Mac Mini (mid-2011) on Linux

When Apple released MacOS Majove in 2018, the minimum hardware requirements abandon lots of great hardware. While the hardware is still usable, macOS and Apple software cannot be updated to their current releases. That sucks.

This post outlines the process of moving a Mac Mini (mid-2011) to Linux.

Mac Mini

The Mac Mini I’m rescuing is a mid-2011 with i5-2415M, 2GB RAM and 500GB HDD, running macOS High Sierra (version 10.13). It’s dreadfully slow. The goal is to use this machine as a general purpose computer in a classroom for high school students.

In addition to changing the operating system from macOS to Linux, the RAM will be upgraded to 8MB and 550GB hard drive replaced with 128GB SSD.

Steps

The overall steps:

  1. Order new hardware
  2. Upgrade RAM and Hard disk drive (HDD)
  3. Install Linux

Upgrade

I use Crucial’s website to help determine the parts I can upgrade. Using the model of the computer you’re working on, Crucial will show you the options for memory, hard drive, and SSD upgrades. I often buy the parts on Amazon.

For this upgrade, I used:

  • Memory : Crucial – 8GB Kit (2x4GB) DDR3L – 1333 SODIMM ~$60 USD
  • Solid State Drive (SSD) : Crucial – BX500 2.5 SSD 120GB ~$22 USD

Upgrading this Mac mini is straight-forward. It was built in the days when ‘upgrade-ability’ was built into the hardware design. Finding a YouTube video to guide you through the steps of taking the Mac Mini apart is very helpful. I used this video from MacSales.

The parts inside the Mac mini fit just right. The first time I did one of these upgrades, the SSD wasn’t aligned properly which prevented the wifi from fitting, and the screw holes did not align. Take your time and don’t force anything.

Installing Linux

I’ve been using Elementary OS for a few weeks, and I’m impressed. I appears to be a good distribution choice for someone coming from MAC. While my day-to-day distribution is currently Pop_OS!, I’m going to give Elementary a try with this upgrade.

Installing Linux is the same basic process for any distribution.

  • Download .iso file from the distribution’s website.
  • Create a bootable USB Drive with the .iso. There are utilities to do that with; I use Etcher.
  • Boot the target computer from the USB Drive and follow the prompts.

Elementary OS has the details of these steps outlined on the installation page of their website.

Wifi

I expected to have issues with wifi. In my experience, when installing Linux on Macs from this era, wifi does not work out of the box. I was pleasantly surprised the Elementary install screen recognized the wifi card and connected to it, and downloaded the latest software update.. After the installation was complete and the computer rebooted, the wifi card was no longer recognized. I needed to install drivers. As in the past, running the following command from the terminal fixes the issue:

sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-installer

Up and running

This upgrade was simple and straight-forward. It’s a fun project for someone that has no experience with hardware upgrades or Linux.

Benchmarks

This is my first experience running any type of benchmark. I used GeekBench on the Mac Mini before and after the upgrade. I don’t have much insight into what these numbers mean; I expect to in the future. But my hands-on benchmark tells me this computer runs as fast as much newer hardware and is totally usable.

Before – MacOS w/2GB RAM and HDD

Pre-upgrade full report available on GeekBench

After – Elementary OS w/8GB RAM and SSD

Post-upgrade full report available on GeekBench

Conclusion

The performance of this Mac Mini would have improved with only the hardware upgrades (without switching to Linux). But on Linux, the performance is really good.

A more important point is that Apple abandoned this Mac Mini. When Mojave was released in 2018, the minimum hardware requirements are:

  • MacBook: Early 2015 or newer
  • MacBook Air: Mid 2012 or newer
  • MacBook Pro: 2012 or newer, Retina display not needed
  • Mac Mini: Late 2012 or newer
  • iMac: Late 2012 or newer

Struck at High-Sierra, this computer would only receive security updates, moving forward. Many software applications cannot be updated either. After switching to Linux, this computer can run the latest operating system and applications available on Linux.

I did this upgrade for my friend, Chris. I look forward to see what experience he has in the classroom with Elementary OS.

(It took me 3x longer to write this post than it did to save that Mac mini)

7 thoughts on “Mac Mini (mid-2011) on Linux

  1. Hi im really glad that you did this post as I am trying to resque two mac minis. My question is, would it still work well with only the Linux upgrade? I intend not to upgrade the hardware for now as budget is limited.

    1. Edmund – good question. Linux is lighter weight than Mac OS, therefore I expect you would see an improvement in performance. If choosing which hardware upgrade to make first, go with the SSD.

  2. I have a mid-2012 Mac Mini, 16 gigs of Crucial RAM, and OEM 500 GB hard drive. When I upgraded to Mojave, it became almost unusable.

    Unfortunately, I still need to use it for work and home! I’ve been told to get a 1TB SSD, and reload the OS, restore data etc., and it will be dramatically faster.

    But I’m a Linux geek from way back, and after I get my new iMac, probs should put Linux on this beast and see if it works any better. Thanks for the ideas.

    1. I agree that upgrading the hard drive would make a big difference, and Linux would be a good kick after that. While security updates will continue coming out for the near future, you are also stuck at Mojave on the model. Good luck.

  3. I upgraded my mac mini mid 2011 with 2x 8 GB of RAM when I was still running Mac OSX, because with only 2 GB of RAM it was very slow.
    Since Apple won’t support High Sierra anymote in the near future I decided to install Ubuntu 20.04 LTS.
    At first I had problems connecting my bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, but a google search solved the issue.
    However I was not pleased with the speed of the system at all. Booting up the system or starting Firefox was very, very slow.
    So I bought and installed a 500 GB Samsung SSD EVO 860 and now everything runs smoothly and pretty fast.
    I’m using the mac mini as an entertainment system in my living room and I’m very happy with it now.

  4. Just wanted to thank you for this post. I have a similar spec Mac Mini (2011, 500GB HDD, 8GB memory) that I hadn’t used in a while. On the back of your post, I installed Elementary OS really easily and is currently fast enough to not worry about upgrading my HDD to SSD. Enjoying my new [not new] computer!

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