Mac Clonemaker Releases Do-It-Yourself Hackintosh Kit

Psystar, the Mac cloning company that's been locked in legal battle with Apple for more than a year, is now selling software that anyone can use to install OS X on stock Intel-based PC hardware. A review of the instructions and FAQs show why doing so would be a bad business decision.

Jake Widman, Contributor

October 23, 2009

5 Min Read

Psystar, the Mac cloning company that's been locked in legal battle with Apple for more than a year, is now selling software that anyone can use to install OS X on stock Intel-based PC hardware. A review of the instructions and FAQs show why doing so would be a bad business decision.Psystar started advertising their own PCs with OS X preinstalled in April 2008, and Apple filed suit against them in July of that year. The lawsuit was based on OS X's license provision forbidding its installation on non-Apple-branded hardware. In November, Apple upped the ante with a suit alleging that Psystar infringed an Apple ocpyright by bypassing a "technological protection measure" designed to prevent unauthorized installation. Since then Psystar has filed for bankruptcy protection and then changed its mind, but the original lawsuits continue -- and Psystar continues to sell computers with OS X installed.

Now Psystar has released Rebel EFI software, which "allows for the easy installation of multiple operating systems on a single system," according to the company. Among those multiple operating systems is, of course, OS X. This means a customer could buy their own PC, configured how they like, and enable it to run Macintosh applications and services. A business that chose to do so, however, would be providing an excellent example of how to be "penny wise and pound foolish" -- in other words, saving a little money in the short run but probably spending more down the line.

The primary selling point of the Macintosh has always been that it "just works." You may pay a little more (I won't reopen the argument here about how much more, if any), but Mac owners know it's worth it in saved time, reduced support costs, and fewer headaches over all.

For one thing, if you want a Mac and buy one from Apple, it comes with the hard disk properly formatted and with OS X and iLife preinstalled. Let's look at the instructions for installing OS X with Rebel EFI: you need to download the Psystar software, burn it to a CD, boot the computer from that CD, run the software, insert the OS X install CD, format and partition the drive, install OS X, reboot from the Rebel EFI CD, and authenticate. Not difficult, but not "free" either, assuming you value your time.

Then you get to the warnings: "If when booting OS X you become stuck at a blue/grey/white screen, it may be due to an issue with your video card." That's the extent of the troubleshooting advice. Psystar claims that Rebel EFI is compatible with a long list of NVidia video cards, so be sure you've bought or built a PC with one of those in it.

Next, there's a notice that your computer may hang at a screen with a "no smoking" sign (!) when you try to boot OS X. This indicates a BIOS setting problem, but all you need to do is boot your computer into the BIOS settings screen (you know how to do that, right?) and fix the settings. Finally, there's a warning that you may get a message that the OS X installation failed, but don't worry: it might be installed correctly anyway. I don't know about you, but these issues strike me as exactly the sorts of things Mac owners buy Macs to avoid.

What about just buying an OS X-equipped computer right from Psystar? Let's compare the entry-level Mac, the mini, with the low-end Psystar, the OpenDuo with Mac OS X. I know Apple just bumped the specs on the minis and some would argue that a comparison right now would unfairly favor the Mac, so I'll use the specs of the previous models, which were priced the same.

For $599, the OpenDuo comes with a 2.5GHz Dual Core chip, 2 GB of DDR2 memory, and a 500GB hard drive. The $799 Mac mini -- previous generation, remember -- came with a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo chip, clocked slower but a more advanced design than the OpenDuo. It only had a 320GB hard disk; bumping the new model from 320 to 500 GB costs $100, so let's put the mini at $899. But there are a few features the mini has that the OpenDuo doesn't; just adding wireless adds $99, and adding Firewire capability adds another $79. So now we have the choice between a $777 OpenDuo and an $899 Mac mini -- a $120 premium to never have to worry about BIOS settings or unsupported graphics cards.

Speaking of support: Apple's customer satisfaction and support ratings consistently land near the top, if not at the top, of all computer manufacturers. If you're having trouble with that mini we just looked at, you can take it into any Apple store's Genius Bar to get help. You won't be able to get that kind of personal attention with an OpenDuo. Psystar's FAQ does say that "If a component of a product is defective then Psystar will exchange defective components for up to 1 year," but it's not clear whose responsibility it is to figure out which component is defective or how to replace it.

Psystar's efforts may yet lead to changes in Apple's licensing agreement as the result of the various court cases. And I certainly wouldn't dissuade anyone from exploring hackintoshes as a hobby, out of curiosity, or if they just want the experience of Windows-style headaches on a Mac. But while do-it-yourself Macs might appeal to a business's natural thrifty impulses, the reason Macs are a good choice for SMBs is that they're less of a drain on IT resources than other kinds of PCs. Think carefully before throwing that advantage away.

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