Installing and Running Linux on an Apple Silicon Mac: A Guide

Installing and Running Linux on an Apple Silicon Mac: A Guide


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Apple's transition to its own custom silicon chips in recent Mac models like the MacBook Air and Mac mini presents new opportunities - as well as challenges - for installing Linux. The ARM-based Apple M1 and M2 chips require a different approach than the old Intel Macs.

In this guide, you'll learn how to install and run popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu on an Apple silicon Mac using virtual machine software.

Overview of Running Linux on Apple Silicon

Apple silicon refers to Macs powered by Apple's own System on a Chip (SoC) processors like the M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max, and M2, instead of Intel CPUs.

Since Apple silicon uses the ARM architecture, you can't just install an Intel Linux distro. The Linux kernel and applications have to be compiled for ARM.

There are two main options for running Linux on Apple silicon Macs:

  • Use a virtual machine (VM) to run an ARM version of Linux. This doesn't require dual booting.

  • Perform a full native install of ARM Linux on the hardware by dual booting. This offers near-bare metal performance.

VMs are simpler to setup and allow you to run macOS and Linux side-by-side. Native dual boot gives Linux full access to the hardware but can be complex to configure.

Option 1: Running Linux VMs using Parallels

Parallels Desktop is currently the easiest way to get Linux up and running on an Apple silicon Mac thanks to its excellent ARM virtualization support.

Here are the steps to install Linux through Parallels:

  1. Download and install Parallels Desktop on your Mac - at least the 14-day free trial.

  2. Open Parallels Desktop and download an ARM version of your preferred Linux distro. Ubuntu is a good starting point.

  3. Click the Play button to launch Ubuntu within the virtual machine window.

  4. Create a Parallels account or sign in when prompted. Follow the on-screen instructions.

  5. Once booted, install Parallels Tools for tighter integration between Linux and macOS.

  6. Configure Ubuntu within Parallels and begin using Linux on your Mac!

Parallels makes installing popular Linux distros like Ubuntu extremely straightforward on Apple silicon Macs thanks to its excellent ARM virtualization technology. Performance is also very good.

The only catch is that Parallels Desktop is a paid solution, with licenses starting at $99 per year. But you can test it extensively with a free trial first.

Option 2: Using the Open-Source UTM Virtualizer

If you don't want to pay for Parallels, UTM is a free and open-source alternative for running Linux VMs on your Apple silicon Mac.

UTM isn't as refined as Parallels, but offers great flexibility being open source. Here is an overview of installing Linux VMs with UTM:

  1. Download UTM for macOS from the website. Also grab an ARM Linux ISO file like Ubuntu.

  2. Install and launch UTM. Click Create VM and select your Linux ISO file.

  3. Allocate RAM, CPU cores, storage etc. for the VM and hit Save.

  4. Launch the VM, boot from the ISO and install Linux to the virtual disk.

  5. Once installation completes, eject the ISO and restart the VM to boot Linux.

  6. Launch the VM in UTM anytime to use your Linux environment.

UTM provides an open-source method of virtualizing Linux distros on Apple silicon. Just be prepared for more tweaking compared to commercial solutions like Parallels.

Tips for Running Linux VMs on Apple Silicon

Keep these tips in mind when setting up Linux VMs on your Apple silicon Mac:

  • Always use ARM builds of Linux distros designed for the M1/M2 chips. Intel builds won't work.

  • Allocate sufficient RAM (4GB+), CPU cores (2+) and storage (32GB+) for good performance.

  • Enable virtualization acceleration options for faster graphics if available.

  • Install VM tools or guest utilities to improve integration with host macOS.

  • Dual booting Linux natively will offer even higher performance if needed.

  • Back up your Mac before partitioning storage and attempting dual boots.

  • Research your Linux distro of choice for Apple silicon compatibility before installing.

Dual Booting Linux Natively on Apple Silicon

For maximum Linux performance on Apple silicon, you can natively dual boot instead of using a VM:

  • Pick a Linux distribution that specifically supports Apple silicon like Ubuntu, Debian or Fedora.

  • Back up your Mac with Time Machine before partitioning storage.

  • Use Disk Utility to create a partition for Linux. Format it as APFS.

  • Boot from your Linux live USB/DVD created with an ARM image.

  • Launch the installer to write Linux to the prepared partition.

  • Install rEFInd boot manager to choose between macOS and Linux at startup.

  • Boot to Linux directly from the internal SSD storage for native hardware access.

Dual booting is powerful but involves much more setup complexity compared to launching a VM. Make sure to back up your Mac fully before partitioning disks.

Final Thoughts on Running Linux on Apple Silicon

Thanks to virtualization apps like Parallels Desktop and UTM, installing Linux on Apple's latest silicon-based Macs is straightforward. Performance is excellent provided you stick to ARM builds of distros designed for M1/M2 hardware.

For most use cases, running Linux in a VM will provide a good experience with minimal fuss. But dual booting allows you to unlock the full performance of Apple silicon by installing Linux natively on the hardware.

Whichever method you choose, Linux unlocks powerful options for developers, programmers, and advanced users on the newest Macs. Take your pick based on your needs and technical comfort level.

The open nature of Linux combined with Apple's game-changing silicon delivers capabilities that simply aren't possible on other platforms. Embrace the flexibility of Apple silicon Macs and expand your horizons with Linux!