I acquired a Dell Mini 9 netbook very soon after it was released last fall. My HP Tablet was feeling heavy, and I wanted something that I could carry around more easily. I’d been checking out the various ASUS Eee PCs, but I decided to go with the Dell because of its reportedly roomier keyboard. I was hoping that I’d be able to use the Mini 9 to run my PowerPoint presentations in lecture.

When the unit arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. I immediately upgraded the memory to 2 GB (Dell would only sell me 1GB due to restrictions imposed by Microsoft; in retrospect, I should only have ordered 512 MB). I didn’t mind the lack of dedicated function keys, but I found myself wishing that instead of placing the quotation/apostrophe key on the bottom row to save space, Dell had put the colon/semicolon key there instead. I suppose Dell thought that more people would use the Mini to surf the web rather than to do extended typing: ostensibly you need the colon after your “http” more than you need apostrophes or quotations marks. (Most browsers, however, allow you to do without the “http://” these days, so I’m still not sure it was the right choice even with net-users foresmost in mind.)

Oddly, I found the lack of hard drive noise and the absence of a hard drive activity light a little disconcerting too, but with the SSD, the system was pretty snappy to boot up, and, yes, it did a great job with my PowerPoint presentations. It became my standard classroom machine.

I ran into a problem when I tried to upgrade my firmware to the version A04 in late December. The firmware updater was a Windows program, and it hung up in the middle of the update — bricking the poor little Mini! So I didn’t have it with me when I went to the MLA in December: it was at the Dell service depot being unbricked. It was, however, back before the new year.

And then I heard about the RunCore SSD upgrades, demonstrated on the jkkmobile blog, a site devoted to testing, upgrading, and hacking netbooks. So I ordered a 64GB SSD from mydigitaldiscount.com. It was backordered (as it is again today), but once it arrived, the installation process was easy. I followed jkkmobile’s instructions below:

About this time the Windows 7 Public Beta became available, and I read that it worked well on the Dell Mini 9. So I downloaded the beta, installed it, and began to use it in mission critical situations (for lectures at NYU and elsewhere). The combination of the increased memory, the larger and faster SSD drive, and the Windows 7 software made the machine quite snappy. And I loved many of the new features in Windows 7, particularly its upgraded searching features. The visual pun on its standard background, which pictured a betta,was enhanced in our household by the fact that we’d acquired two bettas last fall, one of which bore a striking resemblance to Microsoft’s.

windows_7_betta.jpgI’m told that the betta will disappear when the public Release Candidate version appears in May.

And then I learned that the Dell Mini 9 made a wonderful Hackintosh because all of the hardware is supported natively by Apple’s OS X Leopard operating system.

Now I’m a big fan of iPods (I’ve owned 5 different models so far), and I love my iPhone 3G, but I’ve always found Macs a little off-putting. It started back in the day when the first models were released and you needed to eject CDs using the software. The software-eject became the embodiment for me of the way I reacted to the Mac difference: what was supposed to be easier for most people was actually harder for me. Then again it’d taken me a while to get used to the whole graphical user interface thing, because I’d spent my summers in college programming for IBM on mainframes: I was used to the command line and I liked it!

I actually own a first-gen (pre-Intel) Mac Mini. I bought it when my older son was entering Kindergarten, because I’d heard that his classroom would have a Mac. It did, but it was an older Mac running OS 9, and the programs that the kids used — the Bailey’s Bookhouse series from Edmark — didn’t run very well on OS X Tiger, which came with the Mac Mini. The Windows versions ran fine, however, so we used those at home. The Mac Mini currently resides in my office, where one of my Macophile colleagues uses it.

Now, however, he is a third-grader, and his school has an up-to-date Mac-based computer lab and all the Macs in the school are networked together. He’s been learning PowerPoint and Keynote and lately iMovie in his technology class. So I figured it was time for me to start to learn to speak Mac more fluently. I’d always felt in the Mac environment the way I feel in Paris linguistically: not quite up to speed.

I’d had it in mind to build a new computer to run Windows XP, and then I learned about the marvelous EFI-X USB dongle, a bootloader that allows you to load any major operating system (Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS X, Linux) so long as you have compatible hardware (and it’s OS X that imposes the has the most restricted compatibility). So I acquired an EFI-X, bought hardware from their compatability list, and put together a triple-booting machine over the Christmas break: XP, OS X, and eventually the Windows 7 Beta. And I started my Mac lessons.

So when I read this guide to loading OS X onto the Mini 9 from Gizmodo, I couldn’t resist. Like the author of the guide, I had to create a bootable USB drive and transfer the files from my OS X disc to it. I diverged from the instructions near the end, continuing to use the USB drive where the author reverted to a USB DVD drive. As a result, in step 15, I had to enter “81” instead of “82” to get to the Mini’s SSD (if you read the guide, you’ll see what I mean).

And it worked. It just plain worked. The larger SSD meant that I didn’t have to strip down Leopard, and I’ve loaded iLife ’09, iWork ’09, and Microsoft Office 2008 with plenty of room to spare. The only thing that doesn’t work well for me so far is Garageband, in part because the program needs greater screen resolution than the Mini 9’s 1024×600, but mostly because the Atom processor in the Mini 9 can’t handle the processing required to enable plugging in an electric guitar. (That works fine on my Hackintosh by the way.)

If you want proof of how well the Dell Mini 9 handles OS X, check out this video by Andy Inahtko of the Chicago Sun-Times:


Inahtko’s also written a column about this project for the Sun-Times online.

Technically, I’ve violated the user agreement that came with my copy of Leopard when I installed it on non-Apple hardware. But should Apple really be upset that I’m currently running a purchased copy of OS X on a Dell Mini 9. I don’t think so, and here’s why: First, as Inahtko points out in his column, creating a Hackintosh is not for the faint of heart (even with a relatively compliant piece of hardware like the Mini 9), and it will only ever be an enthusiast or hobbyist project. Bottom line: it won’t cut significantly into Apple’s sales. And it might just get Windows people like me in the Apple door.

Creating the Hackintosh Mini 9 got me to buy a copy of iWork ’09, and I’m going to be testing out Keynote in class later in the month. What’s more, it’s now likely that the next notebook that we buy (sometime before this fall) will be a MacBook. Or even a MacBook Pro. I’m now committed to computer bilingualism.