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Installing XFree86 on Mac OS X

by Michael J. Norton

I have to admit, I wasn't completely motivated to jump onto Mac OS X right away. Mac OS 9.1 worked great for me, I had a small fortune invested in Adobe software, and LinuxPPC was working perfectly fine. In the not-so-distant future I knew I needed to dive in and make the migration to Mac OS X. So what was my motivation to make it sooner rather than later? Why, the X Window GUI of course!


XFree86 is an open-source implementation of the X Window System GUI for Unix and Unix-like (Linux, FreeBSD, and Solaris) operating systems. XFree86 is maintained by the XFree86 Project, Inc and is historically intended for x86-based architectures. The current focus of XFree86 is to have its X Window System GUI ported to every platform using a Unix or Unix-like operating system.

XFree86 and Mac OS X

XFree86 was available for the Macintosh platform long before the release of Mac OS X. Various flavors existed for MkLinux, LinuxPPC, and FreeBSD for the Macintosh. Although the underlying core architecture of Mac OS X, the Darwin kernel, is FreeBSD based, no X Window server was provided.

A significant programming contribution was made by a familiar name in PC gaming, John Carmack, founder of Id Software. Carmack released an X Window server for Mac OS X in February of 2000, see X Windows on Mac OS X Server -- Initial Port.

Carmack's initial release was intended for the Mac OS X server only. Some work was required for a release to run standalone on Darwin. Torrey Lyon, earlier this year, provided a port of XFree86 that ran natively under Mac OS X's Aqua environment.

The current version of XFree86 is available from Darwinfo web site. A how-to article is also provided for Darwin users to install XFree86 on their Darwin platform. A paragraph is included at the bottom for Mac OS X installation. In my efforts to install X on Mac OS X, I discovered a little more detail than I needed.

As a result, I feel obligated to mention that you should be a little Unix-savvy before you attempt this installation. Unix administrator skills are required and there is always the possibility of hosing your Mac OS X installation if you're not careful.

Downloading XFree86 for Mac OS X

As of this writing, the semi-current revision of XFree86 for Darwin and Mac OS X is available as a binary package from the Darwinfo site, X11R6-4.01.tar.gz. This is not the latest revision of XFree86. I recommend downloading the XFree86 4.1.0 binaries. The XFree86 FTP server is extremely busy, you may wish to connect and download from XFree86 mirror sites.

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Once you have located an FTP server, go ahead and start downloading files. I created a top-level folder, under Mac OS X, on my hard drive, named tmp_build, where I downloaded the XFree86 4.1.0 files. There are 13 files that are required for the installation.

  • -- The installer script
  • extract -- The utility for extracting tarballs
  • Xbin.tgz -- X clients/utilities and run-time libraries
  • Xlib.tgz -- Some data files required at run-time
  • Xman.tgz -- Manual pages
  • Xdoc.tgz -- XFree86 documentation
  • Xfnts.tgz -- Base set of fonts
  • Xfenc.tgz -- Base set of font-encoding data
  • Xetc.tgz -- Run-time configuration files
  • Xvar.tgz -- Run-time data
  • Xxserv.tgz -- XFree86 X server
  • Xmod.tgz -- XFree86 X server modules
  • Xquartz -- X components for Aqua

Some optional files I picked up include:

  • Xfsrv.tgz -- Font server
  • Xnest.tgz -- Nested X server
  • Xprog.tgz -- X header files, config files, and compile-time libs
  • Xprt.tgz -- X Print server
  • Xvfb.tgz -- Virtual frame-buffer X server
  • Xf100.tgz -- 100 DPI fonts
  • Xfcyr.tgz -- Cyrillic fonts
  • Xfscl.tgz -- Scalable fonts (Speedo and Type1)

These two lists comprise all the tarballs required for the XFree86 installation on Mac OS X.

Installing the XFree86 files

Now it's time to begin. To install XFree86 for Mac OS X, your account will need administrator privileges. If in doubt, the user who set up the Mac OS X at installation is the default administrator. Before you go any further, make sure you know your login alias and that it has administrative privileges.

Through the looking glass

The FreeBSD Unix-like console is accessible on your Macintosh. Dropping into a console mode is required for the XFree86 installation. From the Mac OS X Apple menu, select "Log Out". Mac OS X will display a login prompt as shown in Figure 2. To access the FreeBSD console type >console in the name field of the login window and hit return (or use the Log In button).

Screen shot.
Figure 1. Accessing the FreeBSD console from the Mac OS X login prompt.

You will see a text prompt displaying the following information.

Darwin/BSD (localhost) (console)


Type in the alias (account name) for the Mac OS X administrator and password as you would do when logging into Mac OS X. If your login is successful, you will see the following command line.

[localhost:~] youraliasname%

Once you're in the console mode you're ready to run the XFree86 install script. Do you recall a time when a Mac user wouldn't even think of displaying a flashing prompt on their display? The Macintosh world has certainly changed.

Root privileges granted

When I first entered console mode, my initial operative was to grab root access using the su command. An interesting dilemma surfaced. I never set a root password and my Mac OS X administrator password didn't work for root. Frankly, this is the least eloquent way of performing the install and certainly more dangerous if anything should go wrong. I next tried the sudo (superuser do) command and access was granted to my administrator user alias. The sudo command allows the administrator to execute commands as root user. This access is required for the XFree86 install. The sudo command is invoked as follows:

[localhost:~] youraliasname% sudo root


[localhost:~] youraliasname%

Just hit the Return key when prompted for the root password. You are now operating in sudo mode. You're ready to install XFree86.

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