Psystar's Rebel EFI -- Snow Leopard on a PC

While the world focused on Microsoft's launch of Windows 7, Florida-based Psystar quietly launched Rebel EFI, a software product that should worry Apple a lot more than Microsoft's latest operating system. Rebel EFI allows users to run Apple's flagship operating system, Mac OS X Snow Leopard, on non-Apple hardware.

This is not Psystar's first venture into Apple's realm. Psystar has offered Mac clones for some time, experiencing Apple's wrath in the form of lawsuits and injunctions.

Apple's response to Psystar's encroachment is understandable; the Mac OS has always been tightly coupled to hardware designed by the company. In fact, the end-user licensing agreement or EULA (pdf) for Mac OS X expressly forbids users from installing the operating system on hardware not sold by Apple: "You agree not to install, use or run the Apple Software on any non-Apple-branded computer, or to enable others to do so."

Now Psystar has upped the ante by offering the virtualization technology that powers its Mac clones as a standalone software package called Rebel EFI.

Rebel EFI works by creating a virtualized environment that allows users to install OS X version 10.6 (commonly referred to as Snow Leopard) on a PC with a Core 2 Duo, Quad, i7 or Xeon Nehalem processor. Rebel EFI is available in two forms: a free download with limited support and a full-functioning version for $50.

The free download is a good starting point to test hardware compatibility, but is limited to a two-hour session and does not support any driver downloads. If your hardware checks out and you like how OS X runs on your PC, then you will want to invest in the $50 version, which gives you access to software updates and support from Psystar.

Creating a "Hackintosh"

I wanted to give Rebel EFI a try and see if it lives up to the hype. Armed with a Visa card, I downloaded the $50 version of Rebel EFI from Psystar's online store. That download comes as an ISO file, which you will need to burn onto a CD to create a bootable installation disk. I grabbed my freshly minted Rebel EFI CD and a recently purchased Mac OS X Snow Leopard DVD, and sought out some PCs to create my own "Hackintosh" computer.

I figured that the best way to approach the installation would be to pick two systems: a relatively generic desktop PC and, on the other end of the spectrum, a notebook computer. (One word of caution: you will have to wipe out the hard drive on your system to install Rebel EFI and OS X 10.6, so you may want to back up before proceeding.)

The desktop PC I chose consisted of an Intel DX58S0 motherboard configured with an Intel Nehalem i7-965 CPU and an Intel 80G solid state drive (SSD). I added 4GB of Corsair DDR3 RAM (four 1GB Modules) and an Nvidia Quadro FX1700 display adapter to the mix to create a PC that should meet the performance levels of a higher-end Macintosh and also be able to run Windows 7 well if set up to dual boot.

(You may ask why I would worry about running Windows 7 if I'm building a Mac clone. It all comes down to Rebel EFI's ability to boot up multiple operating systems, something I intend to experiment with in the near future. For now, I wanted to see how well OS X 10.6 would run on the hardware I had.)

I also thought it would be pretty cool to try it on a convertible tablet/notebook computer. For the experiment I chose a Fujitsu T5010, which includes a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU, 1.3-megapixel webcam, a 13.3-inch WXGA LED backlit display, a 120GB hard drive, a DVD/CD-RW optical drive, a fingerprint scanner, high-definition audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a multitude of ports and an Intel GMA 4500 integrated graphic controller.

One note: Psystar is very light on information and support -- you won't find an installation guide, compatible hardware list or anything of that nature available from the company. I had to rely on a small FAQ document on the Web site to figure out the install procedure. That document only covers the basics -- you will need a bit of PC technical knowledge to pull off an install.

Installing Snow Leopard

The installation process started out easily enough -- I had to boot the PC from the Rebel EFI CD that I had created. Once booted, Rebel EFI prompted me to either run Rebel EFI or to insert a Snow Leopard DVD to install the operating system.

I placed the OS X DVD into the optical drive and Rebel EFI automatically started the install. Since the system I was using already had an OS on it (Windows Vista), at this point I had to partition and format the hard drive to prep it for OS X (using Mac OS X's Disk Utility to set up the partitions). It proved to be pretty simple using OS X's own tools.

The installation of OS X took upwards of an hour -- it was a very slow process and I thought the PC locked up several times during the install. (Luckily, I did not panic and reset the system.)

Once the installation appeared done, I rebooted the system (with the Rebel EFI CD in place) and was welcomed with a registration screen for Apple. I filled out the on-screen registration form and was presented with an OS X desktop. For all intents and purposes, I was seeing what any Mac user would see.

Installing Rebel EFI

The next step of the process consisted of installing the Rebel EFI application into the Mac OS X environment, which meant browsing to the CD and launching the Rebel EFI installation program. Rebel EFI installs as a utility onto the Mac OS X system and allows users to download drivers, update software and perform other tasks that will keep the system running and updated.

One of the first things to do is check for new drivers and install any if found. Rebel EFI automates the process, so it proved to be pretty simple. You'll need a registration code (which you'll have if you purchased the product).

Installing the drivers required a reboot; once rebooted, the system seemed to work fine -- I was even able to run OS X's own software updating service to get all of the latest updates from Apple Computer.

There were a few problems. First off, the audio did not seem to work; perhaps Psystar does not have a driver developed for that yet. Secondly, I was limited to a 1024 x 768 screen resolution -- I suspect that is a driver issue also. Other than those two issues, the hardware seemed to work fine.

Creating a "HackBook"

Installing Rebel EFI and Mac OS X on the Fujitsu T5010 pretty much mirrored the experience I had with the PC, but the final results were very different.

With the Fujitsu T5010, many key components did not work, including the integrated WiFi, tablet input, touch pad, integrated audio system and the fingerprint scanner. What's more, the GMA 4500 graphics controller was only able to run at a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels and not the system's native resolution of 1366 x 768. I was unable to get any of those components working after the install, even after updating the drivers and the OS X operating system.

It seems like Psystar still has a lot of homework to do when it comes to drivers and hardware compatibility.

Final analysis

Psystar's Rebel EFI is an interesting tool, but it is very limited when it comes to the selection of hardware that you can use. The company really needs to create a compatible hardware list and post that on its Web site -- and it also needs to create some usable documentation.

As it stands right now, you can use Rebel EFI to build a Mac clone, but unless you stick to relatively generic hardware, you will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you just want to poke around OS X to see what the fuss is all about, Rebel EFI could prove to be an effective way for PC users to become familiar with OS X before shelling out for an Apple Macintosh. In that case, though, I suggest that you test your hardware first using the free download version of the product.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis and writes for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.

This story, "Psystar's Rebel EFI -- Snow Leopard on a PC" was originally published by Computerworld.

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