Psystar Open Computer review: Psystar Open Computer

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good
  • Overall: 6.9
  • Design: 6.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Service and support: 6.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Faster, more affordable, more upgradable Leopard OS X-based system than anything currently offered by Apple in this price range.

The Bad With limited software updates, you're effectively cut off from all future Apple products, at least for now; no Bluetooth or IR receiver; no iLife.

The Bottom Line Its hardware isn't made by Apple's design team, it will likely never work as a full member of the greater Apple ecosystem, and one ill-intended software update could turn it into a $750 brick. Get past all of that, and you'll find Psystar's OS X-based Open Computer a fast and otherwise compelling lower midrange desktop.

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Editor's note: Shortly after this review posted we tried out VMware to see if the Open Computer will support running Windows Vista on top of OS X. We can confirm that it does.

Psystar says its goal in selling its Open Computer, a non-Apple-made computer with the Leopard operating system as an option, is to give consumers more choice and better bang for the buck then we currently have from Apple. At least today, and with our $740 review configuration, it appears to be on to something. Let's be clear from the start, this is not an Apple system, and it lacks some of the polish and the features we're used to seeing in an OS X-based computer. And as iPhone early adopters can tell you, you're often just a software update away from crippled hardware if Apple decides it doesn't like what you're doing with its products. Still, after spending some time with this system we remain cautiously optimistic. Its raw performance is very strong for the price, and most of the core OS X functionality is there. As long as you understand the risks and the limitations going in, if you're looking for a basic, OS X-based desktop, the Open Computer will let you do most of the things you can do with a Mac Mini faster, and for less money.

From the Styrofoam peanuts inside the box to the standard midtowers desktop case, Psystar's Open Computer looks like a typical low-end Windows PC. When you turn it on, the first thing you see is the BIOS information, also like a Windows desktop. But after a few seconds the screen fades to white, with a light gray Apple logo in the middle, and after a brief loading period, Apple's Leopard OS X pops up on your desktop. We used an older Apple mouse and keyboard and were immediately able to start using the Open Computer like we would any typical Mac.

The Open Computer doesn't actually have to come with OS X on it. Psystar offers it in multiple configurations from the $399 bare-bones model with no operating system all the way up to a $1,110 system with Windows Vista Ultimate. Our $740 OS X-based system doesn't come with all of the available hardware options, but what's probably most important is that it's a better value than what Apple has to offer in the same price range, at least for the core hardware.

  Psystar Open Computer Apple Mac Mini
Price $740 $799
CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory 4GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS 64MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 chip
Hard drive 250GB 7,200 rpm hard drive 120GB 5,400 rpm hard drive
Networking Gigabit Ethernet Gigabit Ethernet; 802.11g WiFi, Bluetooth
Optical drives dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Operating system Apple Leopard OS X 10.5 Apple Tiger OS X 10.4

Be aware that the Mac Mini outlined above and the one that appears in our benchmarks refers to the model we reviewed in August 2007. The only major change between that model and equivalent Mac Mini shipping today, including the price at the time of last year's review, is the operating system. The model we tested came out two months before Leopard, and so it has Tiger on it. Current Mac Minis ship with Leopard.

It would be hard to argue (although we're sure some will try) than an operating system update alone would close the massive gap between the Mac Mini and the Psystar system. The only advantage the Mini has that we can see is that it has wireless networking and Bluetooth capability built-in. Psystar offers a Wi-Fi PCI card upgrade option for $90, although we admit we had no luck getting Bluetooth to work via a USB adapter.

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Psystar Open Computer
171 

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Psystar Open Computer
572 

Cinebench
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPU  
Rendering single CPU  
Acer Aspire m5100
6,364 
1,713 
Psystar Open Computer
4,482 
2,368 
Apple Mac Mini
4,069 
2,168 
Dell Inspiron 530
3,212 
1,724 

Quake 4
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,024 x 768 (4x AA, 8X AF)  
Psystar Open Computer
69 

The Psystar's hardware advantage translates to some impressive performance wins as well. It beat the Mac Mini on all of our performance tests, and it also bested a $530 Dell Inspiron 530 and a $699 quad-core Acer desktop on all but our Cinebench multicore test. We normally run a Photoshop CS 3 test, but due to a corrupted file on our end, we were unable to run that benchmark in time for this review. Instead we ran it by hand, without timing it, but just to see if it would complete the workload. We can report that the Psystar handled the large batch of photos without a hitch and quickly, and we suspect that if we had been able to obtain an official score, it would have scaled similarly to the rest of the results.

For any standard Windows or Mac desktop with such an obvious price-performance advantage, we'd normally give it our blessing without reservation. The Psystar Open Computer, of course, is no standard desktop. This system is very much a custom computer, specifically because Psystar built it without Apple's blessing. That means it had to do all of the work to ensure that the operating system and the hardware work in harmony. Macs are typically the products of a very tightly controlled marriage of hardware and software, so it's fair to be concerned that Psystar's implementation might have some issues.

Trial and not much error
We spent a lot of time in our hands-on simply trying things to see if they worked. In general, we had good results. That this system completed our benchmarks was a good start. That means iTunes, QuickTime, Quake 4, and Photoshop all work. Independent of our benchmarks, we successfully purchased and played back a song and a movie from the iTunes store. We connected an iPod Classic to the system and successfully copied over an audio track from iTunes.

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Where to Buy

Psystar Open Computer

Part Number: Open Released: Apr 14, 2008

This product is available directly from the manufacturer's Web site.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Apr 14, 2008