Mac UK

Lessons from OS X on Unsupported Hardware

Dirk Pilat - 2002.01.29

I know I am ignorant and stupid when it comes to hardware and software. That's why I told a friend of mine who was pining for a cheap Mac to run OS X on (he's a true Unix fanatic and thought this would be so much cheaper than a Sun Workstation and more exciting than some beige Linux box) to buy any old PCI Power Mac he could get his hands on - and I would help him install OS X.

Obviously a big mistake, as there are multiple obstacles to master before you can start typing away in Terminal. Nevertheless, a couple of weeks later he came up with a 7600 (120 MHz, 192 MB RAM, 1 GB hard drive, a Low End Mac "good buy") which we cleaned up, made a low-level format and installed OS 9 on.

No problems there; the machine performed nicely, and my friend (let's call him Mike) even had fun playing Myth on it (but with the help of the walkthrough, the old cheater). So far, so good. You could use this machine for a gazillion different things (even install Net BSD on it), but as 120 MHz is hardly enough to run OS X, he made another excursion to eBay, and a couple of days later he was a proud owner of a 500 MHz Metabox G3 card - without the software.

No problem, I thought. A quick check on their website should do the trick, but alas, as they stopped supporting Mac upgrades. There was no software to download.

Apparently Sonnet drivers would do the trick, but Sonnet unfortunately wanted US$29 for the download. Thankfully, one of the members of the Mac UK email list came to the rescue and sent the driver and documentation. After installing these goodies, the 7600 started to perform quite handsomely, and we were ready for the next step: OS X!

We hooked up an old 4 GB SCSI hard drive to the machine (frightfully easy, thanks to the 7600's easy-open technology) and did a low-level format on this grandmother of a hard drive, which noisily cleaned the data-debris of her tracks. Next came the question - how do we actually install OS X on such a machine? OS X supports neither pre-G3 Power Macs nor G3 Cards.

A quick check on Google and the OS X email list revealed the incredibly helpful existence of XPostFacto, a patch that will con the OS X installer into believing that there's already some sort of installation present by putting some kernel extensions on the drive, which will result in a flawless installation.

That's what we thought. Due to the extreme slowness of the old hard drive, the installation took about 3 hours for 10.0.3 and another 3 hours for 10.1. As I had to leave earlier than planned, we had to abort the upgrade mid-cycle, which left us with a non-booting Mac and another format/installation run. That took another day, thanks to the "three legged donkey," as the old SCSI drive was now called.

After the sheer endless wait, OS X 10.1 finally booted, and, much to my surprise, performed quite well. Okay, it wasn't flying, but the quartz engine didn't have any problems with dragging or dropping, Microsoft Internet Explorer worked fine (and is going to be replaced by iCab ASAP), and everything looked pretty much hunky-dory - except for an annoying bug that freezes the computer every time we try to reactivate a background task that was lying in the dock and OS X tries to perform it's childish "genie out of the bottle" trick.

We still have to update the machine to 10.1.2, but for now Mike is happy to play with "Terminal" (he really doesn't need all the fancy graphics) and all sorts of funny command-line thingies. End cost: $120 for the 7600, $200 for the used G3 card, and the monitor and extra hard drive came free.

That's $330 for a machine that maybe doesn't outperform a MP G4, but which still can be used for network apps, word processing, Web serving, and even plays MP3s while doing it. And it uses the world's most advanced OS.

Is it worth it? Well, I have to admit that installation was (although rather slow) quite fun, and being able to ignore Apple's restrictive "No-can-do-with-old-beige-Macs" policy certainly feels good. Mike is happy as can be, as he has a new cheap toy to play with that looks positively stunning and can do everything an old Sun workstation can (and more).

Lessons learned? Definitely go for a fast hard drive when installing OS X on a system with low RAM.

Punchline? None today, sorry.

Signing out.... LEM

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