After four months of lugging a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse along with the MacBook Pro — which, at 5.5lb, isn’t exactly light to begin with — I decided enough was enough. Since I’ve been wanting to ease some load off of my shoulder, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, the time was right for me to consider a smaller and lighter alternative.
To be more specific, it was time to consider a “MacBook Nano.”
Opening Pandora’s Box
Four years ago, Apple (s aapl) announced a transition from powering its Macs with PowerPC processors to Intel (s intc) processors instead. The biggest ramification of such an architecture change was an obvious one: Mac OS X, previously written for the PowerPC platform, could then theoretically run on any Intel x86-based computer.
In the years after, enthusiasts have made much effort in making OS X run on generic PCs by hacking the various drivers — kernel extension, or kext files — so that the operating system can recognize hardware components beyond those used in Apple’s Macs. This has been achieved to varying degrees of success; due to the extremely wide range of configurations PCs ship in, some brands and models sporting certain hardware components run OS X better than others.
Do Your Homework First
To ensure you get the smoothest ‘Hackintosh’ experience possible, you have to first know which netbooks are the best ‘hackable’ candidates before you make a purchase. Currently, the netbooks most compatible for running OS X — when every component, from Wi-Fi to built-in audio, will be recognized by an OS X installation — are the following four:
- Dell Mini 9 (everything works)
- Vostro A90 (the OEM version of the Dell Mini 9)
- HP Mini 1000 (everything works)
- ASUS EeePC 1000H (everything works)
Close behind those four are the following models, of which OS X does not have the necessary kext for one particular component in each model. However, each of them can still be considered a suitable candidate for running OS X, depending on what you consider to be non-critical:
- ASUS EeePC 901 (everything except sleep)
- MSI Wind U100 (everything except audio input, though there’s been recent development in this area which may have solved this)
- Lenovo IdeaPad S10 (everything except Ethernet)
You may have noticed that these are all older models. That’s the bad news. These models have already been superseded by newer models, and are therefore increasingly harder to find. But the good news is that most retailers are likely to have slashed prices in their bid to clear out existing stock precisely because they are older models.
Picking the Candidate
Last week, I marched into a local computer mall and found both a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 and a HP Mini 1000 sitting side-by-side in one store, going for $385 and $415, respectively. Talk about luck! Design-wise, I had eyes only for the IdeaPad S10 and the Mini 1000.
Its lower price aside, I picked the Lenovo IdeaPad S10 in the end, even though I knew the Ethernet port would not work (I don’t recall having used an Ethernet port in the past year). Not only was it cheaper, the IdeaPad S10 was better-spec’ed than the Mini 1000 in almost every aspect:
- Memory: 2GB versus 1GB
- Storage: 160GB versus 60GB
- Battery: 6-cell (5.5 hours, 56 watt-hour) versus 3-cell (3 hours, 24.4 watt-hour)
- Memory card reader: 4-in-1 (MMC/SD/Memory Stick/Memory Stick PRO) versus SD only
The clincher, for me, is that the IdeaPad S10 has an ExpressCard/34 slot, with which I can use my 3G ExpressCard modem, and also a trackpad of which its buttons are positioned beneath it rather than to the left and right as it is on that of the Mini 1000.
(Note to Apple: If Lenovo can squeeze a 4-in-1 memory card reader and an ExpressCard/34 slot into a tiny sub-notebook, you can certainly do the same for the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Just admit already you simply don’t want to.)
I should note that the one very good thing going for the HP Mini 1000 is that it has a 92 percent keyboard (versus the 85 percent keyboard of the IdeaPad S10), an impressive feat of engineering considering the fact that the Mini 1000 is of about the same width as the Lenovo IdeaPad S10.
Installation is an Outpatient Day Op
Installation is a breeze. Enough effort by enthusiasts have been made that installing OS X on a PC is a quick weekend exercise.
While I will not detail how to ‘Hackintosh’ a netbook, there are essentially two ways to do so: by obtaining an installation disk image already hacked with the appropriate drivers (the easiest way to go), or by installing from the retail DVD and subsequently hacking the drivers (messier and not for the novice).
Since most netbooks do not have optical drives, I had to use an external DVD drive. After making sure the BIOS of the netbook has been set to boot first from an optical drive, I popped the OS X 10.5.4 Install DVD in, booted the S10 up and off went the installation.
Upon first boot, I had to replace a kext file for the Wi-Fi in the IdeaPad S10 to work. Once that was up and running, all that was left to do was to replace a couple more kext files for functions such as system sleep, two-finger scrolling, internal audio input, ExpressCard, and display hot keys to work.
Once I was sure I had all the components working, I did a Software Update to 10.5.8. Doing so killed the Wi-Fi, keyboard and trackpad, but a repeat of replacing kext files restored them to a working state.
How does it fare? The ‘Hackintosh’ is more than capable of handling basic functionality well on a daily basis. Overall speed and performance of OS X on the IdeaPad S10, which is powered by the Intel Atom N270 1.66Ghz processor, is akin to that of an iBook PowerPC G4.
There is Always a “But”
The one glaring caveat to running OS X on a netbook is the lack of screen real estate. Most netbooks are equipped with either a 9- or 10-inch screen typically running a resolution of 1024 by 600. But the overall UI design of OS X is seemingly based on a minimum screen resolution of 1280 by 800, which is what the lowest-spec’ed Macs run at. This poses some usability issues when it comes to the window size of certain applications.
System Preferences, for example, opens a window longer than the screen resolution of the IdeaPad S10 can display.
As you can see in the screenshot above, anything beyond the first row of Preference Panes in the ‘Others’ section are obscured. The workaround to this is to click on any Preference Pane, and then click the ‘Reveal All’ buttons to go back. Doing that invokes a scroll bar within System Preferences, which you can then drag to reach the previously-obscured Panes.
The other two issues I have with the IdeaPad S10 are the right-handside Shift key and the tiny trackpad.
But these are all small annoyances, really, not show-stoppers. While a 1024 by 600 screen resolution means I’d mostly be running one application fullscreen at a time, once I think of this limitation as a way to force me to focus on one task at a time, it’s not so bad. Plus, there’s always Megazoomer; fullscreen is just a Command+Enter keystroke away. And LazyMouse helps mitigate the problem of the tiny trackpad.
The Mac Netbook as the Middle Ground
I had, from the get-go, meant to use this ‘MacBook Nano’ of mine for only web browsing, email, simple image manipulation and writing.
Prior to getting the IdeaPad S10, there were days when I’d go out with only my iPhone 3G, knowing I can do all of the above with it. But there are times when I need to download, review, annotate and then resend certain types of documents neither iPhone OS nor a third-party iPhone app recognizes. Without a notebook with which to do that, I am pretty much stuck.
So, until Apple reinvents the sub-notebook with its fabled tablet, this ‘Hackintosh’ fills the gap between the times when I don’t need to lug around a workhorse like my MacBook Pro and when I need to do more than what my iPhone 3G lets me do.
“Mac or No Mac, There is No Try”
I’m sure I speak for many die-hard Mac users by saying that, being someone who cannot fathom using anything other than Mac OS X, and faced with a pressing need to have a lightweight portable, I’d rather use OS X on a netbook with all of the compromises it entails than to have to use Windows on the same netbook. To me, the Mac experience has always been more about software than hardware.
Small, Light, and It Runs OS X. What’s Not To Like?
Having used the S10 every day for a week now, taking it instead of my 15-inch MacBook Pro everywhere, I can say with certainly that my MacBook Pro will be relegated to my desk on most days, and that my preferred portable computer from hereon will be this ‘MacBook Nano’ of mine.
I can fish it out in places where opening a 15-inch notebook would be a clumsy thing to do; my tired shoulder has never felt better; I have desktop-class computing power everywhere I go, and can do far more than what I can with the iPhone. It is inexpensive, small, light, and it runs OS X.
What’s not to like, really?