Redeeming the old MBA2,1

Sun, May 7, 2017 4-minute read

We have this mid 2009 model Macbook Air (MacbookAir2,1) that has been idle for quite a while. I made the mistake of upgrading it to El Capitan a couple of years back which made it a functional brick. It would boot, but would take a tonne of time doing that. And then anything you click would take 5-10 minutes to happen. I tried all the usual stuff. I threw the DVDs that came with the device, so I can’t so much as roll it back to its good self. I tried finding snow leopard or lion online, but mostly you get fake downloads for 3G that either don’t finish downloading or are useless post downloading! Trust me, I wasted quite some bandwidth doing just that. This was in late 2015. I briefly tried to get debian working on it. But I didn’t have too much patience to figure out the EFI stuff so everytime I reset my NVRAM or SMC, I’d promptly be back in an unusable MAC that would boot El Capitan and have no disk space. Then I destroyed all debian on that machine and reset it to stay El Capitan, put the device in the attic and tried to believe it doesn’t exist any more.

This was a perfect way to use that machine, until recently. We had to shuffle around things and I saw this MBA lying around doing nothing. I have half a dozen functional machines (including a RPi and a BBB), but hey, another X64 machine should be interesting. So I set out to get debian working all over again. I downloaded a bunch of CD1 ISOs, burnt them on a few CDs, loaned an external optical drive from my sister and earmarked this weekend to get this booting. After reading a lot about this combination, I figured a few people managed to got this MBA2,1 working with debian and they used a library call rEFIt to make this happen. The catch is, rEFIt is no longer maintained. So I have to use rEFInd. I would assume they are similar but for whatever reason, it just wouldn’t work on my machine.  After restarting the mac about 6-7 times, I figured this isn’t going anywhere. Time to look for alternatives.

That’s when I landed on Kali linux page which promised to work with EFI devices from the word “go”. Isn’t that cool. Besides, I recently finished two seasons of Mr Robot on Prime. They kept referring to Kali Linux everywhere. Cool, let me try to get this one then: If it works with EFI,  I don’t have to trouble myself with the EFI details and hey, if its good for hackers, it could be good for me. I am not sec analyst, and I heard pentesting only in Mr Robot, so what can go wrong? Turns out, not much. I had to go through a bunch of NVRAM resets ( I think the MBA battery is dying ) but Kali just installed smooth. And it boots every other time. When it does fail, all I need to do is an NVRAM reset. This time I was bold enough to remove all the MAC partitions, so NVRAM reset doesn’t get me back to a dysfunctional El Capitan. And I took my chance install grub on /dev/sda. It takes a little extra while to boot to grub, but who cares. At least the machine is functional.

Well, not exactly functional. I need to use the ethernet cable to keep it functional at the moment. Its not any secret that brcm doesn’t way very well with linux. It used to be that way when I was actively working with linux installations. Since this device is from the same era, I didn’t expect it to just work. Besides, AAPL does a lot of stuff that makes the device pathetic from a non OSX point of view. So I expect to need a bunch more weekends to ensure that the wlan can work. Until such a time, I guess Kali on my MBA2,1 is not such a bad idea at all. It is fast, the browser loads. And there is a functional terminal and comes pre-installed with python3. That’s about everything I care for on that box 🙂

Perhaps, once I get the wlan to work, I might try to learn one or more of those hundred odd tools that comes installed with the distro. At the moment, I don’t want to do anything stupid and get myself into a situtation.

A big lesson learnt is this: don’t buy a mac you cannot expand the RAM for. We picked this MBA out of sheer enamour. I also picked a unibody white Macbook around the same time as the MBA. That was still an expandable device and is able to run El Capitan (after I expanded the RAM). That device is another story for another day.