‘What’s that? A Mac netbook? But Apple don’t make netbooks!’ If that is what just went through your head then you’re right… so that’s why I bought a Dell netbook and hacked it to run OS X.
I bought a Dell Mini 9 with 2 GB RAM and a 16 GB SSD drive for this purpose. Dell don’t make these any more because they’re following the trend to make netbooks bigger, more powerful, and more expensive (thus totally negating the whole point of these types of computers). The nearest equivalent is a Dell Mini 10v which, despite being larger, actually has a smaller screen resolution, so I didn’t want that. The Mini 9 is very tiny and light and has a decent 1024×600 display, which is just what I wanted, so I bought one off eBay. (To my surprise, the process of buying it off eBay went very smoothly. Perhaps you only get problems with people selling synthesizers on eBay, not with people selling computers.)
The Mini 9 is a particularly good machine for running OS X on because, by some lucky fluke, all the hardware in it is supported by OS X. It’s still complicated to get OS X on it, though, because OS X won’t install on anything other than an Apple Mac with Apple firmware rather than a PC BIOS. Therefore you have to fool OS X into thinking it’s running on a machine with Apple firmware, and there are several ways of doing this. I followed these excellent instructions for installing OS X Leopard. This guide is on the MyDellMini site, which is an excellent resource for running OS X on Mini 9s and Mini 10v’s. I didn’t install Snow Leopard as there still seem to be some issues getting that working perfectly on a Mini 9, so I’ll upgrade to that when there’s more support for installing it on netbooks.
The instructions were close to perfect. I had a moment of panic when rebooting after the upgrade to 10.5.8 in which the machine said it couldn’t find the kernel and refused to boot. However, this thread on the MyDellMini forum explained that there’s a bug in the patching process which puts a typo in the boot preferences, so that was easily fixed once I knew that. Then I was able to boot into OS X and start using it.
Since that point I’ve only encountered a couple of problems. The first was that OS X doesn’t expect to find itself running on a display as shallow as 600 pixels high, so occasionally you come across a program which displays something that disappears off the bottom of the screen. I’ve only had this problem with one of the panes in System Preferences, but it was annoying. Thankfully there’s an easy solution, because OS X has the ability to scale applications up and down in size by setting a system preference, so by typing the following into the Terminal I was able to tell System Preferences to scale down to 90 percent of its normal size, and this fixed the problem nicely:
defaults write com.apple.SystemPreferences AppleDisplayScaleFactor 0.9
The second problem was that certain things misbehaved after putting the computer to sleep and waking it up again, and also it was hanging when I tried to reboot it. The most serious sleep misbehaviour was that sound stopped working after sleep and wouldn’t come back until the machine was rebooted. I fixed this by booting into Safe Mode, running the NetbookInstaller application again, and fiddling about with the settings. I ticked ‘Install old mirror friendly GMA kext’ and unticked ‘Enable Remote CD’ and ‘Disable hibernation and remove sleep file’ and rebooted. After rebooting the screen resolution was wrong, so I rebooted again and it’s been fine since then, and the sleep and reboot problems have gone away.
Another issue I’ve had is lack of storage, but I deleted some unnecessary applications and printer drivers, which helped. I’ve also discovered an excellent application called Monolingual which strips out unnecessary languages and other bits and pieces from your whole system, which frees up a lot of space. Storage is always going to be a concern when you’ve only got 16 GB available, but I seem to be largely on top of it now.
Software aside, one problem some people have with the Mini 9 is the size of its keyboard, as it’s a lot smaller than a regular keyboard. I can see it being a possible problem if you have large hands, but I think it’s more just a case of getting used to it, really. I’m getting the hang of mine after two days of use. So now I’ve got a lovely little Mac netbook and I’m very pleased with it. OS X certainly runs very well on it, and everything is nice and snappy. System Profiler shows the model as being an ‘Inspiron’.
So how much of a Mac is it? I’d say it’s about 75 percent Mac, as it has all the benefits of OS X and Mac applications, but obviously it’s lacking the niceness of Apple hardware, and the hacking process certainly detracts significantly from the ‘it just works’ factor! Hopefully Apple will impress the world with some sort of netbook-class machine at some point, but until then I’m very happy with my Dell Mini Mac.