Opening up Psystar’s Open Computer

Because we think it’s informative to see how OS X performs on a computer that isn’t a Mac, Macworld ordered a Psystar Open Computer about a week or so ago. The machine, which Psystar touts as a low-cost alternative to Apple’s hardware, has arrived in our lab, where we plan to put it to the test, just like the home-made Mac built by our own Rob Griffiths.

The system we bought from Psystar features a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of 667MHz RAM, and a 250GB Hard Drive (specifically, a Hitachi Deskstar in our machine). Though the base model includes Intel’s integrated graphics, we splurged and purchased an Nvidia GeForce 8600GT for $110 so that we could test the Open Computer with both cards.

I ordered our Open Computer directly from the Psystar Web site, since that was the only way to place an order at the time. (Psystar now offers sales over the phone.) Originally, I placed an order for an Open Computer without OS X installed—Psystar charges $155 to install the operating system, and I figured we could save a few bucks on our order with a little do-it-yourself know-how. But a few days after ordering, I called Psystar looking for a status update. A live human being answered the phone—somewhat surprising to me, given the stories that had appeared about the company immediately after it announced plans to sell a Mac clone—and put me on hold to look up the order. Moments later, another Psystar employee came on the line and strongly suggested that I pay to have OS X pre-installed. He explained that, unlike the Windows and Linux, installing OS X is a very difficult and complicated process and that the company does not provide installation instructions for OSX. I reluctantly pulled out the credit card, and the system shipped out to us a few days later. The system cost us $399.99, plus $50 for a FireWire card. Add in the $110 graphics card and the $155 OS installation, and the machine cost $714.99; shipping brought the price to $751.47.

As I mentioned above, we’re currently testing the Open Computer to see how it performs compared to an honest-to-goodness Mac. But here are some first impressions gleaned from receiving and setting up the machine…

The Psystar Open Computer, resting comfortably in our Lab
If Psystar is all about giving you the Mac OS X experience at a more affordable price, it was obvious right away that product packaging is one area where the company is looking to trim costs. When the box arrived, we found it stuffed with white foam packing peanuts, making the unpacking process a big mess—I hate those things. The Open Computer was just sitting in there with the packing peanuts, with nothing covering it. Some of the doors on the front of the case that cover the optical drive and the USB ports were a ajar with little pieces of the packing peanuts lodged in there. After we cleared out the offending bits, the doors closed properly and the computer appeared to be no worse for wear.

We had a bit of scare, however, when we tried to start up the computer. As soon as I hit the power button it sounded like I’d turned on the garbage disposal. I quickly unplugged the power cable and opened the case. It turns out that one of the power cables was getting caught in the fan. I rerouted the cable and restarted. The crunching sound of the cable hitting the fan was gone, but the fan was still pretty darn loud. You won’t want this computer sitting on your desk.

After using Rob’s home-made Frankenmac for a few days last week, I was prepared for all of those elegant PC BIOS and bootup screens. Unlike Rob’s machine though, there were no other visible partitions or operating systems stored on the hard drive. Once the Open Computer was all booted up, I was able to plug in a FireWire drive and have it be recognized. The system asked if I wanted to use the external drive as a Time Machine backup drive, and I clicked Yes. And though the icon of the drive changed to reflect its new status as Time Machine volume, the backup would immediately fail each time it attempted to run.

The Psystar site features a page with lots of available software update downloads, including one for fixing Time Machine errors. Psystar turns off the Mac OS’s automatic System Update feature, so you need to download and install updates manually. One might think that the company would send you a machine that’s as up-to-date as possible, but that’s not the case. I called Psystar tech support and learned that the company will offer a download in the next couple weeks that will enable Psystar users to take advantage of Apple’s Software Update utility.

Macworld Lab uses Migration Assistant to transfer our Speedmark user files and folders to our test system from a clean system booted into FireWire Target Disk Mode, and that process worked just fine with the Open Computer. We found, however, that we were unable to boot the Open Computer into FireWire Target disk mode. The tech support person didn’t think that Psystar offered that feature. Other startup options, like SafeBoot, zapping of PRAM, and startup drive selection via the Option key are also not available.

I tried cloning the internal drive to an external FireWire drive using Carbon Copy Cloner. It cloned successfully, but I was unable to boot from it, even though a message said the volume would be bootable. It sounds like a couple of folks in the Psystar forums were able to find a way to do it, but they weren’t giving out specific instructions. We’ll continue to look into that.

That said, I’ve been impressed by how compatible the Psystar is with applications and peripherals—many of the OS X features work as they would on a legitimate Mac. Look for Speedmark results for our Open Computer, as well as other interesting tidbits we come across, in the coming days.

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