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I have a 2013 Retina MacBook Pro, and I really want to install Debian on it. I have the know-how and have had at least three Debian systems before this. I am very knowledgable with the command-line and Linux's inner workings, and partitioning isn't an issue for me.

So, I just have one question before I install Debian. My dad has warned me that Linux, in particular, can make laptop batteries explode and/or ruin hardware on MacBooks.

I find this very strange, but don't really have any research to disprove it. I can't seem to find anything about it on the Internet, so can someone help me out?

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    The onus is on your Dad to provide evidence for his claim. If I were to claim that Windows makes your microwave explode, it wouldn't be your job to prove me wrong; I would have to provide evidence to back such an absurd claim. – terdon Oct 22 '15 at 13:48
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    In that case, tell him to give you some specific arguments rather than an absurd rumor with no evidence to back it up and we'll be happy to look into them. – terdon Oct 22 '15 at 14:38
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    Some Apple hardware has been known to have issues under ALL other operating systems (not just Linux Kernel based ones) - due to Apple's proprietary hardware and more specifically their proprietary fan controllers. This often means your MacBook will either run with fans at full speed all the time, or at some default level (although this is not always true since some of the fans are temperature controlled based on hardware sensors). None-the-less, I've never heard of any operating system causing a battery to explode. – SnakeDoc Oct 22 '15 at 15:49
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    If we re-phrased your Dad's assertion as "Macbooks are so badly designed and manufactured that you can't use them to run any software not written by Apple", that amounts to more or less the same claim. I couldn't possibly comment on whether or not he's right - the last Mac I used was an Apple Lisa – alephzero Oct 22 '15 at 20:24
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    Yes, your laptop battery can explode while you're using Linux. However, I don't think Linux is likely to be the cause of the explosion. – immibis Oct 23 '15 at 10:37
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Laptop batteries typically have onboard firmware to control safe charging & discharging of the battery, report battery charge level to the OS, and prevent thermal runaway, which is what will cause an Li-ion battery to explode (or more accurately, catch fire). Most modern ones also contain mechanical failsafes to prevent such fires & explosions.

This firmware is stored on the battery, separate from the OS. While it can be updated from the OS (although this depends on the battery & laptop), it's not something that is altered when installing a new OS or something that is typically ever tampered with unless done so by the user running a battery firmware update.

The only thing changing OS will affect is the load on the system & the hardware drivers used, not the safety features of the battery. Load on the system in and of itself will not normally cause issues with the battery other than faster discharging.

Interestingly, according to this forbes article, there was actually a vulnerability in Apple laptops (running OSX, not Linux) that could do nasty things to the firmware on the batteries - perhaps your Dad has read something like that which is why he seems to think the OS can do this?

(It's more than likely been fixed since 2011 when the article was written).

EDIT - in conclusion, aside from possible attack vectors for battery firmware hacks, the choice of OS alone cannot cause a battery to explode.

  • 2
    He might also be thinking of this which applies to all lithium batteries. Apple laptops are specifically mentioned. He might also want to re-consider how he commutes to work after reading here. – doneal24 Oct 22 '15 at 16:02
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    The choice of OS may influence fan control, which influences the laptop temperature, which may cause a faulty battery to overheat. – Alexander Oct 22 '15 at 18:01
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    @Alexander I agree that the OS makes a difference to system load, but in order for normal system load to cause a battery fire, the battery has to be faulty to begin with - so this alone will not cause a fire, and if the battery was faulty to the point where it will overheat and catch fire, it will do that eventually, nomatter what OS is running. The programs that are running have much more influence on system load than OS choice - Crysis v.s libre office for example. – jammypeach Oct 23 '15 at 8:17
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    Also meant to add - sorry @Alexander I misread the first part of your comment, you are right about fan control. Thermal safety features present in the rest of the system will always take over in the event of unsafe levels of heat though - I think for this to happen there would need to be more than one failure, and atleast one hardware failure - not solely an OS problem. – jammypeach Oct 23 '15 at 12:51
  • Can't disagree with that, @jammypeach – Alexander Oct 23 '15 at 12:59
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I think all batteries can explode. The question is if Linux (an operating system using the Linux kernel) will generate more heat or not. With good use of the fan (equally good use of the fan as other operating systems might employ), the cooling should be equal or better, thus resulting in a similar (or perhaps even reduced) risk of battery explosion.

There is also a matter of graphic cards and fans. Graphics cards may generate a lot of heat, and the fans may be managed by the graphic card drivers (kernel modules). These must also run properly for the system to be as cool as possible.

The 2013 Retina MacBook Pro uses either an Intel Iris Graphics 6100 graphics card, an Intel Iris Pro Graphics or an Intel Iris Pro Graphics in combination with an AMD Radeon R9 card. The open source Intel drivers are rock solid and should not cause any problems. The AMD drivers are more questionable, depending on which one you choose to use. If you use the Catalyst driver, the fans are supposedly both silent and efficiently managed (but there may be other issues, it has a bad rep). The open source radeonsi driver had a problem where they made too much noise, all up until early 2015, which is now fixed. Setting the fans to maximum speed at the early stages of graphics card driver development is common, and this only increases the cooling. This means that even drivers that are under development should cool the system adequately, and not increase the risk of an immediate battery explosion.

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    Im pretty sure I don't have the AMD one, so thats cool! – Christopher Dumas Oct 22 '15 at 14:37
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    So that is the reason why my AMD experience improved drastically somewhere in April. Thanks! I always wondered what made such a huge difference all of a sudden. – r3bl Oct 23 '15 at 11:14
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I'm pretty sure that an OS has no capabilities to destroy a battery (be it Linux OS, Windows, etc.). A malfunctioning program (and not Linux by itself) can overload a laptop/PC up to the point that, for example, it can enter CPU thermal protection.

But a fresh Linux install will not damage any hardware (if it does, than something is terribly wrong with your hardware).

5

I'm sorry but the question is wrong! It isn't whether a Linux laptop battery can explode, but whether any laptop's battery could explode.

The latter question is indeed correct and, depending on what was done, how it was recharged and what was done to it, yes depending on the situation, it is unfortunately possible that a laptop's battery can explode just like any other battery.

4

There is no way that the OS can cause the batteries to explode. Battery charging is handled by the hardware. That being said, it's possible for any lithium batteries to explode.

3

The other answers are correct about battery management being in general separate from the OS. I'll add this to cover the other side of that same point:

A battery can be made to explode while powering any (or no) operating system No OS can prevent me from submerging the laptop in HCl, slicing it open it with a machete, lighting it on fire, etc.

That said, here's a contrived scenario which would bolster your dad's statement:

Some Linux distributions are less resource-intensive than other OSes. This might make you more likely to use an aging laptop far after it became too slow to run Windows or OSX. An aging laptop is closer to death of natural causes, including battery failure, thus increasing the correlation of (battery explosion) with (running Linux at the time).

3

The answers all point out, correctly, that Linux cannot cause the battery to explode, since the charging mechanism is OS-independent. However, it is possible that running Linux could shorten battery life, in both senses. The Linux kernel is less optimized to conserve power than OS X, thus reducing the running time per charge. Over the long term, that additional energy usage could also degrade the battery capacity.

To be fair, Apple does put engineering effort into making its hardware run best with Mac OS X. It is possible, in some cases, that running Linux can strain your hardware more. For example, it could park hard disk heads after excessively short idle periods, leading to premature wear. As another example, the System Management Controller, which governs the fan, is controllable by the OS, so it is remotely conceivable that poor fan control could cause heat-related reliability problems. (Note that fan control hacks exist for OS X, so you don't even need to run Linux to override the fan's behaviour.) Running Linux may strain your hardware, but I wouldn't say that it "damages" it.1

In some sense, your dad is right, in that Apple guarantees only that Mac OS X will run properly on your hardware, for the duration of the warranty period plus whatever AppleCare you bought.2 Apple reserves the right to dismiss any complaints you may have if you're running Linux or even Windows, though the treatment you actually get depends largely on which Apple technician you encounter. And, of course, Debian disclaims all liability. However, I wouldn't let these fears deter you from installing Linux. It is, after all, your machine, so you should enjoy it fully by running your operating system(s) of choice, and chances are that everything will be just fine.

If you really are scared of running a non-Apple-approved operating system, you do have the option of running Linux in a virtual machine within Mac OS X. Then you would be technically abiding by Apple's rulebook while getting a Linux-like experience.


1 Except when it does, in extremely weird situations that will never apply to you.

2 A similar argument could be made for, say, how Acer only supports Windows. Unless the manufacturer has certified their machine to run Linux, you assume any risk. Canonical has a certified hardware list for Ubuntu; Debian only has a hardware compatibility list.

protected by terdon Oct 24 '15 at 22:05

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