Tackling OSx86 Means Bugs To Squash: Building A Hackintosh
Ever since Apple announced its intention to migrate from PowerPC to x86 CPUs more than five years ago, folks like me have been dreaming about (and, in some cases, doing something about) shoehorning OS X onto generic PCs. Somewhere within my stash of tech hardware and software, in fact, is a clone of the now-archaic motherboard and CPU in the original platform provided to application developers. But since I’m a regularly-on-the-move kind of guy, a portable system (specifically one even more svelte than my AWOL MacBook Air) has always been of greater interest. That meant a netbook.
Rob Beschizza’s now-retired Netbook Compatibility Chart put the Dell Inspiron Mini 10V at the top of the list, although I never quite understood why. If you look at the chart, audio isn’t supported under OS X, and sleep is sketchy. Anyway, this is pretty much the same supported-or-not profile as that of the MSI Wind U100 that I already own. In fact, a long time ago I purchased a Dell TrueMobile 1490 Wi-Fi Mini PCI-e adapter to bridge the OSx86 connectivity gap between the two systems. I haven’t yet subjected the U100 to hacking attention, in part because it’s periodically been my primary work system of late.
However, the story’s different (in a superior sort of way) with its svelter sibling, the now-obsolete Inspiron Mini 9. Take another look at Beschizza’s chart. The Inspiron Mini 9 is the only system on the list for which everything reportedly works out-of-box, even the optional 3G cellular data module. I watched as my techie peers at other print and online publications sequentially covered (and in some cases personally pursued) the task, with varying degrees of success:
- Engadget (October 3, 2008)
- TUAW (Ditto)
- Ars Technica (October 15, 2008)
- Make Magazine (October 16, 2008)
- Gizmodo (February 21, 2009) (the complexity of which, described therein in horrific detail, single-handedly scared me away from pursuing my dream for many months)
And I stood on the sidelines as the Inspiron Mini 9 and its business-renamed clone, the Vostro A90, went in and out of sale, and in and out of inventory. Finally, on November 14, 2009 I took the plunge on an Inspiron Mini 9 of my own, which I speedily swathed in a protective Belkin sleeve. And still I dilly-dallied, as other professional and personal responsibilities took priority.
Finally, earlier this year, a seemingly straightforward set of instructions appeared. And finally, last week, I found a few spare hours to tackle the project, in no small part as a means of procrastinating the development of my September 23, 2010 cover story (a first draft of which will hopefully be submitted by the time you read this). Before proceeding, I feel compelled to point out that by installing OS X on unofficial hardware, you’ll be violating the terms of Apple’s EULA (End-User Licensing Agreement). However, please do what I did and at least buy a dedicated copy of the operating system at retail, versus downloading an already-hacked disk image off some torrent site…if for no other reason than you’ll be assured of software free of spyware and other infections as a result.
The system I bought was intentionally pretty scant in its configuration, because I knew I already had the spare parts necessary to subsequently upgrade it (in a warranty-breaking fashion, I’ll also point out) by myself. It came with the smallest-possible 4 GByte SSD option, along with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed instead of more expensive Windows XP, and it also only contained 1 GByte of system memory. Swapping out the diminutive SSD for a 32 GByte Active Media Products SaberTooth AA Half Mini PCI-e module was brain-dead easy, once I tracked down a compatible Phillips jewelers screwdriver, as was replacing the DDR2-533 SoDIMM module with a 2 GByte SuperTalent upgrade.
Speaking of Super Talent, I should say that the company makes 64 and 128 GByte L-shaped SSDs for the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, although in order to use them you have to clear out sufficient room inside the computer by removing the Wi-Fi adapter. For perhaps obvious reasons, I decided to go with the conventional 32 GByte Active Media Products SSD instead. And speaking of Wi-Fi, while it would have been straightforward for me to swap out the 802.11b/g wireless module for an 802.11n-cognizant one while I was mucking around inside the computer, my issues with a non-standard 802.11n module in my MacBook convinced me to leave well enough alone with the netbook.
Following these instructions (which among other things link to these instructions) will get you most of the way to OS X-on-netbook nirvana. In my particular case, I used a 32 GByte Kingston Technology USB flash drive. After correctly partitioning it and then mirroring my OS 10.5 retail disc image to it, I ran it through NetbookBootMaker v0.8.3 in order to create an Inspiron Mini 9-friendly installation build. Here’s what the system looked like mid-initial install:
I had followed the author’s suggestions and clicked on ‘Customize’ to trim down the initial 11.4 GByte installation estimate. Do the math on the data that follows, and you’ll see that I might have barely been able to shoehorn the install into an 8 GByte SSD, though there’d be no remaining room for subsequent operating system patches far from applications and data files. Specifically, I skipped installing other languages and translations, which saved me 1.9 Gbytes. I also installed bundled printer drivers that I thought I might need in the future but deselected those from:
- HP (thereby saving 772 Mbytes)
- Lexmark (376 Mbytes)
- Ricoh (14.7 Mbytes)
- Xerox (287 Mbytes), and
- Fuji Xerox (3.3 Mbytes)
And here’s what the system looked like during the subsequent installation of the OS 10.5.8 Combo Update, which I’d also placed on the USB flash drive ahead of time:
After running NetbookInstaller v0.8.3 (which also installs a nifty, Synaptics-friendly trackpad driver and associated configuration utility) in Safe Mode to re-prepare the SSD for normal boot (trust me, someone who experienced this first-hand; the system will not boot properly without doing this first) then restarting the system, I did a just-in-case backup to my friend’s Time Capsule:
Here’s where my troubles began. I still had a dozen-plus patches to download from Apple’s servers and install; Java upgrades, various security fixes, Airport Wi-Fi enhancements, and the like. After running through the first round of them, I rebooted the system and found myself without either sound facilities or a functional Bluetooth software stack. Re-running NetbookInstaller and rebooting again got Bluetooth back, although I had to re-pair my two mobile phones. But audio was still amiss.
Google searching led me to a MyDellMini (great enthusiast site!) discussion thread, which provided a download link to claimed resurrecting audio drivers. I crossed my fingers, ran the installer, rebooted…and had sound back. Phew! The remainder of my OS 10.5 patches installed with nothing else going amiss, as has every other piece of software I’ve so far put on the system.
My other problem came when I closed the system lid for the first time, putting it to sleep. Waking it up again returned the activity light to its former constantly-glowing state, but the display remained dark. Hackintoshes don’t generally support hibernation (i.e. automatic shadowing of the RAM contents to a HDD-housed image), which modern versions of the Mac OS do by default. But NotebookInstaller supposedly disables hibernation support. I even downloaded and installed Jinx Software’s slick SmartSleep preference pane to assure myself of sleep status by manually turning off hibernation; no improvement. Eventually, I stumbled across another MyDellMini thread which contained the necessary knowledge nugget; disabling legacy USB support in the BIOS did the trick.
Here are some more images, this time in the form of screenshots, for your perusal. About This Mac understandably reports an unknown processor albeit with the correct frequency:
Here’s the introductory screen of the more detailed System Profiler information suite. Note that it, like the BIOS, identifies the system not as an Inspiron Mini 9 but as an Inspiron 910:
And here’s Activity Monitor, showing that the software build is correctly using the Intel Atom N270’s HyperThreading support to create a second, ‘virtual’ processor core:
What I’ve now got (at least until the next potentially crippling O/S patch) is a system only slightly heavier than my iPad, but infinitely more usable, especially in content creation usage scenarios. Admittedly, it may not have the iPad’s battery life, but given the choice I’d still take an OS X-powered netbook on the road with me instead of a feature-neutered iOS tablet. Speaking of battery life, the only remaining issue involves the BIOS. The initial A00 release version has a bug that incorrectly interprets a 32 Wh 4-cell battery as only having 24 Wh of maximum charge capacity. BIOS A06 (only for Windows systems) and A05 (in a DOS-based utility format compatible with Ubuntu Linux, which the OSx86 community has hacked into a USB thumb drive-bootable image) are available for download from Dell’s website. At some point, I suppose I’ll toss OS X compatibility caution to the wind and tackle the upgrade, but for now I’m content to remain where I am.
Followup: As it turns out, my Inspiron Mini 9 came with BIOS A05 pre-installed; as such, it’s correctly reading the capacity of its 2200 mAh battery. If you need to upgrade the BIOS on your netbook, these instructions will be helpful; I know they work, because the update utility subsequently told me I had no need to do the upgrade! Pre-configured, FreeDOS-based USB flash drive boot images for the Inspiron Mini 9 and Vostro A90 can be found here.
p.s…FYI a garishly adorned version of the Atom N270-based Inspiron Mini 10V is still available for sale. Newer Dell netbook designs transitioned to Intel’s Pine Trail chipset and are not, to the best of my knowledge, robust Hackintosh candidates.