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Ongoing lawsuits notwithstanding, Psystar remains the only desktop vendor other than Apple to offer PCs with Apple's Mac OS X operating system. Thanks to a new restore disc and improved software updating, this $2,660 Psystar OpenPro computer is much more secure than the lower-end Open Computer the company released back in April. Like the Open Computer, the OpenPro lacks the aesthetic appeal of an Apple-made desktop, as well as some of Apple's distinctive features. And, while Psystar offers a more powerful computer than Apple for the money, its price-performance advantage is less apparent compared with a similarly priced Windows PC. As long as Psystar remains in business, the risk involved in owning one of its OS X systems has lessened, thanks to its improved software tools, but for overall value, you can find more polished and generally faster Windows systems for less.
Yup, it works
We answered the mysteries of how well Psystar's OS X implementation duplicates the Apple computing experience in our review of the Open Computer, but we'll rehash the basics here. As with the Open Computer, the OpenPro works like any current Mac. All of the OS X operating-system functions work as they should, and (unlike last time) we successfully burned a DVD--on a Blu-ray burner no less. We were able to use Apple's Time Machine backup software, play music via iTunes, and establish a wireless networking connection. In short, it works.
But what you don't get is not insignificant. First, this system is made from over-the-counter PC hardware, from its Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R motherboard to its Antec P128 chassis. The OpenPro is built reasonably well, but its internal design is only average compared with that of a Mac Pro or a Velocity Micro PC. The system still lacks an Apple remote control, as well as an integrated remote control receiver, although Psystar sent an 802.11n wireless PCI card with our review unit, and a USB Bluetooth adapter is available for an extra $40. Also absent from this system is Apple's iLife application suite, which includes programs such as iDVD, iPhoto, and other semi-useful programs that Apple includes for free with all of its computers.
Updates and restoration
The biggest change in this system since the last Psystar review is that the threat of an errant update disabling the operating system via the OS X Software Update tool has been greatly reduced. Psystar has achieved this improved reliability in two ways. The first is that any software updates that appear on the OS X Software Update tool come through Psystar's servers. According to Psystar, any update on that list has been precertified to work on its systems. The second insurance policy is a restore disc that lets you reinstall OS X and start with a fresh build.
We went through the entire restore process and we can verify both that the disc works and that it's fairly robust. You need to follow a few steps, which come spelled out on a brief instruction sheet, but, in general,all you need to do is boot from the Psystar restore disc, follow the onscreen instructions, pop in the Mac OS X disc that comes with the system, and install. From there, you reinsert the restore disc, boot again, and then enter a Psystar-provided username and password to verify your hardware profile from Psystar's servers.
We also tried making a few mistakes. We told the system to install Mac OS X with the restore disc still in the drive. We also tried updating OS X before confirming the hardware profile. In both cases, we were able to start over and restore the system to its full working and updated condition.
While the update process works well, the OpenPro is still not without its risks and hassles. For one, the restore disc doesn't come in the box, you have to order it using an included form. Psystar says this is largely a fraud-protection measure, and signing the disc-request form provides another confirmation of your identity. We suppose it's reasonable for a smaller vendor to want to protect itself against credit card fraud, but no other PC vendor requires you to take a second step to get a restore disc. We respect Psystar's interest as a small and potentially growing business, but we find this process excessive.
The other potential pitfall is the update tool. A few scenarios come to mind. What if Apple tweaks all future software updates with encryption to, say, somehow disrupt Psystar's certification method? According to Psystar, this is impossible. We don't like putting vendors in a position where they have to prove a negative, and it's not like we don't feel a twinge of hesitation every time we update Windows. We'll simply say that because of the nature of Psystar's business model, we will always have some concern about its ability to keep Apple's operating system current. The good news is that, thanks to the restoration disc, you can, at the very least, bring your system back to shipping condition.
The other concern is that Apple could also win its lawsuit against Psystar. If it goes out of business, the Software Update tool will automatically redirect to Apple's servers, according to Psystar. Perhaps that's better than disabling the tool, but given Apple's history of disabling products, you could find yourself left standing in an update minefield. Psystar also pointed out that, because of the litigation Apple is facing over bricked iPhones, Apple is unlikely to continue such aggressive, product-breaking tactics. We'll note that the case hasn't been resolved.
On to the hardware
In addition to the very act of selling a PC with Apple's OS X on it, Psystar's other mission is to subvert Apple's hardware offerings with more aggressive configurations. Our OpenPro came with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550, 8GB of DDR2 800MHz RAM, a Blu-ray burner, and a GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card. It's also a dual-boot system, with 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate residing on a second hard drive. Apple offers neither Blu-ray nor that graphics card yet (much less Vista). Its
These are not workstation-class parts, and Psystar has no Xeon CPUs or QuadFX graphics cards. If Psystar's software workarounds haven't scared off serious digital media artists, the lack of robust workstation hardware might. Still, it's hard to argue that Psystar doesn't offer significantly more bang for the buck than Apple.
Compared with Windows desktops, Psystar's advantage is less clear. First, no other Windows PC vendor will sell you a system that also has OS X on it. If that's a priority for you, there's really no question, Psystar wins. If you're more focused on getting work done in the quickest amount of time, the OpenPro looks less appealing.
|Psystar OpenPro||Velocity Micro Edge Z15|
|CPU||2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550||3.4GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550|
|Motherboard chipset||Intel P45||Nvidia NForce 750i SLI|
|Memory||8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||512MB GeForce 9800 GTX||(2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850|
|Hard drives||750GB, 7,200 rpm (OS X), 250GB 7,200 rpm (Vista)||750GB, 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Apple OS X 10.5.4, Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)|
Velocity Micro's Edge Z15 compares remarkably well with the OpenPro. It uses the same CPU, but overclocked, has less RAM, yet more 3D graphics horsepower. If you play with Velocity Micro's configurator, you can design one that's more in line with the OpenPro's hardware. Opt for 8GB or RAM, a secondary 500GB hard drive (the smallest available option), a Blu-ray burner, and 802.11g wireless and the Edge Z15 comes in at $2,340, still $300 less than the OpenPro. Almost the only thing the Velocity Micro can't do better is run OS X.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
Based on our test results, we can't say running Apple's operating system gives the OpenPro a significant performance advantage. Both its Vista and its OS X scores land where we expect them to given its specifications, but in almost every case the Velocity Micro system (the $1,799 model), is faster, we suspect in large part to its overclocked CPU. The one exception is the multitasking test, wherein the OpenPro simply destroys anything we've seen before it. That's useful, but on balance, the Velocity Micro desktop is faster all-around at digital media-related tasks, for significantly less cost.
It's also no great surprise that the Velocity Micro system is better at gaming than the OpenPro. Even if the OpenPro has a GeForce 9800 GTX card, which Apple doesn't offer yet, Velocity Micro's pair of Radeon HD 4850 cards offer more overall 3D horsepower. The OpenPro will deliver respectable gaming performance, but again, not as much as the less expensive Velocity Micro PC.
One note on the gaming tests. The most robust OS X gaming title is Quake 4, which we normally use for testing Macs because it's perhaps the most demanding OS X game. We weren't able to run that test on the Psystar system. For whatever reason, Quake 4's built-in benchmark wouldn't start. We were able to play Quake 4 without any trouble. The FlatOut 2 OS X demo was similarly trouble-free. We're not too bent out of shape about the Quake 4 testing difficulty, simply because OS X remains a largely inadequate gaming platform. Psystar may sell this system with higher-end 3D graphics card options than Apple offers, but if you're going to spend the money on that hardware, you'd be much better served to opt for a Windows-based OpenPro, or at least one with a Windows option like our review unit.
For the rest of the OpenPro's hardware, we saw some things we liked and others that were less impressive. The Blu-ray burner is most notable. Mac OS X doesn't support Blu-ray movie playback yet, but we were able to use the drive to burn data to both a DVD and a blank Blu-ray Disc. Playback in Windows worked without a hitch.
The GeForce graphics card in this system doesn't come with an integrated HDMI port, but it did include a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. Unfortunately, Psystar didn't connect the GeForce's audio to the motherboard. Unlike ATI cards, GeForce cards require an internal pass-through to send audio over the HDMI port. More inconvenient, we didn't even see the appropriate cable in the box.
We were happier to find an optional external Serial ATA port input included in the packaging, however. The system arrived with eight USB 2.0 ports, three FireWire inputs, 7.1 analog audio, and both optical and coaxial S/PDIF audio outputs by virtue of the motherboard. FireWire 800 is an $80 option, but the bundled eSATA card insert is welcome for anyone who needs to swap external storage between systems. Sadly, Psystar doesn't include a media card reader either in the box or as an upgrade.
The standard warranty for this system gets you a one-year parts-and-labor coverage. You can upgrade the support for longer protection at a reasonable cost. Psystar's Web site offers some help by way of a FAQ, a user forum, and a toll-free number. Phone support is live from Monday to Friday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. PT.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.4GHz)
Apple OS X 10.5.4; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 1GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics chip; 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive.
Apple iMac (24-inch, 2.8GHz)
Apple OS X 10.5.2; 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics chip; 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive.
Psystar Open Computer
Apple OS X 10.5.4; 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive.
Apple OS X 10.5.4; Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (64-bit); 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card; 750GB 7,200rpm Samsung hard drive (OS X); 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive. (Windows).
Velocity Micro Edge Z15
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics cards; 750GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive.