I have a 2011 17 inch Macbook pro with an Nvidia GPU. The original motherboard failed back in 2016, and I managed to get it replaced with another one in 2016. (Apple replaced it with a 2016 one, which failed in the same way.) The dGPU has failed again, leaving the system unable to boot. Currently, I've tried to install Ubuntu MATE on it, as well as a scattering of other distros, but it seems the GPU is just functional enough to be detected, but broken enough to prevent booting.

What Linux distros have the option to not use the GPU at all? (Both during the installation process and after)

  • Actually most of them have this option. You can deactivate via root the usage of GPU. Edit: If you're brave enough to open your laptop, you can actually disconnect the cable that joins the GPU with the Motherboard. Mar 12 at 23:28
  • The only releases on-topic here are Ubuntu and flavors of Ubuntu (ubuntu.com/download/flavours), but help.ubuntu.com/lts/installation-guide/amd64/apb.html
    – guiverc
    Mar 12 at 23:59
  • Check your BIOS settings for GPU and turn off discrete if that is available. Mate is an official flavor, and will be supported here, but not "other distros".
    – ubfan1
    Mar 13 at 1:31

While this is not the answer to question "how to install linux without GPU?", I believe you might find useful a way to bypass discrete GPU. After the install you will be able choose to run it headless or not.

2011 MBP has 2 GPUs, discrete and Intel (integrated in CPU). Discrete one is the one that probably has failed. Integrated usually is OK. If you can see GRUB while loading from USB stick, it's easy: while at it, press 'e' to enter editing mode of the default boot option, find a string with insmod gzio and type in the following strings above it:

   outb 0x728 1
   outb 0x710 2
   outb 0x740 2
   outb 0x750 0

And press Fn+F10 to boot.

This will disable discrete GPU and will allow to boot and use the selected distro. Or live-install it. Now, if your GPU so messed that GRUB menu is unaccessible, it's somewhat trickier.

  1. Install linux to a flash drive on a different PC. Load from one stick, and use another as a target drive.

  2. Boot from that linux-on-stick on PC.

  3. Use this tutorial https://www.variadic.xyz/2020/06/15/ubuntu-2011mbp/ to modify default GRUB options

  4. Boot MBP off this modified live stick, install linux to your Mac. (In Ubuntu, the GUI for installing os is named Ubiquity, and can be installed like any other application:apt install ubiquity.)

  5. After installation is complete, don't reboot, but chroot to an installed Ubuntu. To do that, from terminal enter the following:

     sudo mount /dev/[your new root partition] /mnt
     sudo cp /etc/resolv.conf /mnt/etc/resolv.conf
     sudo mount --bind /dev /mnt/dev
     sudo mount --bind /proc /mnt/proc
     sudo mount --bind /sys  /mnt/sys
     sudo chroot /mnt /bin/bash
     sudo mount -a

After that, repeat step 3.

  1. Exit the chroot and reboot:

     umount /mnt*
  2. Now Macbook should boot, function with Intel GPU and survive OS updates. If not, just boot that "rescue usb" you made in step 3 and repeat steps 5-6.

Also, this GRUB 'outb' fix will even allow macOS to run, if it's loaded via GRUB, and macOS can be modified to ignore discrete GPU... But that's another question.

  • edit: overlooked the "nvidia" part. That makes it a MBP 2010, not 2011. Anyway, the GRUB fix should work, as it is changes PCIe behavior, not GPU.
    – Gutleib
    Mar 18 at 12:53
  • The motherboard is from 2016, because of the class-action lawsuit. Still, thank you. This worked.
    – Michael
    Apr 21 at 16:19

Just about every Linux distro has the option to natively run headless, even consumer-oriented distros like Ubuntu will let you boot without any GPU connected (even Windows will). Doing some further research, it appears that many Mac Desktop's will not let you boot without a monitor attached (not sure if this applies in your case).

I'm not sure exactly why you want to use a distro without a GPU, as you will most likely have no display outputs. If you are only interested in recovering the data, you will most likely have a "Target Disk Mode" allowing the files on the Mac to be detected as an external drive without needing anything attached to it. To do this, attach a cable between two Mac's (or possibly another computer with a compatible port) and hold T while booting.

If you still want to install the distro headless however (for server use, etc), there is this installation type called "No Questions Asked", which will install Ubuntu without having to ask any questions, as the name implies. Not sure how this exactly works, but it may be worth a try.

Finally, if you are confident in opening up your MacBook, espicially an older MacBook which you have, that is usually much easier to take apart. It may be worth to remove the storage medium instead. If you have a spare computer, you can install Ubuntu (or any other distro) using the normal method to this drive and then putting it back in the MacBook. It is definately a pain, and usually not preferred, but it may be your only way.

Thank you for using the Ask Ubuntu for asking your questions.

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