Asahi Linux supports reverse engineering for Apple Silicon, including M1 Ultra

Slowly but surely, the Asahi Linux team is making Linux work on Apple Silicon Macs.
Enlarge / Slowly but surely, the Asahi Linux team is making Linux work on Apple Silicon Macs.

Apple/Asahi Linux

Apple Silicon Macs have received rave reviews on Ars and elsewhere for their speed, power efficiency, and the technical achievement they represent – the chips are upgradable phone processors that can perform as well or better than comparable Intel chips while using less energy.

But the move away from x86 hardware has also made the Mac a little less useful for those who want to run multiple operating systems on their Mac. Although you can run ARM versions of Linux and (with caveats and no official support) Windows in virtual machines on Apple Silicon Macs, running alternative operating systems directly on hardware is not supported by Apple. Apple does not distribute drivers for other operating systems, and moving away from widely supported x86 processors and Intel and AMD GPUs makes it harder for other developers to step in and provide those drivers.

This is where the Asahi Linux project comes in. For months, a small group of volunteers worked to get this Arch Linux-based distribution working on Apple Silicon Macs, adapting existing drivers and (in the case of the GPU) painstakingly writing their own. And that work is paying off: last week the team released its first alpha installer for the general public, and since yesterday the software supports the new M1 Ultra in MacStudio.

In the current alpha, an impressive list of hardware is already working, including Wi-Fi, USB 2.0 over Thunderbolt ports (USB 3.0 only works on Macs with USB-A ports, but the USB 3.0 over Thunderbolt “coming soon”), and the built-in display. But it still lacks some big features, including DisplayPort and Thunderbolt, webcam, Bluetooth, sleep mode, and GPU acceleration. That said, when it comes to GPU acceleration, the developers say the M1 is fast enough that a software-rendered Linux desktop is faster on the M1 than a GPU-accelerated desktop on many other ARM chips.

Asahi developers don’t believe the software will be “finished”, with all core M1-series hardware and functionality supported and ready to go, “for another year, maybe two”. . By then, Apple will likely have introduced one or two generations of M-series chips. But developers are optimistic that much of the work they’re doing now will continue to work on future generations of Apple hardware. with relatively minimal effort.

On their wiki pages and status updates, the developers note that Apple is surprisingly committed to backwards compatibility with its silicon. Some low-level components like the interrupt controller and UART hardware date back to the iPhone and the original PA Semi, a company purchased by Apple to launch its mobile chip manufacturing efforts in 2008. Some of this hardware has changed to support scaling M1 Pro/Max/Ultra processors in particular, but the new interfaces shouldn’t change for a long time.

The Asahi team wants its work to propagate upstream into the Linux kernel and elsewhere, and then trickle down to other distributions over time. Linux kernel 5.13 added basic M1 Mac support based on Asahi team work, and M1 PCIe driver was included in 5.16 (other stuff including support of M1 Pro and Max, have been submitted for review). This means that once Asahi is fully operational on M1 Macs, other distros will hopefully not be far behind.

If you want to try Asahi Linux on an M1 Mac, the current installer is run from the command line and requires “at least 53 GB of free space” to install with a KDE Plasma desktop. Asahi only needs about 15GB, but the installer requires you to leave at least 38GB of free space for installing macOS so macOS system updates don’t break. From there, dual booting should work the same as the process on Intel Macs, with the alternate operating system visible from the startup disk or startup picker that you can launch when you start your Mac. Future updates should be able to be installed from your new Asahi Linux installation and should not require you to reinstall from scratch.