Emergent proprietary properties
November 19, 2008 7:29 AM   Subscribe

What makes a Mac a Mac?

I was fiddling around with a G5 tower this morning, and I wondered: what's inside that box that makes it a Mac?

I know you can buy the shell (case? enclosure?) that houses the guts of a home made, personalized PC, but as far as I know, you can't do the same with Macs. If I had the aluminum tower, could I, if I had the knowhow, put together a FrankenMac from parts bought separately?

Is there something about the physical hardware that makes Macs able to run OSX? If they can run Windows in Parallels or BootCamp, why couldn't a PC run OSX (if the PC equivalent of BootCamp existed)?

Aren't a lot of the parts like Ram and drives in a Mac made by, say, Samsung, or Sony, or Kingston? These are the same brands used in PCs, yeah? Why couldn't I assemle these and make my own Mac? I've seen some step-by-step guides to mod a shitty PC or an XBox to run OSX.

But what makes a Mac a Mac?

n.b. I have no intention of doing this myself, I'm just curious. Idiot-safe and techie explanations appreciated.
posted by andromache to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can install OSX on your PC, but it is a violation of the OSX license.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:39 AM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

One of the main differences between Mac and PC is that Apple makes hardware as well as software. That means that it's automatically easier for them to make good software -- because Windows has to adapt to almost any combination of hardware, it's much more difficult to make it work perfectly for everyone. So Windows, being designed to run on almost any sufficiently-powerful platform, will happily run on a Mac, while OSX will only run on Macs because it's written specifically for that hardware combination.

It's possible to make a PC boot OSX but it needs a lot of hacking and it's not perfect. I've tried.
posted by katrielalex at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

I suppose just the OS - MacOs. But the boundaries are blurred these days. Its entirely possible that MacOs can run on a 'PC' and Windows XP can run on a Mac. As for the hardware, I believe Apple mainly just assemble them. Its probable that the components for Apple, HP, Dell whatever, are manufactured in the same plants.

All Mac's however pass through one additional phase. They are individually blessed by an Apple Employee. The grunts at the "Genius" bar do the low end stuff, the really good (read: expensive ones) are blessed by Jobs himself Every other Thursday (hence regular shipping delays).
posted by daveyt at 7:43 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't really answer your question but my understanding is that Apple from the beginning built a very closed business model, keeping their operating systems and hardware production closed, as opposed to Microsoft who concentrated on the software side and farmed out the hardware production to various companies. This is why it is now so much harder to understand what's going on inside your mac.
A great book for the layperson on this subject is Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning Was the Command Line.
(Having spent 15$ on it last Christmas, I'm a bit sad to see that the whole thing is available online - though it's good to support one of my fav. authors of course!)
posted by mannequito at 7:46 AM on November 19, 2008

Until recently, Mac computers used PowerPC CPUs, Windows PCs used x86 CPUs. Due to this, at the level that the computer understands, a Mac OS/application/hardware driver was completely incomprehensible when run on a machine that expected a Windows OS/application/hardware drive.

It's possible to write code that can be compiled to run on both types (which was a major point of Java), but it is relatively difficult. Now that Mac has switched to x86, the line is a lot more blurry, and the concept of creating a hacked-together Mac is a lot more feasable.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:54 AM on November 19, 2008

It's a Mac because I don't have to do any of that.

Mac's as hardware aren't perfect and the OS isn't without flaws, but the experience and efficiency is much more intuitive. I've been using a mix of Windows and OSX for the last 6-7 years and am only just now becoming truly efficient in OSX after moving 100% to the platform for work, hobbies... well everything.

What's scary is that I'd been using the platform similarly to XP for many years and felt OSX was just a better 'experience', thus more effective. From that perspective, I was more comfortable with many of the metaphors.

I've stepped it up a notch in using Spaces and Expose and the other stuff I forget the fancy names of and I'm now getting those "WOW" responses to all my ThinkPad colleagues watching me work and the funny thing is, I just find it natural. My productivity is improved if only in keeping workspaces clear. They used to just ogle the hardware and move on.

I don't know if this has been an answer to your question, but another way of looking at it. Imagine if Microsoft actually offered a hardware solution based on their reference platforms. Controlling the manufacturing and integration of the full package has distinct advantages.
posted by michswiss at 7:58 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

A house guest of mine recently said something along the lines of... Windows users spend their time making their computer go, Linux users spend their time making their computer go differently and Mac users spend their time using their computer to do things.

For some reason that seemed to ring true..
posted by ambilevous at 8:09 AM on November 19, 2008 [7 favorites]

In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a fine and entertaining rant, from a historical perspective, but it was written before OSX existed so its thesis (mac = shiny but unmodifiable black box, windows or linux = tweakable fun) is now very much out of date.

Pre OSX, the mac operating system really couldn't run on PC hardware; it depended on a different chipset. Nowadays, it more or less can, but not legally -- and since the mac OS is written with the expectation that it will run on a very specific hardware configuration, e.g. that sold by Apple, it won't necessarily run perfectly on anything that doesn't match that very specific configuration, which makes building a frankenmac difficult.

As for why Apple won't license OSX to run on a PC: Apple is a hardware company which also happens to make software. Microsoft is a software company.
posted by ook at 8:09 AM on November 19, 2008

Current Macs use EFI instead of BIOS - almost all of the current Mac OS X hacks are software implementations of EFI and there's a USB dongle that will emulate EFI as well. With that dongle you can install a out-of-the-box copy of Leopard on pretty much any commodity PC.
posted by jedrek at 8:11 AM on November 19, 2008

Highly subjective impressions of efficiency aside, this question is kind of like asking what makes a Ford a Ford? A Ford today could be manufactured in Mexico, using a Daewoo designed body, and parts from any number of manufacturers. So what makes it a Ford? Essentially, when they slap the Ford logo on the back. Same goes for a Mac.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:14 AM on November 19, 2008

[comment removed - today is not "take your snark to work" day, leave that out of this thread, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:29 AM on November 19, 2008

The vast majority of what makes a Mac different than, say, a Dell is control.

CAN you buy all the parts that are in an Apple computer? Yes, most all Intel based Apples use standard hardware. But Apple has spent the time and money to test each part's interoperability with the other items.

Further, Apple has very, VERY tight driver control. One of the biggest problems PCs have is with Windows drivers (or Linux drivers); drivers not being available for a given OS (like Vista), drivers not "playing nice" with other drivers, drivers being crippled and needing updates, driver updates causing problems with other software.

By carefully selecting the hardware and then keeping very, VERY tight control over the drivers, Apple is able to, within a degree of reasonableness, guarantee an "easy" user experience without the frustration of manual driver installs, uninstalls, etc.

Apple does this, but it's not without a cost, and I mean that in dollars. Apple computers simply cannot complete on price with "cheap PCs" because Apple uses quality hardware that is current. You will not find a $400 Apple, but you will find that from Dell or other makers. Heck, I go to Dell.com and see a computer starting at $279. Apple can't match that and keep the quality they have.

Further, Apple is Hardware AND Software combined, married. No matter how much quality hardware Dell puts into its systems, it has no control over the software that runs on the hardware, or the drivers for the systems.

Microsoft COULD theoretically compete with Apple by starting to sell Microsoft PCs with Microsoft tested and certified hardware and drivers, but Microsoft's business model is to sell only software (XBox excluded) and to work with the OEMs so they sell Windows on their computers. Were Microsoft to start selling full PCs similar to Apple's, then Dell and HP and the others might feel like Microsoft is a competitor rather than a partner, and do something rash like selling Linux systems.
posted by arniec at 8:33 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the main differences between Mac and PC is that Apple makes hardware as well as software.

Not true. For a long while now Apple has been using Intel chips. The gap between Mac and PC is ever narrowing in terms of hardware. You now have companies like Psystar building computers specifically to run OSX86 (which is a hacked OSX that enables all kinds of other drivers to run on the operating system).

If you consider that the hardware is practically interchangeable, then the difference seems to be, really, just the aesthetic - Apple is always head and shoulders above the rest in that respect, and the quality control.
posted by tybeet at 8:44 AM on November 19, 2008

Jedrek gets at (what I consider) the major hardware (err, firmware) difference: it's the boot loader, a sort of micro operating system that runs when you power up and loads up the real operating system.

There's nothing magic about EFI. It's a more modern boot loader than BIOS, and Apple probably chose it because they had no legacy Intel hardware to support. Windows boxes could use EFI instead of BIOS, but, as I understand it, generally don't.

Also, as others have said, Apple designs and qualifies OS X to run on specific combinations of off-the-rack components--which is what a Mac is these days. Apple used to design its own logic boards, some of its own secondary chips, its own external interfaces (ADB, Geoport), etc. Now it's using Intel chips, Intel logic-board designs, standard interfaces, etc. But Apple doesn't care about making it run with every graphic card or ethernet adapter known to man. This is why some hackintoshes have no sound output, or wifi, or whatever.
posted by adamrice at 9:03 AM on November 19, 2008

The answer to your question, assuming you are talking about an Intel Mac and not a PPC one, is the TPM chip.

You can't install OS X on a PC, or build a "FrankenMac" out of standard PC parts, without hacking OS X, for two main reasons: BIOS incompatibility and TPM protection. The former is just an incompatibility, a result of doing the same thing in two different ways, while the latter is an artificial restriction aimed at preventing people from violating the OS X EULA.

The EFI BIOS is the first thing that would stop you from just popping an OS X install disc in a "FrankenMac," because most PC motherboards don't use EFI -- they use the "legacy BIOS," which is a derivative of the IBM BIOS that's been in use (roughly) since the continents broke apart and the dinosaurs went extinct.

However, even if you got an x86 EFI motherboard (and some exist, and they're becoming more common), it still wouldn't work out of the box, because OS X looks for an Infineon TPM, which basically "proves" to the software that the hardware is genuine Apple gear.

The OSX86 Project basically hacks successive releases of the OS X kernel to both avoid this check, and to boot on legacy BIOSes (I think).
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:06 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ohh, lots of irrelevant snarky answers, I'll try to provide simple ones:

what's inside that box that makes it a Mac?

1: A commodity CPU, GPU, ram and disk drives with a limited configuration.
2: A vendor-specific motherboard that uses EFI.
3: A vendor-specific case and cooling system.
4: The OSX operating system.

If I had the aluminum tower, could I, if I had the knowhow, put together a FrankenMac from parts bought separately?

Yes, you can even do it into a cheap $30 case, if you paid attention to hardware compatibility. The trick is that in designing OSX, Apple only supports a limited number of hardware configurations produced by Apple. So installing OSX onto an AMD motherboard with a graphics card radically different from what has been offered by Apple may require some hacking.

If they can run Windows in Parallels or BootCamp, why couldn't a PC run OSX (if the PC equivalent of BootCamp existed)?

As far as I'm aware, Windows has always had the option of installing multiple operating systems onto the same machine and came with a boot loader that allowed you to switch. Most people don't notice because they don't have multiple operating systems installed, so the boot loader just launches MS Windows unless the computer crashed, in which case, it might give you an option to launch Windows in a safe mode or with the last known good configuration.

If the PC in question has OSX-compatible hardware, then you can run OSX on that system. It violates the terms of the license and there is no support for any problems you might encounter, but you can do it.

Aren't a lot of the parts like Ram and drives in a Mac made by, say, Samsung, or Sony, or Kingston?


But what makes a Mac a Mac?

The primary advantage to the closed software-hardware design of the Mac is that if you buy a Mac, it will probably run OSX versions for the expected lifetime of the hardware. And likewise, if you buy a copy of OSX, it will run on most Mac hardware going back a few years. In contrast, Microsoft is facing a lawsuit because dozens of certified "Vista Ready" brands sold before the release of Vista couldn't run Vista or could only run Vista under the most conservative performance tweaks.

The downside to the software-hardware design model is that if your desired hardware isn't vetted by Apple, support for it is likely to be lacking. You pay a little bit of a premium on the hardware. How much or how little depends on who is doing the review and how they are checking their prices.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:19 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your biggest difference will obviously be the operating system. Apple also takes usability & style into account when designing the hardware. I don't feel this makes any significant difference for desktops, even the OS seems less important for desktops. Mac laptops otoh benefit considerably from both usability & style advantages, like say :

Software : easier adhoc networking & file sharing, expose helps laptops much more than desktops

Hardware : mag safe power cord, smaller wall wart, available plugs for other countries, and they just look sexy when your out & about.

Apple's only real weak point is their AppleCare extended warranty, which costs considerably more than comparable PC warranties, but doesn't cover accidental physical damage. AppleCare costs more because you're buying software support too, not just hardware. You may not need software support but Apple won't let you buy them separately. You've also bought the advantage that said support exists face-to-face at Apple's stores.

I'd seriously consider saving the money by using Linux or Mac OS X on a PC for a desktop, but I'd pay Apple's premium for their laptops. I'd definitely never ever buy Apple's insanely overpriced big monitors.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2008

It used to be the ROM. I recall Apple had licensed the ROM to a few vendors (Motorolla etc.), however that was pre OSX, and pre Intel.

Is there a similar ROM in the Intel Macs?
posted by Gungho at 10:06 AM on November 19, 2008

>Is there a similar ROM in the Intel Macs?

No. Well, yes, in the sense of a security chip that the kernel checks at boot, but no in the sense of a Toolbox ROM that has IP required for the machine to function as a Mac.
posted by troy at 10:25 AM on November 19, 2008

Thanks, Team Nerd! This answered my question and was interesting.
posted by andromache at 10:41 AM on November 19, 2008

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