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The little Leopard laptop



I can always tell when I'm bored, because that's when I think up some challenge for myself. The initial spark for this challenge came when I wrote a post a few months ago about how Paul O'Brien at Modaco had successfully installed Leopard on a Windows-based "netbook". TUAW's Mike Schramm further fueled the fire with this post about an Eee PC running OS X.

Netbooks are tiny laptops with a mini price tag to match. Many netbooks sell for less than $500, with 1 GB of RAM, either a 16 - 20 GB solid state disk drive or 160 GB hard disk drive, Wi-Fi, and a built-in webcam. When you consider that these little machines also weigh about the same or less than a MacBook Air, they're a bargain. However, they usually run Windows XP or Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and frankly I'd rather have good old Leopard.

Asus has been making netbooks for a while under the Eee PC moniker, while MSI (Wind), Acer (Aspire One), and even HP have jumped into this growing market recently. It wasn't until I received a direct mail catalog from Dell featuring the new Inspiron Mini 9 that I started thinking seriously about trying to load Leopard on it.

Despite the fact that I'm sure that Apple will announce a low-cost netbook soon, I ended up buying a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook to install Leopard onto. The rest of this post describes how I did it using instructions and files found at various Web sites.

Caveat Geektor (Let the geek beware...)

Before you begin rolling your own little Leopard laptop, you should realize that doing this is in violation of the Mac OS X end-user licensing agreement. That agreement states that "You agree not to install, use or run the Apple software on any non-Apple-labeled computer, or enable others to do so."

Pretty scary, huh? Currently Apple's EULA is being tested in court, but since we TUAW bloggers are not lawyers and we are not in the business of giving legal advice, you are proceeding at your own risk. If Apple wants to take you to court, they can, and there's a good chance they'd win (we think).

There's only one way to avoid violating the Mac OS X license -- don't install Mac OS X on a non-Apple machine. After this experiment is done, I'm considering installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix just to keep my conscience unmuddled.

The specs


This Dell Inspiron Mini 9 came configured as follows:
Intel Atom Processor N270 (1.6 GHz,/533 MHz FSB/512 K cache)
1 GB DDR2 RAM at 533 MHz
8.9" glossy LED display
Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950
16GB Solid State Disk Drive
802.11g mini card
1.3 Megapixel webcam
32 Watt-Hour 4-cell battery
Bluetooth 2.1

The total price tag, including shipping, handling, and taxes was $530.90 (base price was less than $500). The Intel Atom is an extremely low power processor code-named "Diamondville", and my initial tests show battery life to be in the four-hour range.

Why?

Other than the vicarious thrill of running OS X on a non-Apple device, why would someone want to do this? Maybe you don't want to spend US$1,000 - $3,000 for a laptop that runs OS X. Perhaps you want something smaller in size than a MacBook Air or regular MacBook. My personal reason is that I often travel to locations where I don't necessarily want to subject a $2,000 computer to harsh conditions or possible theft, but US$500 wouldn't be too much of a loss.

On October 3rd, after missing one visit by the DHL delivery dude, my hardware arrived. I ordered my Mini 9 a couple of weeks ago with Windows XP installed, simply because it showed a delivery date two weeks before the Linux model would ship. As you can see from the picture below, this is a very small computer. That's the MacBook Air on the bottom and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 on top.



The Mini 9 (top) is a bit thicker than the MacBook Air, of course:



And here's a picture that demonstrates the size of the screens, with the Mini 9 on the left, MacBook Air on the right:



After reading Paul's article, watching his video, hitting some torrent sites for a couple of very large files, and burning those files to DVD, I was ready to start going through a long weekend of reboots and command-line craziness. However, I was relieved of that hell by Twitterer Keviano, who pointed me to a post on UNEASYsilence.

Total shock and awe. UNEASYsilence blogger Dan Dorato briefly documented how he had loaded Leopard onto a Mini 9. To my surprise, it turns out that the architecture of this netbook is very similar to the MSI Wind and several other netbooks that use the same Diamondville processor. Some people with much more technical acumen than me had already created a version of Leopard that runs perfectly on these little machines.

The process

1) Following a link in the UNEASYsilence post, I downloaded a special slipstreamed version of Mac OS X 10.5.4. This version had been, uh, modified to work well on a similar netbook, the MSI Wind. Since TUAW and I don't condone pirating, I purchased a legitimate copy of Leopard.

2) I unboxed the Mini 9, took my usual unboxing photos, and plugged it in.

3) Next, I started up the painfully slow Windows XP startup process. I wanted to make sure that everything worked properly in XP SP3 prior to upgrading the Mini's brain with OS X. Sure enough, Control Panel > System showed 1 GB of RAM, a 16 GB SSDD, and that it was running XP SP3 for "Ultra Low Cost PCs".

4) Grabbed some other files that were recommended by Dan to get the onboard Wi-Fi and sound working properly from here.

5) Like the MacBook Air, this little computer doesn't have a built-in optical drive. I hooked up an extermal Sony USB CD/DVD burner, popped in the modified OS X DVD, and powered up the Mini 9 while holding down the 0 key. That took me into the Boot Setup screens, where I was able to tell the Mini 9 to boot off of the external DVD. For some reason, it didn't want to read the drive, so I plugged the Sony drive into my iMac to make sure it was working. The iMac recognized it, so I plugged it back into the Mini again. This time it worked -- go figure.

6) The OS X Installer started up. It didn't want to let me install on the main hard drive, so I used Disk Utility on the DVD to format the drive as Mac OS X Extended (Journaled) instead of NTFS, then continued the installation. The installation took about 36 minutes. Unfortunately, when the machine rebooted I was greeted with a HFS+ partition error. My guess is that I screwed up by not making the entire drive Mac OS X Extended, since I left a small partition on the drive that most likely contains Dell's recovery files.

7) Back to square one. I started up the installer one more time. About a minute into the install I kept getting a "Still waiting for root device" message, which I correctly interpreted as meaning it couldn't read the DVD. Unplugging and replugging the power cord on the drive fixed it. Once again back into the installer, I fired up Disk Utility one more time and this time made the drive one partition. I also chose a new partition scheme, that being GUID Partition Table. It had used a Master Boot Record partition scheme initially.

8) 36 minutes later...I ejected the DVD from the external drive when the installer was done since I had set the BIOS to boot from the DVD first. Woo-hoo! Success, it booted up! The Setup Assistant ran, so I went through the routine of setting up my account. Imagine my surprise when it used the built-in webcam to take my account photo. Sound and wireless weren't working, but I expected that from Dan's blog post.

9) Plugged the DVD drive back in to see if I could load the new drivers. The Mini 9 didn't see the drive. Plugged in a USB flash drive. The Mini 9 didn't see that either. Rebooted the Mini 9 with the DVD drive attached to see if it would mount it. Success! Put the CD I had burned with the Broadcom Wi-Fi driver and sound driver into the drive and dragged the files to the desktop.

10) Opened terminal. Typed in sudo, then dragged the icon for the file bcm43xx_enabler.sh to the terminal screen. Pressed the Enter key. Followed Dan's instructions and just pressed enter four more times to run the shell script. Closed terminal and rebooted the Mini.

11) Partial success. The AirPort icon showed up in the menu bar, my network appeared, but I couldn't connect. I'll try again later. Now to run the sound driver installer, which is a double-clickable Mac app. Time to reboot again.

12) Cool! After the reboot, both sound and Wi-Fi are working perfectly. Time to get this updated to Mac OS X 10.5.5. It's currently running 10.5.4. I fired up Software Update, crossed my fingers, and ran the updates.

13) Dang. The machine is now working only in 800 x 600 resolution, rather than the default 1024 x 600. The only resolution that shows up in the Displays preference is 800 x 600. Searching around the Interwebs for a bit, I found a site devoted to the MSI Wind that had a number of posts that dealt with this problem. The primary fix seemed to be to a) download some kernel extensions dealing with the display and b) fix permissions. That being done, I crossed my fingers, my toes, and my eyes, and rebooted again.

14) Yay! That worked just fine! I'm back in 1024 x 600 mode. I now have a MacBook nano that is cruising along nicely. Under 10.5.4, About This Mac (below) showed the processor as an Intel Core Solo; 10.5.5 thinks it's "unknown". The hardware serial number, which you can read by clicking twice on the OS version number, always comes up as W1234567890.



15) Time to do some cleanup. I only have 6.63 GB of available space at this point. There are some apps that I will probably never use on this little beast, so I'm removing them to clear some space. The victims? Chess, DVD Player, Front Row, Spaces, Grapher, Migration Assistant, Podcast Capture, Remote Install OS X. That sure didn't open up a lot of space...

16) Time to add some applications. I have a Sprint Sierra Wireless 595U USB Wireless Broadband card, so I wanted to make sure I could get that to work. A quick visit out to the Sprint website provided the new (August 2008) SmartView software for my year-old card. Much nicer than the old software, and it provides GPS services as well. Sprint FTW! I uninstalled iWork '08 on my MacBook Air and installed it on the "nano".

17) I set up MobileMe syncing to get iCal, Address Book, Safari bookmarks, and Mail accounts working. I promptly realized that my email files are huge, so I've decided to stick to web mail on this device.

That's about it! Of course, every time Apple sends out a new version of OS X with Software Update, I'll have to keep my eyes open and see if anyone else is having issues before I even think about doing an upgrade on my netbook.

Good points
  • Total cost, including a licensed copy of OS X 10.5, was US$635. My MacBook Air (with 2 GB of RAM and an 80 GB HD) put me back about $2,000.
  • Solid-state disk drive is more immune to impacts.
  • It's small. 9 inches wide x 6.7 inches deep x 1.2 inches high at the thickest point. Weight is 2.3 lbs.
  • Unbelievably quiet. No hard disk drive noise at all thanks to the SSDD. Nice.
  • Three USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet and VGA-out built in. Built-in SD card reader.
  • Boot time: 45 seconds from powered off to fully functional.
  • Mini 9's Wi-Fi shows 5 bars on network in hotel lobby; MacBook Air can't even find the network.
Bad points
  • It ain't Apple. It's the little things, like the "Intel Atom inside" sticker with the glue smear next to it...
  • The keyboard is small and it's been difficult to get the hang of touch typing on it.
  • That 1024 x 600 8.9" screen seems tiny compared to the MacBook Air's 1280 x 800 13.3" display.
  • No multitouch. On the other hand, I'm already used to using the left/right "mouse" buttons below the touchpad.
  • Ethernet isn't working. That's not too bad since I have Wi-Fi and the Sprint Mobile Broadband card to use, but it would be nice to get it all working.
  • Machine locks up coming out of sleep mode, so I've had to disable sleep.
  • That 16 GB SSDD is pretty small. Other netbooks are available with 160 GB hard disks.
Things that could be improved
  • More RAM would probably speed up OS X a bit. Bumping the Mini 9 to 2 GB would cost about $35.
  • More storage. I could double my storage for $33 by purchasing a 16 GB SD HC card and putting it into the SD slot.
What still needs to be done
  • Follow this guy's lead and make it really look like a Mac.
  • Wait until someone fixes the sleep issue and install the new kext (kernel extension).
  • Find a cool bag to carry it in, or just get pants with big pockets.
Conclusion

So, was this experiment worth it? I think so. It's fun to see what the community is doing to make sure that all of the features of this netbook work under OS X. I'd honestly prefer to have a really cheap Apple netbook to avoid all of the driver issues and concerns about licensing. As I mentioned earlier, I'm probably going to install Ubuntu Netbook Remix on this box so I have a fully-functioning and legal netbook. I look forward to comments from TUAW readers who are also creating their own little Leopard laptops.

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