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.

How well does it work?

But the real question is, just how does the $950 Frankenmac compete with Apple’s hardware? Overall, quite well. To get a sense of just how well, I ran a few tests here, though I plan to ship the whole machine off to the Macworld Lab in San Francisco shortly, for an official run through our Speedmark test suite.

The results are in. See Macworld Lab's Frankenmac tests.

For the unofficial testing, I used a few old favorites—Xbench for overall benchmarking, Cinebench for graphics, and a quick blast through the standard Quake3 timedemo to give a sense for raw gaming performance. I ran the tests on the Frankenmac and my Macworld-provided Mac Pro (a 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon with 4GB of RAM and the ATI X1900xt video card). Using Xbench, the Frankenmac beat the Mac Pro on the overall score, 149 to 143. Within the individual tests, the Mac Pro was faster at the CPU, thread, and OpenGL tests, while the Frankenmac was better at the memory, Quartz graphics, user interface, and disk tests. Overall, there’s not much difference in the two machines’ Xbench results—and keep in mind that the Mac Pro is more than twice as expensive as the Frankenmac.

The Cinebench results reflected the faster processors in the Mac Pro, helping it win the CPU rendering tests—the single CPU test by about 10 percent, and the multiple CPU test by about 3 percent. The OpenGL rendering results were basically a dead heat, separated by less than a single percentage point.

The Quake3 benchmark test was fun—both machines blast through this aging game’s demo mode amazingly quickly. At the end of the test, though, the Frankenmac bested the Mac Pro, scoring 756 frames per second to the Mac Pro’s 655 frames per second. I also ripped a portion of a DVD using HandBrake, and found the Mac Pro to be about 10 percent faster than the Frankenmac, which is the difference in the clock speed of the two machines’ processors.

Based on my unofficial results, it appears that my $980 home-built machine compares quite favorably with a much more expensive Mac Pro. We’ll have to wait for the official Speedmark benchmark, though, to see how it does on a broader and more-demanding set of tests.

Don’t try this at home

Given the above results, you may be thinking “Geez, I should go build one myself!” Before making such a decision, however, you need to consider the pitfalls of building your own Mac—and there are many. As I noted earlier, building a computer from parts isn’t necessarily a simple thing to do—you’ll need patience and the ability to follow poorly-translated instructions to get everything put together. To get the best pricing on the various parts, you’ve got to be willing to shop around. I wound up buying parts from four suppliers, and by doing so, saved close to $200. But finding the cheapest parts takes time and effort.

Once you’ve built your machine, the end product isn’t something that you’ll be able to get serviced at your local Mac store. It’s not even under one warranty—each part has its own warranty, which means you’re in for a bit of a service nightmare if you have problems. You’ll have to diagnose the cause, figure out which part(s) are involved, negotiate a return approval from each involved supplier, then ship those parts out for replacement.

Even if your machine is running fine, you may experience odd hardware issues—the Frankenmac, for instance, doesn’t fully shut down properly. OS X itself shuts down, and the screen goes blank, but the fans and hard drive continue to run, so I have to manually press the power button to truly turn the machine off.

There’s also a good chance that future system updates may cause problems with my Mac OS X installation—I can’t just blindly accept every Software Update that comes down the pipeline. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to make your machine run Mac OS X, you have to violate the OS X end-user license agreement—and perhaps copyright law, depending on how you get things done.

Beyond the functional, legal, and moral issues, there are aesthetic and design concerns. While the case I purchased is nice looking, it’s clearly not in the same league as the case on the Mac Pro. There are some rough edges in the back, the front door is attached with somewhat weak-feeling plastic hinges, and opening the case requires removing a couple of thumb screws and wiggling a side panel loose. If you open the case on a Mac Pro and on the Frankenmac, you can really see where some of the added cost of an Apple machine goes: Apple spends quite a bit of time and money working on the interior of its machines. Just compare the innards of the latest Mac Pro with the Frankenmac:

On the Mac Pro (that’s the one on the left, in case you’re blinded by the "beauty" of the Frankenmac), all the cables are hidden, the slide-in drive bays are covered with numbered doors, non-user-accessible parts are hidden behind aluminum covers, and the entire thing has the look of the engine bay in a Lexus, Mercedes, or other high-end automobile. The inside of the Frankenmac, on the other hand, bears a striking resemblance to the engine bay in my first car, a 1973 Chevy Vega. Loose wires everywhere, sharp edges just waiting to find an unsuspecting finger, and parts that I clearly shouldn’t be touching sitting right there in the open. Any day now, I expect to find a puddle of oil underneath the machine after a particularly intensive work session.

And while the inside of the Mac Pro is clearly the nicer looking of the two, it has function going for it as well as form. While both machines mount internal drives in slide-in bays, on the Mac Pro, the drive and bay then slide right into the SATA connector; on the Frankenmac, I have to dig into that bundle of cable and fish out a SATA connector, then route it down to the drive bay. There’s room for eight sticks of RAM on the Mac Pro (on two easy-to-use slide-out cards), but just four sticks on the Frankenmac (and I have to wedge my hands inside the case to install it, and risk damaging that huge heat sink on the CPU). Even just opening the case is nicer on the Mac Pro—no thumb screws, and no rough edges to be found once opened.

Wrapping it all up

Overall, I was satisfied with the Frankenmac. (Note the use of past tense: It will be converted into its official role as a Windows gaming system and a platform for testing cross-platform Mac OS X Hints once it returns from its battery of tests at Macworld Lab.) While it was fun to build the Frankenmac, the truth is that I’m not generally willing to live with the downsides of a build-your-own Mac over the real thing fresh from Apple’s factory.

When I buy a machine from Apple, I know that one warranty covers everything, that all the parts have been designed to work together, that system updates won’t leave me with a non-bootable system, and that as much thought went into the design of the interior of the machine as went into the exterior. Having visited the build-your-own side of the Mac world, I’ve decided I’m more than happy letting Cupertino build my Macs for me—Apple has shown it’s much better at it than I am. And who knows? Maybe one day that mid-range Mac minitower of my dreams will no longer be mythical.

[Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld.]

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments