How it Works

So, just how do you get Mac OS X running on a netbook?

Well, netbooks are no different to any other PC in terms of their main hardware components, they’re just a little smaller. Since Apple started using Intel processors, the differences between Mac and PC hardware are now smaller than ever. With the exception of the BIOS (which communicates details of the machine’s hardware to the operating system), PC and Mac architecture is identical which is why Apple machines can run Windows and conversely why PC hardware is capable of running Apple software.

Apple (the company) has a distinct advantage over Microsoft (the provider of Windows), since Apple has complete control over the hardware that it’s operating system Mac OS X (Leopard) is designed to run on. Windows requires the ability to run on any combination of motherboard, graphics card, network card, sound card, Bluetooth, webcam, etc. whereas Leopard only needs to accommodate the hardware of proprietary Apple machines and a small number of Apple ‘certified’ peripherals.

Windows accommodates a diverse range of hardware through the use of drivers. These drivers are either directly incorporated into the Windows software or are provided by third party hardware manufacturers. Leopard also has the ability to incorporate third party hardware through the use of Kernel Extensions (kexts). Like with Windows, kexts for supported Apple hardware are incorporated into Leopard directly however, since Leopard (and all previous Mac Operating Systems) is build on a Unix core, kexts developed for specific hardware to run on a Linux system can be adapted to allow Leopard to recognise it.

The process of converting a netbook to run Leopard essentially requires three steps:

  • Fixing the BIOS – this can be achieved either by hardcoding changes by flashing a new BIOS, or by injecting custom BIOS code using special software during the boot process.
  • Fixing the Kernal Extensions – this can involve a combination of adapting apple kexts to work with the netbook hardware where it is similar (e.g. many netbooks use the same graphics controller as the MacBook 2.1, only the hardware address in the Apple kext is slightly different so it needs modifying or replacing), or for cases where the hardware is not “supported” by Apple, building a custom kext typically by adapting an existing Linux driver.
  • Fixing Specific Apple Nuances – There are a number of specific nuances to the Apple operating system that need to be addressed before a machine can access all of the features that are available to a Mac user. For example – all Mac systems come with a built in DVD drive, however, most netbooks do not. The Apple DVD software checks for the presence of an internal DVD drive, but if it does not find one, then it will no run. Issues like this are fixed by making small changes (patches) to the applications affected.

Introducing HackBook nano software

Until now, the information and software required to follow the above three steps for any particular netbook has been distributed over a wide number of forums, blogs and community sites. Often the discussions and information are very technical in nature making it extremely difficult for the average person to build their own HackBook.

After an extensive amount of research and testing we have compiled the necessary software and instructions into a single CD ROM that can be used to install Mac OS X on an Asus S101 netbook.  As time and budget permits, we will expand the range of netbooks available.

Four simple steps are required:

  • Step 1 – Change the wireless network card
  • Step 2 – Update the Bios (using the file supplied on the CD ROM)
  • Step 3 – Install Mac OS X (from a Mac OS X retail disk) and unpgrade it to latest version (currently 10.5.7)
  • Step 4 – Run the HackBook nano software to install drivers and patches

Things to Consider

Just as with Windows (but much less frequently), Apple periodically releases software updates.  There is a danger that these releases could overwrite patched kext or other files causing your HackBook not to function.  In general updates that do not require a reboot should cause no problems, but since most kext updates require a reboot to load the extention so this is a warning sign that a kext may have been overwritten.

Our software has been written such that all original Apple kexts are left intact thereby avoiding the problem of patches being overwritten. However, patches made to other files, such as the DVD Player, could be lost during an upgrade.  Where an Apple upgrade impacts one of our builds, we will post the appropriate patch and recovery instructions ASAP, however, HackBook nano owners are strongly encouraged to regularly back up their systems and to be cautious about applying software updates.

Performance

With the correct kext and BIOS modifications, a HackBook nano performs no differently to a regular MacBook. As with a regular Mac, things just work! The lower amount of processor power is more than compensated by the fast read and write speeds of the SSD drive, so it “feels” a faster machine and indeed boots faster and loads applications quicker than a regular MacBook. For web browsing, email, or document editing on the road, it is a more than capable machine. For those who carry a laptop exclusively to do presentations, the dual screen functionality in both Keynote and PowerPoint for Mac blows any PC out of the water and it’s size and weight make it difficult for any Mac to compete with.

If you were hoping to use your HackBook nano to render HD video, or do detailed touch up work on 10 mega pixel images, you will be disappointed, but not as disapointed as those who spent $1,800 on a MacBook Air only to find that it was also severely lacking in horsepower.

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