Asahi gets the Linux community’s approval
- Asahi Linux has released the alpha version of its distro designed for Apple’s M1 chip.
- Unlike typical hardware ports, the crowdfunded distro has received no official support from Apple.
- Even though the hardware support is still sketchy, testers feel the distro already performs better than macOS.
Apple's M1 processor has been turning heads since its launch in late 2020, and now there's a Linux distro designed exclusively for the chip that's already wowing people with its performance.
The effort is spearheaded by experienced Linux porter, Hector Martin, and his crowdfunded Asahi Linux project. The project began in January 2021 and has just released its first Alpha that can run on any M1, M1 Pro, or M1 Max machine running macOS 12.3 or later. Notably, the project reached this stage without any official help from Apple, instead discovering an inherent hardware flaw in the M1 chip.
"My initial impression of Asahi Linux with its Arch Linux Arm desktop version was that it works better than anticipated, at least on a Mac mini," Michael Larabel, founder and principal author of computer hardware website, Phoronix, told Lifewire over email. "There [are] still areas where the performance is lacking, but [it's] already much faster than, say, a Raspberry Pi 4 or other low-end Arm single-board computers running Linux."
Larabel noted that Asahi’s installation process is a little different since it needs to be initiated from within macOS. In an email exchange with Lifewire, Bruno Santos, System and Network Administrator at ULS Castelo Branco, said that Asahi breezed through the installation on his M1 MacBook Air.
In addition to a full installation that anchors a ready-to-use KDE desktop, Asahi also offers a minimal installation option, which Santos used to manually install the various components needed for a working desktop without running into any issues.
Don Chia, an iOS developer, did run into an issue while installing Asahi on his M1 MacBook Pro but told Lifewire via email that he was able to resolve the issue thanks to a little help from Martin.
Since it's still early days for the project, Asahi's hardware support isn't consistent across all M1-powered machines. For instance, HDMI output only works on the Mac mini. Meanwhile, Santos plugged in a Thunderbolt hub, and the attached Ethernet cable, SSD disk, and wireless mouse and keyboard worked flawlessly with his Air.
"The main issue for most Linux desktop users will be the lack of 3D/graphics acceleration right now. There is a kernel driver and Mesa driver being worked on for the Apple graphics, but it will likely take some time before being really buttoned up and usable," shared Larabel.
So while you can't yet play graphics-intensive games through Asahi, Jason Eckert, Dean of Technology at triOS College, isn't facing any issues with simple ones like SuperTuxKart, which works perfectly on his Mac mini. "Graphics are CPU generated, but you'd never know because it's lightning-fast," Eckert told Lifewire over email.
Asahi is based on the ARM build of the popular Arch Linux distro, and none of the testers we interacted with faced any issues installing the usual desktop software, such as web browsers and media players.
In the release notes, Martin points out that to maximize performance, Asahi's kernel is compiled with a particular feature that's not currently supported by some popular software, most notably the Chromium web browser and the Electron software framework. Martin hopes Asahi's release will encourage the developers of these apps to make them compliant with the M1.
Light Years Ahead
Eckert, too believed these are minor limitations that should iron themselves out soon. He has customized his Asahi installation to the hilt, and the performance has "blown his mind."
"GNOME [desktop environment] runs faster than I've ever seen [it] run, LibreOffice apps open instantaneously, Hugo [website generator] compiles my website in half the time it does on macOS on the same machine, [and] my development containers and Kubernetes setup also run much faster on Asahi," shared Eckert. "In general, the biggest impression I've had is that Asahi is much, much faster on the M1 than macOS."
"My initial impression of Asahi Linux with its Arch Linux Arm desktop version was that it works better than anticipated."
Compared to his experience running Linux inside a virtualized environment, Chia knew Asahi on "real hardware" would be faster, but he found it "was light years ahead."
"There still is work to do around power management for the CPU/SoC, but so far, the performance has been rather reasonable, all things considered, and not having the official support of Apple. In a few benchmarks, [Asahi even beats out] macOS on the same hardware!" shared Larabel, who recently posted his detailed benchmarks.
Eckert noted that as a cloud/microservice developer, for Asahi to become his everyday OS, he'll need it to run Electron-based apps such as Visual Studio Code, along with improved support for hardware such as his Bluetooth mouse.
"I've pretty much decided based on the speed that it's eventually going to be my daily driver," stressed Eckert.