The best part of getting a MacBook, Mac Mini, or Mac Pro is OS X, Apple’s fantastic operating system (OS). But that doesn’t mean you can’t try out some other great alternatives. The whole Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux fight is irrelevant now. Let’s try something new, eh?
The point of this article isn’t to just find the best alternative operating systems for a Mac. These alternatives should also be easy to install, work well with the Mac keyboard, and support existing hardware without needing too many drivers to be installed or other such procedures. Basically, we’re looking for hassle-free operation.
Before You Start…
There are different ways to try out a new operating system on your Mac. You could:
- Use VirtualBox to emulate the new OS.
- Boot up a Linux Live USB stick.
- Set up two OSes side by side, a.k.a. “Dual-boot”.
- Erase Mac OS X and install a new OS.
Joel has gone into the pros and cons of running multiple operating systems on any PC, so read that before you make your decision.
Whatever you finally decide, make sure you backup your Mac first! Our ultimate triple backup solution for Mac is the most comprehensive way to do this. If you want an easier solution, turn a NAS or Windows Share into a Time Machine backup. You should absolutely back up your data before you install any of these.
Make sure you have a recovery partition to reinstall Mac OS X in case you want to go back. If possible I recommend grabbing a standard Windows USB keyboard and mouse. They work much better with all Linux distros than Apple’s hardware.
Now that you’ve covered your back, let’s take a look at the operating systems you can use on your MacBook or other Apple computer.
Surprisingly, the best alternative operating system on Macs is the one Apple fans love to hate: Windows. In our books, Windows 10 is the latest and best version of Windows, so if you’re looking to install Microsoft’s operating system, then this is the version to get.
Windows 10 works remarkably well with all existing Apple hardware. You will hardly need to install any special drivers, and connecting third-party peripherals to your Mac works flawlessly too. Plus, Windows 10 works well with high-resolution Retina screens used by MacBook Pro laptops and newer iMac displays.
Justin has rounded up the four ways to install Windows on your Mac, helpfully listing the benefits and drawbacks of each method. OS X comes bundled with the Boot Camp assistant, which is the cheapest and easiest method to get you up and running.
Why would you want to run Linux on a MacBook, you ask? Well, there are plenty of reasons! Ubuntu is one of the most popular and best Linux distros out there, and it requires the least amount of setting up on a Mac. Most of the drivers are preinstalled, and there will only be a few things you need to specifically seek out.
Ubuntu’s default Unity surface also supports the high-DPI (HiDPI) Retina screens on Mac devices. It’s not yet perfect, but it works pretty well. In case it’s not working right for you, we have a guide to improve Linux HiDPI support.
Perhaps most importantly, Ubuntu is great at recognizing third-party apps and devices. I’ve tried connecting an Apple keyboard as well as a Magic Trackpad while running Ubuntu, and it recognized the peripherals right away. Ubuntu also works perfectly with Mac function keys, command and so on.
If you’re just getting started with Ubuntu, you should probably check out our beginner’s guide to Ubuntu.
For those running a MacBook with a Retina screen, Linux Mint 17 is probably your best choice. That’s because the Cinnamon desktop environment supports HiDPI out of the box, without you needing to make any tweaks to it.
Mint is a great distro to start off with if you’re new to Linux, and is often touted as “the Ubuntu killer”. Plus, like Windows and Ubuntu, you won’t need to install many drivers to get up and running.
Personally, I loved Dave On Code’s guide to perfectly setting up Mint on a Retina MacBook Pro. As he notes, you’ll need to update the Wi-Fi driver but keep the Nvidia graphics driver intact, and do a little bit of configuration to get the trackpad working smoothly. Be aware that there are some problems in connecting an Apple Magic Mouse, if you use one.
But more or less, you can start using Mint without facing issues with your speakers, Wi-Fi or while connecting to a plug-and-play printer.
If you like the look and feel of OS X but need to install a Linux distro, then look no further than Elementary OS. The design and feel of this operating system is heavily inspired by OS X, so you’ll feel like it belongs on your MacBook.
Several of our MakeUseOf staff love Elementary, using it as their primary boot or as their preferred Linux distro. Elementary is rising in popularity and getting tons of cool updates that make it a robust system. Since it uses the GNOME desktop environment, it can also support Retina displays, but you might need to install the GNOME Tweak Tool to set it up right.
One problem with running Elementary OS on a MacBook is the Wi-Fi. The OS does not come packaged with the necessary Broadcom drivers. You have two options to install it. If you can tether your phone to your computer and use the Internet, you’ll just need to automatically update the wireless driver. If you can’t, you’ll need to find the right Broadcom driver, download it, and install it via USB. Elementary Now has a full step-by-step guide in case you need help.
Apart from Wi-Fi, Elementary OS works pretty well with Mac hardware.
In case you have an older Mac, get your hands on Puppy Linux to give the machine a new lease of life. Puppy Linux is designed to be a fast and lightweight OS that can even run smoothly off a USB drive.
It’s a simple operating system and comes with all the basics that you would need. You’re free to install more apps too, of course. My MacBook’s Wi-Fi, keyboard and trackpad, and sound were working fine without needing any additional drivers, so that’s a bonus.
Puppy Linux famously prefers a Live USB, so if your main Mac’s hard drive is corrupt or full, this is a pretty good way to make it into a useful machine again.
Of all the different Puppy Linux distros, I tried Tahrpup and it worked fantastically, but feel free to check out the others. If you want to stick with our tried-and-tested option, then download Tahrpup.
Not-Perfect, But Good-Enough
In the hunt for the best alternatives to OS X for Mac users, I came across a few OS options that were just short of the mark in terms of compatibility and usability. That said, you might want to check them out anyway.
If you’re keen to try out Chrome OS, then Neverware’s CloudReady is the easiest option to install it on a Mac. It detects Wi-Fi, sound and your trackpad or mouse, but the Apple keyboard has several problems (like issues with function keys) when being used with Chrome OS.
Additionally, CloudReady’s Chrome OS does not support all of Google’s features. For example, you won’t be able to install Android apps through APKs, it doesn’t recognize voice input, and there are some other known differences. Think of it as a Chrome OS trial. It’s good enough to give you a feel of Chrome, but it’s a major step down from both OS X and Chrome OS.
We love Remix OS, an Android-based desktop environment. If online comments are to be believed, several people have liked what they got from running it on a Mac. When I tested it, neither the USB mouse or trackpad’s right-click worked, and I couldn’t use trackpad gestures to scroll pages. Also, like many commenters on this Reddit thread, I couldn’t get Resident Mode working.
These might be minor issues that get fixed soon enough though, so don’t write this one off entirely. However, at the moment, I’m disinclined to recommend it as a true alternative.
Running a Mac without a Retina screen? Then good old Windows 7 might be one of the best options for you. Windows 7 is astonishingly stable on a MacBook and the installation process with Boot Camp is super smooth. Plus, not everyone likes Windows 10 and all the online Microsoft account junk it forces upon you.
Why Leave OS X?
Apple’s operating system is loved by its fan base and cited by many as the best thing about owning a Mac. What’s your reason for looking beyond OS X?
We think MacBooks make the best Linux laptops, but there are other explanations too. For some, it’s just about trying out other OS options. For others, the gaming environment of Windows is too important, or their hardware has become too old to run OS X well.
So tell us, why are you ditching OS X, and which alternative operating system is tempting you?