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Monday 13 March 2006

The OS That Dare Not Speak Its Name [DrDave]

About a hundred thousand years ago, it was an Age Of Heroes. Real men wielded great slabs of plastic called "Amigas", and cast down all-comers with boasts of true multitasking or elaborate custom chips. There was peace throughout the land, and also many games of Supercars 2. But the peace was not to last. From the west came knights bearing PCs and Macs, alien pieces of kit that seemed inferior to Amigas in many ways, yet their sheer numerical advantage caused the Amiga faithful to flee from their advance. Many true brothers sought refuge in a little known process called Shapeshifting. It was thought that taking on the guise of your enemy would prove yourself worthy of recognition, but they were also taken by the notion of readily available software - Word, Civ 2, Marathon. The world, however, moved on and these brave few, though matching an equivalent 680x0 chip cycle for cycle, died out. Time passed...
In the last couple of years, Apple have done something rather odd. They've chucked out the whole clunky proprietry OS of old, had their alchemists perform grotesque experiments on Linux kernels and produced something really rather magical. OSX. Not content with their nature-bending OS ways, they've also dumped the PPC chip, long-vaunted by Mac enthusiasts and embraced the whole Intel experience. There's even talk that you can take pretty much any device and plug it into a modern Mac and have a fairly reasonable chance of it working - blasphemy I tells ya!
Well, naturally, this new accessible Macintosh system has attracted the freedom loving recidivists in the PC world. Probably compelled by the swish pulsating progress bars, or the liberally sprinkled boiled sweet icons, a whole community of OSX86 devotees has sprung up and created a badly organised message board. With one goal in mind, to run OSX on standard PC hardware, these pioneers seek to appease the spirits of the long dead Amiga Shapeshifters. Hurrah!
Never one to let a sunday afternoon pass without breaking hardware of some kind, I decided to embark on my own journey. With a freshly burned OSX DVD in hand, and my trusty squire Kaveman at my side for advice and guidance (he'd already done it the previous week), I set about trying to put a luminescent boiled sweet shaped peg into a square hole.
Bugger me! It actually works. I could go on for hours about how torturous the process was, or how much hacking around I needed to do to get it running at a basic level, but I'd be making it up. By far the hardest, most nailbiting part of it was resizing my XP partition. After that, it was simply a matter of booting from the DVD, clicking on some sweets and sitting back with a tin of cold beer. Okay, so it wasn't entirely without incident. It was no fun whatsoever to reboot after install and find "Missing Operating System" messages at startup for example (the install removes the active flag from you primary partition).
For the most part though, getting into OSX in a reasonably useable state is an hour's work. Less time, incidentally, than it takes to get Linux running.
How much functionality you will have after booting is very machine dependent. For instance, I had: no usb mouse, no wifi, no ethernet, no higher resolution graphics and no power management functions on my laptop. So, okay, it's not entirely painless, but remember, this is an operating system running on a machine that it wasn't remotely designed for. A couple of hours on the wiki had most of these problems sorted out - wifi and power management still remain bugbears.
So what is it like to use? OSX is kind of odd, especially approaching from this angle. To get things running, you need to get down and hack around at a fairly low level. Now, this is precisely what Macs are designed to not have to do. So you'll find yourself frustrated by the lack of functionality to edit, for example, a driver. I very nearly gave up thanks to the annoyance of having to enter my password everytime I did anything remotely related to drivers. But I got through it, and I started to realise that I was using the system in a way that it wasn't intended. When I finally got it stable enough to use it as an OS, I was very pleasantly surprised.
It is the kind of experience that requires you to forget your over-complex XP preconditioning and just do things. If you want to install an application, just drag it into the applications folder. No complex install procedures or anything. Downloaded files mount as new drives, offering you options instantly. Lots of little things that work completely counter to what we have been told to expect.
OSX also has a some very nice, unique features of its own. Expose lets you specify hotspots on the screen which, when the mouse moves into it, will trigger every window on the screen to scale down and display simultaneously. Very useful, much more so than a virtual desktop. The dock at the bottom of the screen bounces and wobbles nicely, but also remains functional - an IM client displays notifications in the form of a dancing parrot for example. Windows minimise to little icons showing their contents. It is a very nicely designed UI, far more so than other Linux GUIs.
In terms of performance, it is somewhat surprising. My Centrino Pentium M 1.7GHz with 3/4Gb of RAM runs it very nicely indeed. From power on to desktop is 20 seconds! Yes, 20 seconds. Screens move around smoothly, sweets wobble without glitching and apps are very responsive. I haven't figured out how to get accelerated graphics yet, so video playback is limited, but it does work if the window is not overly large.
In summary, it is an interesting experiment. I don't for one minute think that it is a viable replacement quite yet - no wifi or power management on my lappy are the deal breaker for me. But it is very close. Apple need to see this and get the OS released for normal PCs sharpish, they much just make a bit of money out of it.


  1. To be fair Dave, Apple clearly know very well they can run OSX on a regular laptop. Their new Intel-based laptops basically just *are* regular OEM-built laptops just with a weird BIOS alternative system. There once was a time that Apple let any build Macs. You could buy all sorts of spec machines of generally higher performance and lower cost than Apple provided. However that was short lived, they realised they needed/wanted to sell the hardware themselves.
    The difference between then and now is that now Apple is a household name with household brands and actually has the capability to be a genuine Windows replacement operating system. Consumers would flock to it in droves thanks to the ease of use and the killer apps like iTunes/iLife etc. Yet still they cling to the idea of selling hardware first and foremost.
    As ever, it seems, Apple is its own worst enemy.

  2. Well, as Dave says, this really isn't hard at all. Installed after one false start (the partition manager in the OSX installer is not the best thing in the world) - once this hurdle was overcome, instant joy. Sound and ethernet working out of the box - looks like I got lucky on the hardware front.
    Having lived with several Mac freaks this year, I've had some exposure to OSX - it really is a lovely OS, I just wasn't willing to pay the premium for the 'trendy' hardware for the privelege of using it. Once hardware support becomes more widespread (and, knowing the lunix freaks, it will do soon enough), I really think that this would be a really feasible desktop alternative.
    I can only add my voice to those wondering why Apple are refusing to market this as a standalone OS - it would give them a serious chance of challenging Microsoft's domination of the home PC market. Sigh - such is Jobs.

  3. It raises the question for us though, what would make you switch? I'd switch now, more or less, if I could run it and do my shit. The problem is that I like firing up games and alt-tabbing back to Windows shit running there. With something like this you'd have to dual boot right? Boot into OSX to do non-gamey stuff, boot into XP to game. Even with WoW, you're going to want to boot into XP for the better performance right? I'm just saying that gaming throws something of a spanner in the works regarding us using it as a desktop replacement.

  4. Yes, it's still a dual boot jobby. That said, I tend to find that I don't do much work on my gaming box? Not sure how representative this is, but for me, laptop/work machines are for work, desktop is for games/pissing about. As to WoW performance, I couldn't comment. That's all going to come down to driver support again: if you're running an X800, you're probably in luck. 9700 Mobility is less likely to be of use...