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Brother, Can You Spare Ten Sense? Getting Mac OS X on the Cheap

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Mac OS X promises to have more functions, fewer crashes, and better interoperability with PC and UNIX networks. But there’s a catch: Mac OS X’s resource-intensive foundation cuts off many of Apple’s Power Macs, even if they have been upgraded. Two software products — one free and one commercial — attempt to overcome this limitation, but even these have caveats. Author Ross Scott Rubin puts these utilities to the test with a detailed account of how they perform. You’ll discover how to polish the old Apple for the upgrade, how to best install the software, and whether the results are worth it.
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From most of its first two decades, the Mac was a proprietary box on a proprietary network; Apple sought to interoperate with the outside world, but without embracing its standards. With version 10.1 of its operating system, though, the Mac has evolved into a universal client with built-in support for the dominant file sharing protocols of UNIX (NFS), Windows (SMB), and even Macs of yore (AppleTalk). The latter two are new features of Mac OS X 10.1. Mac OS X makes it easy and seamless to support these protocols with Linux (several distributions are available for PCI Macs) using Samba and Netatalk or even Windows NT with its notoriously problematic AppleTalk support.

Unfortunately, as has traditionally been the case with Apple and certainly has been the case since Apple stopped licensing the Mac OS and killed off Mac clones, it's hard to get away cheap. Mac OS X officially supports only Apple Macs and requires that the machine have a native G3 processor. This is a stark contrast to Linux, which runs on a Pentium II or lower machine with fine performance. Fortunately, there are two ways to get Mac OS X running on the old Mac clones or Macs that have been upgraded to G3s with products from companies such as Sonnet Technologies and the now defunct Newer Technologies.

First-generation PowerMacs need not apply because eligible computers must have a PCI bus. Popular models that can use the software include the following:

  • Apple Power Macintosh 7300, 7500, 7600, 8500, 8600, 9500, and 9600

  • Power Computing PowerWave, PowerTower, and PowerTower Pro

  • Umax J700 and S900

Other clones based on the Tanzania motherboard design should also work. Bear in mind the Mac OS X hardware requirements of 128 MB of RAM and at least 2 GB of hard disk space (if you will be running Classic programs, I recommend 256 MB of RAM).

For about $250, I bought a Umax J700 upgraded with a 233 MHz Sonnet Crescendo G3 card and enough RAM and hard disk space to handle Mac OS X. Most Crescendo cards on eBay cost at least $100, so I thought this was a good deal as it avoided extra shipping charges and cracking open the Umax case.

The first problem was that the machine's hard disk was formatted using the older HFS format, not HFS+ as Mac OS X requires. Reformatting would have required a third party utility, as the hard disk was not an Apple hard disk and required reinstalling system software. Instead, I purchased PlusMaker from veteran Mac utility vendor AlSoft.

Based on AlSoft's leading edge disk optimization technology, it is the only program that can convert HFS to HFS+ partitions while leaving the data intact.

From there, I tried two approaches to loading Mac OS X:

  • Unsupported UtilityX from Other World Computing

  • PCI X Install from Sonnet Technologies

Both have been recently updated to work with Mac OS X 10.1. Neither, though, has much to say on the subject of Mac OS X Server, which is essentially the same software with a different application suite, and a more appropriate but also more expensive option for real servers. Unsupported UtilityX's documentation says only that Mac OS X Server "should install."

Getting through the process was not easy. I tried Unsupported UtilityX first because it was free, but could not get Mac OS X to successfully install. It should be noted, though, that I was working with a late beta of version 2.0, which has since been released. The software claims it can be installed on the original PowerPC 604/604e machine that flourished during the age of the Mac clones, but given the performance of even the zippier Mac OS X 10.1 on a low-end G3, I wouldn't recommend this.

Sonnet's stricter requirements mandate one of the company's G3 accelerators and Mac OS 9.1, whereas Unsupported UtilityX can work with Mac OS 9 or 9.1. Both utilities advise against running Mac OS 9.2, which is standard in new Mac OS X installations.

Both programs have cumbersome setup procedures that you should print out before attempting the installation, which could include opening the case to remove any objectionable PCI cards. The Sonnet utility finally succeeded in a full Mac OS X install. However, I had to wait on hold for 20 minutes to get a simple instruction deviation that should have been included in the documentation. Also, I still can't get the test machine to boot in Mac OS 9.1, but Classic mode runs well.

Besides cost, there are other advantages to going with an older machine as opposed to Apple's post-iMac models. First, these upgraded machines have a full complement of (admittedly legacy) ports such as serial, SCSI, and ADB. Beware, though, that not all of the built-in devices, such as internal floppy drives, may be supported under Mac OS X. Older machines, especially Mac clones, also tend to have more bays and often more slots for expansion than many of Apple's recent towers, including the current speed champ QuickSilver G4 and any iMac.

On the other hand, upgraded machines often lack such current Mac standards like USB and FireWire, so some of Apple's recent products, such as iMovie and the iPod, may not be usable immediately. PCI combo cards such as the Sonnet Tango and Orange Micro OrangeLink, which include both FireWire and USB (high speed USB 2.0, in fact, in the case of the OrangeLink+), can add these ports back at a cost of $100 or more. Cheaper cards may lack Mac OS X drivers. And if you want to bring these machines up to spec with the latest from Apple, you'll need a fairly expensive accelerator and decent video card that supports OpenGL from ATI or nVidia (or you can continue with your discontinued designs by picking up a cheap 3dfx card like the Voodoo 3 from eBay).

In the end, you'll probably pay more for even an upgraded Mac clone than a capable x86-based Linux or Windows NT box. However, if you want to extend the life of that old Mac clone with a modern, reliable operating system (and KDE isn't your idea of a beautiful, easy GUI), Mac OS X can be made to work on hardware Apple thinks is beneath it.

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