The Journey of OSX86

posted by on 17th March 2009, at 7:52pm

Most of you know that Mac OS X can only be run on an Intel Chip Based Macintosh (AKA ICBM) or the older PowerPC variants. There is a way around this restriction that allows OS X to be run on any computer that has the necessary hardware requirements. Before we get any further I think it’s wise to state that installing OS X on anything not made by Apple is in violation of the End User License Agreement (EULA). Because of this it’s safe to say that it’s probably illegal although Apple hasn’t prosecuted individuals who have decided to do this. I will not be providing any detailed guides on a procedure to install the OS.

In June 2005 it was announced that Apple was making the move to Intel processors. By January 2006 the first ICBM’s hit being the MacBook Pro and iMac. It wasn’t long until after the announcement that the first “marklar” version of OS X was leaked, the hacking had begun. At first OS X only ran on computers that were identical in configuration to that of the Apple developer transition kits. It wasn’t long until people had figured out how to modify OS X install DVDs to include custom kernels and kernel extensions needed to make any Intel computer with appropriate hardware run OS X. This was cumbersome and something that was only to be attempted by those with a strong Unix background. This resulted in various “distributions” being released via torrent and therefore illegal as it was a version that wasn’t purchased from a retail outlet. This was the norm until June of last year when a breakthrough was made allowing OS X to be installed from an unmodified retail DVD, this method greatly simplified the process. The method involved using a custom boot CD that would trick OS X into thinking it was being installed on an ICBM. Along with this a boot loader called Chameleon was written that allowed OS X to boot without the boot CD, this method was great as it allowed users to use the built in Software Update application to get OS updates. The question always being asked was “Can we do better?” the answer was yes. In September 2008 the notion of using the hidden EFI partition at the start of the OS X install disk to house additional kernels and drivers was conceived. This can be viewed as an extension of the last method as it allows software updates, however no files are touched on the actual install compared to the previous method where system files would be modified. This is the preferred method of installing OS X and it allows for a mostly error free system depending on hardware chosen.

Ideally before attempting such a project one should check to make sure the hardware at hand will work and try to anticipate any problems that can occur. For example the board must have an Intel chipset if it is to work with the default kernel, another example is that most NVIDIA cards work better natively without drivers. There are computers that work right out of the box such as the Dell Mini 9 or MSI Wind. You can find great Hardware Compatibility lists at the OSX86 Project Wiki. From here the next step is to do research on your hardware to grab any drivers that are needed to make various functions such as Sound or Sleep/Restart/Shutdown work seamlessly. From here it’s simply a matter of installing Leopard and your chosen boot loader. I am not going to be going into detail on this as this article is supposed to be borderline legal.

Once OS X is installed you should have the functionality of a full Mac. It is important to stress that just because you’ve installed OS X your computer is not a Mac. After using a real Mac for two years there are obvious differences between the two. Prior to last week I was running OS X86 successfully on an Intel based computer of the following configuration:

  • Mainboard: Gigabyte EP45-UD3P
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 @ 2.83GHz
  • Memory: 4GB Kingston DDR2-800MHz “ValueRAM”
  • Hard Drive: 250GB Seagate 7200RPM SATA Drive, 16MB Cache
  • DVD: LG 20x SATA DVD-Burner
  • Video Card: eVGA GeForce 9800GT 512MB
  • Power Supply: Antec Earthwatts 500W PSU

This configuration ran OS X flawlessly and matched benchmarks of previous generation Mac Pro’s. There were a few minor annoyances, these are things that are almost certain to crop up. Surprisingly there were only 3: I couldn’t burn DVD ISO’s the burner reported there was not enough space on a blank disk, I could not password protect my screensaver, and finally I would get a kernel panic (Windows Equivalent: Blue Screen of Death) if I was storing my drivers on the hidden system partition. I am currently not using this setup as it imploded after I installed the Windows 7 x64 Beta. My assumption is that the Windows 7 installer decided to use the hidden partition of my OS X install to place it’s hidden goodies. I certainly plan to revisit this project once I am finished my school term. Anyone embarking on a project like this should be prepared to keep regular backups of progress made. There is no definite method that will work 100% of the time thus moving slowly and making only one change at a time is crucial, anyone who has worked on a *nix style system will know this is important. Finally anyone also attempting this must have patience to search Google for potential problems that could arise.

Everyone is asking in the back of their mind, is it worth it? Is it worth it to just do this instead of buying a real Mac? The answer is maybe. If you are a sophisticated user and feel there is a hole in Apple’s product line, something that you would buy but does not exist, then there is good reason to start such a project. If you are a standard non-sophisticated user then you should most likely just go out and buy a Mac Mini or iMac, both of these have just been updated in terms of specifications. The two most common OSX86 installs are either netbooks or mid-range towers. As I mentioned before the experience is not the same as a real Mac since there are instances where your install does not work or it could be broken down the road by a system update. I was inspired to start my OS X86 project as I had not looked at the process since the days of downloadable distributions. I was also starting to feel cramped and wanted 2 20″ displays instead of 1 20″ and the built in 15″ on my MacBook Pro. I had also wanted a bit of a GPU increase on our trusty game called RuneScape. It suffices to say that RuneScape is CPU bound on OS X, not GPU bound, that’s a story for another article. Finally it should be noted on the same weekend that I got OS X up and running my old Windows computer’s power supply decided to short out and take out a hard drive and an unknown amount of hardware.

With all this being said we have to remember that this is technically illegal according to the EULA but Apple has not prosecuted individuals. The rest of 2009 is going to be interesting as we are going to see the Apple vs. Psystar trial. If Apple loses it could make this legal and even easier, only time will tell what the future has for OS X86. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions you can always send me a private message on the forums.

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