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OpenBSD on an iBook G4

I've mentioned on social media and on the BTS podcast a few times that I wanted to try installing OpenBSD onto an old "snow white" iBook G4 I acquired last summer to see if I could make it a useful machine again in the year 2018.

This particular eBay purchase came with a 14" 1024x768 TFT screen, 1.07GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 1.5GB RAM, 100GB of HDD space and an ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card with 32 MB of SDRAM. The optical drive, ethernet port, battery & USB slots are also fully-functional. The only thing that doesn't work is the CMOS battery, but that's not unexpected for a device that was originally released in 2004.

Initial experiments

This iBook originally arrived at my door running Apple Mac OSX Leopard and came with the original install disk, the iLife & iWork suites for 2008, various instruction manuals, a working power cable and a spare keyboard. As you'll see in the pictures I took for this post the characters on the buttons have started to wear away from 14 years of intensive use, but the replacement needs a very good clean before I decide to swap it in!

After spending some time exploring the last version of OSX to support the IBM PowerPC processor architecture I tried to see if the hardware was capable of modern computing with Linux. Something I knew ahead of trying this was that the WiFi adapter was unlikely to work because it's a highly proprietary component designed by Apple to work specifically with OSX and nothing else, but I figured I could probably use a wireless USB dongle later to get around this limitation.

Unfortunately I found that no recent versions of mainstream Linux distributions would boot off this machine. Debian has dropped support 32-bit PowerPC architectures and the PowerPC variants of Ubuntu 16.04 LTS (vanilla, MATE and Lubuntu) wouldn't even boot the installer! The only distribution I could reliably install on the hardware was Lubuntu 14.04 LTS.

Unfortunately I'm not the biggest fan of the LXDE desktop for regular work and a lot of ported applications were old and broken because it clearly wasn't being maintained by people that use the hardware anymore. Ubuntu 14.04 is also approaching the end of its support life in early 2019, so this limited solution also has a limited shelf-life.

Over to BSD

I discussed this problem with a few people on Mastodon and it was pointed out to me that OSX is built on the Darwin kernel, which happens to be a variant of BSD. NetBSD and OpenBSD fans in particular convinced me that their communities still saw the value of supporting these old pieces of kit and that I should give BSD a try.

So yesterday evening I finally downloaded the "macppc" version of OpenBSD 6.3 with no idea what to expect. I hoped for the best but feared the worst because my last experience with this operating system was trying out PC-BSD in 2008 and discovering with disappointment that it didn't support any of the hardware on my Toshiba laptop.

Snow White iBook G4 with worn keyboard keys displaying the text-only installer for OpenBSD 6.3
This version of OpenBSD doesn't provide a graphical installer.

While I did have to run through the "text mode" install process a couple of times because of mistakes I made it was still a surprisingly straightforward process.

What made it so straightforward? The defaults values were sensible and the ISO came with comprehensive installation instructions. Both these things were particularly helpful given I'd never used OpenBSD before.

A good example of the maintainer's attention to detail was their decision to detail the exact three commands you have to type into Open Firmware to make this old iBook boot into OpenBSD automatically instead of just expecting users to go away and "Google" it. Clearly people with the actual hardware and a passion for BSD have worked through these instructions with each release and taken care to note the simplest solution to common "gotchas" so newbies like me aren't discouraged, and that's really satisfying to experience first-hand.

Snow White iBook G4 displaying the graphical login menu for OpenBSD 6.3
I was a little surprised when the login screen provided no visual feedback as I typed in my password.

The initial desktop environment that was loaded was very basic. All I could see was a console output window, a terminal and a desktop switcher in the X11 environment the system had loaded.

After a little Googling I found this blog post had some fantastic instructions to follow for the post-installation steps: https://sohcahtoa.org.uk/openbsd.html. I did have to adjust them slightly though because my iBook only has 1.5GB RAM and not every package that page suggests is available on macppc by default. You can see a full list here: https://ftp.openbsd.org/pub/OpenBSD/6.3/packages/powerpc/.

Snow white iBook G4 displaying the XFCE desktop with windows open for the terminal and NetSurf web browser
I was able to successfully install the XFCE desktop and some basic software packages.

Something you will notice if you try this installation for yourself is that not every package you want to install through the pkg_add command will work. That's a real shame, but it's not that surprising given running OpenBSD on an old PowerPC Mac is definitely a niche use-case!

Fortunately all the issues I came across are quite easy to fix if you're willing to install the usual build tools, download the source code and run the ./configure, make and make install steps for yourself. DosBox for example would probably run if it was built with VGL support, and applications like Gnumeric and Vinagre just need their missing dependencies to be built for the "macppc" platform to work properly.

The only "bug" I saw was Abiword strobing and flickering whenever you scroll to the top of the document, but as that's something I've experienced with previous attempts to run Linux on Intel Pentium III systems I'm going to assume that's an issue with Abiword rather than the underlying system.

Final thoughts

I was really impressed with the performance of OpenBSD's "macppc" port. It boots much faster than OSX Leopard on the same hardware and unlike Lubuntu 14.04 it doesn't randomly hang for no reason or crash if you launch something demanding like the GIMP.

I was pleased to see that the command line tools I'm used to using on Linux have been ported across too. OpenBSD also had no issues with me performing basic desktop tasks on XFCE like browsing the web with NetSurf, playing audio files with VLC and editing images with the GIMP. Limited gaming is also theoretically possible if you're willing to build them (or an emulator) from source with SDL support.

If I wanted to use this system for heavy duty work then I'd probably be inclined to run key applications like LibreOffice on a Raspberry Pi and then connect my iBook G4 to those using VNC or an SSH connection with X11 forwarding. BSD is UNIX after all, so using my ancient laptop as a dumb terminal should work reasonably well.

In summary I was impressed with OpenBSD and its ability to breathe new life into this old Apple Mac. I'm genuinely excited about the idea of trying BSD with other devices on my network such as my old Asus Eee PC 900 netbook and at least one of the many Raspberry Pi devices I use. Whether I go the whole hog and replace Fedora on my main production laptop though remains to be seen!