November 4th, 2009

How desperate are you for a Mac netbook?

Ever since the surprise success of the Asus EEE netbooks, Mac users and fans have been hoping and wishing that Apple will ship an ultra-small laptop form factor of their own.

This MacBook Nano, for example, by Mickphoto

This "MacBook Nano", for example. By Mickphoto

Apple hasn’t. So motivated hackers have been busily wedging Mac OS X into other company’s laptops as well as they could. This is not as easy as it might sound; options are limited to those computers with technical specifications closest to what Apple supports in its own products, patching the system to accommodate, compensate for, or ignore the remaining differences.

Enough progress has been made that even people who have no clue how to diagnose BIOS or edit kext files can do a passable job of putting Mac OS X on computers not made by Apple. Some do it purely out of being able to, some do it under the illusion that this will be an easy way to have a Macintosh for a fraction of the price of a real one. (Edit, Nov 4: An addendum about how the Apple taketh away and the Apple giveth back at the end of this post.) (Edit, Nov 17: There is now a second post with more news about Apple vs. hackintoshing, updates, and further impressions.)

Well? How desperate?

Thanks to increasing uniformity among the major computer vendors, hackintoshing isn’t a monumental challenge. No computer models are exactly alike (except when one company is simply putting their badge on somebody else’s work), so most hacked PCs get pretty close to working like Macs but rarely exactly like Macs. Depending on what’s lacking or different compared to Apple’s computer hardware, a hackintosh can be passable or a failure. For a while BoingBoing maintained a table of Mac-hackable netbooks, and on it you can see that, for example, the Sony Vaio P is a great choice as long as you never try to go online.

The recent Hackintosh Netbooks thread on Ask Metafilter renewed my interest in this. To summarize the question: ” I want a netbook running Mac OS X. I’m not afraid of the risks, I’m technically competent, but I don’t want to throw my money away and I don’t want upkeep to be a time-consuming hobby. So what should I get and what should I do?” The answers are surprisingly direct and positive.

What grabbed me was this line in rokusan’s response: “I like it because if I drop it or break it or it dies in six months, who cares. Cheap, disposable Mac for less than the cost of an OLPC.” I can’t consider myself a cheapskate, what with the cost of my work equipment (Apple hardware, Microsoft and Adobe software, and so on), but rokusan captured the motivation. This is the only way to get an incredibly portable computer on which I can run the operating system I’m most comfortable using. I may screw up and turn the thing into three pounds of sizzling plastic bacon, leaving me wishing I’d never bothered, but I won’t be out a lot. The odds of success are high and as computers go the stakes are low.

Dell Mini 10v display vs. my work environment

Dell Mini 10v display vs. my usual work environment. (Image enhanced for clarity)

As long as the constraints on using a netbook aren’t too limiting, it’s awfully appealing. My household can use a netbook. Collectively we’ll logging a fair amount of air travel in the coming year, and a new computer with half the size and weight of our current laptops will make it easier to work in transit.

Dell Mini 10v: The choice of the desperate

Voices in the Ask Metafilter thread were mostly in unison regarding the Dell Mini 10v. It’s not the smallest, but it’s small. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s cheap. The keyboard is better than those on most netbooks. It’s the younger, bigger brother of the thoroughly hackintosh-compatible Mini 9. It’s not the most readily moddable, but it’s one of the platforms for which other people have bundled all the required hacks into a single application. When prepared as directed, the considerable effort of patching and modding the OS is done on your behalf.

With the patch application, installing Mac OS X on the Mini 10v is sufficiently easy that even Gizmodo editors can do it. And now there’s a clearly written, well-illustrated step-by-step tutorial that’s far better than the hackers themselves have written. If you want to read how I did it, read that.

My Mini 10v came from Dell’s Outlet Store, shaving $25 off the cost. It also meant I got an older version of the 10v, one that doesn’t require a BIOS downgrade, which is yet another slim-but-possible opportunity to brick the machine. After about an hour at night spent preparing the tools for the installation and an hour the next morning doing the installing, I ended up with a working copy of OS X on a Dell laptop. Weird.

The installation process was without trauma. I unboxed the computer, configured it, and ran some programs. It became a hackintosh. After more configuring I took it to a cafe and typed to some friends, “I’m on a hackintosh.” Because that’s the way I roll.

Is it worth doing?

The first two hours, outlined above, don’t demand your attention; computers are grinding away, doing their thing, and you can go do your thing, which may involve pizza, a movie, or a relaxing bath. Some time later, after you get to witness the jarring transition from the Dell logo on bootload to the grey Apple screen, your work begins.

Quality of experience under Mac OS X on the Dell Mini 10v is… not Apple-like.

The trackpad is close to useless without further hacking, after which it’s marginal at best. Tracking works passably well, but two-finger clicking and scrolling are evanescent experiences — they rarely occur, never when expected, and are impossible to repeat reliably. If you’re not already in the habit of plugging in a mouse or optimizing keyboard use, this will beat those habits into you.

The keyboard is cramped (90% of standard keyboard size) and the control key’s to the left of the function key (reversing their positions on Apple’s laptops), contributing to the cascades of minor irritations. If you can’t touch type, the alt and Windows keys will be endlessly frustrating. As a lifelong touch typist with large-ish hands, I didn’t find the scale of the keyboard to be a problem and haven’t fatfingered yet.

Dell Mini 10v screenshot showing Universal Access preference pane

You should appreciate the irony in this screenshot

Some windows are too tall for the screen, so you have to use one hack or another to rescale windows to fit the display.

The colors on the display are off. The netbook hack app includes a few color profiles that improve things, but none are spot on.

So after the couple hours of installation, plan on a couple additional hours to patch the trackpad driver, learn how scaling hacks work, download applications, see which apps fail and read MyDellMini to see if anybody else has worked around them, and learn how little you can do on a laptop with only 1 GB of RAM and a display half the size of Apple’s standard product. This is the time to acclimate yourself to the computer and adjust the computer to you.

And then, as demonstrated, take it to a cafe with wifi and grab some bragging rights.

Hackintoshes are for desperadoes and the indifferent

This hack violates both Apple’s and Dell’s warranties, might have broken some intellectual property laws, risked wasting my money and time, and put my computer in the hands of people I don’t know who wrote applications that have access to data I store and transmit. The less you know about what you’re doing, the less you should take this lightly, even if you have money to burn.

Every change to the software or hardware is unsupported by everybody. Dell won’t help you. Apple can’t help you. Using hardware and software in unauthorized ways exposes you to risks you don’t otherwise face. A new Mac OS X update might brick your computer; you have to wait until it’s been vetted by people who know what’s going on under the hood. You’re at the mercy of volunteers now so hope they don’t get tired of this and start doing something else for a hobby. When you don’t know what’s going on, you have to check in with others, judge their credibility, and act accordingly.

This is an open-source project without legitimacy and you’ll be participating as a comparatively clueless peer. Let’s drive this point home with a mallet: If something you install ruins your computer, it’s your fault.

This is the state of the art in putting Apple’s computer operating system where it wasn’t meant to be. Due to laws, and to major corporations’ attitudes regarding how their products are used, it’s unlikely to improve further. Keep that in mind, too.

You have to be pretty desperate for a Mac to do this out of need. You’re probably an idiot to depend on one as your primary computer. Treat this as a productive hobby and avoid getting too attached to the results. Keep your computer’s recovery disks and a copy of Ubuntu handy in case you get tired of the grey area you’re operating in. And don’t use a hackintosh if you won’t make one yourself.

How un-Apple-like can a Mac-alike get?

First, living in an all Mac household and as the web developer in an all Mac workplace, I don’t deal with PC hardware often. (Courtesy of VMWare Fusion, I continue to deal with Windows regularly). Apple’s design, construction, and finish in their products are the norm to me; the sharp corners near the trackpad on the current MacBook Pro is about the most blatant design flaw that comes to mind at the moment. Apple’s modern laptops aren’t massive, but they have satisfying heft. Even the MacBook Air, surprisingly light for its size, is solid and sturdy. Design decisions matter even when the result is meant to be unnoticed; for example, the heaviest components in a laptop (battery and hard drive) are farthest from the display hinge so that the case can be opened by lifting the lid with one hand. The body is as seamless as modern mass production allows. The result of all this detailed work in design and build is a device that does what I want it to do without my having to think hard about how it’s done; a characteristic shared by many good tools.

The Mini 10v feels flimsy and light. The battery is at the screen hinge, making it off-balance and tippy, so when it’s on my lap I occasionally need to keep one hand on the palm rest. The plastic of the lid top can be flexed. You can see the display hinge’s shaft, metal shielding between the keyboard and case, and other gaps. The housing has more seams and the edge of the lid feels like it’s got mold flashing. The underside is perforated with grates, an access panel that doesn’t open, and large screw heads. There are, of course, ubiquitous Intel and Microsoft branding stickers plus a REFURB sticker (optional), a Windows product key sticker, a sticker with a ton of certification badges and the logo of the manufacturer Dell outsourced this to. An Apple product is uniformly and unambiguously a product of Apple (“Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”), regardless of who was hired to manufacture it. Dell gets top billing but when among other marques, it becomes a front man, not an authority. There’s an implicit preemptive passing of the buck: “Does the case hinge wobble? That’s Anatel’s fault, not mine. The system crashed? Hey, don’t look at me, man.”

While the bezel around the Mini 10v’s display is only 2mm wider than a MacBook Pro’s, it overwhelms the small display within. The user may be forgiven for imagining Dell could have fit a larger LCD in the case when it looks like fifty percent of the monitor surface is housing. The all-black case is garnished with superfluous design details like a grey wrist rest and trackpad (whereas Apple simply ships an all-black case). The design is restrained by PC industry standards; there’s no contrasting trim, creases and embossings, patterns and labels, excess status lights and buttons for disk access, network access, audio settings, or turbo.

Some design details are questionable. On such a small keyboard, the redundant Home and End keys are annoying. Even Apple’s minimalist laptops have Caps Lock lights; the Mini 10v doesn’t. There’s a bulky old-fashioned VGA display jack rather than a tinier, more efficient miniDV.

The Mini 10v is meant to be inexpensive. Nothing I’ve mentioned are deal killers, and many of them make sense in context. Design compromises that lower manufacturing expense without jeopardizing the computer’s integrety are called for. Housing plastic that’s fractionally thinner, a hinge design that works to spec with greater assembly tolerances, and a commodity keyboard picked from an EOM catalog all help meet the $300-350 pricepoint common to netbooks. The aggregated effect of all these lacking details and cost cutting results in a computer that feels considerably cheaper and flimsier than Apple product, whether or not it is.

The Mini 10v has some nice amenities that Apple doesn’t provide. It has an ethernet jack and the MacBook Air doesn’t. Neener. There are dedicated delete and backspace keys. The VGA port means one less rat-tail to pack when it’s got to drive a meeting room projector.

There is one non-small problem: A 3-cell battery that fits flush with the case is standard, but a 6-cell battery is needed to get more than three hours of runtime. It’s shaped like a stack of C-cell batteries permanently affixed under the hinge. It’s a fine, functional prop while working (aside from elevating the keyboard to the hands when it’s on a table, it also helps air circulate under the machine), but it renders the Mini 10v as something other than a rectangular box-shaped computer: It is now T-shaped when open, L-shaped when closed. The outboard battery housing will be a continual obstacle every time the computer is picked up. Good luck finding a padded computer bag that fits. The battery is an egregious design failure. In fact I couldn’t find a representative picture of it anywhere on Dell’s site other than in the support and accessories area; in the product customizer when you’re designing your new computer, the photo is taken from above so that you can’t see how bulky it is. (Between the first draft and now, Dell stopped offering the 6-cell battery as a substitute for the standard 3-cell in the build-to-order store. Now the 10v is only sold with the 3-cell battery preinstalled, and the 6-cell as an additional battery. So this rant is unlikely to apply to new system buyers but it’s still worth pointing out because oh man is that thing awkward.)

If you hate it so much, why don’t you divorce it?

I’ve been whipping my impressions into this post as I use the Mini 10v; about half of it has been typed from the hackintosh itself. It is useful. It’s going to travel in airplane carryon bags. It’s going to be my secondary development machine, because sometimes I work best when pounding out first drafts on a small screen in a library while wearing headphones; a lavish desktop system with two monitors accommodates too many distractions. The 10v may also serve as a portable presentation machine, thanks to the built-in VGA jack. And I like low-impact hacking toys.

Dell Mini 10v on an Apple Extended II Keyboard

The Dell Mini 10v: Half the size of a real keyboard

For some perspective, the Mini 10v could be hidden underneath the keyboard I’m currently typing on.

I’m going to keep it. So far I like it. It’s tiny and looks nice. Aside from its scary technical status and dubious legal status, it seems useful enough to justify the extra effort needed to keep it running. I might pick off all the stickers and cover the Dell logos with the white Apple stickers that are pretty easy to find around our house, but haven’t succumbed to that temptation yet.

What can we assume about Apple’s attitude towards netbooks if this is all we have to go on?

That OS X 10.6 runs on the Mini 10v at all says more about how much the computer contract manufacturing industry has shrunk than it does about Apple’s plans.

Apple already has a MacBook Air. It weighs half a pound more than the Mini 10v, has half again the battery life of a stock Mini 10v, and its base price is five times as much. The benefits for that price are obvious: Much larger display, full-sized keyboard, build quality, and legitimacy.

If Apple had a netbook-like Macintosh in the pipeline, it would feature the following:

  • The same keyboard Apple installs in every other Macintosh, which isn’t possible in current 9″ and 10″ netbook form factors. This is an ergonomics issue, not a marketing matter, and if any computer company understands this Apple does.
  • A display that is at least 768 pixels tall, to meet minimum standard display height for windows. The Dell Mini 10 (but not the 10v) is available with a 1366×768  screen, so this is possible in current netbook form factors, but since the keyboard will be bigger and the display covers the keyboard, the display may as well have larger dimensions too.
  • A trackpad at least as large as a current MacBook’s, to provide the room necessary for Mac OS’s current suite of two, three, and four finger gesture controls; Apple eliminated the trackpad button in part to provide more sensor space, and they’re not going to cut that back.
  • A better processor and capacity for more RAM, rather than the comparatively underpowered Intel Atom and 2 GB memory limit.
  • The larger monitor and higher-spec CPU will mean higher energy needs, mandating a larger battery.
  • The larger battery, keyboard, touchpad, display and CPU require a larger case.

Practically speaking, this brings us around again to a Macbook Air.

Isamu Sanada designs beautiful imaginary Apple products

Isamu Sanada designs beautiful imaginary Apple products

In the farther-flung future, the terms may change. Ultra-low-power high-quality displays are coming. Smaller, more efficient CPUs are in the pipeline. Solid-state drives are going to become cheaper, more efficient, and physically smaller. There will always be practical minimums to case size — the keyboard must be large enough to type on, the display large enough to be useful. Those of us who remember the 12″ iBook or 12″ PowerBook know that Apple can create a laptop case as wide as the keyboard in it, but the 11.25″ x 9.25″ iBook is still considerably larger than the 10.25″ x 7.25″ Mini 10 — and in the world of portables, minor differences in size and weight can have exaggerated effects on the impression they give of being small and light.

So I suspect Apple isn’t going to rush into the netbook market. Apple does not ship a product until it satisfies a certain baseline of utility, pleasure, and ease of use, and subsequent products improve on it. This is one reason why Apple has effectively only one iPhone model, varying in storage capacity and what services can be successfully supported by improvements in technology. Apple’s current economy-grade iPhone is simply last year’s model. There aren’t multiple iPhones with differing subsets of features, targeted towards different demographics or markets. And a low-end iPhone with features disabled would be easy to make, but the diminished quality of it would, in turn, diminish Apple’s reputation for creating pleasing, functional systems.

So if you want a Mac netbook you’ll have to make one yourself.

Addendum, November 4: The Apple taketh away, the Apple giveth back

Over the five days needed to write this ridiculously long blog post (over 3,200 words), news began flying that in the latest development version of Mac OS X 10.6.2 Apple had disabled compatibility with the Atom processor, the wee little low-power unit that most netbooks are built on. If true it might have been Apple cutting off support for a CPU that isn’t in any of their products, or it may have been a deliberate attempt to cut off netbook hacking. In the context of Apple’s current war with Palm over the Pre smartphone syncing through iTunes, the hypothesis that it was intentional is certainly believable.

As I write this, word is out that a new development version of 10.6.2 restores compatibility with Atom, so the alarm is temporarily over.

But the lesson to take from this episode is: Apple is not beholden to support things it doesn’t make. And whether it discontinues support for the hardware underlying most netbooks out an internal efficiencies decision — supporting any unique device costs Apple money — or as an attempt to stem hacker activity, the result is going to be similar to most netbook owners. Caveat hacker.

3 Responses to “How desperate are you for a Mac netbook?”

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for this. You write very well, and you seem to have your priorities in order–or in the same order as me, at least.

    You’ve thoroughly convinced me to not hack my netbook. I’ve been interested in doing so for some time, but I am wary of upkeep and worry. I want my netbook to work, like my Mac just works.

    Oddly, this wariness led me to Ubuntu. I didn’t want to pay $100 to keep my $200 computer free of malware, so I didn’t want XP. I had previously found Ubuntu maddeningly over-hyped in the past; it’s just the sort of OS that hardware hackers would love and users would hate.

    But things have changed. The netbook remix of their newest release (9.10) really works well. It installed as if it belonged there all along and has so far ticked by just fine with (almost?) no problems.

    I say this as someone, like you, who is an interested amateur. You might consider giving it a shot should you tire of wonky resized windows.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  2. Adam says:

    Nuts. Please forgive the tense switching above.

    And I was glad to see that the batteries in PC laptops bug someone else the way they bug me. When I bought my netbook after many years of Macs, I couldn’t believe that anyone could have been so stupid as to screw up something so simple. It was one of those moments when you see that you’ve been taking something really elegant for granted. It’s just obvious, after all: a notebook should open like a book, with one hand and no pinching at a smooth hinge.

    C’est tout.

  3. Lani says:

    I’ve been using Macs since 84 — and I’m on my 6th ibook/macbook whatever. I own a small business which has been Mac only for years — currently 9 imacs, 8 emacs, 2 macbooks, 4 iphones… (That said, I was also one of the first Windows users and a Novell admin years back, so I’m not afraid of Wintel — I just prefer Mac for a variety of reasons — especially the simplicity of support for my company.) Oh yeah, and I had my first ipod when it was version 2.0 (with all of 5GB) — and I used it primarily as an external hard drive that happened to play music through my car’s speakers

    So I sound completely loopy – I HATE my iphone. The only thing redeemable about it is that I can view my stores via Safari which I makes it tolerable. And, I’ll admit I like the GPS find me function. Other than that, I think its a tease. Almost a laptop but not quite — and too huge for a cellphone. I’m not a sheep. I’m a non-conformist. I do what make sense for me, not because its cool — because its right.

    The iphone is ok — but I’d toss it in half a second for a smaller phone, a nano and a mac netbook. And btw Apple — I’m done after this with Macbooks. I travel all the time between 2 stores and 2 coasts — but I’m just going to get two nice 24/27″ imacs with a 23″ external monitors. And if Mac does not come out with a netbook soon, looks like we will be buying 4 HPs Minis in the next few months. I thought about doing a hackintosh — even spoke with someone to set it up for me — but after reading this, it sounds smarter just to leave it as it.

    We really don’t care what OS it has. We’d just be using the browser anyway…and if we have to use MS Office, Excel is excel, Word is Word — so who the hell cares.

    I just want something small and lightweight that I’m willing to carry if I go to a meeting.

    I’m NOT willing to carry my laptop any longer. Its anachronistic.

    And, I’m not a kid — the iphone is nice, but give me a nano phone with a video camera and a mac netbook and I’ll be much happier.

    Just an opinion at 4am from a true believer machead who remembers and owns/owned SE/30, Color Classic, FX, Quadra, PowerComputing, G3, G4, G5, Bondi Blue, eMac, imac with Tilt/Pivot, and now 20″ and 24″ imacs. But hell, what do I know anyhow…

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