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Mac OS X May Split With Atom

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 3, 2009 4:00 AM PT

An update from Apple for its OS X 10.6 operating system could cause a lot of grief for tinkerers who have installed Snow Leopard on low-cost netbook computers.

Mac OS X May Split With Atom

The update may cause Snow Leopard to no longer run on Intel's Atom processors. Withdrawing Atom support would prevent device hackers from creating so-called hackintosh netbooks.

Smashing the Atom

Apple has changed around a significant amount of CPU-related information in the latest build for Snow Leopard, according to a blog post by the hacker Stellarolla. One of the effects of this is that Snow Leopard will no run on Intel's Atom chip.

The Atom family of processors consists of low-power chips designed for mobile Internet devices and Internet-centric computers such as netbooks. Over the past year or so, adventurous netbook owners have found that, with a little hacking, the Leopard and Snow Leopard operating systems can be installed on these computers. Many hackintosh charts and how-to guides can be found online.

However, the suspected build is only a developer build, which means the situation might change again.

One reason some users install Mac OS X onto netbooks is price -- netbooks can generally be purchased for less than half the price of a new MacBook. Another reason is size -- Apple does not have a laptop that's as small as a netbook.

The question of whether hackintoshes are technically legal has been often discussed. Specifically, Apple's end user license agreement allows the user to install its OS only on Apple-branded products. Also, Apple is currently involved in a legal battle with Psystar, a company that sells non-Apple computers with OS X pre-installed.

Malice or a Mistake?

The news that the latest build of Snow Leopard won't support the Intel Atom angered some people.

"I like Apple and own an iPhone, but it seems that Apple is trying to win the 'World's Hugest Douche' award," wrote ed21201 in response to a story on the Gizmodo blog about the issue.

"Yet another reason why I won't own an Apple computer," wrote brianesser76, another respondent. "Well this blows, but I have confidence there will be a workaround," Tamako wrote.

However, mechdrew, a moderator on the MyDellMini forum, believes the lack of Intel Atom support is just a mistake. Chances are that the latest build is just faulty, he said. Also, the Intel Atom CPU was not explicitly supported by Snow Leopard; rather, the processor is simply compliant with the minimum requirements of the operating system, he pointed out.

"It's not a released build, so it could be an accident," pointed out Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group. "Apple could add the capability back in before release."

Alternatively, Apple could further restrict which platforms OS X 10.6.2 will run on, just as it abandoned PowerPC support with the original release of Snow Leopard in August, Howe told MacNewsWorld. "We just don't know yet what features the release will have when it's out," he added.

On the other hand, it could be a subtle signal of Cupertino's future direction. "Apple could be signaling it has no intention of releasing any Atom-based products in the future and that it doesn't particularly want to support unauthorized porting activities like those Psystar was conducting," Howe said.

If Apple doesn't support the Intel Atom for its forthcoming low-power products, it could switch to ARM, which the iPhone uses. "The iPhone 3.1 OS is a Snow Leopard build," Howe pointed out. "We could see a lot more ARMs in low-power Apple products and a lot less Intel."

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