Frankenmac! What's in a Mac clone?

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.]

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