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Mac pros: Is it time to consider a hackintosh?

Hackintosh assembly (shutterstock krstic)

Apple’s Macintosh computers are notoriously locked down. In many cases, users can’t even install more RAM or replace a hard drive, let alone swap out a video card or add something extra, like pro audio and video processing hardware.

Frankly, most Mac users don’t care. Apple (rightly) pointed out for years that most customers never upgraded their Macs, so designing for expansion was a waste of space and money. Further, high-speed Thunderbolt ports now allow external add-ons to do some serious work just by plugging in. The days of lazy serial ports are long gone.

But for Mac users who do care, Apple’s Macintosh lineup gets more frustrating with every upgrade cycle – especially now that the venerable Mac Pro is losing its expansion slots (and much more) while assuming the shape of a humidifier.

“My plan is to buy the last Mac with a Firewire port,” said Greg Kozar, a San Diego-based photographer who uses expensive medium-format FireWire-powered camera backs. “After that, I don’t know.”

So, what about building a “hackintosh” – a PC running Apple’s OS X? Are they a better option than giving up the Mac and switching to Windows or Linux for folks who need more than Apple is selling?

The hackintosh advantage

Hackintosh crude price comparison

When Apple began converting to Intel processors almost a decade ago, Mac hardware lost the thing that most set it apart from stock PCs: an incompatible architecture. Today, Macs aren’t all that different from Windows machines – something Apple itself takes advantage of with Boot Camp, its official way to boot Macs into Windows. Apple has never supported going the other way (installing OS X on non-Apple hardware), but many PCs are close enough to Macs under the hood that OS X can be tricked into running on them. The three main reasons to consider a hackintosh are:

Flexibility – instead of being limited to Apple’s handful of Macs, OS X can run on a wide number of stock PCs, including many notebooks. Users can also build their own OS X systems for specific needs, whether that’s a home theater setup, a rack-mountable Mac for recording every show on a tour across Canada (true story!), or a maxed-out powerhouse for video editing. Or, maybe you just want a DVD-ROM or Blu-ray drive. Need to use PCI cards but can’t afford a Mac Pro? A hackintosh can do that.

Cost – Macs have a (somewhat unfair) reputation for being expensive compared to PCs, but there’s no denying Apple’s high-end systems are pricey. Apple’s least expensive Mac Pro (with expansion slots) starts at $2,500, but it’s possible to assemble a formidable hackintosh tower with almost as much expansion for less than half that amount. A typical hackintosh won’t always be dramatically cheaper than a similar Mac, but it’s not going to be more expensive … unless you factor in your time.

Graphics – Apple’s out-going Mac Pros are the only Macs with user-replaceable graphics cards: the rest either don’t have discrete graphics, or they’re soldered-in components from AMD or Nvidia. Users who build their own Macs have a much wider choice of graphics controllers, and (within limits) change them out anytime they like.

Fun?! – Face it: part of the appeal of bringing up a hackintosh is the challenge! It’s not like powering on a Mac right out of the box.

The hackintosh disadvantage


There are some obvious downsides to running OS X on non-Apple hardware:

You’re on your own – Hackintosh users can never go to an Apple Genius Bar to solve their problems, or tap into the broad Macintosh user community for support with pesky problems. There are thriving communities of savvy hackintosh users who can help out, but you have to be comfortable doing your own troubleshooting and fixes.

Bleeding edge – Most hackintosh systems are broadly compatible with Apple software and modern apps, but there’s always a chance that a particular app with fail, or a system update might cause unforeseen problems. Neither Apple nor anyone else is testing new software against hackintosh systems. When software updates appear, it’s always best to wait and see what other members of the community say before trying it yourself.

It might only mostly work – With a little planning, getting all the basics up and running on a hackintosh isn’t too hard (graphics, networking, Wi-Fi, storage, DVDs, USB, etc.). But – particularly with stock OEM PCs rather than systems designed with OS X in mind – not everything may work. A colleague with a stock Acer notebook has never gotten the OS X battery charge indicator to work; similarly, the SD card reader on the last PC I converted to OS X seems inaccessible. The best way to avoid problems like these is to build a system from scratch with components known to work with OS X.

Is it legal? – Mac fans may remember how Apple sued Psystar under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) for offering Mac clones with Mac OS X pre-installed. The currently preferred method of creating a hackintosh uses a bootloader to make a legally-purchased copy of OS X think it’s running on actual Apple hardware. In those circumstances, Apple’s software isn’t being pirated or modified, which would seem to make hackintosh projects immune from suits under the DMCA. However, Apple’s OS X End User License Agreements state OS X is “only for use on Apple-branded hardware.” (No, slapping an Apple sticker on the case won’t help.) To my knowledge, the legal ramifications of violating Apple’s EULA haven’t been tested and almost certainly vary by jurisdiction, but I am not a lawyer and this should not be construed as legal advice.

Do I need to be a rocket scientist?

Configuring a PC to run OS X – or building a machine from the ground up to run OS X – doesn’t require an engineering degree, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The hackintosh community has built easy-to-use tools that eliminate much of the pain and guesswork, but the process is still complex. Aspiring hackintosh users must be comfortable formatting drives, deciphering acronyms (like DSDT, MBR, and KEXT), using a command line, configuring BIOS, searching through forums and online guides for information, and maybe editing a few very geeky files. People building their own systems must be able to connect components and put them all in a case: for basic systems thats usually only a bit more complicated than assembling toys or kit furniture. There’s no soldering involved, but the first time is always the toughest.

“I did my first hack-a-mac system in film school since I couldn’t afford a Mac Pro or even an iMac, much as I wanted one,” says Cathy Henner, a self-described “non-nerd girl” now working as a video editor in London, England. “We built three more after that. At first it was a bit intimidating and I got help online with some fiddly details, but in the end it was no worse than working with cameras and lenses, which we did every day anyway.”

How to start planning a hackintosh

Hackintosh (OSXLatitude EDT table)

There’s no single formula to create a hackintosh, but here’s how to get started:

Tap into the community – There are number of active hackintosh communities and forums. Some of the best-known forums are OSXLatitude, OSx86, InsanelyMac (plus the related OSx86 wiki), and tonymacx86. As with any passionate group, the politics can be fierce: generally, the tonymacx86 folks don’t talk to (or about) anybody else, and the feeling is mutual. On the other hand, tonymacx86’s CustoMac and UniBeast/MultiBeast solutions are some of the simplest ways to get OS X running on PC hardware, particularly for first-timers. Others favor solutions like myHack, Kakewalk, and Chameleon, the open source bootloader on which almost all other solutions are now based.

Pick your hardware – The most important components of a hackintosh are the motherboard and graphics card: if they aren’t fully compatible with OS X, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. Hackintosh users can’t pick and choose from the full range of PC motherboards on the market; the best bet is to look through details of builds that are known to work and find ones that meet your needs. (This is also what makes converting a stock OEM PC to a hackintosh less reliable than building a system from the ground up.) For a CPU, virtually any Intel processor that’s compatible with a particular motherboard will work. If you want to go with AMD, however, do your research very carefully before you buy. Apple has always offered a rather limited range of graphics controllers, so picking a graphics card can be tricky. Usually, you’ll want to match both the model and the brand of a card that’s known to work to avoid problems. Many hackintosh communities maintain listings of known-compatible graphics cards, so they’re a good place to start. After that, picking RAM, storage (SATA), and other components is pretty straightforward.

Study up!

Hackintosh (watercooled desktop)

Aside from outfits like PearC in Germany, there’s nowhere you can just buy a pre-configured Mac clone and get a guarantee it’ll work. You have to know what you’re doing … and that means homework.

“I was totally frustrated when I started, it was an intense learning curve,” says Simon Molyneux, the audio engineer who made the rack-mounted OS X systems for the trans-Canada tour mentioned above. “Forums and FAQs were often stale, I’d get excited about a new guide and it would be awful. It’s easier now with lots of working builds, but there’s no secret handshake. You just have to ask questions and puzzle it through. I think [the hackintosh community] kind of likes it that way.”

However, once the first hackintosh is done, making others is much easier, particularly if they’re variations on the first. Sometimes people get the bug and start cramming systems into cases for Apple’s old G4 iMacs or making insane (and silent!) water-cooled desktop setups.

Most people don’t succumb to that level of fandom; they’re happy to have a working Mac with features they can’t buy from Apple – or, at least, get those features at a lower price.

“The new canister Mac Pro looks cool,” writes Molyneux, “but I can’t see a good way to rack that and an external PCI case for tours. Maybe future Mac minis will be okay, but I bet I’m building [hackintoshes] for a while yet.”

“And,” he concluded, “on my latest I finally got audio over the HDMI port!”

[Assembly image via Shutterstock / Filip Krstic]