Thursday, 27 May 2010

Upgrading the Hackintosh to Snow Leopard

I have spent a number of months deliberating, cogitating, and mulling over the pros and cons of upgrading my Dell Mini 9 netbook, more commonly known as a Hackintosh, from OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard) to OS X 10.6.x (Snow Leopard). Yesterday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, so I decided that enough was enough and action was required. After all, plenty of other people have already been brave enough to take the plunge, and by now the pros were beginning to outweigh the cons.

The Pros:
  • All my other (genuine) Apple computers, namely the iMac and MacBook Pro are happily running OS X 10.6.3, and have been for some time
  • One of the key uses for the Hackintosh is to use Apple Mail when I'm travelling, and the Leopard and Snow Leopard versions use different file formats so upgrading would solve that problem
  • I would only have to worry about one set of software updates which can all be stored in one central location saving loads of disk space
  • Snow Leopard is leaner and faster than its predecessor and thus ideally suited to the netbook
The Cons:
  • If the Hackintosh isn't physically broken, why try and fix it ?
  • Newer releases of Snow Leopard are no longer Atom (the Hackintosh chip) compatible so work arounds are required
  • Things could go horribly wrong and I could break the netbook
  • It might take hours, or days, or weeks or even months to get a working machine again!
So with considerable trepidation, I started to prepare for the task ahead of me. Using the check list I established for the initial Hackintosh build (see my Apple Harvest posting for July 29, 2009) I gathered up all the things I would need including some instructions, spare USB disks, backup tools, copies of the latest versions of NetBookMaker and NetbookInstaller, the Snow Leopard retail disc (10.6.0 Family Pack) and a working MacBook Pro and set to work. For this upgrade I decided to go with the instructions posted on the site (the link will take you to exactly the right place). This only goes as far as OS X 10.6.2, but I felt that was OK. I'd be pretty pleased if I could simply get as far as OS X 10.6.0!

Trusting in my own wisdom, I took a final backup of the 10.5.8 system using Time Machine, and then also created a .dmg image of the RunCore SSD using Carbon Copy Cloner to be on the safe side. I created a bootable copy of the Snow Leopard install DVD on a spare USB external drive as per the instructions, and then simply worked through the instructions step by step. The backup and disk image creation took about an hour and the installation itself took a further hour.

Once the installation was completed I removed all the extraneous paraphernalia and restarted the netbook. I couldn't believe it - everything appeared to work perfectly. It found the wireless network without any prompting, let me connect my Kingston mouse via Bluetooth, it made sounds, and the video was fine. It also recognised my Time Machine disc and let me make a backup immediately. Hyperspaces worked fine. Even MobileMe synchronised after a minor tweak. The only thing that seemed slightly amiss, was that after waking from sleep, although the screen restored itself, I couldn't use the mouse or the trackpad which is a potential cause for concern.

I quickly upgraded some of the key tools I use, in particular ShareTool which connects to the rest of the network here at the Apple Harvest. Still no problems. I shutdown the machine and turned it back on. Still no problems. Finally I created another Time Machine backup and another disk image of the SSD, this time labelled as a Snow Leopard 10.6.0 image. This latter activity took a considerable amount of time - much longer than the 10.5.8 image took to create, which makes me wonder if the USB performance may be compromised, but eventually all the disks were created and safe.

Next step was to perform the software update to bring the Hackintosh fully up to spec and attempt to install OS X 10.6.3. But I'll save that until next time, because I'd like to leave you with the same warm feeling that I had after successfully upgrading my Dell Mini 9 to Snow Leopard!


Thursday, 13 May 2010

Pogoplug - two weeks on...

I'm pleased to report that my Pogoplug is still going strong (unlike some of the disks I've attached to it - they really don't like being thrown around do they?). It had it's stiffest test last weekend when I stayed over at my girlfriend's house and I turned off my iMac at home, relying solely on the Pogoplug and a cloned copy of the iMac hard drive, with access through my MacBook Pro laptop.

Now that the OS X Pogoplug application is working properly on the MBP I was fairly confident that everything would work fine and dandily, and sure enough I booted up the MBP and with the Pogoplug application set up to open automatically I was reassured to see the shared disks appear on the desktop, clearly identified by their shocking pink icons. I clicked on the WD Passport drive I had earlier cloned from the iMac boot drive, and there in Finder was exactly what I expected to see, namely a full working copy of my iMac startup disk. I started to click down through to my User folder - it took ages...In fact it took so long that I figured that something was very wrong so I quit the application and fired up Safari.

I've bookmarked my My Pogoplug:View web site which is the page where your personal Pogoplug configuration can be accessed so I went straight to it. Everything looked fine - the disk was mounted and visible. I started clicking down through the folders as I had with the OS X application, and everything worked fine. There was a slight time lapse, but I was on a wireless connection and my girlfriend's broadband is not the zippiest in the world so I wasn't unduly worried.

Knowing that the connections at both ends were sound, I retried the Pogoplug application. This time I was much more successful - the disks mounted, and I was able to navigate around my remote disk without any problems. Again the slight time delay was present, but it wasn't abnormal, and certainly didn't prevent me from working.

I'm not sure what caused the initial glitch on the application side, but I haven't been able to repeat it.

So, at last I have a working solution to my remote access problem. I'd still be happier to have the iMac fully functional and without the ever present network problems that more and more people seem to be reporting. But I'm pleased that this solution is also a bit cheaper and greener by not having the iMac powered up for long periods in my absence.

Pogoplug - you're a star - in fact you get five stars !

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Review in Brief: Pogoplug

There's a very good chance that I'm going to spending some time working in continental Europe before too long. Somehow I always manage to get postings to the more expensive and remote parts of Europe. I spent six months in Oslo a few years ago, and now it looks like Zurich in Switzerland is on my itinerary. I only mention this because one of the problems with being away is that I often find that I need to access files on my desktop. Of course there are alternatives:

  • I could clone my desktop drive and carry that around with me, but that requires carting another piece of kit around, and demands the discipline of maintaining the contents
  • I could use ShareTool and connect remotely with the iMac from my laptop via the internet. This is my preferred option, but while my network problems persist this would fail on the first occasion that I lose my connection. It also means that the iMac is powered up24x7 for as long as I'm away. Not very green...

But now I believe I have found a better option in the form of the Pogoplug. This clever little bunch of tricks sits independently of your computer (PC or Mac) by plugging it into your router and then allows you to access up to four USB drives/memory sticks via an internet browser or a native application.


Pogoplug in profile


The rather lurid pink Pogoplug is small enough to sit tucked away on the corner of a desk or a shelf, and once set up you can pretty much forget about it. Set-up itself is a breeze. After plugging in at the mains, simply plug the Pogoplug into a spare ethernet port on your route, connect up to four USB drives, switch it on, and register it on the Pogoplug web site. You can also download a free Finder compatible OS X application and free iPhone app from the App Store giving you full access to your drives wherever you are. It really is that easy.


After following the above steps on my iMac, everything looked hunky dory, so I turned my attention to my MacBook Pro where the real test would take place. Sure enough, the USB drive attached to the Pogoplug appeared in it's proper place on the MyPogoplug web site in Safari without any problems. However after downloading the OS X application I was getting an error message as the app tried to connect to the drive - Failed Starting Drive: Exit Code 0. This wasn't what I wanted to see, and after several attempts and a restart, the message kept appearing.



Pogoplug - rear view


I posted a message on the support forum and was advised to check with Pogoplug tech support. I duly contacted them via email and within a few hours received a response suggesting that my version of MacFuse may be corrupted. I reinstalled MacFuse, ran the application, and everything was fine. I was very impressed with the quality and speed of response, and especially with the result. So (some of you may guess what's coming next...) Pogoplug Technical Support (notably AdamC), get the latest (virtual) Apple Harvest Service Excellence Award.


Pogoplug - head on


I've yet to perform any real tests regarding speed of access over the internet - wirelessly connecting across my LAN doesn't really constitute much of a challenge, but I'll provide an update at some time in the future when I've got something useful to report. I the meantime, I can report that the iPhone App works very well, and even allows me to view certain files (PDFs for example) in their natural format on the iPhone. Extremely useful.


As I was writing this review I did find one additional problem... I was repositioning the Pogoplug after taking the photos, and the attached WD Passport drive fell on the floor and required reformatting and re-cloning. So, if you do move the Pogoplug for whatever reason, it's worth un-mounting any attached drives first! But I don't think that problem is unique to the Pogoplug... just to dumb users!!!



Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Review: Filemate SolidGo ExpressCard Ultra SSD (48Gb)

My 2007 MacBook Pro is starting to show its age a little bit. Now, don't get me wrong, it's still performing perfectly adequately, even though it's on its second battery, and its second logic board. No, the real problem is disk space, or rather lack of it. The 160Gb hard disk has been getting seriously overcrowded, thanks partly to a iTunes music library that is approaching 50Gb in size.

It's probably within my technical ability to replace the internal hard drive with a larger capacity one, and I've been pondering the pros and cons of using a Solid State Drive, but I am still put off by the price of anything approaching a sensible size. Recently I found a reference to the Filemate SolidGo ExpressCard SSD which got me thinking that a hybrid solution might be an interesting alternative.

As regular readers of the Apple Harvest will know, I won't generally embark on a project like this without doing some research, so I trawled the internet for any viable information. I came across one particular article by Rob Griffiths on the MacWorld website which pretty much sealed the deal for me. (There's an accompanying five minute video which is also quite interesting). I did a check with the manufacturer to make sure that the card would fit my specific MacBook Pro, and then purchased the 48Gb model from MemoryC in the UK for around £126 inc. VAT. Being a Bank Holiday weekend, I opted for the DHL next day delivery service, which meant I should have the whole weekend to play with the device, and sure enough the courier arrived first thing on the Friday morning.

The SSD fits perfectly into the ExpressCard slot and sits completely flush with the edge of the machine. It has a mini-USB 2.0 port and a small green LED on the exposed edge. It only weighs a few grammes so has no impact at all on the overall weight of the laptop.

I decided that I had two options when it came to configuring the SSD. One was to store the existing iTunes music library on it; the alternative was to convert it into a bootable drive, and use it to store the operating system and my application files. Given that the iTunes music library continues to expand rather rapidly it was a no-brainer filling up the SSD with music, so I went for the latter option. This is also the approach that Rob Griffiths talks about in his article.

Installing Snow Leopard onto the SSD was a breeze - I used my original retail copy of 10.6.0 (family edition!) and then used Migration Assistant to copy over my Applications. User files, including the iTunes library remained on the original hard disk. I then ran the Software Update programme to upgrade to 10.6.3. The SSD had about 7Gb of space remaining, which allows plenty of room for additional applications and space for OS upgrades. Finally, I changed the Start-up drive in System Configuration to point at the SSD and rebooted...

The speed improvement in rebooting was amazing. The system glides silently through the process and within just a few seconds all my login items appeared to have been loaded and the machine was ready for action. Launching applications also seems far less painful without the sound of the internal hard disk whirring away. Unfortunately I didn't do any timings before making the modifications, but it takes less than a minute from pressing the power button to having a fully functional laptop - including mounting remote drives connected through my Pogoplug, iDisk, and Time Machine disk, and a substantial number of start-up applications.

Of course, with this configuration, the original hard disk is still bootable in case of emergencies should the SSD fail. I've have tried this and some of the start-up applications got their knickers in a twist, but nothing that couldn't be dealt with quickly and painlessly. In addition, Time Machine automatically backs up both the SSD and the internal disk in a single seamless action, so restoring the system should also be fairly painless.

Looking at the original internal drive I appear to have rescued between 25-30Gb of free space. There is some duplication of folders across the two drives, but I can't see any duplication of individual files. Some more research and investigation is required to see if I can free up any more space. I could free up an additional 4Gb of space on the SSD by disabling the 'sleepimage' hibernation file (which would also allow a faster sleep process) but there's no point at present.

I'm really pleased with the improvements this modification has made. It was simple and quick to set up and configure, and the speed increases are very welcome, along with the extra space on my hard drive. I've not seen much in the way of comments about reliability of this sort of SSD in the long term, but I'm optimistic, and in any case I have secure back-up procedures in place. I'm hoping also that the battery life will improve with less of a requirement on the internal hard disk.

All in all, a highly recommended addition and modification to my MBP, but if you want to go the same way do your homework first, and, at the very least, check for compatibility with your model of laptop.