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 There is just so much conflicting advice, or outdated advice, that it takes some time just to wade through it all.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.