Another day, another HackBook

There’s an old saying, widely attributed to Will Rogers, that describes three types of people: “The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” In matters of technology, I'm a proud member of the third group. As a perfect example, I’m writing this article from the smallest Mac OS X laptop I’ve ever used: It weighs just under 2.4 pounds, and is only 9 inches wide, 6.7 inches deep, and 1.3 inches thick.

That’s right, I bought a netbook and installed Mac OS X on it. Even though Peter Cohen already spent some time with an Asus Eee PC. Even though Jason Snell already installed Leopard on an MSI Wind. I just needed to try out the whole “Hackintosh” thing for myself (though since it’s a laptop we’re talking about, I prefer the term HackBook). Just don't tell Apple.

Hardware bargain

My HackBook is a Dell Vostro A90, the “business” version of Dell’s now-discontinued Mini 9. It has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, an 8.9-inch LCD screen, 802.11g WiFi, 100Base-T Ethernet, a 0.3MP Webcam with an LED light, three USB 2.0 ports, Bluetooth, VGA video output, and an SD memory-card reader. I chose this model for two reasons: First, the Mini 9/Vostro A90 is the most OS X-compatible netbook on the market—once you get Mac OS X installed, most things just work. Second, and just as important, was the price: During one of Dell’s many sales, I purchased the A90, which came with 1GB RAM and an 8GB SSD, for just $199—a price so low I couldn’t resist.

The HackBook gets an upgrade

Unfortunately, 8GB of storage was utterly insufficient. Even with the stock OS, Ubuntu, I had little room for media or additional apps. So I upgraded the A90’s SSD to a RunCore Pro 64GB model for $220 (yes, the drive cost more than the computer itself). Although less-expensive options are available—for example, Crucial’s 64GB SSD for $170—the RunCore has a reputation for considerably better performance.

As an aside, I went with 64GB because, having owned a MacBook Air with an 80GB hard drive, I was concerned that a 32GB SSD wouldn’t be spacious enough. But now that I've used the HackBook for a while, I’ve realized that, due to screen and performance limitations, I don’t use the A90 for many of the storage-hungry tasks I'd use a "real" laptop for, so a 32GB drive may have been adequate. (Crucial charges only $80 for a 32GB SSD, and a RunCore Pro version is just $120, so I could have saved quite a bit of money. Lesson learned.) On the other hand, I had planned to upgrade the A90 to 2GB of RAM, a $28 expense, but at least I was smart enough to wait on that upgrade—1GB has turned out to be enough for most of the things I use the HackBook for.

I'm not going to get into the process of installing Mac OS X on the A90. Suffice it to say that the Dell Mini community has really embraced OS X, and the procedure seems to get easier every month.

The experience

So how well does it work? It's important to keep in mind the system's limitations: a relatively slow processor and an underclocked graphics chip, a tiny 1024- by 600-pixel screen, a cramped keyboard, no optical drive, and a horrible, horrible trackpad. It's a discouraging list of drawbacks, but apart from the trackpad, you know about these limitations going in: you buy a netbook like this, regardless of the OS, because you're willing to trade performance to get an inexpensive, 2.4-pound laptop with a tiny footprint.

In that context, the computer performs better than I expected, and I was surprised to find that most standard features work under OS X: The computer successfully connects to my wireless network, the Webcam works with iChat, I can use Bluetooth input devices, and the keyboard's volume, brightness, and sleep keys function normally. I've even updated the OS and various Apple apps several times using Software Update.

On the other hand, power management is a mixed bag. Specifically, the A90 running Mac OS X doesn’t always go into sleep mode after a period of inactivity; I have to remember to close the lid to put the laptop to sleep when I’m not using it. And have I mentioned that the trackpad is horrible?

A Vostro A90 HackBook, complete with Apple sticker, sits atop a MacBook

I'm able to use most of my favorite Mac programs on the HackBook, although some apps, such as GarageBand, won’t launch because the laptop’s screen is too small (not that you’d ever want to run GarageBand on the A90). I didn’t test Microsoft Office; in fact, I didn’t even install it, knowing how much memory Office apps use. Apple’s iWork, on the other hand, works just fine. In other words, when I use the HackBook as a netbook—for Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, and other basic tasks—it works well. I've been especially impressed by the performance of Safari 4.

Still, I have had to adjust my workflow for the A90, in part due to the computer’s small screen—at only 600 pixels from top to bottom, you’re limited in terms of how much of each document or Web page you can view. So for the first time in my OS X-using life, I’ve got the Dock on the side of the screen; similarly, this is the first computer on which I’ve set the Dock to auto-hide. I also find myself using Readability on many Web sites to make them more readable on the tiny screen.

But the bigger hitch has been adjusting to the A90’s keyboard and trackpad. To fit the netbook’s tiny footprint, the keyboard has had to shrink quite a bit. Dell claims it's “89% the size of a standard keyboard,” but that missing 11 percent feels like 25 or 30. Even more of an obstacle than the keyboard's size is the key layout, which, in the interest of saving space, moves a number of frequently used keys to different locations. For example, the apostrophe/quotation-mark key has been moved from the middle row down to the bottom row, and the tilde key, normally beneath the escape key, is an Fn-key-modified function of the W key. The result is a keyboard that can be frustrating to use, especially if you frequently switch between it and a full-size model with a standard layout.

Then, of course, there's the trackpad. It's too small, its surface is too rough, and, most important, it doesn't track very well. To make matters worse, the buttons—left-click and right-click—are recessed too far into the surrounding case, making them difficult to press. I find myself packing my favorite portable mouse whenever I go somewhere with the HackBook.

This fun is not for everyone

Despite those beefs, as a confessed gadget geek I've enjoyed the A90. The small size makes it at times more convenient to bring along than my MacBook; the battery generally lasts over 3 hours; and I’ve found it to be a handy machine for keeping in the family room for checking email and browsing the Web. And by illicitly installing Mac OS X on the Vostro A90, I’ve overcome what is, in my opinion, the biggest drawback of most netbooks: the operating system.

On the other hand, a tiny laptop like this isn’t for everyone. In fact, for many people, a netbook—even one running Mac OS X—is an exercise in frustration. It's just not what most people expect from a "laptop." (This is why I don’t see Apple ever making a netbook in the current sense of the word. Indeed, Apple continues to denigrate the idea of a small, low-cost Mac laptop, specifically citing small screens, cramped keyboards, and poor performance. We’re more likely to see a device closer to an oversized iPod touch.)

The HackBook has also rekindled my affinity for the MacBook Air. I bought the first model and really liked it. I sold that model late last year with the intention of upgrading to its improved successor, but for various reasons (mostly relating to me exhausting my yearly tech budget), I ended up with the $999 white MacBook. It's a great machine, but it's considerably bulkier and heavier than the Air. The HackBook, on the other hand, is tiny and light, but it's far from a serious computer. The Air may be missing a few ports (compared to both machines), but for a 3-pound computer, it gets the important stuff—the screen, the keyboard, and performance—right. I'm thinking of selling both the HackBook and my MacBook and Goldilocks-ing it back to the Air, especially now that it's a better computer than before for a lot less money.

As for "building" a HackBook, it's of course a risk. If I ever have problems with the computer, I can't turn to Dell or Apple. And it's possible—probable?—that a future update to Mac OS X will render my HackBook unbootable, or at least less functional. But it's at least been a fun experiment.

Related:
Shop Tech Products at Amazon