Dell Mini 9 and OS X revisited

This guest article was submitted by Chris King.


Ever since Apple decided to make the switch to Intel processors from their long-used PowerPC architecture, users have been trying to get Mac OS X running on their own non-Apple computers. Whether they were desktops or notebooks, UMPCs or MIDs, the Hackintosh movement was born.

Many user forums quickly sprung up to help pool resources and keep track of which computers had compatible wireless cards, video cards, and other components. There were just so many variables that despite the group effort, it was difficult to get OS X working 100% on just any Intel-based machine. And even when it partially worked, it still required the use of hacked OS discs with community-supplied kext or driver files.

Then last year, the netbook craze took off and along came one device in particular that seemed to have it all and was perfect for OS X. But it wasn't an Apple. It was the Dell Mini 9.

Now I know that netbooks break the mostly followed "7-inch rule" here on Pocketables, but with "Can it run OS X?" being asked in reference to just about every UMPC and MID out there almost without fail, it's obvious that mobile computing enthusiasts have a soft spot for the non-Windows operating system. And with what is now the pure ease with which Mac OS X can be installed on the Dell Mini 9, users who want the OS on their UMPCs/MIDs are probably insanely green with envy.

Just how easy is it to get OS X on the Mini 9 and how well does it run? I'm glad you asked . . .

First, a brief look back for those of you who don't follow netbook news or keep up with the latest Hackintosh updates. Dell wasn't the first company to make a netbook, as ASUS had already taken that honor much earlier, but it was the first to introduce a netbook that was almost immediately accepted by the Hackintosh community. Part of the reason was its low cost, but the main reason was that the internals of the Mini 9 had many similarities to the MacBook. Not only were the processor and graphics chipset compatible, but so was the wireless card with a little extra work and tweaking of drivers. Same thing with the internal Bluetooth and the trackpad.

I was always intrigued by the Mini 9 because of its OS X abilities, but the original process was very confusing and not for the average user. Instead of using a retail OS X Leopard disc, for example, one had to find a patched OS disc from a number of online sites and then worry about having the right kext files. Besides the legal ramifications of using a pirated version of OS X, I took a pass on getting a Mini 9. From reading the user forums over at MyDellMini.com, it was obvious that the amount of work needed still might not lead to a perfect Mac system since many devices still hadn't been figured out. Want to close the lid and put the Mini to sleep? Too bad because the computer will lock-up. Need to use the webcam? Sorry, no drivers available. That SD card slot looks handy for loading pictures from a digital camera. Well, better use Windows XP if you want to use the SD slot. It was things like this that initially made this a project for the true die-hard fan.


Fast-forward about 6 to 8 months, however, and the process is much simpler. Thanks to guys like meklort, bmaltais, and mechdrew over at the MyDellMini forums, the procedure can now be done with a regular retail OS X disc. Along with that, you can use a program called DellEFI that basically does all the under-the-hood tinkering for you, such as installing the right drivers and patches to get everything working. Once the process is complete, you have a fully functional MacBook mini, right down to the ability to install any updates through the standard Software Update feature in Leopard. In fact, System Profiler lists the Mini as a first-gen MacBook Air!

I went ahead and purchased a Mini 9 about a month ago direct from Dell when they were running one of their advertised sales. Well, actually I bought a Vostro A90, the business-class version of the Mini 9. The Vostro A90 features an all-black color scheme, instead of the silver and black of the Mini 9, plus it includes internal Bluetooth standard. Mine came with a 16GB SSD preloaded with Ubuntu 8.04 and one stick of 1GB DDR2 RAM. I would like to say how well it worked in stock form, but I can't comment on out-of-box performance since I immediately replaced the SSD with one of the new high-speed Super Talent 32GB SSD modules and upgraded to a 2GB DDR2 RAM module. Even with the upgrades, my total price was well under $450, less than half of the current lowest-priced MacBook.

Once I had the machine internals upgraded, I set forth on my Hackintosh project. I already had a legal copy of OS X 10.5 plus an external DVD drive, so I was ready to go. Thanks to the excellent guides over at mechdrew's DellEFI site, I had a MacBook mini in about an hour (including the time it took to install all of the various Apple updates) and am currently sitting pretty at the current 10.5.7 version.

Everything works perfectly on my Vostro, including audio and webcam, WiFi and Bluetooth, along with external monitor spanning. My battery life is about 3.5 to 4 hours, while boot-up time is under 30 seconds. Shutdown is even faster, taking only about 6 to 8 seconds.


Performance is actually quite good, especially when you consider the Atom processor is weaker than anything in Apple's lineup right now. I can watch YouTube without any problems, along with Hulu and SlingPlayer. I even installed VMware Fusion so I can have virtual installs of Windows XP Pro and Ubuntu 9.04. I will admit that this is pushing the system a bit too far, since it can take a few minutes for the virtual systems to load, but they actually are quite usable once loaded. I only did this to try it anyway, and I didn't want to get into the headache of a dual or triple boot system. Since I plan on only using OS X on this machine, I wanted the ability to cleanly get rid of the other systems.


So there you have it, a quick update on the state of the Hackintosh. Pocketables doesn't usually cover netbooks, I know, but the fact is they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. They are cheap and they just plain work, plus they are easily available in many stores in most countries (a definite disadvantage of UMPCs and MIDs, which are basically stocked at no brick-and-mortar stores). I actually wish there was a way to get the Z-series Atom devices working with OS X, as I'd love to have it on my Fujitsu U820, but so far there hasn't been much progress there.

An even better solution would be for Apple to just give us what we want: the small subnotebook that they have lacked since their PowerBook Duo series many moons ago. The market is there, as evidenced by the huge sales numbers that netbooks are enjoying and the continued growth of the Hackintosh community. But for now, I am happy with my Dell MacBook mini, which I also used to compose this article.

Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years. Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.

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Pocketables is a US-based online tech magazine that brings news, insights, opinions, and comprehensive reviews on various mobile computing devices, portable technology, and related topics to a global audience. We focus on devices that fit into pockets of all sizes, from jeans and jackets to backpacks and purses. The gadget experts that comprise our staff produce high quality articles and original features colored with real-life use of products over weeks and months, not first-impression opinions formed within hours or days.

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