The Low End Mac Mailbag

Mac Value, the Hackintosh Market, Unsupported Leopard, and USB 2.0 for Older PowerBooks

Dan Knight - 2008.04.30 - Tip Jar

Macintosh Value

From Jason Packer in response to MacBook and Mac mini Overpriced:

I think your answer was correct - there really isn't anything quite like a Mac. But when you get down to brass tacks, if you try to match the computing power in most every Mac on the market today, you're hard pressed to get the price down by much more than 5%. And it's impossible to get the price down at all if you buy it in one piece, from a reputable dealer, and expect any level of support.

Heck, I went to both Dell and HP and tried to come up with a system to match the downgraded single-CPU Mac Pro that you can get with BTO, and I've yet to find a workstation that comes in under $2,800!

Jason Packer

Mac Mini Tower

From Jim Phipps:

I have to wonder if Apple has a real Corporate Marketing Policy. It seems that there is a market for a Mini Tower. However, as Apple delays or selects not to make one, there will be a hackintosh effort on a growing scale to develop and make them. Once there is a reliable design formula, it will be "Katy bar the door".

I am an engineer and have used Macs off and on since my first Fat Mac in 1984. I used it for design with MacDraft, reports with MacWrite, Excel Ver. 1.0 for spreadsheets, and a defunct but solid project management tool.

I have a plan to moonlight on the cheap (capital dollars) in engineering here in Louisiana. My thoughts are probably a MacBook or cheap MacBook Pro. Any thoughts on which one works as a good buy for a new system on a real budget. The longer I wait saving cash, the longer it will take before I can market myself and start a second career along with the first one.

You have a column and site.

Jim Phipps

Jim,

I agree, the hackintosh market will only grow as more and more people discover how easy it is to build your own mini tower Mac and get Leopard running on existing notebooks, handhelds, and tablet PCs.

As far as the best bet in a notebook goes, it comes down to one simple question: How big a screen do you need? If you can live with 1280 x 800, you'll probably find the consumer MacBook is plenty good enough. If you need 1440 x 900, the 15" MacBook Pro is a very impressive piece of hardware. Still not enough? The 17" MBP normally ships with a 1680 x 1050 display, but for $100 more you can get a higher resolution display at 1920 x 1200.

Dan

Advice for Dell and HP: Innovate, Don't Imitate

From Jeremy Smart:

What a great article [Advice for Dell and HP: Innovate, Don't Imitate]. If I were a rich man, I would post it on a billboard outside of HP and Dell Headquarters. Maybe then someone in charge might get the message.

What I would like to see is HP and Dell to start developing their own operating systems. Take a flavor of Unix, say BSD, and build a nice GUI on top of it. If all PC manufacturers based their operating systems on on Unix, it would make it much easier for software developers to create cross-platform versions for their products. It might even be possible to create universal binaries of products to work on all Unix-based platforms. The software could auto-detect the OS the user has and make any necessary changes during installation.

I'm sure it's a bit frightening for PC manufacturers to think about developing their own operating system. There is some comfort in being a sheep and letting someone else make all your decisions for you, even when you have a bad shepherd (Microsoft). Plus the fact that Microsoft is an extremely vindictive company. If they discovered that a PC manufacturer was developing their own OS, I have no doubts Microsoft would do whatever it could to make that manufacturer suffer. However, I think it's a risk that is worth taking.

I see two major problems with Windows. The first one is that it has to accommodate an almost limitless combinations of hardware. It has to use all those different hardware setups and attempt to deliver one user experience. That is a problem any software manufacturer would have to deal with in that situation. In a minor defense of Microsoft, it is a difficult goal to attain, but I still think it could be done better. (There has been talk recently on LEM about what could happen if Apple licensed OS X to other PC manufacturers. Could Apple make it work better than Microsoft? Who knows if we will ever find out.)

The second problem is that Microsoft seems to have gotten lazy recently. Despite all the criticism, I don't think Windows Vista is completely bad. It's just a disappointment. With all the time they spent developing it, it should have been a lot more polished when released. Furthermore, Microsoft should have spent more time than they have refining it after its release. Microsoft knows that many people are forced to buy Windows whether they want to or not, and that is what irks me the most about them. (While not everyone is forced to buy Windows, if you're into gaming like me, or require Windows-only software, you have to have it.)

Unique operating systems would substantially help distinguish different PC brands. It would also allow PC manufacturers who had superior operating systems the ability to charge more for their hardware. PC manufacturers could make their own decisions about what features they wanted to include. Better hardware support would also be possible since a manufacturer would only have to worry about supporting their own hardware. It would unlock the door to innovation and open a whole new world to the home user.

Sadly, I'm not planning on this happening in the near future. I think more people will have to flock to the Mac platform and more money will have to be lost by the major PC manufacturers before they will wake up and realize that being tethered to Microsoft is a serious problem.

Jeremy,

In the first era of personal computing, hobbyists had to assemble their own computers and buy or write their own software and operating systems. In the second era - brought in with the Apple II, Commodore PET, Tandy TRS-80, etc. - each hardware company developed its own operating system. Then came CP/M, an operating system from Digital Research that ran on many computers with Z-80, 8080, and 8085 CPUs. It didn't have the graphics of an Apple II, Commodore, or Atari, but is ran on many brands of hardware.

Then came IBM, which wanted to dip its toe into the PC market with a minimal investment. IBM chose an off-the-shelf CPU and contracted with UCSD, Digital Research, and Microsoft to provide operating systems for the new computer. The UCSD p-system never really caught on, and PC-DOS from Microsoft, which was essentially a clone of CP/M for the 8088/8086 CPU, was priced a lot lower than CP/M-68 from Digital Research. The rest is history.

From that time forward, anyone has been able to build and sell x86 computers without having to even think about operating systems. Microsoft had what they wanted, and Microsoft was only to happy to license it.

Any company that wanted to develop its own operating system would be at a significant disadvantage, as nobody else would be investing R&D dollars in OS development. On top of that, Microsoft is unlikely to port Office to Unix, Linux, or anything besides Windows and the Mac OS, and that's what people are used to.

The market is full of sheep. Despite the Vista fiasco, most users are content to stick with XP or wait for Windows 7, not switch to a new and unfamiliar operating system - even if it's given away (e.g., Linux). Apple is the only viable alternative, and with 3.5% of the worldwide market, it's a very distant second. (That said, Apple is making inroads, as is Linux.)

If IBM couldn't make OS/2 a success, I don't expect Dell, HP, or anyone else will be able to raise up a viable alternative to Windows. Windows will continue to dominate the market for a good long time, with the Mac and Linux hardly impacting Microsoft's market.

Dan

Leopard Install Tip

From Mike Friedman:

I ran into a situation where my iMac would not read the dual-layer install DVD I had, so I ran the installer using FireWire target mode with the DVD in my MacBook.

The easiest way to do this is:

  1. Boot the external Mac in Target Disk Mode with the installer disk inside.
  2. Set the startup disk to be the 10.5 DVD.
  3. Boot into open firmware and do the first two lines (or four for dual procs) of commands, then just type boot as the last line, and it will boot from the FW TDM DVD.

Thanks!

Mike,

Thanks for the info. This may help others with the same problem.

Dan

Successful Leopard Installation on 800 MHz iBook G4

From Tyler Nielson:

I just upgraded my iBook G4/800 to Leopard. I used the little Leopard Assist program, but I'm sure the open firmware method would work as well. I have a 32 MB video card, the one that came stock with the iBook. I have 640 MB of RAM, just the soldered-on 128 plus an aftermarket 512 card. I've thought of upgrading to 1152 MB via a 1 GB stick, but I keep hearing that only some of the laptop DDR SODIMMs in the 1 GB size are compatible, and I don't have extra money to gamble right now.

I installed with the retail 10.5 disc, then upgraded with the 10.5.2 combo from Apple. As far as the features go, I've been impressed. I have not had the chance to test Time Machine, but everything I've tried has worked fine. The reason retrieving Time Machine backups may not work for users of unsupported systems is probably that Time Machine obnoxiously requires the Install DVD to boot from before you can see the files. If you don't re-tweak your visible CPU speed in Open Firmware first, you can't boot from the DVD and therefore can't retrieve the files.

Spotlight is slower, but I think it may be doing more anyway. I have found it to be adequate and still use it frequently. My one big complaint with Spotlight is that the "Search Everywhere" feature seems to have disappeared. Why, oh why, dear Apple Gods?

My 640 MB of RAM, surprisingly enough, seems to be mostly adequate. The memory management seems to be about the same as Tiger, and each application uses about the same amount of RAM as it did in Tiger. The computer does, however, slow down drastically when it starts using swap space; this is something I didn't observe in Tiger. This is no big issue: I shut the computer down each night, and it has a fresh start in the morning. Rarely does the RAM actually fill up over the course of one day, so 640 is adequate for my use. A typical work load is 5 to 10 tabs in iCab, Safari, or Firefox, iTunes and YouControlTunes in the background, and two or three open documents in Pages 08. Much beyond that seems to slow it down, but the computer is still a better multitasker than I am!

Spaces is the one feature that I do not use. It seemed to get bogged down frequently, and the animation was simply too choppy at times. With Exposé and the Open Apple+tab command to switch apps, I hardly need Spaces, though I might use it if I had a supported machine.

The machine felt slow until Spotlight finished doing whatever it does after an install, but once it finished things ran smoothly. One feature that surprised me with how well it works is Cover Flow in the Finder. Even at the full 512 by 512 resolution, the animation is smooth. The icons don't load instantly, but the interface is still enjoyable and practical to use.

One must-have for my iBook is a trackpad driver replacement, called iScroll2, it gives me 2-finger scrolling, vertical and horizontal, and this makes both web browsing and Cover Flow much more enjoyable. I do feel the loss of Classic mode; I really miss Wolfenstein 3D! I must be one of the last people to enjoy that game, but it's been 16 years and it's never gotten old. I will either have to put it on one of my G3 iMacs or make a 10.4 + classic partition on my iBook.

Sorry for being so terribly verbose, I just hope these details help you know which unsupported machines will run Leopard well. I'd say for the iBook G4/800, it can definitely run Leopard in a pinch. 1.12 GB of RAM might help, but 640 MB feels adequate. I plan to perhaps upgrade the hard drive to something bigger and faster so the data swapping doesn't slow the iBook down as much - I'm still running the stock 30 GB/4200 RPM IDE drive; an upgrade couldn't hurt. Besides, I'll have room for a Tiger partition, my main Leopard partition with plenty of space, and even a room for a Debian Linux partition.

Summary: the hard drive and RAM may be lacking, but the 800 MHz processor feels totally adequate, as everything runs smoothly until I use up the RAM. A faster HD might eliminate the need for additional RAM, as swap space would become practical.

Thanks for the excellent article, and I hope this response is helpful.

Tyler Nielson

Tyler,

Thanks for writing and sharing your experience. As a former PowerBook G4 owner, I can tell you that going to a 5400 rpm hard drive with an 8 MB or 16 MB buffer is going to blow you away. There is a bit more of an improvement with 7200 rpm, but bang for the buck, a 5400 rpm drive will make you very happy. Probably a better investment than a 1 GB memory module.

When you do that, invest in a FireWire or FireWire/USB 2.0 notebook drive enclosure for your old drive and use SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner 3 to create a bootable backup. That should give you a way to work around having to boot from the Leopard DVD to restore from Time Machine.

I'm glad Leopard is working so well for you - and that we helped you get there.

Dan

Dan,

Thanks for your feedback, I had already thought of the drive enclosure thing, but from a slightly different angle: I was going to put my new drive in the enclosure, clone my current drive to that, boot from that for testing purposes, and if all goes well, start digging under the hood to install the drive. The reason for this preliminary testing is 1) to ensure that the 80 GB drive (new) works properly, and 2) to ensure that I know whether or not I can boot from the USB port. It would be a real bummer to install the new drive and then not be able to boot. I happened to pick up a USB 2.0 notebook HD enclosure for $7 a while ago, so I won't go the FireWire route unless I have to.

This whole affair has been giving me flashbacks to when Apple dropped support of the PowerBook 3400c for System 9.2. I used OS 9 Helper to install it anyway and actually saw a performance increase over 9.1. I had that machine until 3 months ago, when I sold it to a friend for $70, a price we were both very happy with (it had upgraded RAM, and a 6 GB hard drive, so I guess I was generous!)

Only when Apple announced that 800 MHz G4s would not be supported in Leopard did I first think of my iBook as a "low end" machine. Since the upgrade has gone well, and a new HD is in the works, I think I can quell my urge to buy a new MacBook with my education discount . . . at least for a year or two, or until they become affordable. As long as I sell my iBook before 10.6 comes out (I'm guessing 10.6 will be Intel-only, but that's a ways off), I'll be able to get most of my money back from the iBook! I mean, 80 GB HD, 640 MB RAM, a Combo drive, and Leopard? Sounds (and feels) like a fairly new computer!

Did you notice your 5400 RPM drive running cooler than the stock 4200? My stock one tends to heat up and make the palm of my left hand a little to warm, most iBooks do this, but I don't know if the PowerBooks did.

Thanks again for your feedback, it's good to hear that I'm at least thinking along the right lines with my upgrades. I'm a big fan of your site, and I visit it often. Considering my first computer was an Original 128K (I've always been a Mac user, no switching necessary!) and I tend to keep my computers for at least ten years, your site has become a very useful reference. Keep up the good work!

Tyler

It's a long time since I replaced the 10 GB drive in my 400 MHz TiBook with a 20 GB 5400 rpm drive, and as far as I can recall, it didn't seem to run any hotter than the original drive. Ditto for the 40 GB drive I later moved to.

Apple doesn't support booting Mac OS X on PowerPC Macs from USB drives. You won't be able to choose it as your startup drive in System Preferences / Startup Disk. And I don't think you can actually install OS X to a USB drive either. But there is a workaround: clone your internal drive and hold down the Opt key during startup. This will let you select the USB drive.

There are a couple caveats: USB may not provide enough bus power for your external notebook drive, so you may need an external power supply or a dual USB cable to provide the needed power, and USB 2.0 is noticeably slower compared than FireWire 400.

Dan

Thanks for LEM

From Robert White:

Hello,

As a sometime reader and frequent recommender to your site, I just wanted to first say thank you for the invaluable knowledge base about the Macintosh line. It has helped many times when referencing back on some of our in-house infrastructure. I'm writing today also to agree with about 99% of your most recent column, A $99 PC, a $399 Hackintosh, and Growing the Mac Market. My only reservation would be at the assertion that "Linux is not a suitably user-friendly solution, as Walmart discovered in trying to sell a low-end Linux computer." I'd have to disagree with this, since Walmart sold out the entire initial run of Linux machines in less than two weeks. The reviews of the system itself, and the dumbed down interface have been quite good, and considering that the system was available with Vista at 150% of the price and it didn't sell much at all, one could argue that Walmart's initial foray into Linux PCs was fairly successful.

Thanks for the great article (other than my one little quibble) and a great site!

-Robert

Robert,

Thanks for your kind words.

Whether Walmart sold out the first batch of Linux PCs isn't the point, as geeks had been put on alert about the $200 Linux box. The important thing is that Walmart decided it would no longer carry the computer in its retail stores. As the Washington Post put it, "Walmart has stopped selling Everex's Linux-based PC in its stores because of a tepid response from customers...."

This wasn't Walmart's first experiment with Linux, but the four-month test convinced the company that this wasn't what its customer base wanted. Most people want to use Microsoft Office on Windows, and giving them an open source office suite and operating system that may be file compatible isn't good enough - they generally want the same system and software at home as at the office. That's the biggest obstacle to both Linux and Mac OS X, because Office for the Mac is different enough to require Windows users to retrain themselves.

Dan

USB 2.0 for Older PowerBooks

From Matt:

Hi Dan,

I've been a fan of the site since 1998. I saw the info you gave about PowerBook users getting USB 2.0 speeds in OS X.

I gust wanted to add, the card they get must be NEC chipset to work with OS X drivers to get that speed. I went through 2 cards before I found this out.

Thanks,
Matt

Matt,

Thanks for the info. I'll pass it along in the mailbag.

Dan

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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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