Installing Debian on a 2008 MacBook

I have a MacBook (13-inch, Aluminum, Late 2008) that is too old to run recent versions of macOS, but I was able to install the latest version of Debian, and run up to date Firefox and Chrome.

Recommended: Replace HDD with SSD

The MacBook had an HDD which is pretty slow. I swapped it out for a Kingston 120GB A400 SATA 3 2.5" Internal SSD SA400S37 (~25 USD) and got much better overall performance, most notably at boot.

Poor Wifi Throughput

For some reason, even though the wireless is capable of 802.11n, I'm only getting around 14Mbps up and down in my iperf3 tests. Wired networking is much faster. It isn't clear what is limiting the wireless network rate, but perf (not iperf) reports that read_hpet (high percision event timer) is consuming most of the cpu (though that may be a perf artifact, not sure).

Debian Install

  1. Download Debian netinst image for amd64.
  2. Flash the ISO onto a USB driver. I was on Windows 10 and used Balena Etcher.
  3. Plug MacBook into network with Ethernet cable. You won't have WiFi until after install.
  4. Boot MacBook, holding option key so you can select boot disk.
  5. Insert USB drive. At this point, boot options should appear. Select one and boot.
  6. Complete Debian install, with the following choices:
    • During Partition/Disk Setup, select Disk Encryption if you like (though you will have to enter a password at each boot to unlock the disk).
    • When prompted for disk for non-free WiFi drivers, skip. Will get back to this later.
    • Select xfce Window Manager. It's lightweight and works well with the old MacBook hardware.
  7. After install, remove USB drive and reboot.

Setup WiFi

  1. Create a file called /etc/apt/sources.list.d/my-non-free.list with the following contents:
deb buster contrib non-free
deb-src buster contrib non-free
  1. Run:
apt-get update
apt-get install firmware-b43-installer
  1. Add the following 2 lines to /etc/network/interfaces:
allow-hotplug wlan0
iface wlan0 inet dhcp
  1. Run: apt-get install wicd
  2. Use Wicd to connect to WiFi network. You will need to go to Wicd preferences and add wlan0 as the WiFi network device.

NVIDIA driver issue when updating to Debian 10.8

After updating to 10.8, xfce Window Manager wouldn't show the login screen, the main screen was suck on a blinking cursor, but I could still use the computer buy switching to another TTY with alt+control+F2.

dmesg showed an NVIDIA driver warning about my old graphics card no longer being supported. This issue is also described here.

Rather than installing the legacy NVIDIA driver, I installed the open source nouveau driver which seems to work fine for general web browser use and zoom calling. I went with the nouveau driver because I believe it will be maintained longer than the proprietary NVIDIA drivers.

After doing this, I was able to purge all the nvidia packages.

sudo apt-get purge '^nvidia-.*'

You may want to autoremove after this to cleanup unused packages:

sudo apt-get autoremove


Last updated February 7, 2021