Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A mini MacBook. A perfect traveling companion for photographers.

Some of my best photos come from my travels. But traveling with your camera, especially today's high resolution models offering upwards of 18 megapixels per exposure, introduces a special consideration:

How do I keep from running out of storage while I'm away from home for two weeks?

The obvious answer that many of you are thinking is "just bring a spare memory card." Fair enough, but in my case, it would be, like, bring a spare 20 or so memory cards. It's not unusual for me to fill an 8GB card on a single day of shooting, sometimes two if I feel really inspired. I like to explore a scene and take many MANY shots of the same thing, until I get a composition that I'm happy with. It was once not unheard of for me to take upwards of 100 shots, just to get that one perfect one. Of course, practice has made me more efficient... I haven't taken that many for a single scene in a long time.... but I'll do 20 or 30 quite frequently.

So carrying a whole bunch of cards with me just doesn't appeal to me. They're so small, and I'd hate to lose one, not to mention the precious photos stored on board.

For the longest time, I had a Hyperdrive HD80. It is a great little device for dumping the photos off my memory cards at the end of the day, freeing them up for the next. It was all I ever needed, at least until my 20D died. Even though you can upgrade the hard drive inside to meet your capacity needs, it has a limit of 128 GB. Even if you threw in a 320 GB drive, it would only use the first 128 GB of it. With my 50D, RAW files are nearly double the resolution of those from the 20D. So a 128 GB Hyperdrive doesn't cover me for much more than a week.

The HD80 is an older model, and there are newer ones available that overcome the size limitation. Plus some of the newer ones have colour screens on them for image review. But since I was going to replace it anyway, I thought it would be nice if I could find something that could do a little more than copy the photos off of the memory card.

The ideal device for me was something that would import my photos from the camera, allow me to flag my favourites from that day of shooting, and finally allow me to export the flagged catalog into Adobe Lightroom once I got home. At that point I would be ready to dive right into processing -- I would have already flagged my favourites. I estimate such a device would cut my post processing time in half (or at least spread it out over some of the downtime I have during the trip, such as on a flight). And since I would be traveling with it, I'd also want it to be small and lightweight.

To be honest I really REALLY wanted this device to be the iPad. It has a GORGEOUS screen, and, well, it's an iPad. But it has a few issues that made it a no-go for me:

1. Nothing compatible with Lightroom's catalogue is available for the iPad. Importing the photos without cataloguing them gets me no further than the Hyperdrive option.
2. The iPad has very limited storage. From a photographer's perspective, even the 64 GB version of the iPad is TINY!! I'd get just a couple of days of shooting captured before filling it.

So while the first problem could potentially be solved in time (I read in an Adobe blog post that they were toying with the idea of a Lightroom companion app for the iPad), the second is not something I see in the iPad's future for a long time. It's just not what it was designed to do.

So it wasn't to be an iPad...

I then considered a netbook computer. But the prospect of having to go back to Windows with my tail between my legs, after a blissful two years of freedom from its sorry slow ass, just didn't jive with me.

I just about pulled the trigger on an upgraded Hyperdrive, when I came across this guide. Now I'd heard about the potential to install OS X on a PC machine (known as a "hackintosh"), but up until this point I understood it to be a difficult thing to do, and wrought with stability problems. Not the Mac experience I'm used to, and definitely not something I'm going to trust with my precious photos. But times have changed and after reading this guide it seemed like it would be a very straightforward thing to do, so I decided to give it a try.

The first problem was finding the right netbook. Research revealed that one of the best netbooks suitable to be hackintosh'd is a Dell Mini 10v model 1011. It had to this SPECIFIC model for it work right... the previous mini 10, or the current Mini 10 for sale on Dell's web site won't work as well (but reportedly do work to some extent that many people are happy with). Problem is the 1011 has been end-of-lifed by Dell. So I had to find one some other way.

Luckily Dell has an outlet website.
They had a few 1011's available. I really wanted one with the 6-cell battery, but the only one I could find in that configuration came in pink... So I chose the black one instead with the 3-cell battery. After taxes and delivery, it cost me $260.

I wanted to do a few upgrades on this thingy. I bought a 2GB chip to replace the stock 1GB of memory, and I purchased one of those new-fangled hybrid SSD drives to give me the storage space I needed.

Installing these parts wasn't so straightforward, as Dell, in their infinite wisdom, didn't put a door on the back of the netbook to access the RAM module. Instead I followed this guide to take apart the whole thing in order to upgrade the RAM. I also swapped the hard drive while I had the whole thing apart. This dicey process took me about an hour, beginning to end, after which I breathed a sigh of relief when the thing powered up on the first try. Now the machine was ready for the OS X install.

The installation process is very easy. Just follow the guide, and you'll have no problems. It's more or less a straight OS X install, with one little hack enabling the Dell Mini to boot into OS X. Otherwise, the install is exactly as it is on a regular Mac. However, don't trust the time the install reports for the install to complete... it takes significantly longer, and at times I thought the install was frozen. But patience prevailed, and I was on my way.

The Hybrid Platter/SSD drive is a bit more expensive than a comparable traditional drive. I spent $160 for a 500 GB model. DDR2 memory is not so cheap these days now that everyone wants DDR3, so the chip cost $60. A copy of OS X Snow Leopard costs $30. All-in this thing racked up to a whopping $500.

Did I mention it only weighs 1 kg? Oh, and it has OS X RUNNING ON IT!!!

And run it does! I am incredibly surprised at how well OS X runs on this low powered device. By comparison, I started up the preloaded Windows XP when it arrived to register it with Dell's web site. All I did was boot, and open Internet Explorer. It was DOG SLOW! Meanwhile, OS X on the netbook happily runs Adobe Lightroom well enough to not only import and catalog my photos, but even fully developing my photos is easily doable. Really, the limited screen space is more of a hinderance than the performance is. But this has exceeded my expectations many times over regarding how well it works. It's truly is a Mac experience resurrected from a doomed Windows machine.

Well, almost... again, I must remind you (and often myself) that it still isn't the real Mac it aspires to be. The trackpad is nowhere near as good as on a genuine MacBook. I was even able to get two-finger scrolling to work, but its precision and dexterity is just not in the same league as Apple's. Secondly, hibernation hasn't yet been made to work, so I have to do a full shut down when I'm not using it. Otherwise I'll drain the battery between uses. And, as I touched on before, screen space is limited. Even some of Apple's preference panes don't fully fit. I have to use Lightroom in full-screen mode just to make the import dialog fit on screen.

But it's very VERY stable! And performance is way better than I expected it would be. Not to mention the fact that I now have a travel-sized MacBook that I was able to configure for $500.

So far so good. The real test will be in October when I head to Mexico for a week. I'll write a follow up describing my experience then.

Some pics of my Mini MacBook:

Here's the Mini MacBook side-by-side with a 17" MacBook Pro.

Another shot with my hand in it to give you an idea of the size.

...and to add a little bit of dignity...

- jc

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