Psystar Open Computer
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|
|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.
|Rendering multiple CPU||Rendering single CPU|
|1,024 x 768 (4x AA, 8X AF)|
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.
We installed various USB mice and keyboards from Apple, Logitech, and Microsoft on the Psystar Open Computer, and they all worked instantly (Psystar offers no input devices, so you'll have to supply your own). We also successfully connected an external hard drive. The system not only recognized it, but it also launched the Time Machine application and immediately paired itself to the drive. We got a FireWire PCI card to work. We downloaded and ran Firefox. Front Row also launched and functioned without a hitch.
To get an idea of the Open Computer as a video-editing tool, we also tapped two of CNET's New York video producers, Randall Bennett and Wilson Tang, who perform most of the editing of their work on Mac Pros. After installing Final Cut Pro on the Open Computer and running five effects filters over a real-time video, Randall declared himself impressed by the Psystar. A Mac Mini, he said, couldn't do what he'd just done. Of course, this is an anecdotal opinion and not a rigorous benchmark, but we also think it suggests some potential for this system as a cheap video workstation or rendering system.
Be wary of bricks
Still, the Open Computer is not without issues. The most glaring is that Psystar has disabled OS X's automated software update feature. We think this is a wise security measure given the potential alternatives, but it could also prove to be this system's biggest limitation. The reason for disabling the software updates is that Apple could push through a patch that would effectively brick this computer. You can still run software updates manually, which we did. A number of updates popped up, and we downloaded and installed them and our system rebooted successfully (this is the last test we conducted, if you're curious). We'll have to see if we have similar success a week from now.
We're glad to see that Psystar recognizes that it should protect its customers from this obvious risk, but this update roulette also means that this system is to a certain extent frozen in time. That not only effects this system, but also any other Apple products you might own that need to interact with your desktop. If, for example, Apple added a new feature to its iPods that required an updated version of iTunes, it could also sneak in code to disable your unauthorized Psystar system.
While this review is not the space for discussing the legal or ethical ramifications of such a move, that risk is the reality you face if you purchase on Open Computer with Apple's OS X. Thankfully, Psystar says it is working on a solution. The idea is that it will screen every patch that comes through and make available only those that it deems safe. Psystar informs us that this update screening feature is in the works, but it's not quite ready to go at press time.
The Open Computer has a few other limitations. As Psystar itself points out on its Web site, OS X disables the eject button on your optical drive. That means that if you don't have an Apple keyboard with an "eject" key, you need to hold down the F12 key and type "drutil eject" in the command line to force open the drive door. The good news is that the system did in fact recognize the "eject" key on the Apple keyboard we plugged into it.
As we mentioned above, there's no wireless networking included. You also lose out on Bluetooth, a built-in IR receiver, or the tiny Apple Remote. There's also no iLife '08 application suite, which means the GarageBand audio tool, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iWeb are all absent from the Open Computer. The system also wouldn't let us burn a DVD. In other words, the Open Computer is not as polished as an official Mac. That could be fine if all you want is raw horsepower for a good price. But if you expect Psystar to deliver the same Apple experience, prepare to be disappointed.
Know what you're getting into
We find it hard to provide the Psystar Open Computer with a service and support rating, because in some respects Psystar is purposefully crippling your system by limiting the software update process. It's for a valid reason, but we expect that staying ahead of Apple, even if the forthcoming filtering software works, will remain a challenge for Psystar, and it's not something any other desktop vendor has to face. That said, by purchasing and operating an OS X-based Open Computer, there's a certain degree of user complicity here as well. We suspect that most people buying one of these systems know they're entering into an uncertain situation, so we can't really accuse Psystar of obfuscating anything here. In fact, it's refreshingly candid in the Open Computer FAQ on its Web site.
Software update controversy aside, Psystar has some basic obligations to fulfill. The Open Computer comes with a one year parts and labor warranty, which is standard for desktops these days. Its Web site offers a support section that points you to other resources, including a tech support phone number, an online support ticket submission tool, a FAQ, a user forum, and a Remote Support feature. Unlike Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other vendors that offer remote support in which a tech takes direct control of your computer over the Internet, Psystar actually charges you $45 an hour for this service.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Acer Aspire M5100
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.19GHz AMD Phenom 9500; 3GB DDR2 667MHz SDRAM; 256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 1250 graphics chip; 500GB 7,200 rpm hard drive
Apple Mac Mini
Apple OS X; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 64MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip; 120GB 5,400rpm Hitachi hard drive
Dell Inspiron 530
Windows Vista Home Premium; 1.8GHz Intel Pentium E2160; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 128MB Nvidia GeForce 8300GS graphics; 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive
Psystar Open Computer
Apple OS X; 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 250GB 7,200 rpm hard drive