Episode XVIII: The Clone Scuffles

— 10:23 AM on August 3, 2009

A couple of days ago, a shiny (for brown cardboard) box arrived at my office. Inside, semi-ensconced in 18-feet of coiled air cushion pouches, lay my Final Cut Studio 3 upgrade. As I sat staring at the truly unimpressive 5" x 5" x 2.5" box before me, my first thought—like that of thousands before me who purchase the latest and greatest piece of power-hungry software—was, "I could really use a new machine."

As you, Sean Kowalski of Newport, Rhode Island, may recall, I'm currently clipping along on a late-2006 MacBook Pro with a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo, 3GB of RAM, and 128MB of graphics RAM. Paired with a two-disk RAID setup from OWC, it's handled editing and DVD authoring like a champ. An aging, slow, diaper-wearing champ. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but I thought I had paid my rendering-time dues back in the early 90s when I literally waited a week for an animation of a spinning trumpet (that I modeled myself, thank you) to render on my Amiga 500. So my patience at watching a de-noise filter work its magic starts at "wafer thin" and gradually wears down to "rice paper." Which is tasty neither in metaphor or reality.

Sadly, my dreams of a top-tier Mac Pro stuffed to the aluminum with RAM, hard drives and a monster video card are not to be for the moment. Some rumor about a third child arriving soon and needing a bigger vehicle, yadda yadda, blah blah blah. "So," says I to meself, "what are those crazy kids at Psystar charging for their Hackintoshes these days?"

That's right. To satisfy my lust for power and the ability to convert Flip clips to Redcode 4K at 15x real-time (Or is it 30x? So hard to remember made-up stats.) just because I can, I was willing to look at clones. Specifically, clones made by a group of ne'er-do-wells running under the corporate banner of Psystar out of an industrial-grade lean-to in Doral, Florida.

You've probably heard of Psystar. They're the folks that decided to thumb their noses and other, ruder body parts at Apple's OS X end user license agreement (Anyone else think Eula would be nice girl's name? My wife didn't, either.) and started selling what they claimed to be Mac-compatible boxes in April 2008 with OS X pre-installed (hence the EULA violation). Since that time, they've been sued by Apple (shocking), countersued Apple (why not), filed for bankruptcy, emerged from bankruptcy and expanded their lineup to include four desktops/towers and one rackmount server that are OS X-compatible. (The company also has a line of Windows/Linux-compatible models, some of which are the same as the Mac clones).

Now back to the task at hand.

I was curious to see if Psystar truly offered a machine that was competitive, performance-wise, to a semi-tarted-up Mac Pro at a more wallet-friendly price. Then I went to their website. A site that gives one little confidence in the machine they're about to buy, or in the company behind it. "Lucy," I hear you yelling, even though I'm a dude and you're not Cuban. "You got some 'splaining to do."

Ohhhhh, Ricky. Fine.

Put yourself in Psystar's shoes. (I imagine them to be Cole Haans pre-scuffed from Nordstrom Rack with a light whiff of gator stank.) You want to convince as many people as possible to buy your machines before Apple's cyborg lawyer brigade shuts you down with extreme malice. To do so, you would want to include as much information about your gear as possible, including a side-by-side comparison with Apple's models. Perhaps even have a calculator that shows how much a Psystar build-to-order machine saves customers over an equivalent Mac Pro. And, of course, you'd want to reassure potential customers that you'll always have a solution to any future shenanigans Apple may incorporate into OS X's code that would make Psystar's machines as Mac-compatible as a VT-220 terminal.

Or you could just be really vague and try to sound cool.

Psystar opted for the latter. Which is a shame, because I was predisposed to liking them. Mainly because their name reminds me of game publisher Psygnosis and their awesome title "Blood Money" from my Amiga days. Somebody port it to the iPhone, please. And go.

Psystar's site consists mainly of product pages. Anyone familiar with Apple's product pages knows how deep they are, with each product usually receiving at least two or three pages, plus one just for tech specs. Sure, they're chock full of marketing geegawery (work that into your next tweet), but you actually know what you're getting by the time you reach the end of the last page. Instead of hurting your noggin with knowledge, Psystar keeps things light by making their product pages the same as their configure/buy now page. You have to go to a FAQ page to find full specs. And even after you've perused said specs, you still have the gnawing feeling that you're missing something. Like the fine prints that states a power supply is not included or that you might have to solder everything yourself. Little things.

Perhaps worst of all, there are no comparisons to Apple products. Nothing that says "our Open7 comes with 24 built-in USB 2.0 ports versus Apple's paltry 16!" Shoot, by the end of my time on the site I would've been happy with just a starburst that touted "20% faster at 2/3 the price." Something. Anything. Please.

Even their community forums are bereft of information. Not that I should have to sort through sixteen pages of lolcats to get some decent specs, but if I can handle it on Woot, I could handle it here.

So, despite some tempting prices, I did not purchase a machine from Psystar. I just couldn't quite shake the feeling that I was looking at a highly polished piece of poo. And as we say in advertising, a shiny piece of poo is still poo. Plus, I still remember the days of Power Computing and StarMax, which were bona fide, genuine, Apple-approved clone makers who lasted all of two years before Steve returned from Nextile and promptly tore up the agreements (and covered them over with Apple shares). So for now, I'll stick with Apple machines.

Or maybe build a Hackintosh of my own. Hmmm, where's Scott?



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