What are the gotchas of triple booting a current-gen Mac?
July 7, 2013 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to buy a new MacBook Pro and there's only one thing I want to do when I first get it: "Ultimate" Triple Booting. But those instructions pre-date the OS X recovery partition introduced in 10.7 Lion. What do I need to know to get this working on 2013 hardware?

To summarize the instructions I linked:

1. There is a way to triple-boot OS X, Windows, and Linux while also being able to load the Windows and Linux partitions in Parallels VMs under OS X. In my case this I'll be using OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, Windows 7 (or 8, I haven't decided), and the latest version of Ubuntu.

2. The instructions involve installing Windows on a Boot Camp partition, then installing rEFIt to allow access to a Linux partition. At startup, I would be prompted to boot into Mac, or "Windows." Choosing the latter would then prompt me to choose between Windows or Linux, if I understand correctly.

The problem is, these steps were written in 2009. Since then, Apple switched from including OS X install DVDs with new machines to pre-loading drives with recovery partitions. I'm scared of accidentally wiping away that partition during the process, which would at best leave me without a recovery plan... and at worst brick my machine.

What do I need to know to avoid that? Better yet, to make the whole process painless? Besides the recovery partition, are there any other changes made to Apple hardware since 2009 that might complicate things? I'm getting a model with an SSD, if that makes any difference.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I can't particularly help ensure your plan will work (I'll note though that a quick Google for "Mac triple boot" reveals some newer articles, and it may be possible to do this nowadays without the second rEFIt menu process, see this video), but I can tell you that even if you manage to destroy the recovery partition, you won't brick the machine. First of all, you'd still have your Mac OS partition, and you'd really have to make a pigs breakfast out of things to delete both.

However, even if you totally screw everything up, you can still reformat the entire HD and start over again, you can still recover. Macs from the past couple years include an Internet Recovery system built into the firmware. This system is capable of connecting to standard DHCP-providing WiFi or ethernet networks, downloading a recovery install from Apple, and getting you going again.

If you're particularly concerned, you can always create a recovery disk on a USB stick or external hard drive before you start partitioning. Apple has a special Recovery Disk Assistant that will build you one. Just run it on your new Mac and it will make a copy of your stock recovery partition on an external drive for you.

Finally, I'll note that while triple-booting is a bit unsupported, dual-booting, or just single-booting, and using VMs is super common. You could always just install Windows through Boot Camp and run Linux from within Parallels (or whatever your VM solution of choice is). You could still launch the same Windows install within Parallels as well, for those times you don't want to reboot. Or just single-boot (OS X) and install everything as VMs. If you don't need to be running on the bare metal, it offers a lot more flexibility: no need to choose between Win 7 or 8, you can just have both if you'd like.
posted by zachlipton at 8:43 PM on July 7, 2013

Not answering your question directly, but I ultimately removed the bootable windows image from my 2012 MBP- with a solid state drive, I couldn't see an appreciable performance hit booting to Windows vs. running it as a virtual machine, and this is including disk intensive GIS work. With 16 GB of RAM and SSD, I seem to be able to run virtualized Windows or Linux simultaneously with OSX with out noticeable latency, all three on occasion. Running OSX and Windows rarely pushes the RAM usage much past 8GB.
posted by bendybendy at 9:03 PM on July 7, 2013

One of the other sysads at my work just did this last week (current non-Retina MBP) and it all worked fine. His post-fact notes are here, but they're terse and come with no warranty other than "if you follow them and break your laptop, you get to keep both pieces".

The basic process is to use Boot Camp Assistant to shrink the OSX partition and move the Recovery Partition. This creates a single partition that is intended for use with Windows, but he used a Debian Rescue disk to split that up into Windows and Linux partitions.

Note that the MBR partition table only covers the ESP (EFI System Partition), Mac partition, Rescue partition, and Windows. Linux is a pure EFI boot via. the EFI Stub loader and rEFInd. Also, not mentioned in those notes, he needed to install the rEFInd ext2 drivers to boot linux.

This should (in theory) work with the Parallels support for running hardware-installed OSs.
posted by russm at 9:05 PM on July 7, 2013

Thanks for the tips!

zachlipton: Your info about Internet Recovery and the Recovery Disk Assistant is a huge weight off my mind before I try anything. This will probably take a few tries to get right, but that no longer feels like it'd be a complete disaster.

bendybendy: Excellent data point. That's the kind of performance I hope to see for most tasks, too. I'm mainly looking to run Windows natively for gaming, which I know won't be as good in a VM. As for Linux, I'm not going to lie: I just want to triple-boot into that because I can, for the geek thrill. Virtualizing it will be more than sufficient in probably every real-world situation. But stopping there wouldn't feel nearly as satisfying!

russm: Thanks for the notes from your colleague. That's the same model I'm considering, so they may be very useful for me. Definitely going to give your links a once-over before I proceed.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:43 PM on July 7, 2013

I triple-boot my 2008 MacBook, complete with a Recovery Partition. Some notes:

rEFIt has been unmaintained for several years. You should instead use rEFInd, a new and improved version. With, rEFIt or rEFInd, on boot I'm presented with icons for OS X, Linux and Windows and just have to choose the right one. By default, pressing the "X", "L" or "W" keys even works.

Partitioning can be annoying, because of the whole GPT vs. MBR thing. It might be possible with Windows 8 to use pure GPT partitioning, but I don't know if this works. You'll probably be using a hybrid GPT setup, which definitely does work, but has some annoying issues:

* Apple likes the recovery partition to be right after the main OS X partition, but with a small gap in between. Major updates to OS X will not work right if this gap is not present. The first step of your partitioning should be using Disk Utility to shrink your OS X partition, since it takes care of this. Subsequently, you can use other tools to partition for the other OSes.

* Installers for Linux and Windows will usually write boot code directly to the MBR, which prevents rEFInd from booting the other OS. Sometimes you can tell the installer not to do this, but if it happens you can fix it with "sudo dd if=/dev/zero bs=1 count=446 of=/dev/sda" (or the OS X equivalent).

* Windows 7 will only be aware of the four hybrid partitions (I don't know about Windows 8.) Parallels had this problem too, last time I checked. The first of these four partitions must be taken up by the EFI System Partition. You can use advanced tools in gdisk and Grub to specify exactly which partitions are hybrid, but most tools just automatically assume the first four.

You have to setup your partitions with all this in mind, for example:

1. EFI System Partition, 200 MB
2. OS X HFS+, 200 GB (Linux boot code goes here too)
- small gap
3. Recovery partition, ~600 MB
4. Windows NTFS, 200 GB
5. Grub BIOS Boot Partition, 1 MB (created automatically by Linux installer)
6. Linux ext4, 90 GB
7. Linux swap, 5 GB

Note that in this setup, Parallels may not be able to see the Linux partition.

Some tools that might help you:
* gdisk is a very good GPT command-line partitioning tool
* Fedora's installer uses EFI boot by default on Macs, which makes the boot code issue irrelevant
* vmdk-raw-parts (self-link) is a tool I wrote to let VMware Fusion understand GPT partitions, if you're not so attached to Parallels
* Tuxera NTFS is a commercial tool that lets you write to your Windows partition from OS X, so you can share data. Most Linux distros come with this ability.

Feel free to ask for more info here or by MeMail. Good luck!
posted by vasi at 10:24 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did this on a Hack a few years ago when the whole process was rather more confused. My solution was to use a tower case and three hard drives, obviously you can't do that. However, you might be interested to know that the current MBPs can boot from the SD card slot. Although (as others have noted) it's much harder to irretrievably hose a hard drive with the recovery partition and the net restore option, you might find the card slot useful in case things go wrong getting everything going.

It's also an option to run Linux directly from the SD slot, depending on how much you anticipate using it.

Apple: Can I install Mac OS X on an SD storage device and use it as a startup volume?

Blog post: Boot Ubuntu From an SD Card on Your Macbook Air (or Pro)
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:48 AM on July 8, 2013

Why bother? Right now I run Mountain Lion and Parallels. In there I have XP, 7, 8, and Ubuntu. Partitioning the drive with BootCamp was a stop-gap attempt by Apple to meet some Windows benchmark prior to the improvements made lately by VMWare and Parallels.
posted by Gungho at 6:30 AM on July 8, 2013

Gaming, possibly? At least as far as Windows is concnered.

You don't need a discrete GPU for most SteamPlay games. Shame if it just......went to waste. ;P

Of course there's always Crossover.

And for the first few seconds I stared at their page, I could have sworn the box art said "Opens Windows Solitaire." 0_o
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:36 AM on July 8, 2013

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