Article: Tinkering with Old PCs, Chromium OS, and OS X

by on April 18, 2014

In my spare time over the last week, I spent more time messing with a pair of older PCs than I would care to admit. Although I prefer Apple’s products, I do spend a fair amount of time with Windows at work, and don’t really waste a lot of time or energy complaining about Windows or PC hardware. That being said, we had a couple of old machines laying around—HP Compaq (yes, both brands are present) 6710b and nc6320 laptops to be exact—they were sold around 2006 and 2007 primarily to business customers. The 6710b runs Windows 7, but is a bit slow, and the nc6320s were shelved at the end of our XP days. Both were advertised for use with Windows Vista, and had some earlier Core 2 Duo processors and an Intel GMA X3100 running graphics. Having no interest in messing with Windows, I decided that I’d see what other operating systems could be used on these.

HP 6710b, HP nc6320

nc6320 Chromebook

The nc6320 had an almost laughable configuration: a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 1GB RAM, and an odd-in-today’s-context 4×3 aspect ratio display. Since we are seeing more Chromebooks being used, I thought it would be a great candidate for installing Chromium OS (Chromium OS is the open source twin of Chrome OS—it looks about the same, but is missing a few things like Flash and Java). Since there isn’t an officially prebuilt version, I grabbed a version from ArnoldTheBat, a well-known contributor in the world of Chromium OS.

After downloading the disk image and copying it to a flash drive (the “Linux method” pretty much works for OS X), the nc6320 booted into Chromium OS with no trouble. What shocked me was how fast it started—probably about 20 seconds tops off of cheap USB flash drive. I was greeted with the setup window, asking to pick a language and a network.

As far as things that worked out of the box with no modifications, almost everything worked. I suspect this is due to Chromium’s Ubuntu Linux underpinnings. The only issue was a nonfunctional trackpad—apparently the Synaptics trackpad used on these, as well as other older PCs are PS/2-based, and the driver support has been flaky at best. I even tried some modifications with no luck. In the end, I just used a USB mouse.

Still, from an educational standpoint, I was able to really learn about some of the ins and outs of Chromium, and went ahead and copied it to the computer’s hard drive (removing Windows XP in the process). Boot up times are still very fast, even in an age where hard drives are usually synonymous with sluggishness. The thing I like the most is the ability to pull up a terminal tab, giving me the ability to talk to my Macs and various Linux servers easily.

I get the love for Chrome OS if you’re all-in with Google’s products—it’s a great way to use their web-based services on an inexpensive, low-maintenance computer. For me, Chrome OS is still too underpowered for a primary computer and still too Google-centric to be my “other” computer—an iPad makes a better satellite, especially if you use a variety of services. That being said, I’d consider the experiment a success for making an arguably useless machine into something infinitely more useful in 2014.

6710b Hackintosh

Naturally, the 6710b had plenty of RAM, a familiar chipset, processor, and integrated graphics, making it a perfect candidate to be a Hackintoshes. For those that don’t know “Hackintosh” is the term applied to running OS X on generic PC hardware. In this case, I decided to try OS X 10.7 Lion, since it seemed like the right mix for a machine of this era and I couldn’t find my Snow Leopard DVD. Why would I do it? For me, it was mostly just to see how the process worked, and how well OS X runs on a machine that seems to be a bit sluggish with Windows 7.

I used the myHack tool to take my OS X 10.7 installer and make it useful for a PC. I found a pack of kernel extensions (kexts) that supported a few things out of the box, too, and installed that as an extra. After preparing a flash drive and rebooting, OS X installed pretty easily. A few modifications were done by myHack to ensure that the computer would be a bit more stable, notably removing troublesome kexts that nobody would use.

Restarting took me to the familiar OS X Setup Assistant, and I was also prompted for a keyboard and mouse (since the 6710b’s keyboard and trackpad are PS/2-based, OS X sees them and they work, but still aren’t good enough to keep OS X from bugging you to connect or Bluetooth-pair a keyboard or mouse—I fixed this by turning off the prompts in the Bluetooth settings). I was amazed how everything seemed to work pretty well—at first. The trackpad was laughably small compared to the Magic Trackpads on my desks at home and work, my MacBook Pro’s built-in trackpad, and even prior portable Macs. FireWire and Bluetooth worked with no modifications. Sound, Ethernet, WiFi, and the right-side USB ports didn’t work. Sleep seemed to be intermittent. The battery powered the computer and charged, but was not seen by OS X.

Installing a few more kexts later, I was able to get sound working (it even used the HP’s dedicated volume buttons), and the battery detected. I was able to get the Broadcom Ethernet interface working, but only if you enabled promiscuous mode—something that will surely annoy a network administrator. It seems that WiFi will never work since the Intel card my machine uses never had a good OS X driver written—most people hit up eBay and bought a Broadcom card or went with a compatible USB WiFi interface. I could go the USB route for Ethernet, too, giving the computer a proper Internet connection.

Overall, OS X runs nicely on this computer once you get past the weird nuances and things that will never work properly. I haven’t had a chance to test things like the SD card slot or ExpressCard slot. Still, there were a few issues with particular kexts causing kernel panics and just general instability. Part of this is my lack of experience with Hackintoshses, but also because a lot of support for other devices had been added unofficially.

With so many things still not functioning (and I am not spending extra money on a machine I don’t technically even own), I’m sort of keeping the machine as-is. I can share the Internet connection from a Mac with a 4-pin FireWire cable, and there is still the novelty component. Besides that, I think 10.7 is about the last version of OS X that will run on that machine (10.8 has some incompatibilities with the graphics chips—part of the reason why some white MacBooks were probably powerful enough to run 10.8 in some instances, but never were allowed to).

Should We?

Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park said, “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I think this applies to my little experiment. Chromium on an old PC makes sense, since everything worked without much fuss (except that trackpad), and can serve a specific modern purpose. Although I didn’t try it, any number of versions of Linux would be a great addition to the computer, too.

As for my OS X experiment, I don’t see myself using the machine as a daily driver—even a comparable MacBook from that era would be seen as obsolete and probably only good as a backup or a simple server. With so many things not working and requiring hours or money to actually solve, it’s a case of diminishing returns. I’ve heard of plenty of people building new Hackintoshes to solve particular use cases, or just because they want something outside of what Apple offers. Still, this has a tinkering feel, has the chance of breaking with OS X updates, and most people aren’t going to want to have an arguably unreliable computer that needs more attention than a similarly-priced Mac. Basically, it just lost the cohesiveness that really makes a Mac special.

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