Features

Dell Mini 9 and OS X revisited

This guest article was submitted by Chris King.

Macbookmini

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.

Hackintosh_4

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.

Hackintosh_1

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.

Hackintosh_2

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.

Pocketables does not accept targeted advertising, phony guest posts, paid reviews, etc. Help us keep this way with support on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Guest Contributor

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.

Avatar of Guest Contributor

22 thoughts on “Dell Mini 9 and OS X revisited

  • I also have a Dell Mini 9 that I have Hackintoshed, and I LOVE it. I got it back in April to replace my original Eee PC 701, which just wasn’t what I wanted. I was swayed when it first came out, not knowing that a million other netbooks were just around the corner! I wanted something with more horsepower, a better screen, better battery & keyboard…oh, and the ability to run OS X. :) Needless the say the Mini 9 was perfect. I sold the Eee PC and ordered the Mini almost immediately.

    Mine runs superbly–even components of CS3, like Flash & Photoshop, have no trouble running. I think that the snappy performance is largely due in part to the SSD drive, but I could be wrong. Maybe the Atom just is that good, albeit underpowered.

    I take mine everywhere with me, along with a few accessories and a Tekkeon MyPower All, which provides me with a couple of extra hours of battery life. I wish the Mini 9 hadn’t been discontinued so we could get a 6 cell battery like the Mini 10 has!

    Until Apple comes along with a decently priced netbook, I will stick with my MacBook Mini 9. My experience with the Hackintosh has shown me that while I am a huge fangirl for Apple hardware, I love the OS even more. Being able to use my favorite Mac programs on the go without having to make sacrifices or substitutions (like I did in Linux or Windows) is great.

    Reply
  • Just acquired a MSI Wind Hackintosh off of eBay for $220, running 10.5.6.

    So far, an absolute solid machine, reminding me of the days when I owned a 12″ Powerbook G4 (Little Al). It will be my main unit when I travel in a couple of weeks.

    I truly believe Apple is missing out on a market here. I know they don’t want to have “cheap” hardware, but how about selling a software “kit” to run OS X on various units?

    Reply
  • Actually they seemed to have recently cracked the problem of OS X on a Z series (or more specifically the GMA500 video) with OS X running on the Vaio P series. I am now hoping to have a stab on my SC3 – I am sure thi will require a painful wifi card swap. Search the Insanelymac forums for details.

    Reply
  • yes, it is possible to install OSX on the GMA500 though, although it is a very painful process. BUT what is even worse is that there is no quartz extreme and something else i just can’t remember at the moment, which makes just about anything more grueling than very basic web browsing practically impossible. More than likely not even video’s will play. It’s like running on xp with no video driver installed, it sucks and can’t do a thing. SO unless you only want to have a computer with cell phone like capabilities due to lack of driver support…lol by all means install it on the z-series GMA500.

    Reply
  • Avatar of yamete888

    Got an Inspiron 910 “hackintoshed” with the DellEFI procedure…mine is still running 10.5.6…nice device, since getting a true-blue Mac laptop is beyond my budget, the Dell hackintosh made sense in this time and age, when Windows, and UNIX is not good enough anymore if I wants to blend into the workforce…since many places are also Mac-friendly…
    W
    I wonder which one is “better” to run just plain WinXP Home on the “hackintoshed” Dell Mini 9, Vmware Fusion, or Sun’s Virtual Box? thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Jess, did you upgrade the stock SSD on yours? It makes a huge difference in performance, and the prices are much more reasonable now.

    I am also amazed at how well the Atom runs OS X, it is much better than I expected.

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    If the GMA500 issues ever get ironed out, I would love to give this a try on my U820. Right now, it is way too much work to have it only maybe work halfway.

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    I agree, Apple definitely is missing out on a huge market. And I’m not even talking about the price, I’m talking about the size and features.

    I have multiple Mac notebooks, but I still find myself grabbing the Vostro…

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    The emulated OS’s do run much slower than if you just did a dual-boot setup with XP and OS X. But as little as I plan on using XP on the Dell, Fusion will be just fine, and then I am not locked in to setting 20-30GB aside for XP.

    Remember, the virtual system adjust disk space dynamically, so this is sometimes a better solution for a smaller SSD drive.

    BTW – I also installed VirtualBox, and it ran like a champ, almost as good as Fusion. Can’t beat the price of VB (free!)

    Reply
  • You said: “.. 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.”

    Two questions:

    1) You used a “half mini PCIe” drive. Would a regular “mini PCIe” drive have fit? How about a “double-wide half mini PCIe” (e.g. Super Talent 128GB)?

    2) The RAM in the Mini-9 appears to be PC2-4200 DDR2-533 200pin SDRAM SODIMM, e.g. http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231146 .. is that correct?

    Reply
  • Dear Everyone

    I am typing this from a real Macbook Air bought a week ago. For about 2 months I used a Mini 9 as my main device and for about 2 months before that I used it as a travel backup. Most of the above is true. I was also amazed by the performance. And I even took a hit by not upgrading the SSD, just using an external USB drive (16GB) to run the OS. For me, sleep never worked I am planning to sell my Mini 9 now (promised to the wife) but I am looking at buying another in the foreseeable future to have a backup machine. (And this time do it right with bluetooth, webcam, SSD upgrade and possibly even a 3G built in. All the things my current mini does not have.)

    But lets not get carried away with the details. The hackintosh is not a mac. I had the same install issues (and had to install from a USB drive vs the actual CD) as described on the Gizmodo how to.

    I had two complete fatal crashes that required me to completely reinstall. One in about 6 boots froze (quick fix with reboot). It is entirely possible that these issues were unique to the external USB. I tried to get help on the forums but my questions appeared to be real curve balls and received no responses.

    But there was one issue that was not unique to my cheapo setup. It was the upgrade from 10.5.6 to 10.5.7. It disintegrated the system. The forum was helpful in identifying and solving the problem, and eventually it was solved but when I see that the mini 9 Hackintosh is 100% updatable using the apple system update, I do wonder if I am seeing intentional false advertising or someone who has never updated. (Probably the latter in the case of the author and some of the responders I am sure.)

    Sure, you can update. Make sure you are pray while you are doing it because god only knows if you’ll have a working system afterwards. Sure, if you crash it, help will be on the way assuming you can get to the Internet somehow, with something, and assuming you can wait while the gurus (who we are actually really grateful to for making it even possible for general users like myself) figure it out.

    The bottom line is that I need my computer for work. And it was not the stable, primary computer solution I was hoping it would be. It is an awesome second machine. It will be my backup as well. But…

    Reply
  • Yes Apple is loosing on this Netbook with Mac OS X. I also have Leopard and Windows 7 on my MSI Wind with a 500GB hard drive and 2GB RAM. I use this when I need to run Mac software and Windows software on the road. This way I just leave my Macbook at home, unless if I will be doing some serious power hungry apps then I bring my Macbook. But for the most part the MSI can do the job.

    Reply
  • Well the main thing is the GMA500 driver has gone from “impossible” to at least a (basically) functioning work in progress. I am sure it will improve as they figure out the details with the Linux driver as well. The Linux driver also has no 3D or decent acceleration but with all the new and cool GMA500 devices I am sure it will get sorted.

    Reply
  • Avatar of some dude

    Hulu and Slingplayer are usable? Really? I’ve found that any Flash-based video playback is completely unwatchable and basically locks up the system on my hackintoshed HP Mini 1000 with 2GB RAM and 64gb RunCore SSD. The reason for this is the fact that Flash has no optimization for offloading video processing to the graphics chip, so all decoding happens on the weak Atom processor. I don’t think the specs are any different from the Mini 9, so wtf? The Mini 1000 does have a 1.8″ SSD, not 2.5″. Could that be it? The RunCore is quite fast, though. I don’t get it.

    Reply
  • I did this yesterday using a Runcore 64GB SSD, allowing me to install from my MacBook Pro (the Runcore has a USB port, allowing it to be used as an external drive on a Mac) installing from a retail Leopard DVD. I am using a 1 month old A90 Vostro with 2GB RAM, formerly running Ubuntu 9.04.

    I was fairly satisfied with Ubuntu except for not being able to sync with my iPhone, a major hassle when traveling. It’s not as slick as Leopard, but mostly gets the job done. That said, I will probably switch to an unreasonably priced Apple Netbook when possible, given the likely greater convenience.

    Funny about breaking the 7″ rule—I ignored the Dell Mini 9 when it came out for precisely that reason. I got a 7″ Raon Digital Everun Note. It’s a perfect form factor and power, but was too unreliable. I finally concluded that that much power in a 7″ package was not yet ready for prime time and relaxed my size constraint—for the time being!

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Cameron –

    1) The Dell’s need to use the half mini PCI module, the regular length models do not fit, like the ones that are used in the ASUS Eee. The double-wide half mini SSD most definitely works, as long as your Dell *does not* have the built-in WWAN broadband card, since the SSD module fills up this empty space.

    2) The 1GB stock module that was in my machine was actually a PC2-6400 DDR2-800, so I went ahead and replaced it with the same speed in a 2GB size. Here is the one I used: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820609422

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Levi –

    I also have a MacBook Air 1.8/128SSD, along with a MacBook Pro 17″, and that is exactly what prompted me to write the article. I know exactly what to expect from a fully functional system, and I was just amazed at how easy it was to get the Vostro up and running.

    Now granted, I used an external DVD and my original 10.5 Leopard disc, so that made it much easier. From there, I followed the excellent DellEFI guide step-by-step. I used the 10.5.7 Combo updater, and then ran Software Update when I was done. I have installed about 12 updates so far, with no problems. Sleep did not work for me at first, either. I found a solution in the forums, and now it works the way it should.

    I realize I may run into some snags down the road with future updates, but is this really any different than a real Mac? Check out a Mac support forum after Apple releases some system updates or AirPort updates, and you’ll find a bunch of people with broken systems. It always happens, it is hard to predict how every configuration will react, and that is how the Hackintosh is.

    All I can say is, right now, this system just works the way it should, and it didn’t take me any more time to setup than it would have if I had installed some other OS. And my real Macs are powered off while I am typing this :-)

    Reply
  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Yes, Hulu and SlingPlayer are most definitely useable. Now, Hulu has a slight stutter, but it is very watchable. It does work better in the browser than in their standalone app, but I still can’t wait for Adobe to optimize Flash. As for SlingPlayer, it is not Flash-based so it runs great on pretty much any system, even in fullscreen mode.

    Yes, the specs on my Dell are the same, so i don’t know why your HP locks up. The Dell doesn’t use a 2.5″ SSD, it uses a half-miniPCI module. Are you running OS X?

    Reply
  • I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Margaret

    http://bluetoothspeakerphone.net

    Reply
  • Could you go into a little more detail on the external monitor spanning? I have a Vostro A90/1G Ram/16G SSD running 10.5.7. The external monitor does not work at all — plugging a monitor in causes the Vostro display to completely flake out. I’ve used DellEFI 1.2a5. When I look at the monitor profile for the display type “Acer-Dell-Display” with the “Profile First Aid” utility, it says “Tag ‘desc’: Description tag has a bad Unicode string.”. It cannot be repaired because the file is locked.

    When I use the “Displays” pane of “System Preferences”, there is no “Arrangement” tab at all. I can only pick from available resolutions or select a color profile.

    Reply
  • so glad your follow up is positive. I’m currently running Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the Dell Mini 9 I got yesterday, but plan to put SL on it in a week. My biggest concern was how it would perform. And it seems like this is a non-issue. thanks for your post!

    Reply
  • i have a dell mini and i installed mac os x on the laptop… ive forgotten my password and now im locked out.. any help as to how i can unlock it?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *