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Psystar's Open Computer the alterna-Mac

After spending a month with Psystar's Open Computer, which runs Mac OS X in defiance of Apple's licensing policies, the question comes up: what makes a Mac a Mac?

After about a month with Psystar's Open Computer, as long as I ignore the big ugly box underneath my desk it's easy to forget that this isn't a Mac.

For about a week or so in April, Psystar dominated the tech headlines with the launch of its Open Computer, a relatively cheap desktop computer with one notable feature: Apple's Mac OS X Leopard preinstalled. That's technically a violation of Apple's end-user licensing agreement for its operating system, and requires Psystar to circumvent Apple's restrictions on Leopard's use by adding low-level software that tricks Leopard into believing it's about to be installed on an approved piece of hardware.

My Open Computer. The little latch at the bottom is stuck in that position. James Martin/CNET

Since last month Psystar has been relatively quiet, shipping Open Computers out of its Miami, Florida facility with no apparent legal challenge from Apple--at least yet. Rudy Pedraza, Psystar's CEO, declined to comment on any legal issues regarding Apple, citing the advice of his attorneys, but did say that Apple has yet to contact the company. An Apple representative did not respond to requests for comment.

Pedraza likewise declined to provide specifics on exactly how many Open Computers the company has sold to date, but said the number is in the "thousands." The Open Computer is also available with Linux and Windows, but Leopard systems are the most popular option among Psystar's customers.

"Most of our customers are people that have never had a Mac or wanted a Mac but couldn't afford one," Pedraza said. He's seeing interest from businesses as well, such as smaller graphics shops that want to replace their aging Macs but can't afford to equip their staff with $2,799 Mac Pros or $1,999 MacBook Pros.

I was one of the first to order an Open Computer, and to be totally honest, we ordered one in large part to verify whether or not Psystar was a legitimate operation, as its legitimacy was challenged by several bloggers in the frenzy surrounding its debut. I'm not a formal reviewer, leaving that business up to the talented and capable Rich Brown in New York. He reviewed one of the first Open Computers to leave Psystar's facility, and the one I'm using is a slightly updated version that fixed the annoying cooling fan issue..

But I have been using the Open Computer as my primary work system for about a month--except for breaking out the ThinkPad to live-blog WWDC--and in just about everything but the name, this is a Mac.

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There are a few differences between the Open Computer and the Macs I currently use. The most noticeable one is that the Open Computer takes much longer to boot, probably due to the fact that the Open Computer has to run some emulation code to get around Apple's restrictions and get Mac OS X up and running. The process isn't nearly as long as my ThinkPad takes to boot, but it's noticeable.

The boot time grew longer, as well, after I downloaded the Mac OS X 10.5.3 update from Psystar. The company "vets" all software updates from Apple to essentially make sure that you don't download something that would hose your Open Computer. I installed the 10.5.3 update as they suggested without incident, but the update has now made the boot time longer by a matter of a few seconds, which Pedraza said was due to the size of the 10.5.3 update.

I plumbed the desks of CNET's software reviewers for both Apple and third-party applications to install on the Open Computer, and all have worked seamlessly. I suppose that violated the licensing agreement for all of those titles as well, since I'm not installing them on "a single Apple-labeled computer," but in for a penny, in for a pound.

I'm running iLife '08, Microsoft Word '08, FileMaker Pro 8.5, and Photoshop Elements without incident. I was going to try and install Final Cut Studio 2 to really put this thing through its paces, but I opted for Intel's integrated graphics when I bought the system, and the release notes call for a real graphics card. Rich put the Open Computer through several standard CNET benchmarks in his review, if you're interested in performance information.

CNET's IT department configured Microsoft's Entourage for Mac to get my corporate e-mail up and running, although with a curious glance at the black box beneath my desk. We submit our help desk tickets by operating system, not hardware, so I think the guy was expecting to see a shiny MacBook Pro when he arrived up on the 6th floor, not a black desktop.

One other interesting development is that Software Update now works; it was disabled by Psystar in the early days of Open Computing. Pedraza declined to get into specifics, but apparently when Software Update automatically runs depending on the schedule you choose, the Open Computer contacts Psystar's servers to make sure you're downloading updates from them, not from Apple directly. I downloaded two iPhoto '08 updates as well as a Garage Band update without incident through the Software Update process. UPDATE 12:30pm - Pedraza wanted to clarify this part; the Open Computer does contact Psystar when Software Update runs to check the available updates against a list maintained by Psystar, but the company does not host the updates for products like iLife, those are downloaded from Apple. It does, however, host files for Mac OS X updates, and recommends that Open Computer owners download those updates from Psystar.

During the early days with the Open Computer, selecting Software Update from the pull-down menu resulted in a networking error. Psystar still plans to recommend that Open Computer users download Leopard updates from Psystar's Web site to make sure any updates Apple sends won't cause problems for the Open Computer, sort of like what happened to iPhone owners who had jailbroken their phone when they downloaded the OS X 1.1.1 update.

A Power Computing poster inside our offices at CNET, hearkening back to the last time Apple permitted cloning of its operating system in the 1990s. Kind of ironic now, since Intel's chips make the Open Computer possible. Tom Krazit/CNET

So what's next for Psystar? Just last week, Psystar began selling a rack-mount server version of the Open Computer with Leopard preinstalled. The company is also working on international distribution, as Pedraza expects a lot of demand in Europe. And in the coming weeks, Psystar will ship a Leopard restore disc to everyone who has ordered a Leopard Open Computer so far, and will include such a disc going forward with shipments of Leopard-based Open Computers.

Few style points will be awarded to Open Computer users. The PC industry has largely been moving away from these sorts of tower chassis systems; Apple abandoned them for its mainstream consumer PCs years ago. The desktop PC market itself has been in a steady decline in the U.S. for over a year, as people gravitate toward notebooks.

But there's still demand for desktops among certain customers, such as corporations and in emerging markets where cost is more of an issue. This could turn into a persistent thorn in Apple's side if Psystar continues to grow.

Apple's marketing has always insisted that the unique combination of hardware and software designed to work in tandem is what makes a Mac a Mac. And that's true to a certain extent, in the sense that limiting the number of potential hardware and peripheral combinations that Mac OS X will have to interact with improves reliability and stability, and ensures that quality hardware is used to run the software.

But after a month of using the Open Computer at work and my usual MacBook Pro at home, it's clear that Mac OS X Leopard is Mac OS X Leopard, regardless of the hardware that lies underneath. Notebook customers may indeed buy their systems for the combination of stylish hardware and Mac OS X, but desktop buyers or corporate buyers don't necessarily care about looking stylish in a Valencia Street coffee shop.

The software is where you spend your time; it's where you form an attachment with your computer, and can be a source of either pleasure or frustration. Apple's hardware design prowess is a source of pride and profit, but it also means the company doesn't do cheap generic hardware. If you want to get the same software experience as a Mac for several hundred dollars cheaper, and are willing to forgo mobility and style, the Open Computer works.

Demand for the Mac has probably never been higher, which has a lot to do with the way Apple has developed its products, but it also has a lot to do with the way Microsoft has developed its products. "People want alternatives," Pedraza said.

And after an month, I'd have to say that the Open Computer is a solid--if dowdy--Mac alternative.