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Alan Zisman on the Mac

G4 'Book vs. Hackintosh Netbook: Which Makes More Sense?

- 2010.03.08 - Tip Jar

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Low End Mac recently published some articles looking at netbooks running Mac OS X. I described my experiences - at first frustrating, but ultimately successful (and surprisingly easy) "hackintoshing" a Dell Mini 9. Allison Payne followed up with her experience putting OS X onto a Lenovo S10 - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Dan Bashur took a different tack, looking at a used 14" iBook and suggesting it was better to "buy a Mac for less" than hack a netbook.

Along with my "hackintoshed" Mini 9, I've also got a G4 iBook, the original 12" model running at 800 MHz. Checking my records, I see that I bought it new in October 2003, paying just over C$2,000 for it, including an AppleCare extended warranty. Now I see similar models selling on eBay for about $200.

I bought my Dell Mini 9 in March 2009, paying a bit under $400 for it. Like the iBook, it's no longer in production, and it is also probably worth about $200.

Let's try to compare the two:

iBook
October 2003 - $2,000
Mini 9
March 2009, $400
CPU Power PC G4 - 800 MHz Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz
RAM (as shipped/currently installed) 256 MB/640 MB 1 GB/2GB
storage 60 GB hard drive 16 GB SSD
optional 16 GB SD card
optical drive CD-RW* none
sound yes yes
wireless 802.11g 802.11g
ethernet 100 Mb/sec 100 Mb/sec
screen size 12" 8.9"
screen resolution 1024 x 768 1024 x 600
graphics processor Mobility Radeon 9200 Intel GMA 950
USB 2 USB 2.0 ports 3 USB 2.0 ports
FireWire 1 FireWire 400 port n/a
built-in Bluetooth n/a optional**
built-in webcam n/a optional**
wireless mobile data adapter n/a optional**
memory card reader n/a 4-in-1
Mac OS version 10.4.11 10.6.2
Weight 4.9 lb. 2.3 lb.
Battery Life (as reported by OS) about an hour 3:50 (stock 4-cell battery)
Bootup time (Mac OS X) 65 seconds 37 seconds

* G4 iBooks usually have a Combo drive. ** not included on mine.

I used the iBook as my main computer for a couple of years. Later, I passed it on to my daughter. When she upgraded, it came back to me, and we put it in our cottage, where it was used primarily for Internet access. Right now, it's back home sitting in a closet - it may end up in my wife's studio if she decides to let the temptation of email and Internet access distract her from jewelry making.

The iBook had a troubled first couple of years of life, needing three (!) hard drive replacements and two replacement keyboards - all covered by AppleCare. Since then, it's been pretty much problem free, although I replaced the battery in 2007.

With the Dell Mini, I upgraded the RAM, replacing the single 1 GB module with a 2 GB piece. Because it has an SD card slot, I got a 16 GB SD card, effectively doubling its storage capabilities.

In some respects, comparing any 7-year-old model - in this case the iBook G4 - with any 2-year-old computer - the Dell Mini 9 - is not really fair. But in many ways, these two models are similar - while the iBook is not the smallest laptop Apple released, in its era it was relatively light and small and relatively affordable. Neither would be a good choice for someone doing photo, music, or video editing, but both are usable ways to work with text or go online.

Because of the small keyboard and the unusual placement of some keys, typing on the Dell Mini takes some getting used to, and is not a great experience. On the other hand, while the iBook has a full-sized and standard layout keyboard, it has a cheap, bouncy feel and is not my favourite among Apple's notebook keyboards.

The Mini feels perkier online and has superior graphics. Its smaller, widescreen display and better graphics subsystem make it better for viewing movies. While the iBook has a built-in optical drive, it's CD-RW; neither system is able to read DVDs - at least without hooking up an external drive.

Storage on the Mini is constricted - the Mini 9 shipped with SSD drives and could be ordered with a nearly-unusable 4 GB drive, or 8 GB or 16 GB SSDs. There are larger-capacity third party SSDs available now, but I'm not wanting to spend $129 or $229 for a 32 or 64 GB drive. Instead, I bought a 16 GB SD memory card (about $40) and use that for documents, music, photos, etc. With Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" and my basic set of applications installed, the 16 GB SSD is only a bit more than half full; currently, most of the SD card is empty, so I could rip a number of DVDs onto it for travelling if I wanted.

When I bought the iBook back in 2003, I splurged on the largest hard drive Apple offered with it at the time, a 60 GB model. Right now, it's got a pretty clean installation and a minimal set of applications - and a lot of free drive space.

Which Is the Better Choice?

So which is a more usable computer?

The best answer I can come up with is "it depends". It depends on what you want to do.

Neither would make me happy as my primary system; both have screen resolutions that lack the expanse of modern systems - even Apple's current low-end 13" MacBook's 1280 x 800 pixels feels like it has significantly more screen space. And neither has a keyboard that is comfortable for a lot of typing, which is something I do a lot.

However, either could be used as a secondary computer or as a computer to be used by a child (assuming they were not a hard-core gamer).

I really like the Dell Mini when I'm travelling. I've taken both it and the iBook on planes and into hotels, and I much prefer the Mini. (Admittedly, I haven't travelled with the iBook in a number of years.) The Mini is half the weight, and those couple of pounds make a noticeable difference when toting a carry-on bag down a mile of airport corridor trying to make a connection. It's small size fits comfortably on an airplane tray table, and it fits into a hotel safe, so I can lock it up when I leave the hotel room. Or, given its light size, take it with me much more easily.

And it runs OS X 10.6.2, currently Apple's latest operating system version. There's no guarantee that Apple will continue to allow it - and other Atom-powered netbooks - to be upgraded as Snow Leopard evolves, but there's an active Hackintosh developer community that will do its best to make sure that these systems can be kept up to date.

Apple has already left the iBook behind; I could upgrade the RAM to a maximum of 1.25 GB (for $40-50) and install Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" if I wanted, but that would be the end of the road for it. As a PowerPC system, it can't run the current OpenOffice version (3.2) or any other Intel-only software. [NeoOffice 3.0.2 is available for PowerPC Macs - ed]

As is the case with any older laptop, battery life is a far cry from what it was when the battery was new. Apple boasted of four hour battery life for new iBooks way back when - this was very good at a time when typical PC laptops got two hours or so battery life. But now, when I unplug the power cord after the battery reports being fully charged, the battery indicator claims there is 1 hour 10 minutes of charge - and that drops to a reported 38 minutes within 30 seconds or so. A new battery costs about half what the iBook is worth.

So my iBook G4, worth about $200 today, remains a usable computer as long as it stays plugged in and on a desk. But if I want something to travel with, my Dell Mini 9 netbook, also worth about $200 now, makes more sense due to superior performance online, watching movies, better portability, and far better battery life, especially since I've been able to install Snow Leopard on it. LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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