Yes, we are diehard PC fans, and yes, we like Apple's products. (We're PC enthusiasts, not idiots.) But with Macs oh so expensive, we think it informative to see how OS X performs on a computer that isn’t a Mac.

So when our sister magazine, Macworld, ordered a Psystar Open Computer about a week or so ago on which to test a copy of OS X, we were naturally a little intrigued. Psystar touts its Open Computer as a low-cost alternative to Apple’s hardware and, at just £275 with OS X preinstalled, it's certainly that.

The Psystar Open Computer features a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of 667MHz RAM and a 250GB hard drive (specifically, a Hitachi Deskstar). The base model includes Intel’s integrated graphics, though if you have any spare cash you can grab an nVidia GeForce 8600GT for an extra $110 (£55).

First impressions

If Psystar is all about giving you the Mac OS X experience at a more affordable price, it was immediately obvious that product packaging is one area where the company is looking to trim costs. When the box arrived, we found it stuffed with white foam packing peanuts, making the unpacking process a big mess - we hate those things. Indeed, the Psystar Open Computer was swamped with packing peanuts, and not a lot else. Some of the doors on the front of the case that cover the optical drive and the USB ports were ajar, with little pieces of packing peanuts lodged inside. After we cleared out the offending bits, the doors closed properly and the computer appeared to be no worse for wear.

We had a bit of scare, however, when we tried to start up the Psystar Open Computer. On hitting the power button the machine made noises as if we'd switched on a garbage disposal; rather, one of the power cables was getting caught in the fan. After rerouting the cable and restarting the machine, the fan was still pretty darn loud. You wouldn't want this computer sitting on your desk.

Psystar's Open Computer booted up and immediately recognised a FireWire drive, then questioned whether this should be used as a Time Machine backup drive. However, while the drive icon changed to reflect its new status, the backup would immediately fail each time it attempted to run.

Psystar's website lists available software update downloads, including one for fixing Time Machine errors. Psystar turns off the Mac OS’s automatic System Update feature, so you need to download and install updates manually. One might think that the company would send you a Psystar Open Computer that’s as up-to-date as possible, but that’s not the case. Tech support told Macworld that a download would be made available in the next couple weeks to enable Psystar users to take advantage of Apple’s Software Update utility.

For Mac testing, we use Migration Assistant to transfer our Speedmark user files and folders to our test system from a clean system booted into FireWire Target Disk Mode - and that process worked just fine with the Psystar Open Computer. We found, however, that we were unable to boot the Psystar Open Computer into FireWire Target disk mode. The tech support person didn’t think that Psystar offered that feature. Other startup options, such as SafeBoot, zapping of PRAM and startup drive selection via the Option key, were also unavailable.

We successfully cloned the internal drive to an external FireWire drive using Carbon Copy Cloner, but were unable to boot from it. It sounds like a couple of folks in the Psystar forums were able to find a way to do it, but they weren’t giving out specific instructions. We’ll continue to look into that.

>>NEXT PAGE: Test Centre performance

Yes, we are diehard PC fans, and yes, we like Apple's products. (We're PC enthusiasts, not idiots.) But with Macs oh so expensive, we think it informative to see how OS X performs on a computer that isn’t a Mac.

Psystar Open Computer's Test Centre performance

What do you get when you install Mac OS X on a generic Intel-powered computer with a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor? A system that, performance-wise, falls somewhere between a Mac mini and a low-end iMac, according to our testing.

At any rate, that was what happened when we ran Psystar's Open Computer through our battery of benchmark tests. Using our Speedmark tool for benchmarking new and upgraded systems, Psystar's would-be Mac clone runs about 28 percent faster than a 2GHz Mac mini but 8 percent slower than the new entry-level iMac.

Psystar's marketing materials compare the Open Computer to Apple's Mac mini. Both systems require you to supply your own display, keyboard, and mouse - not to mention that the mini represents the least expensive Mac offered by Apple.

We decided to include the the 2GHz Core 2 Duo mini in our tests, with the caveat that Psystar's Open Computer boasts a faster processor, ships with more RAM and sports a larger hard drive. It also provides more peripheral ports and expansion options than does the mini. Of course, the mini offers a few things the Psystar Open Computer does not, namely Apple tech support and support for OS updates.

We also included the recently updated entry-level iMac - a 2.4GHz all-in-one system that runs on Intel's latest Penryn chips. Along with these Mac systems, we included an unauthorised Mac clone.

Overall, the Psystar Open Computer's performance was somewhere between the Mac mini and the low-end 20in, 2.4GHz core 2 Duo 20 iMac. Speedmark 5 results show the Psystar Open Computer to be 28 percent faster than the high-end Mac mini and 8 percent slower than the low-end iMac.

The Psystar Open Computer's individual test results also fell between those two systems in most cases, though the speedy Hitachi Deskstar drive helped the Psystar machine out-perform the iMac in Photoshop, file duplication, and Zip archive expansion. In terms of game performance, with the Psystar Open Computer's 512MB nVidia GeForce 8600 GT card installed, that machine outperformed the iMac and its 128MB ATI HD Radeon 2400 XT graphics card in our Quake 4 tests. The iMac prevailed in our older Unreal Tournament testing, however. It's no surprise that the Mac mini, which features graphics that shares memory with the system RAM, wasn't even a contender in our gaming tests.

The Psystar Open Computer ships with Intel's integrated graphics, but we ran into problems trying to test it. First off, the Open Computer's built-in graphics card doesn't offer a DVI port; it's analoge-only, so we had to dig out one of those cables. Secondly, the games wouldn't even run on the Psystar Open Computer when using the integrated graphics. In this mode, the system showed that the display had a fixed resolution of 1,024x768 pixels and that no kernel extension was loaded. A call to Psystar's tech support was enlightening. The Psystar representative said that the way the system is configured when shipped is the only configuration that is supported; he couldn't tell me how to get the Intel integrated graphics to work properly except to say that it was very complicated. We'll continue to look into this, with an eye toward providing results for the Open Computer featuring the default integrated graphics.

Comparing this non-Apple Mac to our own home-built machine, the Psystar Open Computer turned in a score 4 percent slower than the 'Frankenmac' in Speedmark 5. Of course, the Frankenmac's 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad features twice the number of processing cores, so it's no surprise that it performed much better in Compressor and Cinema 4D tests.

But with its crowded internal hard drive, the Frankenmac lagged behind the Psystar Open Computer in more disk-intensive tests, such as file duplication, archiving and even Photoshop. The Frankenmac's nVidia GeForce 8800GT graphics card with 512MB of video memory scored about 18.5 percent higher in terms of frame rates in our Quake 4 test and 25 percent higher in Unreal Tournament than the Psystar Open Computer.

Psystar Open Computer: Specs

  • 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo prcoessor
  • Mac OS X
  • 2GB 667MHz RAM
  • 250GB SATA hard drive
  • integrated Intel graphics
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • DVD-/+RW
  • 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo prcoessor
  • Mac OS X
  • 2GB 667MHz RAM
  • 250GB SATA hard drive
  • integrated Intel graphics
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • DVD-/+RW

OUR VERDICT

This discussion of raw numbers ignores the elephant sitting in on any talk about Psystar's Open Computer - is it ethical to consider the machine an option, considering that it calls on the user to ignore Apple's licensing agreement for OS X? The feedback that Macworld has received from its readers suggests that there's strong feeling about this issue. Macworld maintains that measuring the performance of Psystar's offering is a necessary exercise, although it plans to follow up its report with a discussion of the very valid concerns surrounding the Psystar Open Computer.

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