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Myths and Facts About Intel Macs

There are quite a few myths out there about what you can or can’t do with Intel Macs. Here you’ll find them disproven or backed up.

This is a work in progress. If you want something added, just let me know.

Myth: You need Boot Camp to run Windows/Linux/...

This section should probably be called “What is Boot Camp anyway?”. There is no final word on what is worthy of the label “Boot Camp” and what is not. Personally, I prefer to use more precise terms like “BIOS emulation”, “hybrid GPT/MBR”, “BIOS-based booting” or “legacy OS booting”.

Here are some facts about Boot Camp to get a picture of what is involved in making it work. See the following sections on what is actually needed/recommended for booting Windows or Linux.

When Apple released the first Boot Camp Beta in April 2006, they actually released three separate pieces that were all required to make it work:

  1. The Mac OS X 10.4.6 Update added several capabilities to the OS and its tools:
    • Online resizing of HFS+ volumes (kernel and diskutil)
    • Hybrid GPT/MBR partition table support (diskutil and Disk Utility)
    • Ability to select Windows partitions and CDs as boot volumes (Startup Disk and bless)
  2. Firmware updates for the iMac, Mac mini and MacBook Pro added a BIOS compatibility module, including detection of BIOS-bootable disks and CDs in the built-in boot volume chooser. This has been part of Intel Mac firmwares ever since.
  3. The actual “Boot Camp” download containing the “Boot Camp Assistant”. The Boot Camp Assistant has exactly two functions. It provides a nice user interface to resize the Mac OS X partition and create/remove a Windows partition, and it contains a CD image with Windows XP drivers for Intel Mac hardware (including a Startup Disk control panel for Windows).

Summary: You don’t need the actual Boot Camp package to install Windows or Linux, but it usually helps.

Myth: You need BIOS compatibility to boot Linux

While it is very common (and recommended) to boot Linux using BIOS compatibility mode and LILO/GRUB, there are other ways to boot Linux on an Intel Mac.

Even before Boot Camp was released, elilo (the EFI Linux Loader) was used to boot Linux on Intel Macs. However, this requires a specially prepared kernel and has some drawbacks (like not having 2D/3D accellerated graphics, see below).

Fact: You need a MBR partition table to use LILO/GRUB

LILO and GRUB are BIOS-based boot loaders for Linux. As such, they rely on BIOS functions and the MBR partition table to locate partitions and load the Linux kernel.

The usual way to enable this is to create a hybrid GPT/MBR partitioning. The Boot Camp Assistant and diskutil do this automatically. If you’re using GNU parted, use gptsync afterwards (included in rEFIt, select “Partitioning Tool” in the boot menu).

Fact: You need BIOS compatibility for 2D/3D accelleration

If you want good graphics support in Linux, you must boot it using BIOS compatibility mode. This also means using LILO or GRUB, and having a MBR partition table (either hybrid GPT/MBR or plain MBR).

The / XFree86 drivers for Intel and ATI hardware require a Video BIOS to initialize the card. The Linux text console also relies on the Video BIOS. Apple’s firmware only provides a Video BIOS when booting in BIOS compatibility mode. Without it, you only get unaccellerated frame buffer graphics.

Side note: James McKenzie published a hack to elilo that activates the Video BIOS without activating the full BIOS compatibility mode. This actually allows the accelerated drivers to work without booting through LILO/GRUB. Unfortunately it only works on the Mac mini and hasn’t been updated in months.

Fact: You need BIOS compatibility and a MBR partition table to boot Windows

Both Windows XP and Windows Vista rely on the good old BIOS to boot on 32-bit platforms. They also require a MBR partition table to boot (hybrid GPT/MBR is fine as usual).

Microsoft has announced that they plan to support native UEFI 2.0 booting in a future service pack for the 64-bit version of Windows Vista. Presently, that excludes all Intel Macs because Apple’s firmware is based on EFI 1.10, not UEFI 2.0. Core Solo and Core Duo models are 32-bit only, and have no chance of using this, ever. Core 2 based models could work in the future if Apple releases UEFI-compatible firmware updates for them.

Myth: Mac OS X requires GPT

This is mostly a myth. Mac OS X boots and runs just fine from disks using MBR partitioning, or even APM (Apple Partition Map, used on PowerPC Macs).

However, the Mac OS X Installer will refuse to put a fresh copy of Mac OS X on a disk that’s not using GPT. You can work around this using cloning tools like SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner. Install Mac OS X on a GPT-partitioned disk first, then clone it onto the disk of your choice.

Apple’s firmware updates are another issue. The exact requirements are not known at this time, but they are known to not work if you don’t have GPT and you don’t have a EFI System Partition.

Myth: Mac OS X requires a hidden EFI System Partition

Every GPT-formatted disk is supposed to have an EFI System Partition, and Apple’s tools create one at the beginning of the disk. However, Mac OS X doesn’t actually use it; the EFI System Partition is completely empty on a standard Intel Mac. Apple has added a HFS+ file system driver to its firmware, and the firmware boots Mac OS X directly from the partition it is installed on.

Also see above; Mac OS X can boot from a MBR-only disk with no trace of an EFI System Partition.

There is still some uncertainty about firmware updates, though. So far no one has investigated how they work in detail, and some people believe they require the EFI System Partition to be present.

Myth: EFI requires GPT

The GPT specification is part of the EFI specification. However, all parts and features of EFI are just as well-defined for MBR-partitioned disks.

Myth: GRUB overwrites GPT tables

This is only true when your partition tables are messed up already. GRUB diligently scans the MBR partition table to see if the sectors following the MBR actually are unoccupied before embedding its “stage1_5” there. Both pure GPT and hybrid GPT/MBR disks have an “EFI Protective” entry in the MBR table that prevents GRUB from overwriting the GPT tables.

There are several circumstances that may have led to this myth:

Myth: You need rEFIt’s reiserfs driver to boot Linux from a reiserfs partition with LILO/GRUB

LILO and GRUB will boot Linux from any file system without any help from rEFIt. (Provided the file system type is supported by them at all, of course.)

Installing rEFIt’s file system drivers does make a cosmetic difference for the rEFIt boot menu, though. With the drivers, it will display the label given to the partition, and it will load a “.VolumeIcon.icns” file from the root directory if present.

Myth: You need rEFIt to install/boot Linux

You don’t. The firmware’s built-in boot volume chooser (hold Option to activate it) will recognize Linux boot CDs as well as bootable hard disks and let you boot them. (They may be labeled “Windows”, though.) For triple-booting you’ll get only one item in the built-in chooser, but you can use GRUB, LILO, or NTLDR to act as a second-level menu to choose between Windows and Linux. The gptsync tool can be compiled to run on Linux.

Of course rEFIt makes it easier. For example, it will give you a single menu even for triple-boot setups.

Myth: You need rEFIt’s gptsync after using Boot Camp Assistant

The Boot Camp Assistant (and diskutil) already creates a hybrid GPT/MBR partition table. There is no need to clean up after them, and gptsync will just tell you nothing needs to be changed.

You do need gptsync (a.k.a. the “Partitioning Tool” entry in the rEFIt menu) after using a partitioning tool that doesn’t know about the hybrid format, e.g. GNU parted or old versions of Disk Utility from a pre-10.4.6 Mac OS X boot CD.