On MacBook Mini, Or, What A $400 Hackintosh Netbook Really Gets You, And Leaves Out | iLounge Backstage

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On MacBook Mini, Or, What A $400 Hackintosh Netbook Really Gets You, And Leaves Out

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Thursday, August 20, 2009
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At least twice, during quarterly earnings conference calls with analysts, Apple’s COO Tim Cook has claimed that the company didn’t know how to make a Mac that was as inexpensive as a netbook—a statement that seemed unbelievable on its face. Was it that Apple didn’t know, or that it didn’t want to? To many, particularly those who were familiar with Apple’s industry-leading profit margins, the answer seemed obvious: Apple could easily make a $500 laptop, but wouldn’t unless forced, as it wasn’t ready to undermine its $1000 and $2000 models.

Last week, not on a whim but rather as a direct result of Cook’s comments, I decided that I was going to take on a little project that I have refused to do since going back to the Mac in 2004: I was going to buy one of those sub-$500 PC laptops, specifically a netbook, just to see what the experience was like. Yet rather than taking the most obvious route and buying the cheapest of cheap machines, or signing a deal with the devil by buying a fully Mac-hackable machine from the loathsome Dell, I picked a computer from a company that I’d respected back when I was using Windows: Toshiba. And rather than buying Toshiba’s least expensive netbook, I went with the better model, which contained a MacBook-like keyboard, a 1.3MP-iSight-like camera, and Bluetooth hardware—in fact, so many Mac-like components that it could easily be a Mac, but for the shell. It’s called the NB205-N311W, and arrived with a power supply and zero other components in the box for $400, shipped.

The positives of this machine were almost instantly apparent. With a 10” LED backlit screen and a 3-lb. weight—mostly because of a battery that offers 9 hours of run time for Windows—it’s so small and light that my old carrying bag seems completely unsuited to its dimensions. It has an integrated card reader, which new MacBook Pros have, but my metal MacBook doesn’t. There’s a fully usable but small trackpad, and that MacBook-like “island” keyboard is 92% the size of a standard one, which is plenty usable—far, far moreso than the iPhone’s. Plus, there’s a 160GB hard disk inside. And with more hacks than certain Dells, but fewer than many other netbooks, it runs OS X. More on that in a minute.

Having stated the NB205’s positives, I need to emphasize that having used this machine, I firmly believe that Tim Cook was right to suggest that Apple couldn’t build a netbook it would be proud to sell at these sorts of prices. Toshiba has made some relatively great PCs. It has also made some remarkable little pocket computers, including its early Librettos, which seemed to defy reality years ago by running a full version of Windows XP in a small book-sized form factor. But the NB205, which is supposed to be one of the very best netbooks ever made, and is up to prior Toshiba standards, still does not have the completely quality out-of-box look or feel of even the lowest-end MacBook. It, like virtually every netbook out there, is not a product today’s Apple could ever release.

The power supply is a big, junky mess of bulging parts and Velcro. Its trackpad’s buttons creak. The screen, covered in a thin sheet of plastic, feels like a constant reminder of how nice even the plastic MacBook’s screen is, and its bezel isn’t the same color as was advertised or shown on the box. There are cheesy diagonal lines running through the trackpad, the bezel, and the top casing. And the keys are covered in secondary icons that just feel unnecessary and confusing. The various stickers on the machine could all be pulled off, their adhesive peeling with a little extra rubbing alcohol, but what was left at the end is still undeniably a somewhat cheap-feeling, cheap-looking PC. And this is the more expensive version—one that has been praised by PC publications all over the place as being better than its peers. The $350 one is apparently worse, thanks to a less impressive keyboard, which due to confusion in model numbers you mightn’t realize you’re obligated to deal with if you want a NB205 in black.

There are bigger compromises, as well. Like almost all of the netbooks, this model’s screen has a 1024x600 resolution—too few pixels to run Photoshop on a Mac, amongst other applications—which leads to a truly cramped screen regardless of whether you’re using Windows or Mac OS X. It actually looks pretty awful when Windows XP is powering it with mediocre display drivers and stretched-screen visuals. Opening multiple windows is possible but not always easy, and some windows span just beyond the top and/or bottom of the screen. The 1.66GHz, single-core processor speed is well behind the standards of current-generation Macs, so though core applications such as Safari on the PC or Mac work just fine, you can imagine what gaming and more demanding applications might feel like. And the RAM is capped at 2GB with a single slot, so there’s not much room for this machine to grow, except in hard drive capacity; the RAM, hard disk, and a mini-PCI slot are all accessible through screw panels on the system’s bottom. This slot makes it possible to swap the included Wi-Fi card for one that would be recognized under Mac OS X, at a cost of under $30. Others have used USB-based Wi-Fi plug-ins for the same purpose.

Frankly, using the NB205 as a PC isn’t much fun—it was actually painful to go back to Windows XP after all these years; the hunger for an upgraded version of Windows literally becomes near-ravenous after turning it on. Working through the hacks to install OS X on it can be brutal; they more often result in failure than success, despite what appear to be very clear guides on the web. Trying to make the NB205 act like a Mac includes hours of everything from kernel panics to special driver installations for everything, and random, confusing errors that no average person would ever want to suffer through. But once OS X is working, this little machine can suddenly seem like something miraculous—a Mac, only with a smaller screen. Despite the issues mentioned above, it is a completely usable, and substantial if not complete replacement for a larger laptop—exactly what I and many other people have been wanting from Apple for years. (Sorry, MacBook Air.) The loss of Photoshop and other key applications means that it won’t be a primary computer, but for extreme portability and convenience when doing anything from web browsing to updating a web site, it makes a ton of sense. So much sense, in fact, that it’s hard to think of a reason not to get a little machine like this to carry on the go for photo storage and sharing alone. People were paying $300 or $400 for nothing more than screen-laden portable hard drives just a few years ago; this is in a completely different league.

There’s a serious, obvious question after using a computer like this: why can’t Apple just work its magic and create a Mac with similar specs, add its typical price premium, and offer it to those of us who want it? When asked, Tim Cook didn’t offer any sort of deep answers, but based on the insights I’ve gathered from using this machine, I’m willing to venture a few guesses as to the key pain points that have led Apple to hesitate here.

(1) Build quality. Actually designing a smaller version of the MacBook would be easy if Apple was the sort of company that just shrunk its older products or ripped off designs it found elsewhere, adding a logo in the process. But that’s really not how the company works; it’s basically certain that an Apple mini-laptop would use thicker plastics and other, better components than current-generation netbooks, along with a design that evolved at least a little past the current plastic MacBook’s. In any case, getting the casing right for a small plastic machine is a non-trivial challenge, and one that the company has surely been mulling.

(2) Screen resolution. If it’s running Mac OS X, 1024x600 is not going to work for a mini Apple laptop unless Apple improves its resolution-independent UI elements or makes some other changes. An easier fix would be a higher resolution display, however, the 1280x800-pixel MacBook screen might well start looking outdated as a consequence. To really do a small 10” screen right, Apple will probably need to be prepared to improve its bigger-screened laptops, as well. A better display would obviously add to the cost of the low-end model relative to less sophisticated PC competitors. It’s possible that some of the screens Apple has been testing and sourcing over the last 12 months have been intended for this purpose, rather than the more widely-discussed tablet it’s working on.

(3) Performance. A lot of talk regarding the impending Apple tablet-like device has focused on the “which OS?” question, starting with the presumption that the iPhone OS is probably too underpowered to serve as a full-time alternative to netbooks, and the Mac OS would need some big changes—a virtual keyboard, windows that could shift to accommodate that virtual keyboard, and so on—to lose its keyboard. Many, including us, think that Apple will use iPhone OS in a tablet for sure, along with either a full version of Mac OS X or some substantial modifications to iPhone OS that make it more Mac-like. But as soon as Mac OS X support is included in a device, the next question is, “what will this thing actually be able to run?” Intel’s Atom processors are inexpensive, found in most netbooks, and work for everything from full Windows installs to Linux and Mac OS X, with the aforementioned limitations due to a combination of low screen resolution and modest processing power. If the screen resolution issue is fixed, virtually any non-pro Mac app will run. The big question is whether Apple would release a device with enough CPU horsepower to run Mac apps, then cripple it with an OS that only runs iPhone-quality ones. If it does, the competitive disadvantage relative to low-end laptops could be huge.

(4) Pricing. Apple sells its least expensive Mac for $599, and apparently does not like to sell computers for less than $599. That machine, the Mac mini, is built to be solid, extremely well-equipped, and attractive. Yet these virtues don’t all have clear price tags by comparison with rattier PCs, and if Apple gets into the low-end computer market in any way, it is again going to face the sorts of direct price to feature comparisons that it has spent years trying to fight with Macs. Thus, if it enters the market, it faces the challenge of offering a product with strong value out of the gate, but not such strong value that it undercuts demand for its pricier Macs. The importance of doing this properly is huge, and may well be the single biggest reason Apple has not moved faster on a small laptop during a period of great economic instability. It also may explain why the company has for the short term continued to reap record or near-record profits on the types of products it does sell, but no company can continue selling products at price points far above competitors for long without seeing an impact on growth. Apple’s recent computer price drops were necessary, but perhaps not sufficient to fuel the next big stage of its market expansion.

The bottom line to all of this is that Mac users who crave a machine smaller than the low-end MacBook have an option—actually several—if they’re willing to go through a fairly unpleasant hacking process that Apple discourages in various ways, and accept a sub-Apple-quality piece of hardware in the process. Some users will be very happy with this compromise, but it’s my personal feeling that anyone who actually tries to use a netbook-class machine for PC and Mac apps will realize that there’s clearly room for Apple to enter this market, one-up the PC makers with a combination of better quality and performance, and reap a premium price from some users for doing so. This would be somewhat of a “haters be damned” strategy in the sense that Apple would once again fail to offer the cheapest, most popular device in its class, but succeed in selling a product that customers want, love, and are willing to pay a little extra to own. If it did this correctly, the company could easily dominate the low-end computer market as impressively as it is doing today with the high-end; until then, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hackintosh movement continue to gather followers.

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Comments

1

I build myself a hackintosh’d Mini9 from Dell. Build quality is good, installation took less than an hour and I’ve had absolutely no problems with it since I built it.

And it’s great for taking away on holiday, or using on the train going to work.

Posted by Stephen Hynds on August 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM (PDT)

2

I think that Snow Leopard might give Apple an advantage by enabling apps to much better utilize the GPU. It could make something like a 1.66GHz, single-core not bad if most things like Core Data and Core Image make use of the GPU, and the GPU was not total crap. I think if people just didn’t expect to run Photoshop and Final Cut Pro on it, it would be fine.

Posted by Ryan Gray on August 20, 2009 at 8:17 PM (PDT)

3

I think that Apple has a “netbook” now with the iPhone 3GS and the coming iPod touch. I see the iPhone SDK as the part of XCode that builds OS X apps for ARM. The core + Cocoa Touch already runs on it. OS X is smaller now with Snow Leopard. As I mentioned before, it can better utilize the GPU for extra power, and we’ve seen the iPhone 3GS GPU is not bad. Two problems: keyboard and screen.

Keyboard is easy with Apple adding the Bluetooth profile. This alone will satisfy many. Most times, you just have the phone, then when you need to write a lot, all else you need is the pretty portable Apple BT keyboard. You get more screen without the on-screen keyboard in the way, so it’s pretty good, but not for everything. Although I can still have it with me a lot more than a netbook.

The screen is obviously a harder thing since the iPhone/touch screen is what it is, but with a monitor out in the dock connector, all you need is a dock that you plug a monitor into. I think the GPU is plenty capable of driving a modest display. Yes, you don’t get even a netbook sized screen to carry with you, but the advantage is the iPhone/touch is always with you. Certainly an opportunity for a 10”-12” portable screen to pair it with.

On the software side, it would work just as it does now when undocked from a screen, but when docked to a screen, it gives you the good old Mac OS desktop. When you need to head out the door, just undock. No sync needed - your data is already there. Or, at least, an option to do like the AppleTV does and sync your media with another Mac/PC since this is likely not a primary computer.

Yeah, the new dock would probably cost $99, and then there’s a monitor to buy, but I think the total package would be unique. I could totally see such a thing as a the only computer for many office positions that are primarily email and word processor based.

Posted by Ryan Gray on August 20, 2009 at 8:57 PM (PDT)

4

I think you’re missing the point of netbook. A “netbook” isn’t designed to run Photoshop or games - it’s intended to run a browser and maybe a couple of light apps. That’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be a miniature laptop.

Posted by btsculptor on August 21, 2009 at 5:27 AM (PDT)

5

I own two MacBook Pros and one 24” iMac.  I’ve just recently assembled my own NB205 Hackintosh.  I thought this article was leading in a positive direction when the author began noting the positives about the NB205.  The next paragraph made a complete 180 degree turn however. 

As stated in the previous comment, no one in their right mind would consider running Photoshop on a 10” screen other than for some quick, trivial edit job.  People don’t buy netbooks for their build quality or performance.  They buy them for price and portability.  I personally bought mine for an upcoming trip.  Have you ever tried using a 17” MacBook Pro on an airline dinner tray with the seat in front of you reclined?  It’s impossible. 

The NB205, with it’s 8 to 9 hour battery life, will get me most of the way to the US from the Middle East.  It’s more than adequate for web browsing over wireless at the airport and a few quick games and a couple of movies during the flight…all without having to search for an outlet.  My MacBook Pro would be out of juice before I got in the air.

With a little help from a forum or two online, undoubtedly the same one the author visited, converting the NB205 from WINXP to OS X 10.5.7 was relatively easy.  I wouldn’t recommend this undertaking to a complete computer novice, but it really isn’t that difficult.  Just follow the directions.  I beefed up my hard drive to 500GB, upgraded to 2GB of RAM, and replaced the Atheros Mini-PCIe WLAN card with a model from Dell using a Broadcom chip.  Just about every hardware feature of the NB205 is functional.

Posted by Rusty on August 21, 2009 at 10:53 PM (PDT)

6

#3: After actually using a netbook, Apple’s reference to the iPhone or iPod touch (any model) as being the company’s equivalent strikes me as at best hugely overoptimistic. It’s like saying that a motorcycle is the equivalent of or a replacement for a compact car. The difference between a $399 iPod touch and a $399 netbook is massive.

Regarding using Photoshop, it’s not just that specific program, but anything with a 1024x768 or greater resolution requirement. That rules out Photoshop Elements and some other photo editing programs, too, which frankly would be tremendously useful for anyone who wants to snap photos and then have a way to process them before sending them out from the road. Google’s Picasa works, however, and is an (third-best?) option.

#4: Ah, so it’s supposed to be an iPod touch, then? The iPod touch runs a browser and light apps. Doesn’t seem much like a netbook to me. But maybe _everyone_ who’s trying to run full-fledged operating systems on netbooks is missing the point—they’re all supposed to be running Linux, Android, or a mobile OS?

#5: Agreed with your assessment except for a couple of points: “People don’t buy netbooks for their build quality or performance”—I think that’s a broad generalization that doesn’t explain why certain models have a very high return rate. A lot of people buy the machines in the belief that they will be one thing (small, well-made computers that run their favorite programs or suitable equivalents well), and then get another (small, crappy computers that don’t deliver the experience they want). The Toshiba, and buyers of the Toshiba, are exceptions. They get a machine that is comparatively well-built by netbook standards, more powerful than the original Power PC Mac minis, and capable of running desktop-quality apps in every way except for the screen real estate.

The other point: “I wouldn’t recommend this undertaking to a complete computer novice, but it really isn’t that difficult.” As one of several people who has seen the near-entirety of reader comments to this site over the years, I can tell you that the average person wouldn’t have a clue as to how to fix even the first error that would come up during a netbook installation of OS X, and in most cases wouldn’t be even able to take the early steps to attempt it without assistance. It is not for everyone, and unless the install guides become better, not for a significant fraction of the population, either. But those who attempt and succeed at it will wind up with a MacBook Mini.

(BTW: While it’s not totally on topic to this particular discussion, the 17” MacBook Pro/PowerBook has always been the wrong machine for an airline dinner tray. The 15” PowerBook was a problem as well until the switch to widescreen took place, and the widescreen ones make this application marginal as well. The 13” MacBook/Pro is the best overall compromise Apple offers now; a 10” or 11” model would be a very welcome addition to the lineup.)

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on August 22, 2009 at 6:19 AM (PDT)

7

If you know what you’re doing, they’re not hard at all.

There is ample information online and if you know how to use google, you’re half-way there.

I have created a hackintosh on:

Dell Mini 10v (will not work on the 10)
Dell Mini 9
Dell Vostro A90 (This is the same as the 9, but in all black)

Also, you can pick these up for around $250 or less if you look in the dell outlet. (Please remember to buy a retail copy of leopard though)

I would also suggest going SSD as the 5400 RPM Hard Drive’s are a bit slower.  Plus as everyone has stated, you’re not going to be doing much on these so space isn’t really needed.

Posted by Tom on August 27, 2009 at 11:15 AM (PDT)

8

I can’t use Windows and I can’t carry my Macbook Pro 15” around all the time. I have an iPhone but I want to input text from a keyboard and have some OSX apps running (not Photoshop). I bought an HP Mini 110 and successfully hacked it. I have the OS I want and the functions I need. However, the Mac experience is not just the OS but also the quality of the hardware. I hate the HP Mini and after one week using it will now go and buy the Macbook Air.

Posted by GKBKK on September 8, 2009 at 8:30 PM (PDT)

9

You would actually be surprised what a hackintosh netbook can do.. I’m running Final Cut Studio 3 (fcp 7, motion 4) at faster speeds than a g5 desktop (on a hp mini).

Go team hackintosh!

Posted by 051R15 on October 31, 2010 at 1:32 PM (PDT)

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