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Is a Home-Built Mac a Waste of Time?

Just the other day, I had a pleasant conversation with Macworld’s Rob Griffiths about his “FrankenMac” project, his weekend warrior project to build a Mac from off-the-shelf PC parts.

In a sense, I understand what he was attempting to do, and it wasn’t to save money, not if you value your time. Back when I was real young — and that seems to have all happened in another world — I enjoyed assembling radio kits. While other kids in the neighborhood were busy learning such pedestrian pastimes as baseball and basketball, I sat in my room with soldering gun in hand putting various and sundry pieces together.

I most enjoyed the “spark test,” where I would plug in my creation into the wall socket, turn it on, and hope it didn’t flash sparks. Fortunately, nothing amiss ever occurred. That was quite unlike my late brother, Wallace, who, legend has it, once put something together with a chemistry set and blew out a wall in our Brooklyn apartment. In his adult life, he managed the research team at Johnson & Johnson that invented such products as Reach toothbrushes and Retin-A, so he never gave up working with chemicals and related materials.

In my adult life, I learned quickly to appreciate having something pre-assembled by the manufacturer. For one thing, if there was an assembly error, they would take the responsibility for it and fix or replace the defective product. So while others of my generation may have put together personal computers from spare parts, that was never anything that intrigued me. I preferred to concentrate my creative efforts on doing things with the tools the computer provided, such as a word processor or multimedia application.

However, with Apple’s switch to Intel processors and their increasing use of industry-standard parts, you can well understand that there is a temptation to see if you can build a real Mac from the spare parts.

When it comes to most everything you’ll find inside your Mac, any PC parts catalog will probably get you a generic equivalent, from the case and power supply, to the microprocessors, graphic cards, hard drives, optical drives and RAM. If you are capable of following instructions and you’re handy with a few tools, you’ll probably come through the ordeal without suffering too many bruises, mentally and otherwise.

The fly in the ointment, however, is Mac OS X. According to Apple’s well-known user license, the Mac OS is only meant to be installed on an Apple branded computer. If you attempt to install it on any other computer, you are in violation of that license.

Even if you do decide to take the law into your own hands and install Mac OS X anyway, don’t expect a trivial process. For one thing, you have to follow certain steps, clearly detailed in various online forums, to hack the system installer and recognize the unapproved hardware. You also have to observe special care in selecting such peripherals as optical drives and even the graphics card, because Apple only supports a limited number of models and configurations, and the rest may just not work. A few minutes on Google will reveal all if you’re curious.

Now I don’t expect Apple to clamp down on an individual do-it-yourself type, any more than I expect them to file legal action against Rob Griffiths and Macworld as a result of their efforts. In fact, Rob is actually going to restore the computer to function in the manner originally intended, as a PC gaming machine, with no sign of the Mac OS in sight. It’ll be history.

However, there are no doubt thousands of people around the world who have done the very same thing and have not incurred Apple’s wrath. They do know there will be no tech support from Apple for their mistakes, so they are on their own.

Even though you’ll probably be able to assemble a Mac clone that provides superior performance to the comparably-priced genuine article, when you factor in the time it takes to complete the project successfully, you probably won’t be saving much. But that’s not the point; it’s the satisfaction of a job well done.

However, the genuine Mac will be better built, and just look a whole lot prettier. More to the point, you’ll be free to install updates without having to concern yourself whether Apple might pull a stunt that would turn your carefully-crafted personal computer into a door stop.

But I don’t see a trouble-free future in the cards for Psystar Corporation, the company behind the Open Computer that they are selling with Mac OS X Leopard preloaded. As the first shipments reach the hands of consumers, I suspect Apple will soon call out its legal team to put a stop to Psystar’s blatant disregard of their intellectual property rights.

You see, a license agreement will have no standing unless it’s enforced, so Apple cannot just leave well enough alone.

But if you want to build one yourself, in the privacy of your kitchen table or garage, have fun. I won’t do it, but I wish you luck in your endeavors.