if its too loud, turn it down

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My experience with a Dell Mini 10v and Snow Leopard

Hackbook

I work on a MacBook Pro 2.33ghz laptop with 3G of RAM and it has suited me fine for almost three years now. The only thing that worries me is that if I lost it, it was stolen or it just plain died, I'd be S.O.L. I'd have no way to get work done until I get a new computer set up. But I didn't want to plunk down the however many thousands for another mac just for peace of mind. Enter the netbook.

When I discovered that OS X could be installed on one of the more popular netbooks, the Dell Mini, I immediately bought the 10v. The Dell Mini is one of the few PCs out there that OS X can be installed on almost without fail, and with all the functions and devices working. And the best thing about them, they start at $250.

When I got it though, I was disappointed. The whole thing is just cheap...cheap, cheap, cheap. You truly do get what you pay for. And yes I DO realize I didn't pay much. The keyboard is tiny, the trackpad is awful and the worst part is, the max screen res is 1024x600. At best, this thing is a toy. The saving grace is that it has 3 USB ports and VGA out, so you can hook up an external keyboard, mouse and monitor and it becomes somewhat usable. So ultimately, even though I feel this computer is not really viable on its own...it does suit my purpose for it as my backup computer.

Upgrading the Hardware

The 10v comes with a 1.6ghz Intel Atom N270 processor, 1GB of RAM and either a small solid state drive or a 160GB 5400 RPM SATA drive. I opted for the latter, because the SSD drives were just too small. I should have gone with an SSD drive anyway, as I later decided that a 5400rpm drive was going to be too slow. So I bought a Hitachi 360GB 7200rpm OEM drive. I also bought a cheap 2GB stick of RAM. I wanted to make this thing as fast as possible despite its diminutive size.

Before doing any OS installation, I set out to replace the RAM and HD. Dell didn't make it easy to replace the RAM. Its buried inside, underneath the motherboard. You basically have to disassemble the entire computer to replace it. Fortunately, I found the video below. The guy did a very nice job...without his help I never would haven gotten it done.



Downgrading the BIOS

For some reason, the BIOS that ships with the 10v (A06) will not support(/allow?) OS X to be installed, so I had to downgrade the BIOS to A04. I followed this guide and was able to accomplish that without too much difficulty (you need access to a windows computer, I used winXP/Parallels on my mac, and a thumb drive). NOTE: when downloading the BIOS from the Dell site, be sure you get the one that says "DOS version".

Installing Snow Leopard

To do this, I followed these instructions precisely. It is the best guide on the internet for installing Snow Leopard on a 10v I could find. The only problems I encountered were that the computer would hang on the "Dell Inspiron" bootup screen for a long time (5 min) and then finally boot...until I realized that for some reason it doesn't like my external DVD-R drive. So, I unplugged that at boot-time and it boots fine. (The DVD drive works fine when I plug it in after the computer boots).

Software Installation

Once you're in the OS, software installs like it normally would. There were only two issues I have come across:

Virtual Machines

Out of the 3 main virtual machine software providers (Parallels, VirtualBox, VMware), only VMware's "Fusion Desktop for Mac" will work. They all install OK, but VirtualBox is incredibly unstable, and Parallels just shows an error message to the effect of "You can't use this version of the application Parallels Desktop with this verson of Mac OS X". I saw some posts that seemed to say that it's because the hardware doesn't support "virtualization" and that Parallels 3.0 works. I tried that, and it didn't (same error). Why VMware works and the others don't? I have no idea, but it's OK with me. I very rarely use windows anyway.

Macports/X11

The other problem I had was that some Macports software would not install. This is more of a Snow Leopard issue than a 10v issue though. Specifically, mplayer would not install via macports. However, I found this very nice GUI version of mplayer for Snow Leopard which has the command-line version rolled into it. Just create a symlink to it like this:
sudo ln -s /Applications/MPlayer\ OSX\ Extended.app/Contents/Resources/External_Binaries/mplayer.app/Contents/MacOS/mplayer /usr/bin/mplayer
UPDATE: as of 11/5/09 Macports mplayer is not supported in Snow Leopard, but mplayer-devel is. My first try at installing it failed, but I tried the following today and it compiled, installed and works:
sudo port -v install mplayer-devel +binary_codecs +dts +dv +x264 +faac -glx +theora +twolame +xvid
The other issue I had was with gnucash, which depends on the gnome libraries and X11 (X11 is in the "Optional Installs - Developer Tools" on the Snow Leopard DVD). It compiled and installed fine, but wouldn't run. It just kept spitting this error out:
Dynamic session lookup supported but failed: launchd did not provide a socket path, verify that org.freedesktop.dbus-session.plist is loaded!
The fix is to first make sure dbus is installed. Then run this command as the user who is running the X11 app:
launchctl load -w /Library/LaunchAgents/org.freedesktop.dbus-session.plist
Bad, bad, really bad news...

If this rumor is true then I will forever be stuck with 10.6.1, which isn't good. Pretty lame, in fact.

UPDATE: Some very well-mannered gentlemen on the forums at the myDellMini site kindly let me know that the rumor may not be true.

Pros & Cons / Final thoughts

The good...
  • Quite portable
  • Cheap
  • Reasonably powerful given its size and price
  • VGA out, 3 USB ports
  • Long battery life, 6-cell battery available with 7+ hours reported
  • Works flawlessly with Snow Leopard - everything supported!
The bad...
  • 1024 X 600 max screen resolution. Nuts.
  • Display has a blue-ish cast
  • Trackpad is so poor it's un-usable
  • Keyboard is compacted, issues typing on it
  • No hardware virtualization
  • Further OS updates will be impossible
  • Very difficult to upgrade hard drive and memory
  • No holes for the VGA cable to screw into, keeps falling out
This is a fun little project, but in light of the fact you have to use an external keyboard/mouse/display to operate this thing (making its portability basically obsolete), and the fact that I probably won't be able to upgrade the OS ever again...if I could do it again I'd probably build a cheap hackintosh desktop box with a processor that will definitely continue to be supported - like a core 2 duo. It should cost about the same amount of money - ok, maybe a little more, but not nearly as much as a new mac - and would be a much faster computer.

...I find it somewhat ironic that Dell, notorious for making laptops too large, is now the leading manufacturer of the netbook, a laptop that's way too small. IN MY HUMBLE OPINION!!