Frankenmac! What's in a Mac clone?

Antec Sonata III case
Behold the terrifying, er, beauty of the Frankenmac!

A company called Psystar claims that it’s selling a “generic Mac” for $549 (or $399 without OS X). While such a move seems to violate Apple’s end-user license agreement, it indicates just how the age-old topic of running the Mac OS on non-Apple hardware has mutated in this modern, Intel-Mac age.

While I'm not going to advocate that Apple’s users rush out and configure a faux Mac of their very own, the reality is that Apple’s computers are now Intel-based PCs through and through. The existence of modern Mac clones—whether they come in a complete package from the likes Psystar or in pieces from a variety of computer-parts manufacturers—allows me to ask several questions about Apple’s Mac hardware. Yes, it lets me gauge the price and performance of Mac hardware by comparing it to non-Apple hardware. But it also lets me explore a topic that, prior to Apple’s switch to Intel processors, I could only speculate about: The performance of Mac systems that simply don’t exist.

Take the “mythical mid-range Mac minitower,” as Macworld's Dan Frakes called it. While Apple has an excellent selection of laptops, entry-level Macs, and high-end machines, it doesn’t offer anything at all in the way of a moderately powerful expandable tower model. Though the iMac offers good performance, it’s an all-in-one machine with limited expandability and a monitor that not everyone may need. As Dan wrote:

What I’d like to see is a minitower design with—and this is just one possible configuration that would fulfill my wish—a reasonably powerful processor (perhaps a higher-end Core 2 Duo or a single Xeon); a good graphics card in an upgradeable slot; a decent amount of RAM and hard-drive space; a single free PCI Express slot; and room for one additional hard drive. The ability to swap out the optical drive would be a nice touch.

I’m generally with Dan on this one—I don’t want or need a machine with a built-in monitor, I don’t need the power of an eight-core Mac Pro, but I’d like my Mac to be faster and more expandable than a mini. (I want more than one slot and room for more drives, however, so my minitower might be more of a medium-tower.)

Tired of waiting and hoping for the Mac of my dreams to appear, I decided to take the technology into my own hands and build it myself. And thus began my experiment to assemble my very own OS X-running machine.

Note that I’m not planning on diving into the technical details of building your own Mac. Rather, for this article, I’m focusing on the parts I used to make my own computer, the end result of my machinations, and how the machine performs. Think of it as me building an off-brand Mac so that you don’t have to.

Building the Frankenmac

To realize my dream Mac system, I set myself a budget of $1,000 (not including keyboard, monitor, or mouse), and started shopping for computer parts. While this amount is much more than what Psystar claims it will charge, I wanted to build a more powerful machine than what that company is offering, and then see how well it worked compared with machines from Cupertino.

When you build your own PC, you must decide exactly what goes into it—absolute freedom that comes with absolute responsibility. You must choose the motherboard, processor, CPU cooling solution, video card, hard drives, CD/DVD burner, memory, case, and possibly even the power supply. To make things even more challenging, if you’re building a Mac-compatible PC, you’ve got to stick with certain hardware that’s known to work with Mac OS X. I spent a lot of time web searching to find out what worked and what didn’t.

When I set out to configure my machine, I wanted to make it reasonably fast with the best video card I could fit into my budget, and with lots of room for expansion. (I plan on using this machine as a platform to test various Mac-to-Windows tips, and of course it will be a dedicated machine for certain Windows-only applications that I absolutely must be able to run. For those reasons, I need it to run Windows Vista as well as possible, as that will ultimately be the machine’s primary role. )

Part Description
Cost
Motherboard
Asus P5K-E$152.99
CPU Intel Q6600 Core 2 Quad 2.4GHz$219.99
CPU heat sink
Zalman CPNS7700-Cu$48.00
RAM 4GB DDR-2 800Mhz PC6400$94.99
Video card
MSI NX8800GT 512MB OC$189.99
Case Antec Sonata III 500$119.00
DVD/CD Burner
LG HL-DT-ST GSA-H62N$40.00
Hard drive
Seagate 500GB SATA 2$93.00
Other
Shipping charges$23.45
TOTAL
$982.40

When the dust settled, I wound up with the following list of components as seen in the table on the right.

As you can see, the total cost of my parts was just over $980, leaving about $20 for dinner out before I hit my budget limit. As seen in the image at right, this was clearly a “lots of assembly required” project.

After all of the parts arrived at my home, it took a few hours to build the machine. If you’ve never built your own computer before, it’s an interesting experience—there’s something quite satisfying about putting it all together, powering it up, and hearing that first “beep” that lets you know you haven’t just turned your collection of parts into a collection of junk. Of course, if you don’t hear the beep, there’s an entirely different reaction, one that borders on panic. Thankfully, I heard the beep. But building the hardware is actually the easy part of the process.

image

Next, I installed Vista on the PC, just to be sure everything worked. From there, it then took many more hours to get OS X working right—while the process is relatively straightforward, there are a lot of steps involved, and BIOS settings to tweak. If you want to run Windows and OS X on the same drive, there are more hoops to jump through to get it all working. But after many hours of reading, assembling, disassembling, screaming, installing, uninstalling, reinstalling, saying bad words, pestering friends, and generally not having very much fun, I was done: my machine was up and running, and capable of booting into either Windows Vista or Mac OS X 10.5.2.

Using a homebuilt Mac

My machine—which I’ve named the Frankenmac—doesn’t look anything like a Mac from the outside, of course. The Antec case is glossy black, with a swing-open door that hides the externally-accessible drive bays, along with two USB ports, one eSATA port, and audio jacks on a shiny metallic strip on the front. And if you happen to be sitting in front of it when it starts up, the BIOS loading screen and black-and-white text-based boot loader (which lets me choose between Vista and OS X) is a dead giveaway that this is not your normal Mac.

About This Unknown Mac
However, if I were to hide the case and set you down in front of the monitor when the system was already running, you’d be convinced that you were using a “real” Mac—with one minor exception: If you open the About This Mac box, you’ll see a giveaway that this machine isn’t your typical Mac. I don’t think Apple’s ever shipped an “unknown” processor!

But if you close the About box and just start using the machine, you’ll be using a “real” Mac, one that performs (mostly) just like its factory-approved counterpart. The Frankenmac runs any OS X program, including PowerPC-based programs via the Rosetta code-translation system. The CD/DVD burner works with iTunes, iDVD, and iMovie. Even low-level stuff like sleep works—although I have to wake the Frankenmac by touching the power button; the keyboard and mouse are ignored while the machine is sleeping. (That may be due to the fact that I’m using a wireless Microsoft keyboard and mouse over USB—I haven’t tested it with Apple-branded hardware.)

On the hardware front, everything also seems to work fine. The onboard Ethernet, audio, USB, eSATA and FireWire ports all work. I even found an old USB/FireWire PCI card (from a previous generic Windows machine I built), plugged it in, and connected my iSight camera to it—no problems whatsoever. I plugged in my Wacom tablet, installed the drivers, and found that it also works just fine—including handwriting recognition via the Ink System Preferences panel.

Then I took advantage of the fact that I’d built a machine in a case of my choosing: I installed a hot swap SATA drive bay—something like this one.

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