Theoretically, Apple’s Mac OS X can be installed on nearly any machine running an Intel processor, and even AMD-based machines–including netbooks, laptops and desktops. But the process of installing OS X on these devices gets complicated quickly, with the least difficult involving detailed changes to relatively obscure system settings.
But it can be a rewarding project for more advanced users. While the MacBook Air is small, Apple doesn’t offer anything in a true netbook form factor or price point; and a home-built desktop running OS X can be nearly as powerful and much cheaper than Apple’s heavy iron. “My current Hackintosh build has been completely stable, and everything works just as it should,” says Lifehacker editor Adam Pash of his homebrew Hackintosh desktop. Costing less than half what a comparable Apple machine retails for, it runs the latest version of the operating system, Snow Leopard. And the user experience is “virtually indistinguishable” from OS X running on an Apple machine–he even has the benchmarks to prove it.
Yet its a netbook running OS X that really captures the geek imagination: smaller than the smallest Apple computer, cheaper, and with better battery life thanks to the efficient (if underpowered) Intel Atom processor. The Dell Mini 9 is generally considered the best machine from which to create a “Hackbook,” and BoingBoing Gadgets assembled a handy list of which hardware features are supported by OS X on a variety of netbooks.
However, even after the difficult installation, the long-term stability can be a problem, possibly leaving it in the realm of a neat trick to impress the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak or befuddle support techs, but not ultimately practical. “It was a nice project for a weekend,” said BoingBoing Gadgets editor Joel Johnson of his experiences with OS X on a Mini 9. “But after paying $500 or so to get the upgraded RAM and SSD and all that noise, part of me still wondered if I’d have been better off springing for a used MBP or a little more for an Air.” Users who’ve relied on Hackbooks long-term have also found that ongoing maintenance and hardware support issues prove problematic.
Still ready to take the plunge?
The most compatible desktop and laptop systems are based on the Intel Core 2 chips–single, duo or quad. These are called “vanilla” systems in the Hackintosh community. However, it is possible to run OS X on other Intel chips and on chips from AMD. For netbooks, the Mini 9 mentioned earlier and the even cheaper MSI Wind seem popular choices, but plenty others will work with some effort. Hardware guides from InsanelyMac and PCWiz can help you check off which bits will, and won’t, work on a given machine.
Once you have a likely candidate, you’ll need to download some software. And this is where things start to get really tricky–in the legal sense. Downloading a modified copy of Mac OS X runs afoul of intellectual property laws like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and Apple’s end-user license agreement. Neither of which seem to be stopping anyone, but it would be irresponsible not to mention it here. The latest stable build of Leopard from PCWiz is 10.5.6, which can also be downloaded using a BitTorrent client. You’ll also need a copy of PC EFI, bootloaders which mimic the boot hardware in Apple machines.
For complete guides, check out Pash’s installation of Snow Leopard 10.6 onto a custom PC, with more guides to choose from, including hardware-specific installation instructions, from Hackintosh.com, iHackintosh and the OSx86 Project wiki. Other sites with guides and forums for community support include Hackintosh.org.
If you have an extra machine (or $300-800) laying around and some free time, and you like to get under the hood of your computer, it certainly can be a fun project. But why not spend the time customizing your netbook’s Linux-based operating system or installing PureDyne on a hand-me down PC desktop or laptop to turn your machine into a multimedia dream without the legal liability?