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Psystar clones shipping, but should you buy one?

Despite the sea of red flags that accompanied the public debut of Miami-based Mac clone maker Psystar Corporation, the company appears to be for real. This week customers have reported delivery of working Psystar clones, and several tech sites have posted first impressions.

That brings us back to the questions people were asking when Psystar's sudden appearance two weeks ago first sent the Mac blogosphere into a frenzy: does buying from Psystar make sense?

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At first it may seem that way. What's not to love about a $399 computer that runs Mac OS X? Oh, let me count the ways….

Let's begin with the price. You don't get Leopard with a $399 Psystar "Open Computer," that's $155 extra. Now we're up to $554.

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You don't get FireWire, either, which is standard on all Macs. You can add three FireWire ports for another $50, though. That puts you at $604.

Built-in wireless networking? It's standard on the Mac Mini (which starts at $599) and iMac models, but an extra $90 on the Psystar. That raises the cost to $694.

How about the iLife suite, free with every Mac? Not on a Psystar. You'll have to buy it for $79 if you want it.

And unlike the $1,199 20-inch iMac, Psystar clones don't come with a monitor. Unless you have a spare monitor to attach, that's another added expense. The Open Computer doesn't even come with a mouse or keyboard (though neither does the Mini).

Suddenly that cheap clone isn't quite as cheap as you thought.

To be fair, the Psystar has some beefier hardware than the Mac Mini: a faster CPU, twice the RAM and a much larger, faster hard drive. Specs like that help when it comes to performance, which is where the Psystar shines.

Two tech sites, Engadget and ZDNet, have already posted benchmarks on Psystar machines that arrived as ordered. The Open Computer performed about as well as a MacBook laptop in the Engadget tests.

The folks at ZDNet compared the Psystar to a Mac mini, the closest Apple equivalent. The Psystar beat the Mac mini in every hardware test ZDNet ran, although they added some options to both machines to make them comparably priced ($740 for the Psystar and $799 for the Mini).

But beyond the basic price-performance equation, potential Psystar customers need to consider the long-term consequences of owning hardware Apple has not blessed.

If you need technical support, you will need to get it from Psystar. Apple surely won't get involved.

When it comes to system updates, forget it. Psystar has disabled the Software Update feature on its clones probably to prevent "bricking" in the event an Apple update disagrees with the unauthorized hardware.

And that just scratches the surface of the myriad compatibility problems one could encounter.

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The Engadget review has a list of clone oddities, such as its outrageously loud fan and the inability of the Apple System Profiler to detect such things as the amount of RAM, the graphics card or the machine's audio capabilities.

I would advise careful consideration to ordinary computer users who see Psystar as a way to obtain a Mac inexpensively. I don't think the money saved is worth the potential headaches.

But for technophiles and hobbyists – the sort of people who think building a PC from scratch is fun – Psystar's clones should be great. Such people can work around any technical limitations they encounter, and should understand all the risks up front.

And finally, there's Apple itself. It has remained dead silent on the issue. Will it continue to look the other way or are its lawyers now huddling over the details of an impending lawsuit? Even if Psystar were on solid legal ground, a lawsuit from Apple would be no picnic.

Proceed with caution.

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