Yellow Dog Linux Installs Neatly on an iPod

Forget bootable USB pendrives and use an iPod to boot Linux on a Mac.

The concept's great: what would it be like to have a pocket-size device that I could plug in to just about any Macintosh and by simply rebooting the computer be running a full-blown Linux installation? There are oodles of Linux OSes for Intel architectures, of course, but the Mac, until very recently, has been built around the Motorola architecture, so the number of choices are rather fewer.

One of the few Linux OSes for the PowerPC is called Yellow Dog, from Terra Soft Corp., It costs about $60 US for the install CDs and documentation or $30 US for the “geek edition” (that's just the install CDs), or you can download it for free from the Web site. And, let me answer the obvious question: because Mac OS X already is a UNIX (basically FreeBSD with lots of added stuff, much of which you can find in Darwin,, why bother with a Mac Linux? The answer is that although Mac OS X is a splendid mating of a UNIX operating system with all the graphical goodness of Apple's user interface design, it's still not Linux. If you're in a Linux environment and want to run KDE or GNOME, you don't have to graft it onto Mac OS X if you can run a Linux designed for the Mac platform instead. Besides, isn't it kinda cool anyway?

Anyway, I had a spare Apple iPod, a first-generation 5GB device that worked via the Firewire interface rather than the more modern USB connection, and I was assured by the folks at Yellow Dog that I could squeeze YDL into as small as 1GB. I have plenty of space on a 5GB device. Of course, I already had a gig of music and audio books I wanted to preserve, so the first test was to see if I could repartition the device to grab 3GB for Linux and keep 2GB for audio and iPod content. The perfect stealth Linux device, right?

So, one afternoon I decided to take the plunge and hooked up my iPod to my PowerBook computer and inserted the first of the YDL 4.1 install disks and restarted the Mac, holding down the C key to force the device to boot off the CD-ROM, not the internal hard disk. When prompted, I typed in install firewire and away we went.

Partitioning the iPod for YDL

New to the 4.x version of Yellow Dog is the inclusion of the popular Anaconda graphical installer, which makes everything quite a bit easier. It lets you resize existing drive partitions to make space for the new operating system. The new partitions also can be made bootable, which is a critical component for the success of this project.

Theoretically, partitioning should be pretty easy. I have a 5GB iPod firewire device and am using just a wee bit more than 1GB of it for music. I'll resize the iPod drive to 2GB and have 3GB spare to repartition as an ext3 filesystem and be good to go.

Well, that's the theory, but it doesn't quite work out that way.

Part way through the install process, managed by Anaconda, I have the option of accepting an automatic partitioning scheme or using Disk Druid to work with my disk partitions manually. I take the latter path and am glad to see that one of the drives is identified as “Drive /dev/sda (4769MB) Model: Apple iPod”, so there's no worry that I'll accidentally reformat or resize my laptop drive, which would be quite ungood. To resize the iPod drive, I simply choose that partition and click Edit in the Disk Druid, and then specify that I want it to be 2,000MB rather than 4,769MB (which should give me 2.7GB for Linux). It promptly recalculates that to be 1,999MB and within about 90 seconds rebuilds the iPod disk partition, leaving a big chunk of space unallocated.

Here's where I get into trouble, because I'm a UNIX geek who is sure that I can proceed without reading any darn manual or instructions. Yeah, even Terra Soft expects this and has a note in the installation guide (which I didn't read until afterward, of course) saying, “User error is common. Not because people lack intelligence, but because people are smart and too determined to jump into their new operating system without reading the Guide to Installation. Especially those of you who are Linux Experts—you know who you are!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Fortunately, the trouble ate up only time, and didn't corrupt anything. Basically, although I figured that I simply could create one partition that was all the available space, Disk Druid wouldn't let me proceed without also creating an Apple Boot partition, and then, after I figured that out (the Apple Boot partition is instead of ext3, and not the same as the /boot mountpoint for an ext3 partition), it also insisted I create a swap partition too.

More than once it complained, and I had to back up and resize the new partition down, then create an additional partition, but, finally, here's where I ended up (Table 1).

Table 1. Partition Breakdown

PartitionSizeFile TypeMountpoint
sda4 1MBApple Bootable 
sda62596MB ext3/

If you're paying attention, you'll see that the swap space is really too small. You should have at least the same swap space as your physical memory, and typically 1.5x is a better size for performance reasons. Because I have 756MB of RAM, that means I should have at least a 756MB swap space. Oh well. I indicated that I was okay with a nonrecommended size and proceeded anyway.

Elapsed time: 1 hour.


Dave Taylor has been hacking shell scripts for over thirty years. Really. He's the author of the popular "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts" and can be found on Twitter as @DaveTaylor and more generally at


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usefull news

karrysony's picture

I did not install this yet
I will try that

would this have any chance

davethegeek's picture

would this have any chance of working on a windows computer or are you develpoing one as we type?

What a Great Idea

Dani's picture

I was seriously thinking of getting a new PC, one for important work stuff about uv bulb
installations and another for, By getting hold of an Ipod I can
keep the two separate. Thanks for the tip!

No 5G Ipods on Ebay today!

Lee's picture

You said. "... a quick search on eBay shows that you can pick up one of these ancient 5GB iPod units for less than $60 US, on average."

This article must have been written several months ago as there are absolutely no 5GB iPods on Ebay today.

Have you checked on the

Anonymous's picture

Have you checked on the effects of using a swap partition on your Ipod. From the goggling that I did on the subject, I came away with the impression that the ipod is not really meant to host an os. And that it would quickly kill the Ipod.

Though something I was playing with is using a Ubuntu live disk too debootstrap a pen drive and then booting it with a ram disk kernel. That way it would cut way down on disk activity.

Something to think about anyhow.

linux on mac

Anonymous's picture

I like ubuntu on my g3 that I received used. os/x is harder to use and you have to pay a fortune for the os and application software to even use your machine. Debian Rocks.

Ubuntu on G3

Anonymous's picture

I tried running xubuntu and ubuntu on a dual usb G3 with no luck. How did you get yours to work well?

G3 iBook, sorry.

Anonymous's picture

G3 iBook, sorry.

A few things.

Joshua Rodman's picture

Firstly, I kind of wish the title of this article was clearer about whether it was about executing linux on the ipod processor, or about running linux on the computer to which an ipod is attached. Maybe it's hard to squeeze that into a title (I haven't thought too hard about it), but from the title I assumed it was for running linux on an ipod.

I guess i'm kind of in the dark also about anything that's special booting a computer off an iPod. It's just a disk, you should be able to install anything on it. Perhaps if there's a common use case then a howto document might be useful for people. Maybe I'm just being a curmudgeon.

Lastly, "squeezing" Linux into a gigabyte? Surely this is a joke. When SuSE Linux was shipping on 6 CDROMs a relatively complete install took only a little more than this. Single floppy and dual floppy editions of linux are well known. I'm kind of confused that this capability was ever in question, having run Linux off a 60MB partition for several years.

I loved the article, a shame

yoeluk's picture

I loved the article, a shame I found it after I managed to do the same. I didn't realised of the trick using Druits partition and pre-partition the iPod using iPartition to free enough hard drive on my 20GB iPod. Install Yellow Dog by asking the partitioner to install in the free space of the iPod - it took me a while to figure this out.
Wanted to install Ubuntu rather but unfortunately the corrent version doesn't support external drive installation - there are some article explaining how to go around that but I won't go that far.
I reply to this message because I totally disagree with this message. I think that is very useful to have Linux running from my iPod. The article also have the novelty value but people alway have something to complain about.
Thanks very much for the article. Welldone!

Re: A few things

Mario Irizarry's picture

I agree with Joshua. At first I thought it was about running linux on the iPod, and perhaps connecting one of those folding keyboards to it.
Thanks any way for the aricle.

The 1 gigabyte partition is not for linux !!!

Anonymous's picture

The 1 gigabyte partition is not for linux... it's just the apple bootstrap that is used for booting the system. If you look at the patitionning table you will see 2gigs and a half (sda6 ext3 /) for linux.

I did follow this tutorial to install linux on my 40G third generation ipod, an I must say it's not that easy because the MAC OSX "Disk Utility" sucks. You cannot detroy and recreate a partition with it, you have to use the command line utility "pdisk". Don't use the yellow dog disk utility to destroy or recreate your ipods' partitions because it is totally unable to format or resize an hfs+ partition.

What you have to do is connect your ipod (in disk mode) on your MAC, backup your ipod's data, unmount the ipod, destroy partiton number 3 using pdisk (terminal sudo pdisk /dev/disk1), recreate it smaller to keep free space for your linux installation (using pdisk as well), recreate a filesystem on this partiton (newfs_hfs -J -v myIpod /dev/disk1s3), mount it anywhere (/tmp for example) and copy back all your data on the ipod. Then you will have a working "smaller" ipod where you will be able to start the yellow dog installer.

RE: A few things

Anonymous's picture

While I also believed this to be an article on installing Linux on an iPod, i didn't carry that belief past the first paragraph.
As for the nothing special about booting off an iPod... I think it's an achievment none the less, especially when preserving that data and iPod filesystem. As for a common use case... how often have you sat down at a computer and wished it had what you wanted to boot.. with all your settings etc?

As for your squeezing remark... people generally like to have a linux distro running with a decent desktop, not just a shell. Nobody cares how long you have been running linux on 60MB. There are thousands out there running it longer on less.

Quit complaining and accept the article for what it is and not what you want or think it should be!

I think pendrives are useful

Anonymous's picture

I think pendrives are useful enough to install Gnu/Linux inside them. Why?, well for many reasons, I don't agree the "forget...", because are things very differents. Pendrives doesn't have 30 / 60 gb, and yes, iPod s are disk, you are able to do things inside them. If iPod are useful, pendrives are too.

Imho, there's nothing to do about pendrives and iPod's, because many things, I guess you know.

The lymited cycles of the

Anonymous's picture

The lymited cycles of the pendrives are an issue. It's recommended to use Slax, or another distro designed to work in that kind of hardware, with less activity logging, and stuff.

Sam Bannister's picture

YDL on 30 GB iPod?

sukhoi37's picture


I wanted to give a try YDL4.x for my 5th gen 30 GB iPod. I have 2 questions:

#1 Does YDL4.x support my model?
#2 If I install YDL4.x for sometime...HOWTO get back to my original Apple iPod software? Or HOWTO revert back to my original Factory settings state? (assuming YDL4.x wipes off entire drive & puts ext3 based filesystem)

Any help is highly appreciated.