Linus Torvalds would like to use an M1 Mac for Linux, but…


Recently, on the Real World Technologies forum, Linux's creator Linus Torvalds was asked what he thought of the new M1-powered Apple laptops. Torvalds replied, "I'd absolutely love to have one if it just ran Linux."

You may think, "what's the problem? Doesn't Linux run on practically every processor on the planet from 80386s to IBM s390x to the ARM family of which Apple's M1 chip is a child?"  Well, yes, yes it does. But it takes more than a processor to run a computer.

Also: The new M1 Macs make cutting-edge, machine-learning workstations 

Torvalds explained he has "fairly fond memories of the 11" Macbook Air (I think 4,1) that I used about a decade ago (but moved away from because it took Apple too long to fix the screen - and by the time they did, I'd moved on to better laptops, and Apple had moved on to make Linux less convenient)."

Yes, he pointed out, "Apple may run Linux in their cloud, but their laptops don't ;("

At this year's virtual Linux Foundation Open Source Summit and Embedded Linux Conference, VMware's Chief Open Source Officer, Dirk Hohndel asked Torvalds if now that Apple is switching its Macs to ARM, would this move "change the landscape of the hierarchy of CPUs?" Torvalds thought it might. "For ten years or so I'd be complaining about the fact that it's really, really hard to find ARM hardware that is usable for development. They exist, but they have certainly not been real competition for x86 so far."

Torvalds would like to run Linux on these next-generation Macs. As he said, "I've been waiting for an ARM laptop that can run Linux for a long time. The new Air would be almost perfect, except for the OS. And I don't have the time to tinker with it, or the inclination to fight companies that don't want to help."

Aye, there's the rub. 

In an exclusive interview, Torvalds expanded on why he can't see porting Linux to the M1-based Macs. "The main problem with the M1 for me is the GPU and other devices around it, because that's likely what would hold me off using it because it wouldn't have any Linux support unless Apple opens up."

Apple has long had a love/hate relationship with open source. Apple's never been forthcoming with the hardware technical details that open-source developers need to make the most of their gear.

Torvalds isn't the only one who wishes Apple was more open about how to develop with the M1 hardware. The Google Chrome team has been running into show-stopping bugs with the Chrome web browser on the M1 Macs.

Still, while Torvalds knows Apple opening up their chipsets "seems unlikely, but hey, you can always hope."

Even if that "wasn't an issue," Torvalds continued, "My personal hope would be more cores. Even in a laptop, I don't care about 20-hour battery life (and I wouldn't get it building kernels anyway). I'd rather plug it in a bit more often, and have 8 big cores."

As for the Mac's limited RAM -- no more than 16GBs on current models -- he can live with that. "16GBs is actually ok by me because I don't tend to do things that require a lot more RAM. All I do is read email, do git and kernel compiles. And yes, I have 64GB in my desktop, but that's because I have 32 cores and 64 threads, and I do hugely parallel builds. Honestly, even then 32GB would be sufficient for my loads."

That said, other developers and power users may want more from the new Macs, Torvalds thinks. "The people who really want tons of memory are the ones doing multiple VMs or huge RAW file photography and video."

So, Apple, the ball's in your court. If you'd like to see people running Linux on your Macs -- and today many Linux developers and power users do -- all you have to do is open up your hardware and drivers. The Linux kernel team can take care of the rest.

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