The Good, Bad, and Mostly Ugly of EFi-X

I happened to be perusing a copy of Maximum PC magazine. This is one of the better computer enthusiast magazines for cutting edge hardware and building custom computer systems. In this particular issue they reviewed the EFi-X device. This is a USB dongle that will allow the computer to boot into multiple operating systems.

Multi-boot systems are really nothing new and usually it does not require a piece of hardware to accomplish this. I probably would have glossed over this article and moved on but something caught my eye. Not only did this device support Windows and various distributions of Linux but it promised Macintosh compatibility.

I had recently purchased a Macbook Pro laptop and had become increasingly impressed with OS X. Apple has always had an elegant operating system but I struggled with the idea of having to buy their hardware. Don’t get me wrong, I like Apple hardware, I just have special needs and do not necessarily agree with some of the design decisions Apple has made in their hardware space.

The EFi-X device suddenly opened up a whole new world for me. I could now create the hardware configuration I needed for the type of computing I did and I would still be able to run the Macintosh operating system as well as Linux and Windows. This seemed almost too good to be true.

EFIX_V1_USBI did some research on the device and attempted to get several points of view before placing an order for this device. The last thing I wanted was to get taken by some scam. The EFi-X story was an interesting one. They had recently changed distributors in the United States. This was done as a result of the former partner creating Macintosh clones using the EFi-X device.

Cloning an Apple computer is the equivalent to pouring fish and blood in shark infested waters. You are bound to attract a school of lawyers or sharks or both. Still I couldn’t help but remained interested in the EFi-X device.

After waffling back and forth for a while I finally decided to buy one of the devices. At the time the United States distributor showed a version 1.0 and version 1.1. After asking several questions I was told that the two versions were relatively equivalent. The reason for version 1.1 was to address some requirements for a device that would work in difficult environments such as a factory floor or some other high stress area. Since my computer remains in the safety of my house and given the fact that the distributor would not have the version 1.1 for another several weeks I bought the EFi-X version 1.0.

The key to making the EFi-X work was adhering to a fairly strict hardware selection. The company produces a Hardware Compatibility List and only supports hardware configurations that are listed there. It just so happened that my motherboard and processor were among the list. I did have to change video cards but that seemed like a small price to pay to be able to run Macintosh OS X.

The installation was relatively painless. The EFi-X plugs into one of the internal USB ports on the motherboard. Once installed it simply required a change to the boot device order in the BIOS settings to boot from the EFi-X before the hard drive and it came to life.

The EFi-X requires there only be one operating system per hard drive. This is somewhat of an annoyance since I would rather have just dedicated a partition to an OS rather than a whole drive but given how cheap hard drives have become this was not really an issue.

After installing the hardware I booted the computer and was shown a new boot screen that showed icons for each hard disk installed in my system. Those drives formatted in NTFS showed as Windows drives while those formatted as FAT or Macintosh Journaled showed as Apple drives. Linux formatted disks showed a penguin icon.

There is no mouse interface at this point, you must use the arrow keys to select the appropriate disk to boot from. The boot manager does not show the names of the disk volumes so if you have more than one disk formatted in a particular operating system you are left to guess which one is really the boot drive. While that is mildly annoying it is only a problem the first couple of times you boot after that you know which icon/disk is bootable and which are just data drives (at least it should only take you a couple of times to remember that).

In order to load the Macintosh OS X you must have an actual retail version of the operating system. You cannot use a backup disk that came with another Apple computer but instead need to have a version of the OS. Since you really should have a license for this OS anyway that should not be a problem. I am guessing that requirement helps EFi-X keep the Apple lawyers at bay as well.

The installation of OS X went flawlessly, After running through the installation routine I was left staring at a full Macintosh OS X desktop just as if I were running on Apple hardware. I attempted to update OS X through Software Update and it too worked as you would expect. I was able to install all of my Macintosh software on the machine and at no time did I ever encounter a problem where the software or hardware did not think it was a Macintosh.

It has been a relatively painless proposition or at least it was until recently. When Apple introduced their latest version of OS X, Snow Leopard, I was curious whether the EFi-X device would handle the new operating system version.

Before attempting an upgrade I decided to wait and research how successful other users had been. What I found was users reporting that Snow Leopard would not run at all with EFi-X. I went to the EFi-X web site to see if I could find any official announcement of Snow Leopard support. Instead I found the web site was down and had been for days.

When service was finally restored to the EFi-X web site I found the company has determined that Snow Leopard will only be supported on version 1.1 of their device. Apparently the earlier statement where they said version 1.0 and 1.1 were essentially the same has now changed.

The customer base for EFi-X is currently up in arms. The company is remaining suspiciously quiet ignoring the customers’ pleas for clarification as to why the change in stance. Further the distributors are still selling version 1.0 of the device with misleading OS X compatibility claims.

While the EFi-X device continues to work under Leopard (OS X version 10.5) the latest version of the flashable ROM has broken dual monitor support. An update is promised but no timetable has been identified for this fix.

The business practices seem somewhat shady and given the amount of negative press I am now seeing on the Internet surrounding this product I would hesitate to recommend anyone follow my lead and purchase this product.

I will continue to monitor the direction this is taking and will use the EFi-X at least for the time being but I am already beginning research on another alternative to the EFi-X dongle. An open source group using the Chameleon project is creating a similar device using a standard USB thumb drive. If you want to follow along with this saga, I recommend the EFi-X Users forums, they are a great source of information.

Over the next few weeks I hope to play with that configuration to determine how well that works and what is involved in maintaining the software to load OS X on non-Apple hardware. For those who are looking for an easy and painless way to run OS X, your best bet is probably to buy a Mac Mini or an iMac.

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