Hands-on experience: Linux on the PS3

In this post, I cover the why and how's of installing Linux on the PS3, and my personal experiences working with it for nearly two years.

Matthew Panton Editorial Intern
6 min read

Yellow Dog Linux

Is installing Linux on the PS3 worth it?

The bottom line: The PS3 makes for a reasonably good desktop when not performing tasks that require a lot of memory, such as word processing, instant messaging, or viewing Web browser-based video. Unfortunately, because of the lack of available memory, high-definition video playback is near impossible to watch, and even a standard-resolution video (from the hard drive) will occasionally skip.

Linux on the PS3 is not a new idea. In fact, Sony originally stated that the PS3 would come with the open-source OS preinstalled. Times have changed, and Sony christened Terra Soft Solutions' Yellow Dog Linux as the official distribution for the console. In this post, I'll cover the why and how's of installing the operating system, and my personal experiences working with it for nearly two years.

First, why on earth would you want Linux on your PS3? Well, besides the geek factor, there's a lot of additional functionality you can add to the PS3 beyond just being a game machine and Blu-ray player. The PS3 is capable of functioning much like a regular PC using your HDTV as a monitor. Here's the shortlist of what it can bring you: A robust browser, a word processor (for example, OpenOffice), an IRC or AIM client such as Pidgin, and fully featured desktop environment using Enlightenment or KDE. It's true that the latest firmware upgrade for the PS3, 2.50, supports Flash 9 for Web video playback, but a standard Web browser with the right plug-ins is much more capable. Not everyone will want chat or word processing on their console, but if you're feeling adventurous and want to augment you're PS3's capabilities, keep on reading.

I've found it useful to have available a wide variety of programs that I can run out of the box or compile for Yellow Dog using yumpackages--from the more complex, like an Apache server for my test Web site to a free, open source VoIP program such as Ekiga. Essentially, with some tweaking, I can run anything on my PS3 that I can on my PC--although, not perfectly as I'll explain. That said, it's not the same as a PC, and some may prefer sitting at a desk to work with a spreadsheet.

Now for the annoyances. It's rather painless installing Linux nowadays (as I'll detail below), but configuring the OS to your own liking is a different matter. First--and ironically so--don't expect to do anything media-intensive on your PS3 while running Linux. Word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, and running a low-end Web server work fine. Even though the PS3 includes the gutsy cell processor, it doesn't have the minimal amount of RAM or access to the graphics chip for video playback--Yellow Dog Linux, even in the latest version, 6.0, can only see half of the 512MB of RAM inside the PS3. The reason for this is simple: Sony doesn't want third-party Linux-based games to be installed on their console and have access to the GPU, which is tied to half of the PS3's memory.

Unfortunately, this also affects video playback. Only having 256MB of memory without a functioning GPU is just not enough horsepower for many types of video, including HD quality videos. I've noticed on occasion that my videos would frequently skip or stutter if I'm an hour through a movie using VLC or the default player, Titan. If you want to watch browser-based videos, such as Hulu or YouTube, the PS3 will perform well. Otherwise, avoid the hassle and go for the alternatives: Blu-ray Discs, DLNA video streaming, or purchasing videos from the Sony Video Store.

Lastly, unless you install a boot loader (a messy process in itself), the only way to switch between Yellow Dog and the GameOS (aka the Cross Media Bar), is by changing the default boot OS in the Systems Settings to Yellow Dog Linux. From there, once you reboot your machine, a command prompt will pop up. Type in ydl to start Yellow Dog or boot-game-os to start the regular PS3 interface. If that sounds cumbersome, it is. Yes, you can hold down the power button for five seconds to boot directly into Linux, but I've found that to be inconvenient if I'm sitting across the living room from the PS3.

Other versions of Linux have also been ported over to the PS3, although only Yellow Dog is officially supported. Ubuntu, for instance, is supported up to 7.10. The current 8.04 (Hardy Heron) release of Ubuntu is incompatible with the PS3. The installation is more complex, however, and not all of the PS3's hardware components function properly out of the box. Furthermore, Yellow Dog is specifically designed to display properly on a HDTV; Unbutu, as I've experienced, can be troublesome to tinker with on some TVs.

You could try using other distributions, such as Ubuntu, but I highly suggest looking at Yellow Dog first if you're new to this. Back in 2006, it was only available for a $50 price tag, now you can download the latest version for free. And it offers a very streamlined approach to installing the OS. One caveat though: Yellow Dog will take up about 10GB of space on your PS3's hard drive, not including any software or files you download later on. It's best to allot 20GB partition for reassurance, which unfortunately will exclude owners of the older 20GB PS3 version. Of course, you can always upgrade your PS3's internal hard drive.

If you installed Linux on your PC, the instructions below will be very familiar. I won't go into how to install a boot loader or how to tweak it beyond what is default--that's beyond the scope of this post.

  1. After downloading the 3.7GB file to your PC, use a program such as Nero or ImgBurn and burn it to a DVD. This will be your boot disc.
  2. Backup, backup, backup--need I more? I had the unfortunate accident of deleting all my saved games by formatting the entire PS3 hard drive--don't do the same stupid mistake as I did. The PS3 includes a handy backup command under systems settings that will backup any of your saved games to an external hard drive. The PS3's own operating system is stored in flash memory, so luckily it can't be tampered with. On the other hand, any other media files (music, video, and so on) will need to be backed up manually.
  3. If you haven't realized yet, you will need a USB keyboard and mouse and a HDTV for this to work, either connected by HDMI or component video. Also remember that only a 720p or above HDTV is supported by Yellow Dog Linux.
  4. In the PS3's default interface, go to settings, system settings, and use the format utility to format a 20GB partition for "Other OS."
  5. Reboot the PS3 and pop in the burned DVD. Go to settings, system settings, and choose install Other OS. The installation process will take about an hour to complete.
  6. Once it's complete, the PS3 will restart and go back to the default interface.
  7. From here, go back to System Settings (you've been here enough, right?) and choose Yellow Dog Linux as the boot-up OS. Restart your PS3.
  8. You'll be presented with a command prompt. Type in ydl to start Yellow Dog or boot-game-os to start the regular PS3 interface.
  9. Optionally, you can hold down the power button for 5 seconds to boot directly into Yellow Dog.
  10. Once you're inside Linux, check to see if everything is working correctly. Adjust the screen resolution if necessary (the default output is 720p), by following this step-by-step guide here.
  11. If you want to go back to the default interface, choose the Start menu and select GameOS. There, you're back into the PS3's familiar interface.

From here, tinker around with Yellow Dog. Try out some of the programs. Get familiar with the Enlightenment interface, if you never used it before. See how much better Firefox can be on your HDTV. For more information and other tutorials, check out the Yellow Dog Linux forums.