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Progress report: Asahi Linux brings forth a usable basic desktop on Apple's M1

Drivers slip into the kernel as team ponders GPU hardware

Efforts to bring Linux to Apple Silicon have resulted in a basic functional desktop, according to the Asahi Linux team.

The project kicked off in earnest with a lengthy blog post earlier this year detailing the challenges involved in getting the OS onto Apple's latest and greatest.

Since then Apple M1 support has been sidling into the Linux kernel and by August the GNOME desktop was shown booting up with the experience described as "not great, but usable."

September's progress report, published today by founder Hector Martin, was packed with good news for fans of the project, including the comment that Asahi Linux "is usable as a basic Linux desktop" albeit without GUI acceleration.

As for what desktop, Martin told The Register: "Whatever desktop you want, that's up to you!"

He went on to tell us that the plan was provide an Arch Linux ARM image preconfigured with KDE ("which happens to be my desktop of choice") and likely a barebones image so users could install their own preference.

The lowest level drivers had been merged into the Linux kernel earlier this year, but Martin said more were needed to make things usable. The goal is to eventually get everything upstreamed.

Already merged for version 5.16 of the Linux kernel (5.15 is currently in RC status) are the PCIe bindings and driver, and the USB-C PD driver. In review are other bits and pieces, including the Pinctrl drive for the GPIO pins of Apple's M1 and code to handle the M1's Device Power Management. In development is work on the Display Controller hardware among other things.

The team has also been at work on the installer. Handy, because getting the code working on a vanilla M1 Mac Mini remains somewhat challenging. "Once we have a stable kernel foundation," said Martin, "we will start publishing an 'official' installer that we expect will see more wide usage among the adventurous."

Martin told El Reg that the installer would be a script that dealt with the murky world of partitions and the like before eventually installing a Linux distribution. The completion of the install will require a reboot into Recovery Mode via the power button and the running of another script set up by the installer.

Once the distribution of choice is up and running (and Martin noted interest from a Fedora developer as well as the use of Debian), ARM64 applications are expected to work without issue. Martin added: "For running x86 apps Rosetta style, there is FEX, which I'm very excited to try out. It should work with Wine to allow you to run Windows games too."

The progress report is positive stuff, even with the GPU elephant lurking in the corner of the room. Developer Alyssa Rosenzweig reported some impressive performance from the code on Apple's M1.

Martin said in his post: "While there is no GPU acceleration yet, the M1's CPUs are so powerful that a software-rendered desktop is actually faster on them," but acknowledged that plenty of rough edges still required smoothing before the desired polished experience could be delivered, not least that GPU.

"That said," he continued, "we hope this will allow those willing to be on the absolute bleeding edge to get a taste for what running Linux on these machines is like – and, for some, this might be enough for production usage." ®

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