Hack to the Future

By Stewart Midwinter

I recently put together a “Hackintosh”, i.e. Mac OS X installed on non-Apple hardware. Along the way, I learned a few things, and I’d like to pass along my observations.

First off, this type of project is not for the technically-challenged. Regular readers of this blog are probably not in that category, so let’s move on.

Selection of the right hardware is the first step in making this type of project a success. There are several websites that list compatible hardware. I chose an Asus 1005HA, mostly because I already had one, but also because I liked the idea of having a small Apple-powered netbook, aka an EeeMac. I learned that I could expect everything to work on this netbook, except for ethernet and wireless internet… making it essentially useless in this day and age. However, if I changed out the WLAN card for a Dell 1510, I could expect wireless LAN to work; if I bought a USB ethernet dongle, I could have an ethernet connection.

I ordered a Dell WLAN card from Hong Kong for $25 CDN. Then I disassembled the netbook using instructions found in a YouTube video, and installed the card. Voilà, wireless internet.

Installing Mac OS X itself was quite an involved process. There are myriads of websites and forums out there with a variety of methods explaining how to do the installation. And that is in itself a problem. There is just so much conflicting advice, or outdated advice, that it takes some time just to wade through it all. I ended up doing the installation of Snow Leopard 10.6.0 several times, encountering a few kernel panics along the way. After a couple of full evenings, I had my OS installed. Then I decided I wanted to dual-boot with Windows XP, and the whole cycle started again. But finally I had the Windows bootloader able to boot either OS.

Once Mac OS X was running on my EeeMac, I discovered a few little quirks. Some of you may call these major annoyances. For instance, the volume-up and volume-down keys didn’t work, so I had to use the icon in the menu bar. Sound didn’t work, so I had to chase down a .kext for that. The trackpad didn’t work properly, so I tried several different .kext files for that; eventually it worked okay, but I was unable to tap on it to make a mouse-click. Then the internal mic wouldn’t work properly, or had a very low level, so I had to resort to using an external mic. The brightness keys didn’t work, so I had to install an app called Spark to redefine the keys. And so on.

Next, I tried connecting an external 19-inch monitor. This was wonderful… until I selected the Mirror option. Suddenly I had massive video corruption on both monitors, until I unplugged the external one. How to disable that mirroring, when you don’t get a System Preference for this until you plug in the monitor, and then as soon as you do plug it in, you can’t see what you are doing? Eventually I found a command-line utility that would toggle the Mirror option.

At the end of the day, I have a functioning EeeMac with a 10-inch screen that runs Snow Leopard 10.6.1 quite well. But, I cannot upgrade to 10.6.2 or I’ll have a kernel panic. Getting around this involves using a kernel from an older version, or using a patched kernel, and even then ethere are problems with Bluetooth. More complication. I’m stuck with a rather fragile installation of Mac OS X. I have to be careful to never let Software Update do it’s thing, or I’m pooched.

At this point, my EeeMac functions more or less as it should. But it’s not a Mac. The hardware is not as high quality as Apple’s. Some keys are not in familiar places. The screen resolution is poor: 1024 x 600. And the keyboard doesn’t have that nice feel that Mac notebooks have. On the other hand, my Hackintosh has cost me only $300 CDN. You can’t get a Mac for that price, not even an old used one. And my netbook, though Steve Jobs may call it crappy, has more power and speed that my five-year-old G4 Powerbook. The performance that Apple sold for $3,000 CDN just five years ago now can be bought for ten percent of that price from Asus.

I consider my experiment a success, as it provided a full month of entertainment. But I’ve decided to sell my netbook and have picked up a 13-inch MacBook Pro from the Apple refurb store. Better-quality hardware, and everything will just work.

I’ve prepared this note on an Archos 5 Internet Tablet running Android 1.6, with text input by an iGo Slim Bluetooth Keyboard. That will be the topic of my next blog entry.

Questions? Comments?

midtoad

I've been experimenting with mobile devices since 1992 when I bought a Sharp PC-3100. In more recent years I've had devices running Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Linux, Android and iPhone OS. I'm a mechanical engineer working for a software company, and a software hacker on the side (mostly Python, and Android). I also like playing with GPS, riding my bicycle every day of the year, and flying unpowered aircraft when I can - so long as it doesn't interfere with my skiing! I've known your host Zac for over 10 years, but please don't hold that against me.

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