Frankenbook! Another look at hacked Mac netbooks

Rob Griffiths
6 August, 2009
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After much consideration, I finally dove into the do-it-yourself Mac netbook pool. With rumors of an impending Apple tablet spreading like wildfire—including analyses, mock-ups, and even commentary on why a non-existent product is destined to fail—this may seem like an odd time to do such a thing. “Why not just wait and see what Apple’s doing?,” you may be thinking.

While waiting is always better in the computer business (after all, computers never get slower and more expensive as time goes on), I just couldn’t wait—with a couple of trips coming up, I wanted to stop lugging around the 15-inch MacBook Pro for simply reading e-mail and browsing the web while traveling. My beloved 12-inch PowerBook G4 was an alternative, as was purchasing a refurbished Macbook Air (though I’m not a fan of the large-but-flat form factor).

In the end, the temptation to try one of the ultra-small PC laptops (but running OS X, of course) was too great to resist, despite my experience with hacking a desktop Frankenmac last year—there’s just something about carrying around a full-blown computer that’s slightly larger than a paperback book that appeals to my inner geek.

The hardware. After doing some background research on the various netbook models and their degree of OS X compatibility, I was all set to order a Dell Vostro A90, which is the machine that Dan Frakes used for his HackBook project.

When I mentioned this to Dan, however, he pointed me toward the new Dell Mini 10v, which is basically the Vostro A90, but built with a 10-inch screen of the same 1,024-by-600 resolution. Note that you can’t buy the Mini 10 for a project like this, as it uses a video chipset (Intel GMA500) that’s not supported by OS X.

When all was said and done, after fighting my way through the 2.5 million combinations offered by Dell’s two online stores (Home and Small Business; they often have different prices), I wound up ordering a Windows XP version ($US50/$A65 cheaper than Ubuntu, go figure!) with the 1.66GHz/667Mhz Atom CPU, equipped with a 160GB hard drive.

That’s right, an actual hard drive. While an SSD would have been nice, there was a long delay in shipping any of the SSD-equipped versions, and I needed to get the machine in hand quickly, before my upcoming trip.

The Dell Mini 10v running OS X

When the machine arrived, my first reaction, as you might expect, was “Boy, this thing is small!” As seen in the image at right, it’s nearly a palmtop machine. It’s also light, at just over 1kg, coming in around 250g below that of the MacBook Air.

As Jason Snell noted in his look at the MSI Wind (which has a similar shape), it’s also pleasing to carry, as it’s like carrying around a somewhat-larger (but light) book, instead of a computer.

About the keyboard. One of the things that swayed me to the 10v was Dan’s commentary on the A90’s keyboard—to summarise in family-friendly language, he told me it was abysmal. The Mini 10v is 2.6cm wider than the A90, which translates to a keyboard that’s 92 percent of the size of a “normal” laptop keyboard, versus the A90’s 89 percent.

The 10v keyboard with its more-standard layout

More important, however, is that all of the keys are in their usual positions. The apostrophe/quote key is in the middle row, and the tilde is under the Escape key (though it’s a bit on the skinny side). I believe the actual key caps are also slightly larger than on the A90, but I’d have to see one side-by-side to be certain.

So far, I can report that this keyboard is fine for extended use—I’ve prepared this entire write-up using the Dell Mini 10v and its built-in keyboard. I did, however, resort to using a Bluetooth mouse, as the 10v (like the A90) has an abysmal trackpad (more on that later).

Having all the keys in the right spot is a large part of that; if I had to search for the tilde and apostrophe keys every time I needed them, that would drive me crazy. That extra 25mm of width definitely pays off in the creating a usable keyboard. I’ve got a few hours’ use of the keyboard now, and so far, it hasn’t bothered me at all.

My experience with the 10v’s keyboard shows that Apple’s thoughts on the importance of the full-size keyboard in the MacBook Air are spot-on. Dan (and Jason as well) both called out the cramped keyboard as a limiting factor in the usability of the machine. With my slightly-larger Dell, the keyboard is no longer a major usability issue. Yes, there are concessions due to size, but on the 10-inch chassis, they’re much less noticeable than they are on the 9-inch version.

Upgrading the RAM. One other key—and very maddening—difference between the A90 and the 10v relates to installing additional RAM. Even for a machine that’s primarily going to be used for Web browsing and e-mail, I felt 1GB of RAM just wasn’t enough (especially because the Intel GMA950 graphics chipset will claim some of that). Dell doesn’t offer 2GB RAM as an option (why not?), so I ordered a chip from a third party, and figured I’d just pop it in myself.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near that easy. While the A90 has a door on the bottom that provides direct access to the machine’s RAM chip, that’s not the case on the 10v. Instead, you have to basically rip the entire machine apart to add RAM to a 10v.

So that’s what I did—even before booting my new machine for the first time, I broke it into many pieces. As you can see from the above link, this isn’t a trivial process; I’d liken it to replacing the hard drive in my 12-inch PowerBook, except in smaller spaces with even smaller parts.

Parts in yellow are involved in the RAM upgrade

As you can see, you really do need to take the entire machine apart; it took me about 40 minutes to reach the RAM chip. Disassembly goes slowly because a couple of major components are held on with plastic clips, and you have to detach them without breaking the clips. It’s a long, slow process…and in the end, I wasn’t successful: two of the tabs on the palm rest came loose during disassembly.

Without these tabs, the palm rest wouldn’t stay down, which is a bad thing. Superglue to the rescue! I glued the two tabs back into their positions, waited about 10 minutes, and then tried snapping the palm rest back in place. Amazingly, it held (and continues to hold). All told, installing the new RAM took about 90 minutes from start to finish. It’s not necessarily a hard process, but it is an involved process, and can be frustrating at times.

With the RAM upgraded, I booted the machine into Windows for the first and only time, just to make sure everything worked. It did, but I was stunned by how ugly Windows looked. The buttons were huge, some of the text was jaggy, and even simple windows filled the screen with their oversized widgets. I should have grabbed a screenshot, but I was in a hurry to move on to the next step in the project.

The OS X conversion. While the 10v and the A90 are closely-related siblings, it turns out that they’re not quite identical inside. When it came time to install OS X, those differences caused some problems. I had to work through a number of installation methods before I found one that worked.

At first, I couldn’t even get the OS X installer to run. Eventually, though, I found the right combination of voodoo, and the installer booted. The first thing I noticed is that OS X looks great on the 1,024-by-600 screen—nothing seems oversized, and there aren’t any jaggies to be found.

After working through the initial installation, my AirPort card wasn’t seen (but it worked in Windows, so I knew it wasn’t a hardware issue). A few restarts, Apple Software Updates, curses, and finger crosses later, and it miraculously started working. I honestly have no idea what I did, but it’s fine now.

That left the last, and largest, issue: sound out and microphone in don’t work on the 10v without using a third-party system extension. Even then, sound may vanish after sleep and wake, forcing some Terminal trickery to keep things working well. I can live with these limitations, as I didn’t buy the machine to be a multimedia workhorse.

Aside from the audio issues, though, the machine has proven to be quite OS X compatible. I set up a networked Time Machine backup, and it’s working fine. The audio and brightness controls on the function keys work, even displaying the on-screen bezels. The built-in camera works with iChat. The battery life indicator works. Sleep works too, even when I just close the lid. When I reopen it, the machine awakes instantly, even quicker than does my Macbook Pro.

All the software I’ve tested runs fine, which is to be expected—the 10v is running a full retail version of OS X, so there’s no trickery there. The only problems are applications, such as Photoshop, that won’t install due to screen size checks in the installer.

The Dell Mini 10v isn’t a speed demon, of course—when I ran Xbench on it, it scored about 10 percent better than did my 12-inch PowerBook G4. In my test use with e-mail, Web surfing, writing, watching video, and browsing photographs, it’s more than fast enough.

Final thoughts. The total cost for my Dell Mini 10v, including overnight shipping and a 2GB RAM stick from a third party, came to $US412 ($A500). That’s less than half what I would have had to pay for a refurbished MacBook Air, and perhaps $US250 ($A300) or so less than what I might pay for a used one from eBay. Yes, I have concessions that a MacBook Air does not—but then again, I also have three USB ports, an SD card reader, a VGA port, and built-in 10/100 Ethernet.

Until Apple comes out with its tablet or a small low-cost laptop, this little Dell looks like it will easily meet my needs for an OS X-compatible netbook. Of course, the real test of any such machine is a road trip, and I’ll be taking this one along with me later this month to see how it works out in the real world.

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