Photo Computer Buyer’s Guide Part 3 – The Hackintosh Option
Let's say you've read Part 1 and Part 2 of my Photo Computer Buyer's Guide with all the attention of Ken Jennings in Double Jeopardy, but you feel like your needs have slipped through the cracks. The laptops and iMac are all well and good, but you really want the expandability of a Mac Pro with a really great screen but you don't want to spend $5000 to get it. Well if you really want to run Mac OS X you're not afraid to get your hands dirty there's always a Hackintosh. We need to back up one second. In the old days (read, from the mid 1990's til 2006) Apple computers ran on PowerPC processors. This is a different platform than the Intel x86 machines that Windows has ran on since it's inception. Apple used to make a big stink out of this fact and laud the PowerPC-based processors as being faster than relavant x86 ones. This was dubious at the time, but by the mid 2000's, Intel had taken their architecture to levels of performance that IBM (the maker of most of Apple's fastest chips) just couldn't and Apple had a problem on their hands. So in 2006 Steve Jobs announced that they had been planning for this contingency for years and that they had OS X running on x86 processors too. In fact after making the announcement he mentioned that all the demos he had been running to show off Apple software the earlier in the talk had been running on a Pentium 4 computer and not a PowerMac as you would have thought. It was an "Oooo" moment and for more than one reason.
Soon there were people thinking now that Macs were just fancy Intel boxes, why not try to run Mac OS on any Intel Box. Well there were a number of reasons this was a problem. Mac's were built around a very specific set of hardware and the drivers required to get it working on anything but those setups didn't really exist. Also Mac's don't use a standard BIOS that most Windows computers used to start up. Instead they used what is called an EFI (extensible firmware interface, but you don't need to know that) which is basically a fancier, more modern BIOS-like system. This made it possible for them to limit the number of machines that Mac OS would boot on. No Apple hardware, no can do. The thing is, computer nerds are amazing. And so in no time there were people hacking the system to work on specific sets of hardware, but you couldn't use software update a lot of the time and things were more buggy. Definitely not the kind of system you want to rely on. This is where we were 2-3 years ago.
Now we're in a whole new world. Hackers have gotten around just about every problem with solutions which are elegant and fairly easy. So if you're an enthusiast who has built their own computer from parts before, or a tinkerer what wants to try (it's really not hard. No soldering or anything, just plugging stuff in) you too can build a custom computer which runs Mac OS X. A Hackintosh. I've been running one for over a month as my main desktop production machine and have had nary a crash.
Let me say a couple things here: One, I wouldn't do this for my Mom. There may be unforeseen complications in the future and you can't bring it to the Genius Bar to get fixed. That said, there is a rabid community of people online who go out of their way to make this stuff work. If you follow their advice, you're in good shape. System software updates 10.6.5 > 10.6.6 for example, just wait a day before you install them so people smarter than you can figure out any problems and workarounds. And Two: It may not be technically legal. The EULA (End user licensing agreement) that comes with OS X Snow Leopard says it's only useable on an Apple Computer. I think that's crazy. If I'm buying the software (which I have) I should be able to do what I want with it in the privacy of my own home. For what it's worth, Apple hasn't ever sued any individuals for doing this. They did shut down a company who was building them and selling them online. For personal use, I wouldn't worry about it.
So where do you start? Well you need to buy the parts and build the computer. The building the computer part is fun, and Ars Technica just posted a long form guide about what's involved. It even walks you through each step.
But which parts to buy to make your machine as Hackintosh friendly as possible? There are a number of sites all over the net talking about Hackinoshes but the one I've stuck with is http://www.tonymacx86.com/ Great blog with news, great forums for tips and tricks and information. Best of all, the people on this site have specific sets of components that they've tested to work great as a Mac which they call CustoMac Builds. Mostly it's about getting the Motherboard, Processor, and Graphics Card right. For a number of reasons, certain Gigabyte brand motherboards seem to be the way to go. The hard drives, case, power supply, dvd drive, fans, keyboard, mouse, etc don't really matter as much. Either way, we're talking serious machines which rival and beat the 4 core Mac Pro's for around $1300. In fact they even specced out a CustoMac Pro last fall for $1224. I'd imagine those parts are even cheaper now. This leaves you plenty of money left over to buy a nice NEC monitor like their latest 27" beauty.
Once you've got the computer built and booting, the process basically involves 4 steps. First you boot with an iBoot CD you've burned from a TonyMac download. You then replace that CD with the Mac OS install disc and install MacOS. Then reboot using the iBoot cd again, but instead of going into the installer, you boot into Mac OS from your hard drive. Then you use the system update you download from Apple to bring your computer up to 10.6.7 or whatever is current and before you reboot you run the Multibeast utility to install all the drivers you need to boot without iBoot and run Mac OS on your hardware. Sounds complex, I know, but it's really not that bad. And once you've gotten the hang of it, it's second nature. Seriously, there are specific walkthroughs for specific builds, but here's the generic one.
Usually the gear that's most compatible is one step behind the cutting edge. If you want to use the latest $800 video cards, you might have problems. Or if you want to build a system based on the latest Intel Sandy Bridge processors, you might want to wait until they get the kinks out. For instance am running an Intel Core i7-920 processor, overclocked to 3.2GHz on an Asus P6T motherboard with 12GB of RAM installed. I didn't build this machine to be a Hackintosh, it's one I had built over two years ago for around $1400 which still benchmarks as fast as a $3400 current Mac Pro. That said, it runs Mac OS just fine, and those are facts that I'm just fine with. So follow their guides to the most compatible setups and you should be good.
Personally I find running a Hackintosh as my main box very satisfying. There's something smirk-worthy about making something do something it's not meant to. And doing it well to boot. I'm going to write another post about how my workflow and backup system has changed with my switch to Mac OS, as well as a bunch of neat keyboard commands and timesavers I've been taught or figured out. It's like going 0-60 in 3 weeks. Exciting.