Asahi's Fedora remix dazzles and baffles on Apple Silicon

Take an M1 or M2-powered Mac and turn it into a fast ARM64 PC, if that's what you fancy

The Asahi Linux team has released the first version of its Fedora 39 remix for Apple Silicon Macs – at least the first couple of generations.

The team announced the release on Mastodon. Asahi's Hector Martin gave a talk at the recent Ubuntu Summit, underlining that Asahi is not only an edition of Fedora – there are Asahi versions of Ubuntu, Debian, and various other distros too.

That said, some months ago the project's leader announced that Fedora was its flagship, and the first fruit of the partnership's efforts is now here. One intrepid Reg correspondent put the original Arch Linux-based version to the test nearly two years ago, and it worked.

The Arm-architecture Macs are not just PCs with a different chip inside. (That description is more fitting for the Lenovo ThinkPad X13S, and Linux on that device works pretty well now.) The Reg FOSS Desk has an M1 MacBook Air, and in some ways, it's more akin to an iPad with a keyboard and trackpad. It is possible to boot the machine from an external drive, but as Macworld describes, it's not as straightforward as with a generic PC.

An additional factor is disk layouts. Even if you understand PC disk partitioning well, it won't help you on a modern Mac. Ever since Apple introduced its next-gen filesystem APFS back in 2016, the layout of Mac volumes has become much more complex.

Consequently, the installation of Fedora Asahi doesn't work in the familiar way. Rather than downloading an image, writing it to a removable medium, and then booting from that, you download a script from the web and send it directly to your shell: the time "honored" (cough) pipe install.

The script runs in a terminal window, it's interactive, and by shell-script standards it's friendly, but will likely deter the sort of Mac user that doesn’t want to install Linux – so that's probably not a problem. The script shrinks the Apple partitions to make some free space, then makes some new Linux partitions, builds a Linux installation in there, and adds it to the normally hidden boot selection screen. It's also quite different from the process of installing Linux on an Intel Mac, so we advise caution, patience, close reading of the on-screen prompts, and lots of backups.

We also suggest that before you begin, you make sure that you know how to get into Apple's Recovery Mode – this too is quite different to the way it works on x86 Macs.

We upgraded our victim target machine to the newly released macOS 14.2.1, freed up as much space as possible, ran First Aid over all our partitions, then gave the install process a whirl. Which took a while, so even with these machines' superb battery life we suggest doing it while connected to mains power. This vulture actually likes macOS (which is more than he can say for the two desktops Asahi Fedora offers – KDE Plasma 5.27.9 or GNOME 45) so we took just 64GB off the end of our 256GB SSD. The basic Fedora installation will fit into about 20GB.

As we mentioned earlier this year, you will see the Calamares cross-platform setup program – but only very briefly. Asahi Fedora doesn't use it to install the OS, just to handle the post-install configuration. After a reboot, a full update pulled down over 350MB of updates: Fedora 39 has been out for over a month now and the ARM64 editions are getting updated along with all the others.

Once it's running, it feels much the same as any other Linux machine, only quicker. Just as with Linux on other Arm devices – such as the aforementioned ThinkPad X13S – some familiar programs are missing because they don't offer Arm versions yet. Flathub has an entry for Google Chrome, but it's a generic entry that we couldn't install. We couldn't find Vivaldi, Opera, or Microsoft Edge either. FOSS desk fave Panwriter does offer ARM64 builds – but only for macOS, not Windows or Linux.

Running Linux on an M1 Mac feels strange. On the one hand, even this low-end model is a fast machine, and it still feels quick. It boots in seconds, it's snappy and very responsive, and the OS's integration with the hardware is good. On the other hand, it is Linux, with old-school text boot screens complete with a few error messages flashing by. You must use PC/Windows-type keystrokes, with Alt for menus and Ctrl for hotkeys (the Apple keys become Super keys under Linux – they don't do much, and what they do isn't what you expect).

If what you want is a blazingly fast Linux box running only FOSS tools, with the familiar controls from x86 PCs, this will probably please you very much, and we were impressed with how well it works. It made our MacBook Air feel much less Mac-like and more like an amazingly thin, light, silent and cool-running PC – and that is not an entirely bad thing.

On the other hand, for this jaded old cynic who's been using Macs since System 6 in 1988 and owns a couple of Intel Macs (secondhand, I'm not silly) … well, it's still Linux. Happy Mac users, content to pay for the polish of the Mac experience, who often disdain Linux for its poor fit and finish, will see nothing to tempt them here. Frankly, if macOS does what you need, it works better – including the ability to run x86 apps seamlessly.

When it comes to desktop environments, Asahi's first-class support is limited to Wayland – and for now Wayland only has two complete desktop environments, which are in many ways polar opposites. KDE is horribly overcomplicated, with a dozen superfluous options everywhere you look and little support for Windows keystrokes. Meanwhile, GNOME goes too far the other way and removes core functions we use every few minutes – such as middle-clicking on the title bar to send a window behind the others.

Saying that, this will change relatively soon. As recent moves both by Mozilla and Red Hat seem to indicate, the rise of Wayland is now all but unstoppable, and some more usable desktop environments will adopt the new protocol.

This vulture has installed Linux on a few old Intel Macs, and the Asahi experience is very different. On the old 2008 MacBook we reinstalled during lockdown, you use the Option key to select which OS to boot, and Linux shows the usual Grub menu, but not on Apple Silicon – that's all handled in Apple's firmware, via a long press of the power button, which is much smoother.

But there are downsides. For instance, out of the metaphorical box, macOS and Linux can't mount each other's root partitions – so moving files between them will be fiddly.

According to the project's own description:

All M1 and M2 series MacBook, Mac Mini, Mac Studio, and iMac devices are supported.

So owners of shiny new M3 kit and the new Mac Pro must wait until the Fedora 40-based release next year. That should also bring OpenGL 4 and Vulkan support. For now, there's OpenGL 3.1.

Terminal warriors who are happy with a tiling window manager and don't care about Windows (or macOS) control keys will find much to like here. You get a modern Linux distro, all the open source you can eat, and the rough edges from the Arch version of Asahi back in 2022 are gone now. Wi-Fi works, sound works, Bluetooth says it's working – indeed, everything runs pretty smoothly out of the box. Given that Apple's platform is largely closed and locked down, it's an amazing technical achievement, and we take our hats off to the team. ®

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