Live CDs for the Mac

by David Czepanski Apr 03, 2006

Live CDs are pretty cool.

They allow a computer to boot from an operating system contained on a CD and usually have enough applications to take care of basic computing tasks. Better than this though, is the fact that they are great for trouble shooting and can be invaluable when it comes to recovering data from a hard drive that is on its last legs.

“What?” you may say, “A complete operating system and applications on a single 650Mb CD?” Yes - operating system, applications and then some. Most live CDs have a few simple games and a few other goodies as well.

It seems amazing in this day of terabyte storage but when you look back, that’s how Apple (and most other “personal computers”) started out. The computer was turned on, a floppy disk inserted and the operating system loaded from the disk. If you wanted to load an application, it usually meant another disk; sometimes more than one. The largest floppy disks could hold no more than around 1.5 MEGA bytes; suddenly 650Mb on a CD sounds like a lot of room to play with!

Apple, according to Wikipedia, seems to have been the first company to produce a bootable CD with a usable GUI environment. They did so 15 years ago in 1991.

Googling for Live CDs brings up thousands of results – which is great…. if you want one for a PC; most of them are GNU/Linux or BSD derivatives made by people in their spare time. Doing the same search for Mac… but where are the Mac Live CDs?!

While target disk mode on the Mac potentially provides a way to get at and rescue a disk, it requires two Firewire Macs. That may not be too much of a problem in today’s world but let’s face facts, a live CD would be helpful too! Most people have more CDs than Macs lying around.

I’m surprised that there aren’t more live CDs for the Mac. Is there even one that’s a downloadable ISO ready to go? Let me know!

My surprise comes when I consider:

• how useful they are (data recovery, portable computing, hardware and software testing)
• how popular they are on the non-PPC side of the computing world and
• the number of *nix folk out there who we’re told are converting to OS X in droves.

I would think that a challenge like this would be a worthy adversary for a *nix guru although I guess that a true *nix head has no need for a live cd -  or a GUI for that matter… oh well. “Live CD? We don’ nee’ no steenkin Live CD!”

I hope that in the next few months and years we’ll see a lot of porting of Live CDs over to the Mac. I for one would love to boot up a Knoppix derivative on a Mac and use it as a resuce disk.

Look at how quickly the Macintel was hacked to make XP work on it. How long will it take before there is a layman’s way to do all of the hard work for an XP dual boot? I imagine some sort of point and click interface will be made to install XP eventually. Surely Live CDs will be made to run as well?

Was that the sound of Pandora’s Box opening?


  • A live OS X CD would have to come from Apple. The community could develop an OpenDarwin CD though, and that could be beneficial to troubleshooting, but most Mac techs I know just install OS X on an iPod and boot off that. I think that is the way to go anyway, because the iPod is permanent (but erasable) storage so grabbing the important stuff is a snap before a reinstall/reimage.

    toadkicker had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 10
  • There is an actual utility out there to make a live OS X CD.  It is called BootCD.  It is compatible upto Panther, but not Tiger.  I have used it to make a nice bootable cd that has a few diagnostic utilities, but the best part is I can get to a hard drive on the desktop.  It’s great for fixing User library problems, recovering files, etc.  Only draw back is that it takes about 15 minutes to boot.

    Thrakar had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Toadkicker - I have done the same with a bus powered firewire drive and it works well. Of course the new iPods are USB only aren’t they??? Probably can’t easily boot off those.

    Thrakar - thanks for the heads up on BootCD. I saw it as I was looking around but haven’t used it.

    I’m guessing that Charlessoft is trying to avoid copyright and legal issues by offering a means to assemble your own boot CD rather than offering the finished product. Perhaps that’s what toadkicker was meaning when he said that an OS X cd would have to come from Apple? Charlessoft may still be treading on dangerous ground though, huh?

    The 15 minute boot time is a little off putting!

    Most macs have more than enough RAM (!) to power a simple GUI OS.

    Where’s the mac version of PuppyLinux?!


    David Czepanski had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 25
  • Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Great link, Devanshu.

    I *hope* that the switch to Intel will bring even more to this list.

    Any live CD disto made for Apple’s PPC chip is sure to dwindle…

    David Czepanski had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 25
  • Check out Mac OS X

    You can still boot off a USB iPod/Intel Mac!

    And if you’re really into it
    You could boot Windows!

    toadkicker had this to say on Apr 03, 2006 Posts: 10
  • I know there’s a live CD version of Ubuntu for PPC (I could never get my G5 to boot it, though). You can download the image or get it mailed to you for free from the Ubuntu site.

    agingeri had this to say on Apr 04, 2006 Posts: 2
  • I have had a fairly cool experience with the Ubuntu live CD for PPC on my iBook G4, which I think says a fair deal about how well the Ubuntu team are handling their tasks.

    But the functionality problem remains. It’s nice to be able to take a look at how Gnome and the Linux environment are progressing without too much hassle,  but the specialised Linux live CDs (data recovery, system security, multimedia, etc.), are normally iXX6-only.

    So, indeed, maybe we need a specific Apple product there.

    On the other hand, it is not that hard to setup a favourite app to boot from a USB drive (the Carbon Emacs package does that particularly well), as long as one uses a Mac of course.

    My dream: a bootable, stripped-down MacOSX I can boot on any Intel machine… Bliss…

    Kamen Nedev had this to say on Apr 04, 2006 Posts: 1
  • “How long will it take before there is a layman’s way to do all of the hard work for an XP dual boot?”

    Boot Camp released this week…. spooky.

    David Czepanski had this to say on Apr 06, 2006 Posts: 25
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