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Giving a 2011 MacBook Air new life with Linux

I bought my wife a 11″ MacBook Air in 2011. It’s a Intel® Core™ i7-2677M CPU @ 1.80GHz (four core) laptop with 4GB of RAM. Over time the battery became less effective, and started to swell. We eventually removed it early last year, before it burst.

That left my wife with her MacBook Air that she had to use when connected to main power. It had also become pretty sluggish between macOS updates, and general cruft accumulation so it took forever for the device to boot up, and perform simple tasks.

My wife recently left her job, and we bought her (formerly) work Lenovo laptop for her to use as a personal machine. This left her MacBook Air gathering dust in a corner of the apartment.

An available option

I’d wanted a personal laptop for my non-Automattic projects, and was building up the courage to buy a new machine that I’d install Linux on. I decided to see if my wife’s laptop would suffice, instead.

I first reset the device, and poked around a bit in macOS. The laptop is past the support cut-off for the current macOS version, so it was running High Sierra (I think). It worked ok, but it felt pretty slow.

Setting it up

I’ve also wanted a Linux laptop to geek out on, so I took a leap, and wiped the drive completely (I was actually planning to configure dual boot, but couldn’t work this out), and installed Pop!_OS by System76 on it.

I installed a couple of my preferred apps such as Sublime Text, Sublime Merge, Dropbox, and so on. I also switched my shell over to ZSH (with Oh My ZSH), installed Conda as my main Python distro/option, and even figured out how to run Jupyter Lab on the laptop.

Of course I also installed the WordPress.com app for Linux testing too.

The laptop still seemed a bit sluggish initially, and it looked like all the processors were maxing out. I also couldn’t work out how to make the dock appear in a more convenient way, and how to add other bits and pieces to my desktop to improve my experience.

I then switched the desktop environment to the MATE desktop, and it seemed to help. For one thing, MATE is better suited to older hardware, and it has a bunch of indicators and widgets that you can customise. I liked it, but I still preferred the overall aesthetic of Pop!_OS.

I also realised that the reason why the laptop was so sluggish was because Dropbox was being Dropbox when it started up. It eventually released its death grip on the processors, to a degree.

Getting used to a different environment

My one big adjustment has been moving from my glorious 15″ Macbook Pro screen where I spend most of my time, to a teeny 11″ screen. On the other hand, I do like the much smaller form factor for mobility.

The laptop is small enough that I may even be willing to take this with me on work trips so I have a personal device for movies (assuming I can get them onto the device, legitimately), projects on longer flights, and so on.

The immediate challenge to all of that is that this machine doesn’t have a battery. I’ve found a solution for that, though. iFixit sells an after market battery for this model for about $75. That’s certainly cheaper than buying a new laptop (assuming it works).

Other than that, it’s also taken me a while to figure out how to do otherwise routine things in Linux. I’ve found ways to customise my experience of the desktop using things like GNOME Extensions, and other apps and utilities.

Mostly, though, I use Sublime Text for my writing and coding (I know VS Code is what all the cool kids are using, I prefer Sublime for now, and it loads really quickly), Firefox as my main browser on this laptop, and I have my terminal pretty much set up with my various extensions.

More of the similar for other home uses

My experience with this laptop has reminded me why I much prefer a Linux computer for home. Our daughter uses a really old desktop PC that’s running Ubuntu 19.04. The PC is a Core 2 Duo with 3 or 4GB of RAM.

When it comes time to replace that, I’ll probably give her one of the new Raspberry Pis with an external drive for storage. The current version is just incredible for what you’re paying. This review will give you a pretty good idea:

The new board comes with a four core AMD processor that, I think, is pretty comparable to the MacBook Air’s 2011 processor, up to 4GB of RAM, and runs on USB-C power. The 4GB model costs around $50 to $60, and the main challenge is actually getting your hands on one.

A Raspberry Pi would probably be a decent upgrade on what she has at the moment, and she could continue doing everything she’s been doing (Minecraft, browsing the Web to school sites, general school research, Google Drive, YouTube, Spotify) just fine.

I’d be very tempted to get one for myself one day, if I could come up with a decent plan for how to travel with it, and use it productively on the road. The biggest challenge would be a screen of some kind, I imagine.

So far, I like this

So far, I really like what I have. I’d like to get some other apps going, such as AutoKey for text expansion, and Albert for easier app launches, web searches, and some of the tasks I use Alfred.app for on my work laptop.

For the time being, though, this Linux-driven MacBook Air is proving to be a pretty good choice.

Featured Image: Unleash Your Potential Robot by Kate Hazen at System76, licensed CC BY SA

By Paul

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at Automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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