MacBook Mini

I really, really hoped that Apple would announce a ‘MacBook Mini’ – a Mac OS X netbook – at the MacWorld conference this month. They didn’t, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I already own the first-generation netbook, Asus’ Eee PC 701, which I installed Ubuntu on before I’d even got it home. This was an excellent machine by the netbook standards of one year ago, but the small screen and cramped keyboard made it a chore to use.

The current crop of netbooks are much better – 9″ or 10″ screens, decent keyboards, and better feature sets.

I picked the Samsung NC10, partly because it has an amazing battery life (I’ve seen reports of over six hours in Windows, with all the power-saving settings turned on) and partly because I can get a year’s interest-free credit on it, a 10% discount, and 8% QuidCo. Mine is black, but it comes in white and blue as well. Given a choice, I might have picked blue, but black is nice enough. The lid is really, really glossy which means that it shows up every little fingerprint and smudge.

Installing Mac OS X isn’t straightforward, and I would not recommend it if you want the normal ‘it just works’ experience. It doesn’t ‘just work’. I would definitely not recommend it if you’re not an existing Mac user, since it’ll just sour you on Mac OS X.

I did some research before buying and knew that I would need to replace the wifi card. There are some dirty hacks to make the built-in card work, but they’re not reliable. I’ve tried them myself and only made it work once. Don’t bother: just buy a replacement card.

Conveniently, certain models of Dell card are recognised as Apple Airport Extreme cards. I bought the Dell 1390 Mini PCI-e card and paid about £15, including shipping. This card only does 802.11b/g, and not ‘a’ – have you ever connected to an ‘a’ network? No, neither have I. The 149X and 15XX range should also work, but make sure to Google the exact model number first. Don’t buy anything that you can’t find a report of someone else getting to work.

I did have trouble with my 1390, and I’ve actually ordered an Apple-branded 802.11n-compatible card. Since ordering it I’ve figured out that my problem was just that the 1390 I have doesn’t support wifi channel 13, which is the channel my router was set to. If your card appears to work but doesn’t see your router, check the router’s wifi channel! If I’d realised this, I would have saved opening the case another four times.

I’m undecided about swapping in the 802.11n card when it arrives – it might consume more power since it has extra radios. On the other hand, 802.11n is The Future and where available it’s a lot faster.

Swapping the card out is easy enough for a novice. I’ve had other laptops open and I work on server hardware in my day job, but I don’t think your average person would have too much trouble. The guide on upgrading the hard drive at Laptop Magazine is really useful for showing which bits open. The case around the hinge is the hardest part, but it’s not so bad. You need to remove all the screws apart from the one on the RAM access panel – it can stay. Then I used a small flat-bladed jeweller’s screwdriver to loosen the case – if you have fingernails (I chew my nails) then you might not even need that.

NC10 power button slipping out of place.

NC10 power button slipping out of place.

No one I’ve seen mentioned that the power button will fall out every time you open the case, so it’s possible that’s just me. But it did happen every single time I opened the thing. It’s a little fiddly to get it back in place, too – have to make sure that the tab on the power button ‘disc’ lines up with the little foam bit. I promise that’ll make sense if you ever have to reseat the power button on a Samsung NC10.

One last thing on opening the case: it’ll want to stick on the headphone/microphone sockets. The first couple of times I levered the case up so that it would slide over those, until I realised that if I loosened the rest of the case first then I didn’t need to do that. I worry that I might have been flexing the circuit board at that point, so learn from my mistakes and leave that side to the end.

Dell 1390 card installed in NC10

Dell 1390 card installed in NC10

Once you’ve got the case open the wireless card is really easy to get out: just pop off the two antenna connectors (carefully – I used my wee screwdriver for leverage) and unscrew the retaining screw (which is slightly smaller than the screws from the back case, so don’t mix it up) and it’ll sort of pop up. You can then just gently tug it out of the socket and put it somewhere safe. Reverse the procedure to get the new card in.

My card had little triangles showing where the black and white cables should go. I ignored this and put them back in the same position as on the original card – I don’t think it matters that much, but if you find that your wifi range is weak you could try switching. (Actually, if I’m truthful, because I had problems I swapped these antenna over and then back again.)

If you’re going to swap out the hard drive, now would seem the obvious time to do it. I haven’t yet, since my install method relied on using the Windows install already on there. Some time in the future I want to do a ‘clean’ install, which uses an unmodified Mac OS X install DVD, but this time I used a hacked up NC10-specific image, just because it was quicker and the procedure for using the unmodified disc isn’t as well documented yet.

There’s one big problem with this method, though: it’s pretty much out-right illegal. I had to download a special .iso file from Demonoid and that’s software piracy right there. And that’s a crime. It’s not ‘stealing’, but it is illegal. Personally, I’m fine with this as the only reason I have to download this file and jump through all these hoops is because Apple won’t make the thing I want to buy. If Apple made a netbook, I would have happily given them more money then I spent on the Samsung and all the bits for it. I won’t link to the torrent file, but it’s easy to find by searching on ‘nc10′. It’s a slow download, expect it to take a day or more.

The actual install process is pretty much all down to one ‘ Mysticus C*’ on the InsanelyMac forums. This guy is awesome, and without the work he’s done I really would not have bothered even buying the NC10. There’s a forum post with the details, but it’s a bit confusing. The best thing to do is go to ‘BIKE TOWN’s updates section and follow the link to Rapidshare for ‘SAMSUNG NC10 RELATED FILES’. There’s a PDF guide on there that’ll lead you through the whole process.

The only changes I would recommend over what’s in the PDF is to first resize down your Windows partition to as small as you can. I used a gparted live USB drive and dropped it down to about 32GB. I also only made one partition for Mac OS X (the guide makes several extra partitions for Time Machine and other stuff). In the end, my hard disk has four partitions: the ‘restore’ partition it comes with, an NTFS partition for Windows XP, the Mac OS X partition, and the ‘DDMAC’ partition. The ‘DDMAC’ partition has apparently gone bad, though, as every time I start up in Mac OS X it complains about it. It worked perfectly for the install, and I suspect I’ll just wipe it and leave it blank for now. (I won’t try to extend the Mac OS X partition into the space, since I might want to use DDMAC in the future to reinstall/upgrade.)

I haven’t followed the instructions in the PDF for setting up QuickSilver (I suspect I might be the only Mac power-user to not use it already) to control the brightness, and I’ve yet to get the headphone socket working, although I do believe it’s possible. I’ll want to have both these things sorted before my trip to Redemption 2009 next month, but as I’ve had the netbook for less than a week I’m not bothered that it’s still needing work.

The on-board ethernet will probably never work, since there’s no drivers for it at all. The on-board bluetooth does work, although sometimes it appears to vanish for no obvious reason. The webcam works fine in PhotoBooth, although it is very laggy and I’m not sure if it would be that useful for iChat. I don’t video chat, so I’m unlikely to ever need to test that. The microphone (and the microphone socket) apparently don’t work, but again this isn’t something that’s likely to bother me, and a USB or bluetooth headset would work just fine.

There’s some issues with the keyboard. The ‘€’ key is never going to work due to some stupidity on Samsung’s part. I installed the UK layout from BIKE TOWN’s NC10 files list, but even then the layout isn’t perfect. The key to the left of the right-shift is dead, and there’s no backtick (`), which could be problematic for some coding. (In particular it’s used in shell scripting, and also in LaTeX.) I don’t think that ‘home’ and ‘end’ work either. The volume keys do work, which is something.

The SD card reader worked perfectly, including SDHC cards. Removing the ‘blank’ card Samsung put in the slot is fiddly – I wish they could have just used a flap like normal people. I’ve run the battery into the ground in Mac OS X in about four hours, but that was four hours of constant wifi and compiling stuff, with the screen brightness high for most of it. While fiddling with the screen brightness script directly I found that you should never set it to ’0′, since that just turns the backlight off. Thankfully I was able to restore it ‘blind’. I suspect that with careful use and screen-dimming you could get five hours out of this thing, possibly more if some of the other power saving systems get Mac OS X support in future.

I’ve yet to really give my home-made MacBook Mini a real work-out. I think I might take it with me to work tomorrow and see if it’s as usable as I hope it will be. The screen is really small compared to the huge 1920 by 1200 iMac I’m sitting at right now, but it’s not much smaller than the iBook G4 I used for years as my only computer. I think it’s going to make a quite excellent second, small, cheap, portable Mac.

NC10 sitting on a 12" iBook G4

NC10 sitting on a 12" iBook G4

7" EeePC 701 sitting on the 10" NC10 sitting on the 12" iBook G4

7" EeePC 701 sitting on the 10" NC10 sitting on the 12" iBook G4