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OS X on a Dell Mini 9 Netbook
By Steve (4/19/2009)
Updated 5/18/2009 for another reader's report (on 10.5.7)



I read in numerous places online that the Dell mini 9 was an ideal platform to install OS X, since it closely matched the configuration of Apple-made hardware. The similarities means that the software drivers for OS X would likely work without complaint on this machine, though a few software and BIOS tweaks would be necessary. I was intrigued by the possibility, so I set out to try it myself.

First, an important disclaimer:
I am a loyal (and financially committed) Apple customer. In the past 18 months alone, I've bought no less than 5 Macs, including a MBP, Mac Pro, two Macbooks and mini. During that same time I have also purchased three iPhones, and Apple TV, mutiple Airport devices, Final Cut Suite and other software, and various others accessories. I subscribe to MobileMe and I buy my music mostly through iTunes. In other words, I give Apple my full financial support because I love the products and want to support their development. Therefore, I do not advocate violating their software license agreement. Installing OS X on the Dell mini 9 almost certainly violates their EULA/IP rights, so I do not intend to sell this machine or even use it myself. Once I have finished my little experiment, I will remove OS X and reinstall Windows. I am providing my description of this experience for entertainment value only.

Moving on, I see no reason to repeat the "how-to" descriptions of converting the Dell to OS X. Gizmodo has an excellent guide, and the mydellmini.com forums have great support, though you won't need much help. Then entire process is relatively painless, and I accomplished it over my lunch hour. If you are interested in repeating this experiment, please consult those sources for help. My purpose here is to give a "first-hand" account of whether this approach to converting a PC laptop to run OS X is practical.

photo

Here's a realistic run down on cost:

  • Dell mini 9 (least expensive configuration): $279 (sometimes cheaper when Dell has a sale)
  • Upgrade to 2GB RAM: About $20 from various vendors
  • Upgrade to 16GB SSD (minimum necessary): About $60-$75 depending on vendor and brand
  • Retail copy of OS X: $129 (list), unless you already have a retail copy

Total: $488 (assuming you don't already own OS X)
For that price you get a 1.6 GHz hyper-threading processor (a poor man's dual core), 2GB RAM, a 16GB SSD, 8.9" screen, 4-hour battery, and wireless. It also has an SD card reader and three USB ports. You can read all about it on Dell's website.

Now you see why the Dell mini 9 is capturing so much attention among Mac hackers. It's a Macbook at a sub-Mac mini price.

The conversion was relatively painless. As I said, you can refer to available guides elsewhere, but the basic approach is to boot the Dell from a special CD containing a bootloader program. The bootloader gets the Dell running and then prompts you to insert the OS X Install DVD. Then the bootloader allows the Dell to finish booting from the OS X DVD and proceeds to install OS X normally. Once the installation is complete, a second custom program places the bootloader code on the hard drive so that the Dell can boot normally from the hard drive. This second piece of software also installs a couple of special drivers in OS X to patch a few things, and essentially that's all there is to it. The guides make it very simple, and I was surprised at how painless it truly was.

Here are my firsthand impressions of using this Dell-intosh (Macin-Dell?).

Hardware:
First, the Dell is surprisingly well constructed. It's small but not too small (at least not compared to the netbook crowd). It's very study. It's not flimsy like some netbooks I've seen. My Dell came in white, so it's strikingly similar to a plastic Macbook in appearance. It's light and completely silent, because there are no moving parts (not even a fan), yet the bottom of the case never gets more than slightly warm. It's about the size and weight of a small hardback novel. It could fit easily in a woman's purse. Very attractive overall.

Start Up:
Starting up the Dell is almost exactly like starting a Mac. Hit the power button, and you are greeted by the initial DOS-like screen common to all PCs, but almost immediately the screen transforms to the familiar gray Apple screen and spinning progress wheel. From there the boot sequence proceeds just like a Mac. Time required from gray apple appears until log-in screen: 15 seconds.

Screen:
The screen is small (hey, this IS a netbook after all), but at 1024 x 600 it's not too bad. It's very sharp (reminds me of the iPhone resolution), and the Spaces feature of OS X was made for this kind of machine. I turned on spaces with 6 spaces, and I can quickly zip between apps (1 application per virtual desktop). The only problem I've encountered with this screen is that many of the System Preference windows and some application windows have a minimum size that is equal to or larger than 600 pixels in length, so the bottom of these windows can extend behind the dock or below the screen altogether. There is a work-around floating around the Dell hacking community, but when I tried it, it created new problems. The best thing to do is hide the dock or place it on the side. Over all, the issue is minor and doesn't impede normal use.

OS X info

Keyboard & Trackpad:
If you have never used a netbook keyboard, then I suggest you try several at Best Buy before purchasing the Mini 9. Netbook keyboards are simply not ideal for touch typing unless you have small hands or are patient. Out of the 4-5 netbooks I have tried, the Dell is at least as good as any of them and better than most. Like the iPhone, I have learned how to be competent typing on it, but no one would want to write "War and Peace" using one. These things are for light duty typing, like iChat or short e-mails.

There are some quirks to the placement of some keys, but you get used to that eventually. Surprisingly, most of the specialized Fn keys worked in OS X. For example, the volume and brightness adjustments worked; so did the sleep key. The wireless and battery keyboard shortcuts didn't work, although you can still use the OS X control panel to change those settings. The track pad was a pleasant surprise. It felt very solid with a nice slick finish. The two buttons pressed easily and were well-positioned. Over all, the machine had a nice feel which came close to the "Apple quality experience."

Expandability:
The Dell has Ethernet, sound in/out, three USB ports and a VGA port. Plugging in a keyboard, mouse and monitor resulted in a normal desktop experience. I didn't experiment much with the screen resolution, but the graphics adapter is the usual Intel 950 integrated adapter using 64MB of shared RAM, so I assume it can handle all the usual resolutions common to the Mac minis and Macbooks with the same adapter. All in all, the Dell mini would be roughly equivalent to the previous generation Mac mini as a lightweight desktop. (See below for notes on performance.)

Compatibility:
Probably the biggest question is whether the Dell functions like a Mac. The simple answer is absolutely! I was very surprised at how few issues I found. Every major piece of hardware worked as expected, including wi-fi, bluetooth, the webcam, sound in and out, the SD card reader, the Ethernet port and the USB ports. You wouldn't know this machine wasn't made by Apple except for the Dell logo staring you in the face. Even the power on LED pulses gently when the Dell is in sleep mode, just like Apple hardware!

Speaking of sleep, the Dell sleeps in all the usual ways: lid down, power button press or timed sleep. And it wakes in a second or two as expected from any kind of sleep activation. Interestingly, the OS automatically activated the Finder's Remote Disc feature common to the Macbook Air. Since the Dell min has no CD drive of its own, the Remote Disc feature allows the the Dell to use the CD/DVD drive of other Macs on your network. It's a necessary feature for the Macbook Air, and the Dell mini benefits from it as well.

So far, software compatibility was not an issue. I ran OS X Software Update immediately after installing 10.5, and I successfully installed a long list of updates without complaint. Since OS X runs fine, all OS X software is happy as well. After installing OS X, I was using about 9GB of disk space, so if you go with the 16GB SSD, you won't have much room for apps. I recommend at least a 32GB drive if you plan to use the Dell for more than e-mail and web browsing. In my case, I bought the super-fast Runcore 64GB, which added about $150 to the cost above, but the extra room makes the Dell usable as an everyday machine. I then proceeded to install iLife (sans iDVD and Garageband to conserve disk space), NeoOffice, Firefox, iWork, and various other specialized pieces of software. Everything worked just like it should.

Next, I decided to explore some of the limits of compatibility in keeping with my normal Mac usage. For example, I always like to have an external back up drive for each Mac I own, so I decided to see whether I could clone the Dell to an external USB drive using Carbon Copy Cloner and boot from the external. The short answer is yes you can. You must re-enable the USB BIOS setting I mentioned above, but otherwise it works as expected. You can't select the start up drive using the normal OS X control panel, but rather you select the boot source at boot time using the Dell menus. You can also keep a large SD card in the card reader and create a bootable clone on the card.

Speaking of the SD card, I discovered a useful purpose for an on-board SD card reader. When I inserted a larger SD card in the reader, time machine popped up and offered to use the card as my time machine volume. Cool! I loved the thought of having a 64GB SD card sitting in that slot acting as my TM volume. Apple, are you listening? As SD cards increase in size, it will become increasingly practical to rely on them as backup storage in this way. This is much better than backing up via wireless to a time capsule, IMO, since the backup is faster and it goes everywhere you go.

Connectivity:
I used bluetooth to tether the Dell to my 3G cell phone, and it worked just as well as my MBP (as expected). The combination of the Dell and my slim Samsung cell phone made for an awesome traveling computer. The Dell has a slot for a cellular model card, but it lacks a physical connector, so you are limited to tethering. By tethering the Dell to my Samsung phone, I was able to conduct a few Skype and iChat conversations as I waited at the ballpark for my son's game to start (see picture). Very cool.

All other connections (i.e., Airport, Ethernet, USB, sound, etc.) work as expected. The webcam worked with iChat, Photo Booth, Skype. The built in mic and speakers work very well. The speakers are quite loud and sound better than you might expect for their size.

Performance:
OK, this was - by far - the biggest surprise.
I was consistently surprised by the Mini 9's performance. The processor is only a 1.6 GHz single core CPU, but it is multi-threaded, which approximates dual cores. In fact, Activity Monitor reports dual cores on its graphs. (Hyperthreading also shows twice the real number of cores on the new Mac Pro) More importantly, the fast RunCore SSD helps make up for the slower CPU. (See below for benchmarks of the SSD's performance.) I'm so impressed by the speed of the drive, I have begun researching an SSD purchase for my MBP. If an SSD can make this little laptop fly, then I'm sure it will make my MBP scream (and maybe my Mac Pro too). (The drive db here has some very satisfied SSD drive owners (MBP and Mac Pro). Also Oliver's article comparing a SSD to 10K RPM WD Raptor/VRaptor drives in his Mac Pro is linked on the storage topics page.)

Though the machine has only a 1.6 GHz Intel processor and the Intel 950 integrated graphics, it felt similar in many respects to my 2.5 GHz MBP. For example, Safari loaded in less than one dock bounce, iTunes loaded in about three bounces, and Mail loaded in one dock bounce. Even Firefox loaded in only three dock bounces. Even the notoriously-slow NeoOffice loads in 8 bounces and the word processor is ready for input about 3 secs after the last bounce. Compare this performance to your Mac, and you'll be surprised how well this rather modestly equipped machine compares.

The fairest comparison for this Dell woud be to the earlier generation Macbooks. Though the processor in the Dell is slower, the difference was rarely noticeable for light-duty tasks (e.g., e-mail, web browsing, word processing, iChat, iTunes, etc.). With 2GB of RAM, I could load six applications simultaneously, yet I never experienced a serious slow down. Switching between desktops using "Spaces" kept everything well-organized, making up for the small screen size.

I think the machine's overall performance surprised me, because I had been expecting a sluggish experience given the modest specs of the machine. Though this machine would obviously be frustrating for demanding applications like Photoshop, Final Cut or Garageband, who would buy a Dell netbook for that kind of work anyway? I also think the machine leaves a positive impression simply because of its combination of speed and small size. Every time I show this machine to a Mac user, they break out in big smiles and giggles when they realize how much usability can be packed into such a small space.

Here are results from some Quickbench test of the SSD's performance.

Quickbench scores1

Qbench scores2

I also ran Xbench (free, easy to run). Interesting that Xbench identified the machine as a Macbook Air. I don't know how it came to that conclusion, but probably the 1.6 GHz CPU combined with the SSD and no CD drive triggered it to make that assumption?

Xbench 1.3 Results (Mini9)
Xbench results

I'm not sure how these results stack up against other machines, but I can tell you that in practice the machine feels very snappy.

Conclusion:
Overall, I found this experiment to be a huge success. If I were one to need a very small Mac laptop and couldn't wait for Apple to produce one of it's own (and after seeing this Dell in action, I am convinced that Apple will be forced to enter this space soon), then I could live with the Dell very easily. It was stable, reliable, attractive and had great performance. The Dell-to-Mac conversion process was relatively painless, and there were no on-going tweaks required to keep the machine running in daily use. You just use it like you would any Mac. You could even cover up the Dell logo on the backside of the screen with a spare white Apple sticker. Everyone would think you had the world's smallest Mac laptop.

The only consideration is the price. After you properly configure the Dell, the price creeps toward $500 (assuming you don't already own a retail copy of OS X), which means you are only another $500 from buying a refurbished Macbook Air or true Macbook. On the other hand, those machines are considerably larger, and The Dell at $500 is still significantly less than $1,000 for a true Mac. I wouldn't recommend this Mac to a first-time Mac user or very inexperienced Mac user, since there are bound to be some glitches from time to time. But for the experienced Mac enthusiast, the conversion is a lot of fun.
-Steve

Other reader replies to this article (later first)

(added 5/18/2009)
"10.5.7 and Dell Mini 9
I finally got around to updating the Dell Mini 9 "hackintosh" this weekend, amongst painting and other chores.

The forum I joined (mydellmini.com) has great info on installing and updating. The 10.5.7 is running, albeit on an Alpha version (mostly stable) of the EFI installer (DellEFI1.2a5 currently). I did have some errors in the updating (grey screen with garbage) so I was able to just wipe and restart from scratch (kept my USB boot/macboot installer intact incase of such an emergency). I should have tried the TimeMachine restore but was inbetween painting coats and not thinking clear.
I noticed that the 10.5.7 update thought the mini was a MacBook Air. (Steve's original article above also noted Xbench listed it as a MacBook Air.-Mike). This could be why folks are getting better battery uptime. I'm running a few programs and noticed the battery indicator reporting longer (estimated) times. But no real gauge to show before and after use/drain.
One thing is certain, in the install/update method, the mini gets very warm.

I found (via the forum) that one can get a SSD made by Runcore (64GB is around $220) that has a mini usb port on it! I asked if anyone has tried cloning to one from the mini (maybe CCC) but have no response yet. I don't have ~$220 to waste, but if I did...
-Ed"

Previous replies follow (before 10.5.7 was released) including Ed's earlier comments.


(added 5/8/2009)
"I had been toying with the idea of getting a Dell mini 9 and installing Leopard. The reader report you posted a couple of weeks ago (above) was nice confirmation that it would not only work but would perform adequately. I found a like-new one on my local craigslist for $400. It has a 32 GB solid state drive, 2 GB RAM, 1.3 mp webcam and built in wireless G.
Installing OS X was easy. I have done several updates and installed a lot of additional software (iPhoto, Office 2008, etc). When I was done with installations I ran Monolingual to strip away languages and architectures. Right now I have around 12 GB on the drive, 16 GB free space. I plan on using a 32 GB class 4 compact flash card to do Time Machine backups.

eds mini9 OS X

I agree that everything works and the little netbook is really pretty responsive. The only drawbacks I find are what you'd expect on a 9" netbook: the screen rez is limited to 1024 x 600 and I'm having trouble getting used to the small keyboard and trackpad. I wish this mini had bluetooth installed, I need a wireless mouse instead of the tiny trackpad, but that's just me getting used to the new small form.
Thanks for posting the article!
-David C."


(added 5/7/2009)
"I did the Mini 9 to Mac OS X. (2GB Ram, 16GB SSD, 1.3Mpx cam, BT and wifi. Opted for the Red lid). It took about 2 hrs (including the TimeMachine backup) from start to finish. I signed up to the forum that has the hackintosh mod, followed the single USB drive install, put 10.5 on, then updated to 10.5.6.

Some hangups during the install like directions not clear on steps. There was a moment it kept booting into USB drive. Had to remove then type -X to go into Safe Boot then install 10.5.6. Another was that you must boot into bios and turn off Legacy USB support after OS update but before the DellEFI update (or else no WIFI).

Works great. Folks want me to do this for them (I do NOT endorse this. Even if they buy the Full OS version, I don't want the liability nor support).

BTW, I have a back from Macbook Pro LCD so I'm gonna ask a friend to Laser in the logo and I might hack in the Apple ;)

Pix...attched.

eds mini9 OS X

mini 9 lid

Oh, its very snappy. Wifi reception better than Apple. Forum guy posted that he wanted to put Airport Extreme in. (only two antennas in Mini...if I can find a lead...and add third...)
-Ed"

You'd need a 3rd antenna/connection plus a wireless card that has a 3rd input (IIRC the Atheros AR5008 cards used in some mac notebooks had 3 antennas if I'm not mistaken - reports a couple years ago on the Macs and 802.11N page here.) The broadcom based cards (such as those used in a Mac Pro) have only 2 antenna inputs. (The Mac 802.11N page here had also some reports a couple years ago about users installing Dell 1500 N cards (mini-PCIe) from ebay IIRC - they were Broadcom based (like the Mac Pro card) - but can't recall now if they had only 2 antenna connections.)





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