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.

A US company called Psystar claims that it's selling a 'generic Mac' for $549 (£225) or $399 (£200) without OS X. While such a move seems to violate Apple's end-user licence agreement, it indicates just how the age-old topic of running the Mac OS on non-Apple hardware has mutated in this modern, Intel-Mac age.

I'm not going to advocate that Apple's users rush out and configure a faux Mac of their very own, but the reality is that Apple's computers are now Intel-based PCs through and through.

The existence of modern Mac clones, whether they come in a complete package from the likes Psystar or in pieces from a variety of computer-parts manufacturers, allows me to ask several questions about Apple's Mac hardware. Yes, it lets me gauge the price and performance of Mac hardware by comparing it with non-Apple hardware.

But it also lets me explore a topic that, prior to Apple's switch to Intel processors, I could only speculate on - the performance of Mac systems that simply don't exist.

While Apple has an excellent selection of laptops, entry-level Macs, and high-end machines, it doesn't offer anything at all in the way of a moderately powerful, expandable tower PC model.

Although the iMac offers good performance, it's an all-in-one machine with limited expandability and a monitor that not everyone may need.

As I don't want or need a machine with a built-in monitor, and I don't need the power of an eight-core Mac Pro, but I'd like my Mac to be faster and more expandable than a Mac mini. I want more than one slot and room for more drives.

Tired of waiting and hoping for the Mac of my dreams to appear, I decided to take the technology into my own hands and build it myself. And thus began my experiment to assemble my very own OS X-running machine.

Note that I'm not planning on diving into the technical details of building your own Mac. Rather, for this article, I'm focusing on the parts I used to make my own computer, the end result of my operations, and how the machine performs. Think of it as me building an off-brand Mac so that you don't have to.

NEXT PAGE: Building my own Mac

  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

Click here for the latest Mac news

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.

Building the FrankenMac

To realise my dream Mac system, I set myself a budget of £500, not including keyboard, monitor, or mouse, and started shopping for computer parts. While this amount is much more than what Psystar claims it will charge, I wanted to build a more powerful machine than what that company is offering, and then see how well it worked compared with machines from Apple.

When you build your own PC, you must decide exactly what goes into it - an absolute freedom that comes with absolute responsibility.

You must choose the motherboard, processor, CPU cooling solution, video card, hard drives, CD/DVD burner, memory, case, and possibly even the power supply.

To make things even more challenging, if you're building a Mac-compatible PC, you've got to stick with certain hardware that's known to work with Mac OS X. I spent a lot of time searching the web to find out what worked and what didn't.

When I set out to configure my machine, I wanted to make it reasonably fast with the best video card I could fit into my budget, and with lots of room for expansion. (I plan on using this machine as a platform to test various Mac-to-Windows tips, and of course it will be a dedicated machine for certain Windows-only applications that I absolutely must be able to run. For those reasons, I need it to run Windows Vista as well as possible, as that will ultimately be the machine's primary role.

When the dust settled, I wound up with the list of components, the total cost of which, was just over £490, leaving about a tenner for dinner out before I hit my budget limit. And as the list shows, this was clearly a 'lots of assembly required' project.

After all of the parts arrived at my home, it took a few hours to build the machine. If you've never built your own computer before, it's an interesting experience, there's something quite satisfying about putting it all together, powering it up, and hearing that first beep that lets you know you haven't just turned your collection of parts into a collection of junk.

Of course, if you don't hear the beep, there's an entirely different reaction, one that borders on panic. Thankfully, I heard the beep. But assembling the hardware is actually the easy part of the process.

Next, I installed Vista on the PC, just to be sure everything worked. From there, it then took many more hours to get OS X working right, while the process is relatively straightforward, many steps are involved, with many BIOS settings to tweak. If you want to run Windows and OS X on the same drive, there are more hoops to jump through to get it all working.

But after many hours of reading, assembling, disassembling, screaming, installing, uninstalling, reinstalling, saying bad words, pestering friends, and generally not having very much fun, I was done: my machine was up and running, and capable of booting into either Windows Vista or Mac OS X 10.5.2.

NEXT PAGE: Booting up our home-made Mac

  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

Click here for the latest Mac news

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.

Booting up our home-made Mac

My machine, which I've named the FrankenMac, doesn't look anything like a Mac from the outside, of course.

FrankenMac

The Antec case is glossy black, with a swing-open door that hides the externally accessible drive bays, along with two USB ports, one eSATA port, and audio jacks on a shiny metallic strip on the front. And if you happen to be sitting in front of it when it starts up, the BIOS loading screen and black-and-white text-based boot loader (which lets me choose between Vista and OS X) is a dead giveaway that this is not your normal Mac.

However, if I were to hide the case and set you down in front of the monitor when the system was already running, you'd be convinced that you were using a 'real' Mac, with one minor exception - if you were to open the 'About This Mac' box, you'd see a big clue that this machine isn't your typical Mac. I don't think Apple's ever shipped an 'unknown' processor!

But close the 'About' box and just start using the machine, and you'll be using a 'real' Mac, one that performs (mostly) just like its factory-approved counterpart.

The FrankenMac runs any OS X program, including PowerPC-based apps, via the Rosetta code-translation system. The CD/DVD burner works with iTunes, iDVD, and iMovie. Even low-level stuff like Sleep mode works, although I have to wake the FrankenMac by touching the power button; the keyboard and mouse are ignored while the machine is sleeping.

(That may be due to the fact that I'm using a wireless Microsoft keyboard and mouse over USB - I haven't tested it with Apple-branded hardware.)

On the hardware front, everything also seems to work fine. The onboard ethernet, audio, USB, eSATA, and FireWire ports all work. I even found an old USB/FireWire PCI card (from a previous generic Windows machine I built), plugged it in, and connected my iSight camera to it with no problems whatsoever. I plugged in my Wacom tablet, installed the drivers, and found that it also works just fine, including handwriting recognition via the Ink System Preferences panel.

Then I took advantage of the fact that I'd built a machine in a case of my choosing: I installed a hot-swap SATA drive bay.

NEXT PAGE: How our DIY Mac performed compared to the Mac Pro

  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

Click here for the latest Mac news

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.

How well does it work?

But the real question is, just how does the £490 FrankenMac compete with Apple's hardware? Overall, quite well. To get a sense of just how well, I ran a few tests here, though I plan to ship the whole machine off for an official run through our Speedmark test suite.

For my unofficial testing, I used a few old favourites - Xbench for overall benchmarking, Cinebench for graphics, and a quick blast through the standard Quake 3 timed demo to give a sense for raw gaming performance. I ran the tests on both the FrankenMac and my Mac Pro (a 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon with 4GB of RAM and the ATI X1900xt video card).

Using Xbench, the FrankenMac beat the Mac Pro on the overall score, 149 to 143. Within the individual tests, the Mac Pro was faster at the CPU, thread, and OpenGL tests, while the FrankenMac was better at the memory, Quartz graphics, user interface, and disk tests.

Overall, there's not much difference in the two machines' Xbench results and keep in mind that the Mac Pro is more than twice as expensive as the FrankenMac.

The Cinebench results reflected the faster processors in the Mac Pro, helping it win the CPU-rendering tests, the Mac Pro won the single-CPU test by about 10 percent, and the multiple-CPU test by about 3 percent. The OpenGL rendering results were basically a dead heat, separated by less than a single percentage point.

The Quake3 benchmark test was fun, both machines blast through this aging game's demo mode amazingly quickly. At the end of the test, though, the FrankenMac beat the Mac Pro, scoring 756 frames per second (fps) to the Mac Pro's 655fps. I also ripped a portion of a DVD using HandBrake, and found the Mac Pro to be about 10 percent faster than the FrankenMac, which is the difference in the clock speed of the two machines' processors.

Based on my unofficial results, it appears that my home-built machine compares quite favourably with a much more expensive Mac Pro. We'll have to wait for the official Speedmark benchmark, though, to see how it does on a broader and more-demanding set of tests.

NEXT PAGE: The pitfalls of DIY Macs

  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

Click here for the latest Mac news

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

Click here for the latest Mac news

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.

Wrapping it all up

Overall, I was satisfied with the FrankenMac. (Note the use of past tense: it will be converted into its official role as a Windows gaming system and a platform for testing cross-platform Mac OS X hints once it returns from its battery of tests) While it was fun to build the FrankenMac, the truth is that I'm not generally willing to live with the downsides of a build-your-own Mac over the real thing fresh from Apple's factory.

When I buy a machine from Apple, I know that one warranty covers everything, that all the parts have been designed to work together, that system updates won't leave me with a non-bootable system, and that as much thought went into the design of the interior of the machine as went into the exterior.

Having visited the build-your-own side of the Mac world, I've decided I'm more than happy letting Apple build my Macs for me, it's shown it's much better at it than I am. And who knows? Maybe one day that midrange Mac minitower of my dreams will no longer be mythical.

  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

Click here for the latest Mac news