Refurbishing an iMac 17" with Xubuntu

  • 7 February 2018
  • charm
17" iMac running Xubuntu

Apple doesn't make it easy for refurbishers to rebuild and refurbish their products. Even if you have the original media, the media is usually so outdated that it's not worth installing, that's where Xubuntu Linux comes in. This is how we refurbished a 17" white iMac.

The 17" white iMac we were refurbishing had the following specifications:

  • Intel Core 2 T5600 @ 1.83GHz dual core CPU
  • Apple Mac-F4218EC8 motherboard with an Intel Mobile 945GM chipset
  • 2GB RAM
  • 160GB Western Digital WD1600JS-40T Hard Drive
  • Marvell 88E8053 Gigabit ethernet adapter
  • Broadcom BCM4311 802.11a/b/g wireless adapter

Our Xubuntu installer installs via PXE network, so the first step was to get the iMac to PXE network boot. Normally we would turn on PXE booting in the BIOS of a PC. On the iMac we decided to burn a CD with drivers and instructions to set the iMac to PXE boot. We usually use gPXE, but the rom-o-matic web site where gPXE is normally downloaded from seemed to be down. We found a similar open source PXE project called ipxe:

We turned on the iMac, put the CD in the drive, and held down the "C" key to force the iMac to boot from CD. The disc loaded the network drivers, found our PXE-boot server, and loaded our menu for installing Xubuntu. Our installation is automated, no interaction required.

There were a couple of issues at the start of the install. First, iMac keyboard we had didn't work, but this wasn't an issue since the system just PXE booted right to our server and at that point the keyboard worked. What we found was that if we plugged a PC keyboard into the iMac the iMac detected the keyboard -- go figure. The second issue occurred after the installation, the iMac kept booting to our iPXE boot CD. You can resolve this a couple of ways:

1) holding down the eject key on an iMac keyboard when the iMac first posts
2) holding down the mouse button (or the right mouse button on a PC mouse) when the iMac first posts.

The Xubuntu installation finished without issue. The bottom of our 17" iMac shows a copyright date of 2006, making it roughly 12 years old. Even compared to our Core 2 Duo PCs the iMac's loaded a bit slow. The CPU in our 17" iMac is only a 1.83GHz Core 2 T5600. On the T5600 ranks at slightly half the power of an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, a 3GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, but to be fair the E8400 is 1 - 2 years newer than the T5600. The gist of all this is that the 17" iMac is a bit of a slouch at boot time. During boot you'll see the grey "Mac" screen (for approximately 40 seconds) and a long period of black (another 30 seconds), followed by the Xubuntu boot screen, more black, and finally the Xubuntu desktop at roughly 1:52 minute mark. A Solid State Drive will improve boot time, but we stuck with the Western Digital Drive we had.

When we first started the system the boot time may have been a bit faster, this time is after adding a proprietary driver for the wireless card and the iSight camera in the iMac. Neither the wireless, nor the iSight camera worked when we booted Xubuntu. At first we checked the Xubuntu "Drivers" program for proprietary drivers. Drivers exist for the Intel CPU (which we didn't use given the Spectre/Meltdown issues) and the Broadcom wireless. We installed the Broadcom wireless driver, but found that the wireless still didn't work. We fixed the wireless by running:

sudo apt-get purge bcmwl-kernel-source
sudo apt-get install b43-fwcutter firmware-b43-installer

A couple of articles suggest installing linux-firmware-nonfree, but we couldn't find it in Ubuntu 16.04 and didn't appear to need it. After purgining the bcmwl-kernel-source and installing the other two packages we rebooted and the wireless suddenly worked and detected all the access points around us.

Installing the iSight camera driver was quite a bit trickier, because it requires installing a MacOS firmware. That firmware is of course not open-source, so finding it can be a bit tricky. While we had the original CDs and could have extracted them from CD, it seemed a whole lot simpler just to find the firmware online. A lot of articles talked about the process, but didn't have any links to the firmware. We found a post on Ralphy's web site detailing the process:

Some of the articles suggested you needed to load the firmware every boot, but we found Ralphy's process seemed to take care of that for us on Xubuntu 16.04.

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