Hackintosh netbook, anyone?

Some people are installing Mac OS X on netbooks from Dell and other manufacturers

It seems unlikely that Apple will enter the netbook market, though Mac OS netbook rumors continue to circulate. Apple COO Tim Cook dissed the hot product category and suggested those wanting a Mac netbook should just buy an iPhone or iPod Touch instead.

But guess what? Some people aren't waiting for Apple to make a move. They're defying Apple and installing Mac OS X on netbooks from Dell and other manufacturers. (Though Apple computer owners can legitimately install Windows on their Macs, the Mac OS X is only licensed to run on Apple computers.)

Hackintosh Recipes on the Web

Over the past few months, the so-called hackintosh netbook has become a hot topic. Boing Boing published a chart last December, showing which netbooks were likely to be the most compatible with Mac OS X Leopard, including the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 (the most compatible of the netbooks listed), the MSI Wind U100, the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, and the HP Mini 1000.

In February, Gizmodo published a step-by-step guide to installing Mac OS X Leopard on a Dell Mini 9. And PC World sibling publication InfoWorld recently added some spice to Gizmodo's recipe by explaining how to turn a Mini 9 into a Mac "cloudbook," which accesses files from the Internet, rather than from internal storage.

Admittedly, a Mac OS netbook that weighs 2.28 pounds (which is the Mini 9's weight) and that's ultra compact (the Mini 9 measures 1.07 by 9.13 by 6.77 inches) is hugely compelling. And both the Gizmodo and InfoWorld writers raved about how nicely Mac OS X plays with the Mini 9. Wrote William Hurley in InfoWorld, after converting a Mini 9 into a Mac netbook: "I had a sweet little machine that I'm happier with than any computer I've ever owned."

But before you go down that path, allow me to feed you a little food for thought.

No-Guarantees Hack Could Cost You Big

1. The hack is complicated and may not work. If you read through Gizmodo's steps, you'll see that despite the careful instructions, the process isn't going to be a picnic in Paris.

For instance, here's step four: "At this point, the OS X installer will either load or it won't." If it doesn't, Gizmodo offers a detailed backup plan--which adds seven additional steps to the process. Bottom line: If step number four is a no-go, you've got a total of 18 steps to slog through to make your Mac netbook. A few more steps and you'd be a contestant on Dancing With the Stars.

2. You're breaking all sorts of rules. As InfoWorld's Hurley put it: "Everything I've done to create my cloudbook violates the Mac OS X EULA (end user license agreement), trashes your Dell warranty, and in general will probably lead to other trouble." Enough said.

3. It ain't cheap. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that points one and two haven't scared you off. You want to do this thing, and conscientious person that you are, you're not going to do it with pirated software. Fine--so let's do the math, just for kicks.

A Dell Mini 9 with the required specs (including a 16GB solid-state drive) for converting into a hackintosh netbook will set you back at least US$279. That's if you purchase a refurbished Windows XP netbook from Dell's online outlet. (At the time I checked outlet prices, there were no Linux units with a 16GB or higher SSD available. Dell's inventory changes practically by the minute, so check it often if you're looking for a good deal.) By comparison, the price of a new Mini 9 with a 16GB SSD and Windows XP preinstalled was recently $349.

I found full retail versions of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard for sale on eBay and through Amazon.com sellers for about $80 and up. Purchased elsewhere, the Mac OS X goes for $100 or more.

You'll most likely need an external DVD drive, from which to install the Mac OS. (Like other netbooks, the Mini 9 lacks an optical drive.) I found external drives online for about $50 and up. If Gizmodo's step number four doesn't work for you, you'll also need an 8GB or larger USB thumb drive, to serve as your boot drive. That will set you back another $15 at least.

Finally, to get the full Mac experience, you'll want a copy of Apple's iLife 09 package, which includes iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, and other cool creativity apps. I've seen new, sealed copies on eBay for as little as $50. (Apple sells it for $79.)

Your total? At least $474.

The Wrap Up

The allure of converting a sweet little Dell Mini 9 into a micro MacBook is undeniably huge. But if you went with the least expensive options I've outlined, you'd have spent almost $500 on your Mac netbook, without any guarantees it will work properly. In this economy--in any economy--that doesn't seem like money well spent.

Besides, I wouldn't be shocked to see Apple launch some version of a netbook--one that's infinitely cooler than its competitors--sometime this year. In fact, I'll leave you with this tantalizing report about a possible tablet-style iPod for Verizon.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Turn Your XP Netbook Into an E-Book Reader: If the Mac hack seems too scary and costly, you can turn your netbook into an e-book reader--for free. You can even get free reading materials: Go to Project Gutenberg to download classics as unprotected PDF, HTML, and plain text files, for reading on your netbook. Many netbooks allow you to switch the screen's orientation from horizontal to vertical, which provides an easier reading experience. Get the complete story in "57 Amazing Things You Didn't Know Your Tech Could Do!"

Samsung N110's Crazy-Long Battery Life: The new Samsung N110 netbook ran for 8 hours, 23 minutes in our tests, with its own lightweight battery. That's pretty cool, considering that you often need a heavy battery to squeeze that much juice out of a netbook. The N110 ($470) lands at number two on our Top 10 Netbooks chart, just below the Asus Eee PC 1000HE ($400), which lasted 7 hours, 9 minutes in our tests.

New Lost-Cost Business Notebooks from HP: Hewlett-Packard's new ProBook S-series combines business productivity with consumer features such as high-def graphics and Blu-ray Disc drives. HP is offering two OS flavors: Windows Vista with available XP downgrade or a version of Linux from Novell. The ProBooks start at $529.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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James A. Martin

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