Macintosh OS X on a netbook for £400

[this is a reposting of a piece I wrote for Seb Schmoller’s Fortnightly Mailing.]

OK, I don’t think you can call it a “Mac netbook” but this is how I got Mac OS X 10.5.6 to run on a Dell mini 9. It was easier than I thought.

I wanted a small machine for email, web and diary. I am tired of lugging my MacBook Pro around: world’s biggest PDA. I made a list of things I wanted and compared. I decided that my perfect PDA was a netbook and that I would live with Windows instead of Linux because of the calendar client.

Wikipedia has a useful page comparing netbooks. And, here I found serendipitous information: “Mac OS X has been demonstrated running on various netbooks as a result of the OSx86 project.” Now, that was interesting.

This, according to the OSx86 crew, can be done with several netbooks, but it appears that the one with the most compatible hardware is the Dell mini 9.

I ordered a mini 9 in its Vostro A90 Win XP configuration, on offer from Dell at £199 (£221 with VAT & shipping). I ordered OS X10.5.6 (£76). A 32GB Run Core solid state drive for £121 will replace the 8GB one which comes as stock. 4 screws to swap the drive. All in cost: £418 inclusive of VAT and shipping.

I read the following, and many pages sprogging off these to get a sense of what is involved:

  • http://wiki.osx86project.org/wiki/index.php/10.5.5_on_the_Dell_Inspiron/mini_9
  • http://www.tomorrowland.com/2008/11/10/dell-mini-9-leopard-install/
  • http://i.gizmodo.com/5156903/how-to-hackintosh-a-dell-mini-9-into-the-ultimate-os-x-netbook
  • http://mydellmini.com/forum/how-to-install-mac-os-x-dellefi-method-t3925.html

Do not follow my instructions. Follow mechdrew’s “DellEFI method” from the mydellmini forum, like I did. This was the most articulate walk-through and was very recently updated. There are links to the three necessary bits of software: “dellminiboot”, “dellefi” and “syslinux”. A big thank you to mechdrew.

My mini 9 only has a (tiny) 8GB solid state drive. The 32GB disk is back ordered. I didn’t use mechdrew’s approach to an 8GB solid state drive. rossmcloch outlines a way that doesn’t involve hacking the install disk (http://mydellmini.com/forum/much-easier-installation-of-os-x-on-an-8gb-ssd-t2715.html). I’ll come to that. You will need a retail OS X 10.5.1 DVD and then the 10.5.6 combo updater.

What I did.

Download and prepare dellminiboot. Use a FAT32 formatted (standard) USB pen drive. On a Mac download and unpack the appropriate ISO image for the version of OS X you plan to install. Then simply copy the files to the pen drive.

You need a Windows machine for the next part. I used the virtual PC running in Parallels on my MacBook Pro. Download and unzip syslinux to the desktop of your windows machine (or wherever). Insert the pen drive with the dellminiboot files into the Windows machine. Find syslinux.exe. Use the “Run” command or “Cmd” in a terminal window and enter the following: syslinux.exe -ma . This takes about a second and makes the pen drive bootable (Linux) with the appropriate kernel extensions for OS X.

As I mentioned, the 10.5.6 install was too big. I used 10.5.1 and then did the combo upgrade to 10.5.6. I bought the license. I figure how you get there is not the important part.

Now, you need a way of running the OS X installer on the mini 9. You can use an external DVD reader if you have one. If you clone the DVD it must be onto a drive formatted as Mac OX Extended. I restored the 10.5.1 retail OS X install DVD to a Western Digital Passport 320 GB hdd.

Then:

  1. Plug the Dellminiboot pen drive into the left USB port (next to the power supply); plug the installer into one of the USB ports on the right side.
  2. Start the Dell and hold down any key to get into the BIOS. Select USB media.
  3. The machine will boot into Linux with the necessary kernel extensions to allow OS X to run.
  4. Press escape at the next prompt and you will be asked where to continue from. Type 81 to identify the drive plugged into the right hand USB port.
  5. The OS X installer starts.

Here is where paths diverge. If you have a big enough drive on the Dell mini, 16 GB is minimum, simply use the Disk Utility on the installer to format the Dell’s internal ssd as Mac OS Extended. Make it 1 big partition and enable the GUID table. Then install 10.5.6 just like it was a Mac.

If you have a small solid state drive you need to jump through a few hoops.

  1. Use 10.5.1, not 10.5.6. It is smaller.
  2. Boot into Dellminiboot as above and select the drive with the installer.
  3. When the installer starts use the disk utility on the installer to format your 8GB disk as FAT32 (yes, this is counter-intuitive). Make 1 partition and enable the GUID table.
  4. Continue the installation and choose the customise option. Uncheck everything.
  5. When the installer starts it checks for space, finds enough (thank you FAT32) and then warns you that it cannot install on that disk. It asks if it may be allowed to reformat during the install. Say, “yes”.
  6. The installer should now run through to completion.

Now the paths converge, briefly.

  1. The install will “Fail”. It hasn’t really.
  2. Shut the Dell mini down. Unplug the installer.
  3. Boot again from the pen drive. Hit escape at the prompt and select drive 80: the ssd to which you have installed OS X.The OS should start just like a Mac. Mine did.
  4. Run through the initial setup and registration.

Now we diverge. People with small drives read on. People with useful 32GB+ drives skip ahead to the next convergence.

You will need 2.1GB free to run the combo updater. You will have about 320MB. You must update. You cannot reinstall from the 10.5.6 retail disk. To get the space you must:

  1. Run monolingual (http://monolingual.sourceforge.net/). Remove all language support except your language. Remove all platform support except Intel x86.
  2. Turn off sleep and delete the sleep image file (if there is one).
  3. Open a terminal and run:
    >sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 0
    >cd /var/vm
    >sudo rm sleepimage
  4. Delete Mac dictionaries.
  5. I still didn’t have enough space. I removed: iCal, iTunes, iPhoto, Mail, Safari, iDVD, iMovie and Automator. That freed up enough to do the upgrade to 10.5.6.

To do the upgrade I saved the combo dmg file to a memory stick. I plugged this in, mounted the image and ran it. You will have to reboot again from the miniboot pen drive and select the ssd. The updater puts back a lot of what you have to take off to run it. So when it was done, I took them off again.

Now our paths converge finally.

You should have a working Dell mini 9 with Mac OS X 10.5.6. You now need to install DellEFI so you do not have to boot from a pendrive.

This is simple. Put it on the same stick that you are booting from. You will see the pen drive mounted on the desktop. Open the volume. Find the DellMini9Utils folder. “AboutThisMac.pkg” will change the System Profiler so it will display the correct information. Now run DellEFI.

When it is done, reboot one last time from the miniboot stick and set the BIOS preference back to boot from the main internal ssd. You are done.

I have installed Firefox, Thunderbird, Oracle Calendar, the drivers for my 3G dongle and Tweetdeck. I have about 1.2 GB for storage. It all just works, built-in camera and all. It doesn’t sleep – or rather it doesn’t wake up. But, I have been using it continuously for about 2 hours and it is only down to 70%. I took it to an away-day two days ago and used it all day, shutting down when I wanted to shut the lid. It boots in about 30 seconds so there is not too much of a wait.

When the 32 GB drive arrives I will do a full install of 10.5.6, clear out what I don’t need, enable sleep, and put Open Office on it with the other apps. I will probably use Mac Mail instead of T-bird. For now, it just runs. Like a Mac. It has crashed once. It has failed to start a couple of times. Pressing and holding the on button for 10 seconds shuts it down if it has misbehaved. Tapping the on button turns it back on.

I am very pleased with this little machine. This has been written on it. There is a lot of discussion about what Apple plans to do. I’d like a machine this size with a tablet touch/swivel screen and an iPhone-like UI. But, there is a lot of pleasure running a feral “hackintosh”. It is pretty much perfect for what I wanted it for.

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