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Analysis: how to build an OS X-free, expandable Mac

Tested: OS X-free Mac clone vs Apple Mac Pro

Ever thought about building a Mac to your exact requirements? Don't pick up your screwdriver until you've read about our attempt to build a Mac - and the pitfalls we encountered.

Don't try this at home

Given the above results, you may be thinking 'Geez, I should go build one myself!' Before making such a decision, however, you need to consider the pitfalls of building your own Mac - and there are many.

As I noted earlier, building a computer from parts isn't necessarily a simple thing to do, you'll need patience and the ability to follow poorly translated instructions to get everything put together. To get the best pricing on the various parts, you've got to be willing to shop around. I wound up buying parts from four suppliers, and by doing so, saved close to £100. But finding the cheapest parts takes time and effort.

Once you've built your machine, the end product isn't something that you'll be able to get serviced at your local Mac store. It's not even under one warranty, each part has its own warranty, which means you're in for a bit of a service nightmare if you have problems.

You'll have to diagnose the cause, figure out which part(s) are involved, negotiate a return approval from each involved supplier, then ship those parts out for replacement.

Even if your machine is running fine, you may experience odd hardware issues - the FrankenMac, for instance, doesn't fully shut down properly. OS X itself shuts down, and the screen goes blank, but the fans and hard drive continue to run, so I have to manually press the power button to truly turn off the machine.

There's also a good chance that future system updates may cause problems with my Mac OS X installation. I can't just blindly accept every Software Update that comes down the pipeline. Finally, and perhaps most important, to make your machine run Mac OS X, you have to violate the OS X end-user licence agreement, and perhaps copyright law, depending on how you get things done.

Beyond the functional, legal, and moral issues, there are aesthetic and design concerns. While the case I purchased is nice-looking, it's clearly not in the same league as the case on the Mac Pro.

There are some rough edges in the back, the front door is attached with somewhat weak-feeling plastic hinges, and opening the case requires removing a couple of thumbscrews and wiggling a side panel loose.

If you open the case on a Mac Pro and on the FrankenMac, you can really see where some of the added cost of an Apple machine goes: Apple spends quite a bit of time and money working on the interior of its machines.

Just compare the innards of the latest Mac Pro with the FrankenMac. On the Mac Pro, all the cables are hidden, the slide-in drive bays are covered with numbered doors, non-user-accessible parts are hidden behind aluminum covers, and the entire thing has the look of the engine bay in a Lexus, Mercedes, or other high-end car.

The inside of the FrankenMac, on the other hand, bears a striking resemblance to the engine bay in my first car - loose wires everywhere, sharp edges just waiting to find an unsuspecting finger, and parts that I clearly shouldn't be touching sitting right there in the open. Any day now, I expect to find a puddle of oil underneath the machine after a particularly intensive work session.

And while the inside of the Mac Pro is clearly the nicer looking of the two, it has function going for it as well as form. While both machines mount internal drives in slide-in bays, on the Mac Pro, the drive and bay then slide right into the SATA connector. On the FrankenMac, I have to dig into that bundle of cables and fish out a SATA connector, then route it down to the drive bay.

There's room for eight sticks of RAM on the Mac Pro (on two easy-to-use slide-out cards), but just four sticks on the FrankenMac (and I have to wedge my hands inside the case to install it, and risk damaging the huge heat sink on the CPU). Even just opening the case is nicer on the Mac Pro, as it has no thumbscrews, and no rough edges to be found once opened.

NEXT PAGE: Mac clone vs Apple Mac: our expert verdict

  1. OS X-free Mac clone vs Apple Mac Pro
  2. Building my own Mac
  3. Booting up our home-made Mac
  4. How our DIY Mac performed compared to the Mac Pro
  5. The pitfalls of DIY Macs
  6. Mac clone vs Apple Mac: our expert verdict

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