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My day in the Mactel underground installing OS x86


Last week I was listening to This Week in Tech, with the golden voice of Leo Laporte. Apparently Leo had refused a copy of os x86 that had been offered to him by some punk kids. Me? I love punk kids. They pay my bills (because I'm paid to teach them). So it was with great glee that one such punk kid let me know about a little experiment... He and some friends were going to put OS x86 on his Dell. He offered transportation to an undisclosed site where the grand plan would unfold, and I told him I'd check it out.

Brace yourself for a walk through the seamy underbelly of Macdom. Let's face it, all this business has Apple a little ruffled. And Mac purists just roll their eyes, knowing whatever comes out of Cupertino next year will be loads better than the VAIO's, Dells, and e-Machines currently sporting the little OS that could. I'm going to explain what we had to go through to get all this working, and what we had by the end of the day. Read on— if you dare!

My buddy (and his brethren) had of course obtained a copy of os x86 that's been making the rounds on Bittorrent. It's the VMWare one from "Curtis" but for our purposes we were going to run it without VMWare. This is the method we found over at Unfortunately, the "how to" was a little lacking, which cost us a lot of time. By the way, I noticed the post at 360 has changed somewhat since it was first posted, but several errors are still there.

Since the first step had been done for us, we proceeded to pop the 2 GB+ DVD with the .bz2 file on it into a PowerMac G5 tower. We had an external USB drive (80 GB) and plugged it in. After unpacking the tar twice to get inside, we had a number of files inside a folder. You only need ONE for the 360hacker method. All those other files are for the VMWare install (I think). The OS X image file is a little over 6 GB! So when we tried to copy to our external HD, it didn't work. Why? Because the drive came from the factory formatted as FAT32. And as you Windoze converts might know, you can't have files over 2 GB on a FAT32 drive.

Unfortunately, what made sense next didn't readily come to us. Ideally all we had to do was plug the drive into the PC, reformat as NTFS, and using the network (between the Dell and Mac), transfer the file. Slower, but effective. Instead, like a bunch of boneheads, we reformatted the drive as a UNIX volume. Once again, failure. At least we knew HFS+ wouldn't work, because Ubuntu wouldn't read it. We reformatted the drive as NTFS on the PC side after that, only to discover NTFS volumes on the Mac are read-only! Why this insistence on using the Mac? Because unpacking tar's on Windows makes baby Jesus cry.

So we figured it out. It took surprisingly little time to send that 6 GB file from Mac to PC (external drive) over the network. Once the .img file was on there we were ready to rock. Unfortunately the guy who was supposed to bring the Ubuntu live CD had left it at home. So we started to download the ISO... And that's when we went out for brunch.

Once we had a Live CD for Ubuntu, we thought we were ready. Ubuntu is really slick. I've used Red Hat, Knoppix, Linspire, and Fedora, but Ubuntu was quite cool. The live CD worked flawlessly, and when I plugged in the external HD it magically appeared on the desktop. First time I'd seen that on a Linux distro, but maybe only because it's the first time I'd ever tried. Anyway, I opened up the removable drive and saw our image file. Now we were ready to rock and roll.


Sadly, it was not to be. None of us could remember how to use spaces when doing a simple cd command to get into the external drive in the command line. In other words, we couldn't navigate to our image file within the Terminal. Dang. Now we had to go in and rename the volume, which meant a trip back to Windows. Ug. By the way, the instructions we used said to get to the external volume using /Devices, but that didn't work. We used /media and it worked...

Once we changed the name of "New Volume" to "NewVolume" things went better. We could see the file in Terminal. Now we carefully typed in the magic bit of code necessary to copy the image file to the Dell's internal HD... It was a lot like casting a secret enchantment. As my friend read the command aloud and typed, we all mouthed the words...

What did we get? Permission denied. Over and over (tried all hda's). Problem was, this particular drive we were using had a Seagate drive with Fedora on it. Somehow this drive had become locked, so that even as root we couldn't reformat or write over it. Stupid permissions!

After trying two or three floppy-based methods of erasing the drive, I was ready to get a magnet. This thing was locked up tighter than a fruit fly's rear-end. Then somebody sitting in the corner, nursing a bold blend from Starbucks, suggested going to Seagate's site and using their tools. Duh!

OK, Ubuntu Live CD, check. External drive with disk image, check. Internal drive with permssion to overwrite? Finally, a check. The magic DD command did the rest. A mere 8 minutes later and we were looking at each other with anticipation. Did it work? It looks like it's done!

We shut the machine down, ejecting the CD, unplugging the external HD, and sitting back for a moment. Taking a deep breath, we booted up. And lo and behold, there was the grey Apple logo! Unfortunately, again, we were stymied. It hung. We rebooted again, this time choosing Safe Boot. Success! Oh, wait, that password thing...

The 360hacker post mentions some diagnostic screen, and more CLI codes. Quite frankly, we never got there. The machine seemed to hang up when we tried, and we never got to the command line. So we ran a quick Google search for deadmoo's password. Within seconds we were booting up again, and this time, it was for real.

I cannot describe the surreal feeling of seeing the Mac OS running on a Dell box. For a moment I felt like I was in the bowels of Apple's secret labs (which would be a lot more like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" than I care to admit). A kid in a candy store. It was also a little creepy. But there it went. Dashboard worked, Safari launched, everything seemed in order. Since we're in safe mode it wouldn't connect to the internet, but no matter. It was working! We never could boot normally.

So what's it like? On our machine, which is a stock Optiplex with a 2.4 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM, x86 was very slow. A little bit of lag between click and response. I noticed a bit of graphic noise every time a menu fade out effect or other graphic candy was supposed to happen. When we opened up Activity Monitor we saw our problem: the processor was at 100% all the time! I have no idea why.

Ultimately there's no way we're going to be using this as a production machine. I know some people have had super-zippy systems running at tremendous speed, but I just didn't see it. Besides, we destroyed the disc and erased the drive. So please Apple, don't sue me. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Now I hope I never have to see another Dell running OS X for as long as I live.

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