been dist-upgraded to Jaunty so this time I decided to use Jaunty from scratch.

First of all, I booted off of the OSX disks and partitioned my 120GB hard drive into two sections. The first was 30GB for OSX, the rest was free space.

Once OSX had finished installing, I used Disk Utility from within OSX to further partition the drive’s free space to give me a 20GB partition for Windows 7, a small 1GB partition at the end of the drive for swap and the rest was given over to Jaunty. I formatted all 3 of these partitions as FAT or MS-DOS format. I couldn’t actually format them this way from the partitioning tool s after I created the partitions with the Mac filesystem, I reformatted them with Disk Utility individually. I probably didn’t need to format them at all, but what the hell.

Why didn’t I just use BootCamp? It seemed annoying. The BootCamp Assistant insisted on not letting me have control over my paritions and seemed very Windows-centric, not offering any mention of Linux. It also didn’t mention Windows 7, just XP and Vista so I decided since it didn’t seem to be supported anyway that I’d go with other methods instead rather than try and force it to work how I wanted and pray it worked.

Next, I did all the system software updates for OSX so that they wouldn’t interfere with any later steps. I then downloaded and installed reFIT, a nice EFI bootloader that made everything else very easy.

After that I rebooted and installed Windows 7. Windows 7 insists on a NTFS formatted partition so I formatted my previously FAT formatted 20GB partition and let it use that. The install went quite smoothly without any issues. After each restart, the reFIT bootloader should display a Windows symbol with a harddrive overlaid on it in it’s menu. Boot from that until you are finally at a working Windows 7 desktop.

At this point I rebooted and tried to access my OSX install using the option on reFIT, it worked fine, much to my surprise, and it seems thatinstalling Windows no longer trashes your bootloaders.

After that, I booted my Jaunty install disk (I used the alternate install disk because my normal one wouldn’t even boot in the computer). Installation was easy but there are a few things to watch out for. Make sure to select custom partitioning at the partitioning stage and then select the large empty FAT partition as the main / parition for Linux. I used ext4 as my filesystem but use whatever you like. Then select the small 1GB FAT partition for swap. I am assuming you have a basic grasp of how to partition and format things with the Ubuntu installer which for the most part is fairly self-explanatory anyway. Another thing to watch out for is the bootloader installation. With my paritioning layout of EFI, OSX, Windows 7, Linux and Linux Swap, I opted to install the GRUB boot loader onto (hd0, 3) or directly into the linux partition. Once the installer finished, I checked I could still boot into each system and everything worked fine, no hassle. The reFIT menu now had three icons an Apple, Windows and Linux one, each with harddrive overlays and they all worked fine.

At this point you have a working triple-boot system. However, the linux install doesn’t perform very well out of the box. I followed the very good instructions to improve my Linux experience on my macbook here: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBook2-1/Jaunty

UPDATE!!!

I was having quite a few driver issues and things such as sound wouldn’t work. However thanks to the advice of Jonas Wisser I decided to download the BootCamp drivers from the Snow Leopard prerelease. These worked a treat and basically fixed everything as far as I can tell so far.

Some words of warning:

  • My original system got trashed because an OSX update died, I’m guessing it tried to update the EFI firmware which I had replaced with reFIT. Having reFIT installed could make your system unbootable after you do an OSX update so I’d recommend keeping the reFIT installer around so you can reinstall it after doing updates before rebooting, just in case.
  • Windows 7 is a free release candidate until March 2010 where it will apparently degrade until you either pay for the full version which should then be released or it stops working all together.
  • Some stuff in Linux doesn’t work perfectly on the Macbook, such as the iSight having a green capture issue. This is discussed more on the page linked to previously.

Conclusions

So far I’m very pleased with my new install. Nothing has exploded yet, no weird errors, the installation was flawless. Basically nothing has really gone wrong or broken. I’m not much of a fan of Windows and I’ve barely even touched my Windows 7 install but I’m quite impressed by it, it seems pretty stable so far and it’s not done any of the things that normally annoy me immensely about Windows yet, so for the time being I think Microsoft might have finally released a decent version of Windows. I wont be switching any time soon, or ever, but so far I can at least tip my hat to Microsoft on what so far appears to be a job well done. I haven’t played much with Leopard yet, so I can’t really say how I feel about it other than it’s not very much different to Tiger so far, except with a little more polish in some areas. Jaunty I had running on here before and so far it’s working nicely. Just need to fully test out all the changes I made as recommended via that link I posted earlier to see if I can make it even better.

Read 30 comments

  1. thanx for the tips! – especially about the alt EFI bootloader!

    I know you didn’t want to be shackled by bootcamp – but some people would benefit from the results from that encounter too!

    btw: for those mac users who don’t have any back kground with Linux, it would be night e if you. iuld explain your choicecof the jaunty distro.

    • I’m sure some people would like to know about using bootcamp but it seemed to want to much control over the whole process for my tastes and I’m not about to reinstall my laptop again to try it out! :P As for the choice of Jaunty for my linux distro, well, I’ve been a ubuntu user for a while now primarily because it’s a well supported, easy to use distro that has a large, knowledgeable community behind it. I have jaunty installed on my desktop machine and so keeping to the same distro for my laptop made sense since I’d know more or less what i was getting into.

  2. Thank for your step by step!

    Everything goes fine until I tried to boot ubuntu from refit. I have a cute little Tux in the center of the screen and Ubuntu is not booting. Do you think it’s a partition problem? No problem with os x and windows 7 tough.

    Any idea?

    • Perhaps your bootloader on your ubuntu partition has gone screwy. I’d recommend using a linux rescue CD to boot you linux partition, or if that’s too difficult, booting a rescue CD, chrooting into the linux partition and then installing the bootloader again. That’s a bit of an involved process that I can’t really walk you through I’m afraid, but that’s the only idea I have. There is probably a decent tutorial on how to repair bootloaders out there. Make sure to install it to the linux partition, rather than the whole drive though.

  3. This is very useful and timely given my current situation.

    It is also written at just the right level of detail given my level of experience.

    I’m very glad I stumbled upon this post…thanks for putting it together!

    • Well, the best way to get is to actually have access to the Snow Leopard beta in which case you can just use BootCamp from within to make the driver CD but if not there are plenty of ISOs of the driver disk floating around on the net just waiting to be torrented. I’m sure you’ll find something with a simple search for “snow leopard boot camp driver torrent” or the like.

    • What I did is format them as whatever was available in the installer and then booted into OSX and used Disk Utility to reformat them as FAT. The thing is, it probably isn’t even required as you are only going to be reformatting the partitions anyway from within the Win7 and Linux installers but I wasn’t sure so if there would be any weirdness going on so I did it anyway.

  4. I created the partitions and erased the ones prepared for win7, ubuntu, and swap to FAT. Then I installed reFIT and rebooted. Every was fine and I can see the reFIT menu on boot up and my OSX still works fine. Now I am trying to install win7 from dvd by doing a reboot. reFIT sees the DVD and allows me to boot from it. So I tried and it took a long time before it finally goes to a screen that says “CDBOOT: Couldn’t find BOOTMGR”. Did I miss a step? What did I do wrong? Thanks.

  5. Ok there was definitely something wrong with the first disk. OSX was not even able to mount it. I reburned it at 2x and now it can at least mount it and see its contents but when I try to boot with it, I get an error message that it’s not a system disk. Sorry to keep bugging you about this but I desperately want to get this to work. Thanks so much for your help.

  6. Hey it’s working now and I don’t know why :). I tried rebooting it one more time just for kicks and it detected it. It’s installing right now. I may be back for questions when I try to install Ubuntu tho. Thanks.

  7. Ok I finally got the thing running BUT I noticed 2 big problems. 1. You can’t adjust the brightness, its stuck on the brightest setting. 2. The system runs hot. Although running Win7 works on a MacBook, I don’t think I want to risk damaging my system by running it with these problems. Have you or anyone else been able to solve this? I’m assuming that I’m going to have the same problem when I try to install Ubuntu. Should I even bother trying?

  8. You may notice I updated the post regarding this. Installing the snow leopard prerelease boot camp drivers solve pretty much all power management and brightness control issues and I’ve found linux runs more or less the same as OSX regarding power management after I followed all the instructions on the article I linked to regarding running ubuntu on the macbook.

    Yes, there is an element of risk here, I can’t promise you that your mac won’t burst into flames but I’ve been running mine fine for quite a while now and my mac seems to survive running for several hours in either linux or win7 without incident on my 3 year old hardware.

  9. Back again… I got Ubuntu installed and it worked but I think after I installed all the system updates and tried to reboot, all I get now the grub command line when I choose to boot into Ubuntu.

  10. Hmm, not sure what is going on there. When you installed the Ubuntu installation you made sure to select to install the bootloader on the same partition as the main linux partition and didn’t let the installer mess around with any of the existing partitions, right? That’s all I can think might have caused it.

    If you installed the bootloader onto the MBR, you probably want to uninstall it. I’m guessing here though and any suggestions I have might just make things worse, so bear that in mind.

    As far as I am aware you can’t actually uninstall the bootloader, just overwrite it so I expect you’ll want to let the Win7 tools do that. I have no idea how to actually fix bootloader problems with Win7 but I imagine booting off of the win7 install disk and using it to boot the installed win7 system should allow you to repair the win7 install or it might magically offer some way to fix it itself once booted or from within the cd boot menu.

    Assuming that is done and you can reach th epoint where you can boot into the win7 partition (and your osx partition still works) you can try reinstalling the bootloader in linux but make 100% sure you do not install it into the MBR but instead install it onto the partition the actual linux root fs is on. You may also need to edit your grub config.

  11. I’m not sure what I did with the boot loader when I installed ubuntu I can’t remember if there were any options as to where to install it. Any how, I wiped everything and reinstalled osx and now I’m pretty much where I was before I started all this. Not sure if I want to try this again any time soon. But thank you so much for your help.

  12. Hi, thanks for this guide! I’m reading up in preparation for the arrival of my brand new 13in MacBook Pro. Other triple-boot guides warn that you can only have four partitions (weird apple partition, OS X, Linux, Windows), prohibiting a swap partition. You don’t seem to have had that problem…can you shed any light on this?
    (I’m not actually worried about swap, but I was thinking of having a shared data partition–any thoughts?)

  13. Well, if a shared data partition is all your looking for, I use OSX as my shared data partition :P With the snow leopard boot camp drivers for windows, it can mount the hfs+ filesystem, as can linux, so they can all use that.

    I don’t recall having any issues what so ever having 4 partitions (OSX, Linux, swap, Win7) in addition to ‘the weird apple one’ which is the EFI partition I believe. I do however have chunks of free space between each of my partitions of about 50-100mb each, not sure why but that’s how OSX insisted on partitioning it so I’m assuming it was to do with the EFI system – I wouldn’t recommend trying to reclaim it or doing any partition under linux/windows.

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  15. Hi, thanks for your simple guide. I just tried it on a MacBook Pro 6.2, to install Snow Leopard + Win7 + Ubuntu Lucid, and so far it seems that everything works fine. Sure, there’ll be some tweaks to be done here and there, but mostly it works.

    I have one doubt, though. On the GRUB loader, which I installed on my Ubuntu partition, I have the options to boot Windows and OSX too. I’m afraid of trying, in case it messes up something. Do you know what would happen if I try? I’ll probably remove those entries from GRUB, anyways, since they don’t make much sense.

    • I expect it will be fine – certainly I wouldn’t imagine it would break things, at worst just failing to boot from grub into anything but Linux. It’s possible the other OSes might get confused and mess up their config but I couldn’t say for sure

  16. Ok, thanks for your reply. I think I’m not going to try right now because I do a lot of work with my laptop and I wouldn’t like to mess it up. I may try when I do the next format (which I hope is in a few years :P)

    BTW, something werid happened with the order of the comments or is it my computer messing things up?

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