An OS Love Triangle and a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterfly-effect

Small changes can lead to amplified consequences — one of the common-sense tenets encapsulated in Chaos Theory by the metaphor of the Butterfly Effect. What I’m about to relate is a messy tale. Stop reading now if you like things smooth and uncomplicated.

It starts with an innocent netbook, my Dell Mini 10v, which, by the way, I can recommend highly as an excellent netbook with great battery life (six-cell model).

After I’d switched over to a Macbook Pro as my main computer, I thought it would be cool if my Dell Mini could also run Mac OS X. I found a good recipe and Hackintoshed the 10v into a pretty decent Mac netbook. It wasn’t 100% stable, but most of the time it worked okay.

But I was nagged, in the way that a geek gets nagged, by the requirement to downgrade the Mini 10v BIOS from A06 to A04. BIOSes get upgraded for a good reason, and it’s seldom advisable to go backward. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is the firmware that mediates between the operating system and the unit’s hardware components. I suspected some of the minor glitches of OS X Snow Leopard on the 10v could be attributed to BIOS glitches in the earlier BIOS release.

My friend Steve alerted me that the Hackintosh recipe had been updated and no longer required a BIOS downgrade. The new package could be installed on A06. With a little time on my hands I decided that I really didn’t mind reinstalling Mac OS X again, so I decided to make the system “clean.”

When I performed the BIOS downgrade, I had to create a DOS (not Windows) bootable memory stick and put the Dell BIOS exe file on it and manually run it from the command line with a couple of flags. Easy enough, though the computer beeped like a demon at full moon during the procedure. I downloaded the exe file for A06 and put it on the same memory stick and booted from it. At the DOS prompt I dutifully put in the flags and hit Enter. It just as dutifully replied with an error message saying that this executable had to be run in a Windows environment.

Catch-22. Well, I’d come this far so I hooked the 10v to an external HP USB DVD player and performed a minimal Windows XP install. When I was able to log in, I ran the Dell BIOS executable, which ran fine, and upgraded the BIOS to A06 perfectly, without the annoying beeps and screeches of the downgrade.

At last. A clean starting point. With confidence I inserted the 8GB memory stick that had Snow Leopard on it along with utilities to allow it to boot. Following the procedure of the recipe exactly, I booted from the stick, and began installing Mac OS X. I’d done it before and it’s quite easy. Partition the drive for Mac, and set the boot sector to GUID. It started purring along. Home free.

Not quite. With under 10 minutes left, the installation aborted with a -1 and the message “Mac OS X cannot be installed on this computer.” Huh? I rebooted with the stick, erased the partition, and started over, double checking I had everything right. Once more it started installing perfectly. Once again it aborted, with the same message when the installation was nearly finished.

I googled back to the recipe and all the user comments I could find. Everyone said it had worked a treat on their 10v with A06 BIOS. Perfect. No glitches. So what gives? I thought. I’d done this install before, a couple of times, on A04 BIOS with no problems.

So now what? Support for the Hackintosh procedure is thin, and so was my patience. I decided to go back to my previous setup: a dual boot Windows XP and Ubuntu Netbook Remix combo.

I’m not a Windows lover, but I’m not a Windows hater either. I just find it inelegant and kludgy. And terribly annoying. It’s the most annoying operating system I’ve ever used.

But. It works, and its hardware support is great. And, despite reports to the contrary, if you treat it right, it’s stable. Besides, I thought if I make a Windows partition, others in my family can use it if they need a small netbook to take along somewhere. They’re Windows users.

Windows installed as usual, and the Dell resources CD added all the necessary drivers to get things up at a base level. Then the dreaded Windows Update procedure. On the first pass it had 60 updates. After that was done, and it rebooted, it had another dozen or so updates.

All of that to get to square one. No apps yet installed.

Next I downloaded the latest ISO for Ubuntu Remix. It’s a later version than I had running last year, prior to Mac OS X. I put it on a memory stick and it booted fine and installed cleanly. I’m very impressed with how easy Ubuntu has made installing the Debian flavour of Linux, my favourite.

Unlike the previous release, however, it had no wi-fi support out of the gate. That was annoying. I googled the issue and saw that for whatever reason the packagers have removed the proprietary network driver for the internal wireless device. One user reported that after updating by RJ45 cable, the missing driver suddenly appeared.

I took my Dell Mini to a different location, one with direct connection, and updated Linux. Sure enough, the necessary driver was there after updating, and I was able to connect wirelessly after, one of the main points of using a netbook. Given that the same driver is needed by both the Dell and the HP minis, this seems like a major gaffe on the part of the packagers, especially when the previous release included it in the initial build.

So, all I wanted was a clean BIOS. I got it.

Moral of the story: be careful what you wish for.

Dell Mini 10v Hackintosh

Dell Mini 10v Hackintosh (by StarbuckGuy)

A Hackintosh is any non-Apple Intel-based computer that has been “hacked” to run Mac OS X. Although not supported by Apple, or anyone else for that matter, the underlying hardware architecture of a Mac is essentially the same as that of any modern Windows PC. Put this in front of a good hacker, and the challenge is too sweet to ignore: “let’s see if we can turn this baby into a Mac.

“I’m not smart enough to figure any of this out, but the folks who are enjoy sharing their knowledge on the Internet, and they supply instructions for the rest of us. Instructions for hackintoshing computers tend to be brand and model specific due to the varied mix of manufacturer’s components inside the chassis of PC’s. When I found a good recipe for hackintoshing a Dell Mini 10v netbook, I decided to try it out. I was already running Linux on it anyway and knew, in worst case, I could simply revert to Linux or Windows.

The recipe calls for a fresh Mac Snow Leopard OS X 10.6 upgrade DVD (not the one that comes with a Macintosh). I purchased one for $35. You also need a USB hard drive that holds at least 8GB. My 8GB USB stick was already in use, so I picked up a 16GB one. I also discovered that a small-capacity USB stick is a good thing to have for this project, if you need to change the BIOS.

My Dell Mini 10v came with an A06 BIOS, and I had to downgrade it to A04. The recipe had links to a great little Mac utility for creating a bootable DOS USB drive to boot the machine for a BIOS change. I used one of my older 2GB USB sticks for the job.

The scariest part of the entire procedure was downgrading the BIOS to the level needed to properly support Mac OS. A BIOS change has to either succeed correctly, or fail correctly. Anything in between means taking the netbook back to Dell for fixing. Despite the scary disclaimers, though, BIOS upgrades or downgrades are relatively safe if you do them right and use common sense, such as making certain the unit has AC power attached.

A BIOS change is also a loud affair. It makes the computer beep repeatedly for five to ten minutes, very loudly. Everyone in the house thought a smoke detector was going off. I had to assure them the beeps were “a good thing.”

With the BIOS downgraded, I booted from the newly created Mac OS X installation USB hard drive I’d created with yet another Mac utility linked to in the recipe. I’ve installed plenty of operating systems, and, as installations go, this one was easy. I used the Disk Utility to partition the drive for a Mac, then clicked Install. The rest was simple.The moment of truth: after the install, the Dell Mini booted up as a Mac, and I was asked the usual customization questions to set up the netbook. It came up clean.

There are limitations, of course. A 1GB Snow Leopard machine is too limited for any large-memory applications, and apps don’t always like the Dell’s odd (1024 x 576) screen resolution. But the Mini is my writing and surfing machine, and I was able to run TextWranger and Scrivener well, and even MS Word 8 for Mac is usable. Safari runs fine.

Photoshop Elements 8 for Mac refused to install because of the screen size. I didn’t really need it on the netbook, but was curious to see if it would run in 1GB. I still don’t know.

I use a USB mouse with my netbook most of the time, and with a mouse, Mac OS X runs as expected. The touchpad, however, is not so great. It can’t do what a real Mac touchpad can, but there are experimental drivers available that bring it a little closer.

Bottom line: Hackintoshing the netbook was fun to do, and I now have an “under-$400” Mac netbook. It may or may not prove to be stable. I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for a Mac — you need the real thing if you’re serious about running major Mac applications. For light work, though, it’s a little gem.

And funky.

Special thanks to John Herman and his excellent How To: Hackintosh a Dell Mini 10v into the Ultimate Snow Leopard Netbook