Yes, we are diehard PC fans, and yes, we like Apple's products. (We're PC enthusiasts, not idiots.) But with Macs oh so expensive, we think it informative to see how OS X performs on a computer that isn’t a Mac.

So when our sister magazine, Macworld, ordered a Psystar Open Computer about a week or so ago on which to test a copy of OS X, we were naturally a little intrigued. Psystar touts its Open Computer as a low-cost alternative to Apple’s hardware and, at just £275 with OS X preinstalled, it's certainly that.

The Psystar Open Computer features a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of 667MHz RAM and a 250GB hard drive (specifically, a Hitachi Deskstar). The base model includes Intel’s integrated graphics, though if you have any spare cash you can grab an nVidia GeForce 8600GT for an extra $110 (£55).

First impressions

If Psystar is all about giving you the Mac OS X experience at a more affordable price, it was immediately obvious that product packaging is one area where the company is looking to trim costs. When the box arrived, we found it stuffed with white foam packing peanuts, making the unpacking process a big mess - we hate those things. Indeed, the Psystar Open Computer was swamped with packing peanuts, and not a lot else. Some of the doors on the front of the case that cover the optical drive and the USB ports were ajar, with little pieces of packing peanuts lodged inside. After we cleared out the offending bits, the doors closed properly and the computer appeared to be no worse for wear.

We had a bit of scare, however, when we tried to start up the Psystar Open Computer. On hitting the power button the machine made noises as if we'd switched on a garbage disposal; rather, one of the power cables was getting caught in the fan. After rerouting the cable and restarting the machine, the fan was still pretty darn loud. You wouldn't want this computer sitting on your desk.

Psystar's Open Computer booted up and immediately recognised a FireWire drive, then questioned whether this should be used as a Time Machine backup drive. However, while the drive icon changed to reflect its new status, the backup would immediately fail each time it attempted to run.

Psystar's website lists available software update downloads, including one for fixing Time Machine errors. Psystar turns off the Mac OS’s automatic System Update feature, so you need to download and install updates manually. One might think that the company would send you a Psystar Open Computer that’s as up-to-date as possible, but that’s not the case. Tech support told Macworld that a download would be made available in the next couple weeks to enable Psystar users to take advantage of Apple’s Software Update utility.

For Mac testing, we use Migration Assistant to transfer our Speedmark user files and folders to our test system from a clean system booted into FireWire Target Disk Mode - and that process worked just fine with the Psystar Open Computer. We found, however, that we were unable to boot the Psystar Open Computer into FireWire Target disk mode. The tech support person didn’t think that Psystar offered that feature. Other startup options, such as SafeBoot, zapping of PRAM and startup drive selection via the Option key, were also unavailable.

We successfully cloned the internal drive to an external FireWire drive using Carbon Copy Cloner, but were unable to boot from it. It sounds like a couple of folks in the Psystar forums were able to find a way to do it, but they weren’t giving out specific instructions. We’ll continue to look into that.

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