The $20 Mac, Part 2

Continuing my quest for a low-cost, low-power, iTunes-compatible media server from Part One took me to the classified ads. I first looked for a G4-powered Mac mini but quickly got caught up in wanting to spend “just a little more” to get a newer, more powerful and energy efficient Intel powered machine. Suddenly I was thinking about spending upwards of $300, which far exceeded my budget. Even old G4-based minis were selling for upwards of $125, which seemed like a lot to spend on a six year old machine with a 40GB hard drive and no warranty.

Then I thought about hackintoshing. No, not the cookies Jewish people eat to celebrate Purim – the dark art of getting OS X to run on a non-Apple-made piece of hardware. I’d done it before, once successfully with an MSI Wind netbook and a second time not quite as successfully using a box I assembled myself with components I bought at Fry’s. A bit of Googling revealed not too much in the way of precedent for quickly and easily graphing OS X onto an old Windows Vista machine I happened to have lying around (another MSI, actually), so I threw that idea away.

But then I stumbled upon my future: OS X Leopard on Apple TV.

I’d actually heard of first-gen ATVs successfully, if slowly, running OS X way back when in ’07 when the first hackers got the thing working well enough to post evidence to the InterWebs and said evidence got picked up by the blogs. I’d never given it a shot myself, but seeing as folks smarter than me have seen fit to post files, instructions, and photo guides to the forums, I figured I’d take a crack at putting OS X on my own Apple TV box. Since the guides included How-Tos on booting “ATVOSX” from a USB stick, this leaving ATV’s internal drive entirely intact, there wasn’t much on the line save a bunch of my free time. I could always yank the stick and go back to my entirely functional Apple TV if things went awry.

[Note: I mentioned “a bunch of my free time” just now. Yes, I’m fully aware that on the basis of “Time equals money” alone, I should have just bought an old Mac mini instead of venturing forth with my ATVOSX experiements. The amount of time I spent on this project was, by most measures, worth more than the $150 I would have paid for a G4 mini. But can you really put a price on the joy of ripping apart an old gadget with Torx-head screwdrivers and following years-old thread posts full of command line instructions that you don’t fully understand? No. No you cannot. Priceless.]

So I found an 8GB USB stick, downloaded a copy of a modified install of OS X 10.5.8, and went to work. Already owning a multiple-user Leopard license, I felt morally (and legally, maybe?) justified in grabbing the file off the Web. Stealing is wrong.

Less than an hour later I unplugged my Apple TV box, stuck the flash drive in its USB port, and plugged it back in. Voila! I was greeted with the familiar grey-on-grey of the OS X boot screen. Amazing how giddy the simple notion of, “I shouldn’t be able to do this!” can make somebody – particularly somebody like me whose chronological age far outpaces the “13 forever!” that best describes my heart and soul.

You know what’s super cool about running Leopard on an Apple TV via USB stick? If you plug a USB hub into Apple TV, you can plug the USB boot drive into one slot and a keyboard and mouse into the other slots … and they all work! I guess that shouldn’t really be surprising to anyone who knows even the basics about USB hubs (that’s what they do – they make one open slot act like many open slots), but it’s still cool. Goes back to the whole, “Apple never officially made this USB port do anything. So it shouldn’t be doing anything. But IT IS!!!” thing.

You know what’s not even a tiny bit cool about running Leopard on an Apple TV via USB stick? It’s slow as molasses. Slower, even. First-gen ATVs have a 1GHz Intel chip inside of them. That’s not quite on par with today’s multi-core i7 CPUs, but it’s fast enough to deal with 10.5.8. But running your OS off of a slow USB flash drive? Not exactly performance-enhancing. Booting from the stick was basically a proof-of-concept for me: It allowed me to try following the instructions, plugging the thing in, and getting it to boot up iTunes. But if I was serious about setting up an ATV as an OSX-powered iTunes server, I knew I’d have to crack the case and install the OS on the internal hard drive.

And this is where the $20 part comes in …


Noah Kravitz

Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...