November 17th, 2009

Mac netbook wrap-up, cha cha cha

The rather dark grey legality and tenuous maintainability of netbook hacktintoshes aren’t things I want to blog about incessantly, but enough has happened in the two weeks since the last post to call for a sequel. For good measure, there are also some further impressions regarding the hackintoshed Dell 10v. And for reference, here’s the original Mac netbook post from November 4. For further information, many of the websites linked to in this and the previous post are excellent resources.

Legal status: Continuing to be dubious

Apple’s victories in court against renegade Mac cloner Psystar are tangentially relevant and provide an object lesson in how not to go about things. Psystar is a company that openly sold white box PCs, optionally with Mac OS X pre-installed. Apple leapt quickly, lawsuit-wise, and this weekend won an unalloyed victory against Psystar on most key counts.

Groklaw has a detailed post on the news, although it’s considerably more readable if you’re already familiar with the key players and issues. Wikipedia’s entry on Psystar is a good place to start (and, perhaps tellingly, has little about the business or products and a great deal about their legal problems). One of the key points of Apple’s lawsuit is that Psystar violated Apple’s end-user license agreement (EULA) which prohibits third-party installations of Mac OS X. Psystar’s key defense was that the EULA was not binding or didn’t apply to how Psystar used it, which the court rejected. As I write this, Psystar’s site is still operating (and can be googled), but now that they’ve run out of ways to pay their bills, that may not last.

Psystar never tried to be a good actor; from the beginning they were known for shifting addresses, failing to process orders, and antagonizing the open-source community by distributing open-source software without respecting the appropriate licenses. In doing so, it lost an opportunity to earn goodwill among those inclined to cheer on anybody who’s sticking it to the man. The key component of Psystar’s business model — distributing somebody else’s software without paying for it — was too unlikely to establish precedent for a radical new understanding of copyright, and it’s difficult to imagine how Psystar expected to get away with it. As Groklaw points out, if you want your software libre, there are plenty of legitimate options and no legal or ethical support for doing what Psystar did.

Psystar’s violation of Apple’s EULA was the grounds for being shut down, but it was Psystar’s bootlegging Apple’s OS which drew Apple’s attention. A disorganized population of amateur hackintoshers, each working on their own, may constitute targets too small for Apple to go after, but hackers ought to at least stake some ethical ground by buying a copy of OS X for each computer they hack and minimize the number of EULA violations they commit. To the best of my understanding — which is not well-researched — Apple has only gone after commercial repackagers of its OS, not hobbyists building their own systems from legitimately purchased components.

The sound you hear is lawyers in Cupertino slapping their foreheads

The sound you hear is lawyers in Cupertino slapping their foreheads

Incidentally, while Apple’s six-thousand-word-long Software License Agreement for Mac OS X (PDF file) makes it clear that while the OS may only be installed on Apple-branded computers, it doesn’t say Apple-manufactured or Apple-packaged computers. So if Apple sues you, try covering the Dell badge on the lid of your netbook with an Apple sticker of conveniently the right size (such as, say, the ones packaged with each new Mac, iPhone and iPod) and claim that you found a loophole. Preferably while chortling smugly to yourself. Let me know how it works out.

Technical status: At the mercy of somebody who, if they acknowledged you exist, would try to hurt you

As noted now by everybody who cares, the OS X 10.6.2 updater fair and squarely disables itself on the Atom processor common to netbooks. The rumors had were flying even while the updater was in beta, so when the change remained in the final release the news was significant. And within a day of the beta going live, there were command-line hacks to get the updater running, and inside of a week the NetbookInstaller app had been patched to do the same thing with a one-button click. In the end, there was a great deal of hand wringing about an apparently simple workaround.

Apple seems institutionally aware of the diminishing profit inherent in over-aggressively locking down its flagship OS. Apple can also, somewhat, afford a measure of slackness regarding the distribution of Mac OS X since it profits by selling the computer hardware, whereas Microsoft can’t. The consumer version of Mac OS X has minimal built-in enforcement of its EULA, in contrast to Microsoft’s many-pronged technique to control how and where its OSes go. (For that matter, Apple secures OS X Server and most of its application software; clearly it’ll use registration mechanisms when it wishes.) It’s possible that hackintoshing has be accommodated in the breach if Apple has decided losses due to misuse are minor compared to the repeat sales advantage in a user experience unimpeded by serial numbers, hardware keying and “For your protection” nagboxes. It may also be that the number of hackintoshers who could be potential customers are too small a population to be worth reaching out to.

Netbook hackintosh users represent a mix of agendas. Some are current Apple customers who already have enough Apple-built hardware to meet their needs, some are people who want an ultra-portable and are building their own in lieu of Apple providing one. There are also those into it for the hacking challenge or curiosity. Some are unlikely to buy Apple hardware for any number of reasons but who want to try Mac OS, possibly in part of routinely trying a variety of OSes. And there are probably people who start with Mac OS X on a PC and later buy their first Apple product, but that’s unlikely to represent a majority of of hackintoshers regardless of what they may say when asked.

It remains to be seen whether this is now a cat-and-mouse game. 10.6.3 and subsequent issues may attempt to circumvent previous patches, or they may not. Hackintosh users have always been obligated to keep an ear to the ground in this regard, not knowing whether any change to the OS risks bricking their computer, and recent news drives that point home. Apple has means other than the courts to control the distribution and use of their software, and this is one of them. Hackers are at a natural disadvantage by open-sourcing their work, allowing Apple’s engineers the same access to the workarounds as everybody else does, making their own job of counter-hacking easier. A measure of wariness, if not paranoia, is the rule every time a new OS update is pending.

Further impressions: Not all that bad, really

As of this writing, the latest version of NetbookInstaller appears to have improved the trackpad driver; using the trackpad on this Dell Mini 10v is no longer tooth-grindingly awful. Pointing and clicking work great. Two-finger tapping (for a right click) and two-finger scrolling now behave as designed, and while sensitivity and movement are not up to the standards of Apple product they’re good enough for free. This was one significant problem I harped on at length in the original Mac netbook writeup, and this is a change significant enough to rescind that earlier complaint. It also means those configuring new Mac netbooks may have less work to do, since fixing and patching the trackpad up to marginal usefulness consumed a big chunk of my time.

I’ve mostly gotten used to the keyboard, with caveats. Fatfingering keys hadn’t been much of a problem from day one, and most gotchas involved how my motor memory dealt with key placement. For example, function-delete has been the standard keystroke for forward-delete on my Mac laptops for as long as I’ve owned any, but it’s nonexistent on the Dell. Instead, I have to use the dedicated forward-delete key. I love having a forward-delete key, in fact, but reaching for it is not an action I’ve been able to memorize yet. Weird, that one. The swapped positions of the function and control keys continue to be a minor irritation, as I don’t depend on those keys for most tasks I do on the netbook, but your mileage may vary.

The display is a mix of annoyances and virtues. Image quality isn’t up to Apple standards, and there’s no way around it; colors don’t look quite right, available viewing angles are narrower, and most critically the image is slightly distorted – everything’s a wee bit fatter. Having a small display with only a few lines of text visible while writing is fantastic when I’m pounding out first drafts, whether of blog entries or pseudocode, but becomes constraining when I’ve slowed down, begun editing, and am forced to scroll up and down a more than I’m used to.

Flipping between windows frequently, somewhat necessary while blogging when I’m fact checking and collecting links, feels more onerous on the netbook and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Possibly because with a large display my working windows do not have to take up the full screen so I have visual prompts of what else is open, or because with two-monitor displays I can keep multiple windows unobstructed while working. The netbook’s ultra-constrained display is, to some extent, a necessary evil, but  if Dell offered the same optional high-res display for the 10v that is available for the 10, I would have gone for it.

The battery does not fit tightly in its bracket, so the computer sometimes clunks when moved. As previously noted this is the awkward, oversized six-cell battery, so moving the computer at all is sure to shift the battery and contribute to the computer’s flimsy, plasticky feel.

A fitted case is a must when carrying a netbook around as it’s going to get jostled too much even in conventional computer bags, and the six-cell version of the Mini can only fit in a neoprene sleeve as it’s too awkwardly shaped for a non-stretchy padded case. I got a CaseLogic neoprene sleeve that comfortably fits the Mini with its outsized battery plus power adaptor in an extra zippered pocket, and the handles are a boon. The whole kit fits in an army surplus musette bag with enough room left for half a gallon of milk, some bread and dinner fixings.

The Mini 10v is Dell’s design for a tiny low-cost computer, something I don’t picture Apple willing to make. For the most part, Dell made reasonable compromises; some slow me down as a user, some are aesthetically displeasing, but none of the downsides keep me from using it. I’ve worked on this post on both the Dell Mini and a MacBook Pro. The MBP, by its size, inhibits a certain degree of portability. Since it’s also my desktop machine I’ve got to unplug a half-dozen cables before it can move at all, and the sturdy heft that makes it feel like a Real Computer also makes it feel like extra work to fold it up and haul it into a carrying bag. By my working arrangements the Mini is mobile-er, a second computer that’s never tethered to anything but its power cord, its size facilitating the convenience of pick-up-and-go ease. Apple understands portability with regard to its iPod and iTunes lines; subtle-seeming changes in dimensions and weight can amount to significant changes in use; a couple millimeters shaved here and there means the device can fit into pockets it might not otherwise fit, be handheld in slightly more hands, and simply feel and look like something that’s easier to carry. The MacBook Pro is a desktop computer that fits in a bag, portable but not meant for fleetness.

The Mini 10v, in contrast to the MacBook Pro, is not subtly small. It’s freaking tiny for something meant to set on your lap and be typed on. I don’t really contemplate packing the MBP for quick trips any more when I can sweep up the Mini and go. The MBP has more weight and feels weightier; the Mini is smaller and lighter, but above all it simply feels more portable. This may be where its cheapness is its virtue, not because it’s disposable but because feeling light and plasticky dilutes its impression of heft.

A hackintosh would serve badly as a primary computer for reasons I’ve spent thousands of words on. As a secondary computer it may be better in some ways than Genuine Apple Product, at least until the next OS update.