How Psystar's computer measures up to a Mac

How Psystar's computer measures up to a Mac

What do you get when you install Mac OS X on a generic Intel-powered computer with a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor? A system that, performance-wise, falls somewhere between a Mac mini and a low-end iMac, according to our testing.

At any rate, that was what happened when we ran Psystar's controversial Open Computer through our battery of benchmark tests. Using our Speedmark tool for benchmarking new and upgraded systems, Psystar's would-be Mac clone runs about 28-percent faster than a 2GHz Mac mini but 8-percent slower than the new entry-level iMac.

As you've doubtlessly heard over the last month, Miami-based Psystar announced last month that it would start selling computers capable of running OS X 10.5--even though Apple's End-User License Agreement for OS X expressly forbids installing or running the software on anything that isn't a Mac. Because we have obligation to keep tabs on how the Mac measures up to potential rivals, we ordered one of Psystar's Open Computers with the intention of seeing how its performance compared to an Apple-sanctioned system.

We've already shared our first impressions of Psystar's machine. Now that we've completed our tests, let's focus on the results.

But first, here's a quick reminder of what exactly we tested. The US$715 Open Computer we ordered features:

Mac OS X 10.5.2, pre-installed by Psystar;

a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2MB of cache and an 800MHz frontside bus;

a Gigabyte GA-G31M-S2L motherboard with built-in Intel GMA3100 graphics;

2GB of Super Talent DDR2 PC5300 RAM running at 667MHz;

Nvidia's GeForce 8600GT graphics with 512MB of DDR2 video ram;

a Hitachi Deskstar 250GB Serial ATA drive;

a Lite-On DVD/CD Rewritable optical drive; and

a 3-port Iogear Firewire Card (FW400).

Psystar's marketing materials compare the Open Computer to Apple's Mac mini. Both systems require you to supply your own display, keyboard, and mouse--not to mention that at prices of $599 and $799, the mini represents the least expensive Mac offered by Apple.

We decided to include the $799 mini--the 2GHz Core 2 Duo model--in our tests, with the caveat that Psystar's offering boasts a faster processor, ships with more RAM, and sports a larger hard drive. It also provides more peripheral ports and expansion options than does the mini. Of course, the mini offers a few things the Open Computer does not, namely Apple tech support and support for OS updates.

We also included the recently updated entry-level iMac--a 2.4GHz all-in-one system that runs on Intel's latest Penryn chips. (You can read our review of that $1,199 system--and its fellow Penryn-based iMacs elsewhere at Along with these Mac systems, we included an unauthorized Mac clone--the home-built machine assembled by Macworld's Rob Griffiths for a little less than $1,000.

Overall, the Psystar's performance was somewhere between the Mac mini and the low end 20-inch, 2.4GHz core 2 Duo 20 iMac. Speedmark 5 results show the Psystar to be 28 percent faster than the high-end Mac mini and 8 percent slower than the low end iMac.

The Open Computer's individual test results also fell between those two systems in most cases, though the speedy Hitachi Deskstar drive helped the Psystar machine out-perform the iMac in Photoshop, file duplication, and Zip archive expansion. In terms of game performance, with the Open Computer's 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT card installed, that machine outperformed the iMac and its 128MB ATI HD Radeon 2400 XT graphics card in our Quake 4 tests. The iMac prevailed in our older Unreal Tournament testing, however. It's no surprise that the Mac mini, which features graphics that shares memory with the system RAM, wasn't even a contender in our gaming tests.

The Open Computer ships with Intel's integrated graphics, but we ran into problems trying to test it. First off, the Open Computer's built-in graphics card doesn't offer a DVI port; it's analog-only, so we had to dig out one of those cables. Secondly, the games wouldn't even run on the Open Computer when using the integrated graphics. In this mode, the system showed that the display had a fixed resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels and that no kernel extension was loaded. A call to Psystar's tech support was enlightening. The Psystar representative said that the way the system is configured when shipped is the only configuration that is supported; he couldn't tell me how to get the Intel integrated graphics to work properly except to say that it was very complicated. We'll continue to look into this, with an eye toward providing results for the Open Computer featuring the default integrated graphics.

Comparing this non-Apple Mac to our own Rob Griffith's home-built machine, the Open Computer turned in a score 4 percent slower than the "Frankenmac" in Speedmark 5. Of course, the Frankenmac's 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad features twice the number of processing cores, so it's no surprise that it performed much better in Compressor and Cinema 4D tests.

But with its crowded internal hard drive, the Frankenmac lagged behind the Open Computer in more disk-intensive tests, such as file duplication, archiving, and even Photoshop. The Frankenmac's Nvidia GeForce 8800GT graphics card with 512MB of video memory scored about 18.5 percent higher in terms of frame rates in our Quake 4 test and 25 percent higher in Unreal Tournament than the Open Computer.

Of course, this discussion of raw numbers ignores the 800-pound elephant sitting in on any talk about Psystar's Open Computer--namely, is it ethical or right to consider the machine an option, considering that it calls on the user to ignore Apple's licensing agreement for OS X. Certainly, the feedback I've received from some readers and even colleagues suggests that there's strong feeling about this issue. We maintain that measuring the performance of Psystar's offering is a necessary exercise, though we plan to follow up this report with a discussion of the very valid concerns surrounding the Open Computer. Hopefully, we'll even be able to provide some answers from the folks at Psystar.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

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