Hackintoshing a Dell Mini 9 netbook has been a real education. I... Hmm. Yes, that opening sentence requires explanation.
“Hacktinoshing”: using special techniques, utilities, and bootloaders to make the Mac OS run on non-Apple hardware. “Dell Mini 9 netbook”: A low-powered notebook computer with very few system resources, designed to run Windows XP. It’s small enough to fit in the back pocket of those trousers I own that have big back pockets, and costs about $300. “A real education”: several hours of frustration, followed by 20 minutes of inspired guesswork, followed by success. I’ve been using this machine for three weeks now and the experience of using the same software I’ve been relying on for a decade on a machine not made by Apple has been slightly revolutionary.
Visually, the Mini 9 is boring. I remember when Apple sent me an Air to test. I must have spent the first hour just enjoying the feel of it in my hands and admiring its lines and contours. The Dell is simply what it is. Two of them could be parked side by side in the footprint of my MacBook Pro but, otherwise, it’s a standard, unremarkable design.
Ah! But the fact that it’s chunky as opposed to hunky means there’s plenty of room for ports. Three USB ports, Ethernet, a standard VGA adaptor plus an SDHC card reader come standard. My big complaint about the Air was its almost comical lack of ports.
If you ask, “Why doesn’t the Air have more USB ports? And adding insult to injury, why do I have to tie up that one precious port with a USB Ethernet adaptor if I want to use wired networking?”. Apple has a sensible and rational answer for you: it’s a wireless world out there. There’s a convincing logic to that. Apple really does think things through. It always has a clear picture in mind of who the intended user is and how this person relates to a machine.
I suspect that this is a big reason why Apple has no interest in making a notebook as tiny as the Dell Mini 9. You can’t get around the fact that the keyboard and screen need to be small. There’s no room for an internal hard drive, either; it ships with either a 32, 16 or just an 8GB solid-state drive.
What nonsense! If you presented such a cramped design to Steve Jobs, you’d soon be picking pieces of the prototype out of the far wall of his office. And perhaps your scalp too.
But what if as a consumer, you really really want a tiny, ultra-mobile machine? Can you make those sacrifices? Sure, if you look outside the Apple catalogue. And that’s perfectly fine. By its nature, the Dell isn’t a computer that you’d use for photo editing, or long days of writing. And if I do decide to use it that way, I’m free to just buy a mini USB keyboard for $30 from just about anywhere, or attach an external hard drive.
What if you also really really want the ability to work all day on battery? In Apple’s world, it depends on whether you fit the type the company had in mind when it designed your MacBook. On that particular Cupertino whiteboard, 17in MacBook Pro owners are the only people on the planet who want to run all day without swapping batteries.
Oh, you own a 13in MacBook? No, you don’t want longer-life batteries; you must be mistaken. At least you’re not an Air owner. Those people don’t even want the ability to swap batteries at all. It’s a fact! Apple has data on that.
Dell really doesn’t do that kind of thinking. If you want a (thick, ugly) nine-hour battery, your lifestyle doesn’t enter into it. Just buy one from any of a half-dozen third-party sources.
Paying a premium
This column isn’t supposed to encourage you do go out and buy a Dell Mini 9, by the way. It’s supposed to encourage you and me to think about the Apple Tax and how strongly we often defend it.
You know... the price difference between a Mac and a comparable piece of Windows hardware. “It’s a premium price, sure,” I often say. “But it’s premium hardware. Apple doesn’t build junk. Every machine it makes is the result of careful consideration of the user and the ways in which he or she will be relying on this hardware.”
I still believe that, of course. All the same, this little Dell has proven a few things to me:
1) A Mac that’s “cheap as hell” doesn’t need to be “useless as a cotton bicycle”. For $1,000, I want a powerful machine with a normal-sized screen, keyboard, and hard drive (aka: an entry-level MacBook). For $300, I’m happy to make do. The Mini 9 runs the Mac OS perfectly well and does things my MacBook Pro doesn’t (like encourage me to take a Mac with me every time I leave the house for more than an hour).
2) Windows software stinks but the hardware is perfectly OK. I guess I’ve never been able to judge this stuff with true objectivity but there’s nothing wrong with a Windows notebook. In fact, there’s much to envy. Why doesn’t Apple put an SDHC card reader on its notebooks? I hope the answer is “we’re philosophically opposed to including a feature that can so easily be duplicated with an add-on device” and not “because cutting a hole in the side of this object would make it less pretty.” Neither is a terrific answer but at least the first one is slightly credible.
3) When Windows people complain about how Apple leaves its users with few choices... they have a point. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let you have an air rifle when you were a kid. “You’ll put your eye out!” they warned. Sometimes it seems like Apple won’t let us have an ultra-compact notebook, super-high-capacity batteries, SD card readers, or a sensible number of USB ports on the Air for the same reason. In the end, that reason isn’t “we have your best interests in mind” but “we have all the power in this relationship.” Only Apple decides what sorts of computers to make, and it also exerts a hell of a lot of control over what you can do with them.
That rankles. The Dell works great for me, largely thanks to all of the options I can choose on my own. I’m a grown up, for crimeny’s sake. And for the record, when I moved out of the house and finally got my air rifle, all of the eyes that got shot out were other people’s. So there.