I have a few Macs that I use for my various jobs, but the main machines that I use are a MacBook Pro, and a Dual 2.7 GHz G5 tower. Since the tower is connected to a large monitor, it’s what I use as my primary image editing workstation. After a few recent jobs, including a computationally-intensive video gig, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to think about upgrading to a faster machine. A friend mentioned that he was going to build a Hackintosh. As his machine came together, and he sent me some benchmarks, I decided that this was the upgrade path that I would choose. The result? A machine with Mac-Pro like performance that crushes all the other Macs in my house, and cost only about $1000.

Hackinwhat?

With the switch from PowerPC processors to Intel processors, Macs now run on the same hardware that Windows machines do. This means that you can take the same motherboards, drives, videocards and other interfaces, assemble them into a computer, and run the Mac OS on it. However, there are many different variations of all of these components, and the Mac OS is designed to work with very specific ones. Consequently, OS X includes a very small set of drivers, meaning you can’t just stick an OS X disk in any Windows machine and get it to work.

However, you can hack the OS to install new drivers, and fashion an OS that will work on a fairly vast array of stock parts. While finding the right combination of parts can take some time, and getting the OS configured might be tricky, the result can be a machine that is far less expensive than an equivalent Apple offering, and that includes many configuration options that Apple doesn’t provide. Here’s what I did.

Selecting the Parts

A computer is made up of a few key components. There’s the motherboard, which holds the CPU, RAM, video card, interfaces, and all the other circuitry that is required to make the thing go. There are a lot of motherboards to choose from, and they come in different sizes, with different numbers of ports and options. You’ll also need to choose a CPU. In addition to the Intel chips that Apple uses, companies like AMD make clone processors that can also work. You’ll need a video card, some ram, and some storage, but you’ll also need a power supply, a case, a fair number of cables, and a cooling system to keep it all from overheating.

The good news is that there are now standard specifications for motherboard sizes, connector types, case mountings, cablings, drive mounts, and all of the connectors and interfaces that are required to connect a bunch of computer parts into a working whole. This means that shopping for parts is fairly easy because you don’t have to worry so much about whether a particular drive will fit into a specific bay, or whether a motherboard will be able to mount in your case.

The bad news is that there are lots of motherboards, video cards, and processors out there, and only some will work with a hacked OS. Fortunately, a large community of Hackintosh users has grown up and banded together into the OSX86 Project. In addition to general information and tutorials, they provide a comprehensive list of components that have been tested with various patches.

As you can see from the list, some components are more compatible than others. Here are the pieces that I ultimately chose. (I ordered all of my components from NewEgg.com, and so am referencing them on that site.)

For a motherboard, I selected the ASUS P5k-E/WiFi. This board was listed on the OSX86 page as having good compatibility and offers almost all of the ports and connectors that I wanted. In addition to six external USB 2 ports the board also provides front and rear-mounted Firewire-400 ports, two external eSATA ports, S/PDIF out, 6 audio ports, and built-in WiFi. It also includes two USB 2.0 ports and one Firewire 400 port on the motherboard (we’ll see what these are for later). It has a bunch of expansion slots of various kinds, six internal SATA connectors and four memory slots that can hold up to 8 GB of RAM.

To put it simply, this motherboard provides just about all of the connectivity I could want, and provides more connectors than I’m used to having on my G5. The only thing not included on the motherboard is Firewire-800. In theory, I can add that later using an expansion card, but I haven’t looked into that.

One thing you have to get used to when you enter the Windows world is product names that are a little more complex than "Mac Pro" or "iMac". The full name of this motherboard on NewEgg’s site is ASUS P5K-E/WIFI-AP LGA 775 Intel P35 ATX Intel Motherboard. While this name doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, it does include some handy information. LGA 775 is the specification for the socket that is used by Intel’s current line of processors. So, any motherboard that has an LGA 775 socket will work with the current line of Intel processors.

Intel P35 is the BIOS chipset that is included on the motherboard. These chips contain all of the firmware required to talk to the other components on the motherboard. Simply put: you want this.

ATX is a standard specification for the size of the motherboard. An ATX motherboard will fit in any case that supports ATX-sized boards. You might also see micro ATX, which are smaller motherboards that fit in smaller cases.

A motherboard does not actually include a processor. You have to order that separately and install it yourself. While the OSX86 project lists a number of processors that can work, I decided to opt for the Intel Q6600 Quad Core. This is the same 2.4 GHz Core2Duo processor that you’ll find in many Macs these days, and you should be able to find one for a little over $200.

Processors generate heat, of course, so the Q6600 usually ships with a built-in heat sink and fan that attaches directly to the processor. However, the Q6600 can also be overclocked to provide faster performance. By making changes to the motherboard BIOS, you can tell your Hackintosh to run at a faster clock rate. For example, my completed machine is running at 3.02 GHz. When overclocking, your processor will run hotter, and possibly exceed the cooling capabilities of the included heat sink and fan. So, you might want to consider buying a Q6600 that lacks a heat sink and instead buy a separate cooling system. I opted for the Scythe Ninja, a large heatsink with a built-in fan. The Ninja is big, though, so you’ll need to make sure it fits in your chosen case.

As for cases, you have a huge assortment to choose from, and while Apple will continue to describe Windows PCs as beige boxes, the fact is that there are some nice cases out there, in a much greater variety of designs and sizes than Apple provides. You can opt for everything from tacky gaming cases with windows and lights, to beautiful custom-designed wooden cases.

I decided on an Antec P182, a tower-sized case that’s a little taller than a Mac Pro. In person, the case is prettier than it appears in NewEgg’s picture, and leaves a marked "monolith from 2001" impression. Like the MacPro, it includes front mounted USB-2 and Firewire ports. Unlike any Apple offering, though, it provides support for a tremendous amount of expansion. Inside, you’ll find four 5.25" drive bays (for housing optical drives, for example), 6 internal 3.5" drive bays (for holding hard drives), one 3.5" bay that opens onto the front of the machine, and room for a motherboard with seven expansion slots. The case supports ATX motherboards, and has many built-in fans.

I chose an Antex P182 case, which is a little larger than the MacPro/G5 case. The inside of the Apple case is easier to work with, and the backside is prettier, but the Antec case holds far more components. (Also, it doesn’t give me a shock if I touch it and my MacBook Pro at the same time. I know, I know, I could just move the laptop somewhere else…)

The nicest thing about the P182 is that includes separate modules for holding your hard drives. If you want to install a 5.25 or 3.5" drive, you just pull out the module, screw in the drive, and then insert the whole array back into the machine.

It’s not as easy as installing a drive in a Mac Pro, but it’s still pretty easy, and the case can hold far more drives. The P182 also has some great cable management features, as we’ll see later.

The back of the P182, with the motherboard installed. Here, you can see the motherboard’s huge assortment of ports and connectors. The two round black things on the right side of the case are for liquid cooling options, for those of you who want to crank your processors up to extremely hot levels.

You’ll need RAM for your computer. Fortunately, memory prices are cheap right now, so I was able to pick up four gigabytes for just under $120. You’ll need DDR2 800 RAM for this motherboard.

You’ll also need storage. Any 3.5" SATA drive will work, and if your case and motherboard provide the space and connectors, you can cram a lot of storage into your new machine. I opted to start with a single 500 GB drive, since I had other drives that I planned to move from the G5. You’ll also need an optical drive, such as this 20X DVD burner with 12X write speed.

While many motherboards have built-in video cards, the P5K-E dos not. Even if your board does, you might want to consider a separate video card to get better performance. The OSX86 page lists a number of compatible video cards. I chose an Nvidia NX8800GT with 512 MB of video RAM. There are lots of vendors who manufacture these cards to NVidia’s specs, so a search for 8800GT will turn up many results. I chose one made by MSI. While I’m not a gamer, I still wanted a fair amount of video processing power to fuel Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and some other applications. There are plenty of smaller, cheaper cards that still yield very good performance, and which are compatible with a hacked OS.

Finally, you’ll need a power supply that can power all of this stuff. At the suggestion of a friend, I went for this Corsair power supply. Not only does it provide all the juice I need, it has a modular design that allows you to add additional internal cables as you need them, greatly reducing the cable clutter inside your box.

I ordered all of my components from NewEgg.com, because I wanted to ensure that they all arrived at the same time, so that I could start construction right away. My final cost was a little over a thousand dollars, plus another $129 for a copy of Leopard. However, I haven’t yet tracked down all of the rebates that are available, and the cost of many of these components changes daily. If you want to save money, though, you should definitely shop around. I could’ve knocked 30 or 40 dollars off of some of these parts by buying them from different vendors.

When they all arrive, you’ll have a mess of parts that need to be wired together, and installed in the case. If you have even minimal proficiency with a screwdriver you shouldn’t have any trouble building your machine.

The "out of box experience" for a Hackintosh is not quite as streamlined and glamorous as it is for a new Mac. All of these parts have to be assembled into a finished computer.

Construction

Building your machine is fairly straightforward, and you’ll probably find that your case, motherboard, and power supply all come with relevant instructions that guide you through all of the necessary steps. I started by installing the power supply in the case, which was a very simple procedure.

Next, I set up the motherboard. Motherboard configuration begins by inserting the CPU. CPUs are no longer socketed with pins and holes, but instead sit in a small receptacal and are held down by a pressure plate. Consequently, installing a CPU in a motherboard is very simple.

As when handling any electrical components, you need to be very careful about static electricity. Try to discharge any static building before you handle any components. Because I live in foggy San Francisco, static is rarely an issue. If you live somewhere dry, and your workspace is carpeted, you’ll need to be extra careful.

Next I inserted the RAM in the appropriate RAM slots. If you’re installing in pairs, you might need to install in specific slots. RAM only installs in the correct orientation, so you don’t have to worry about putting your RAM in backwards (unless you push really hard). Consult your motherboard’s manual for details.

With the RAM and CPU in place, I moved on to installing the massive heat sink. While the heat sink looks like a large piece of metal, it’s actually quite light. Before installing, you need to smear thermal paste over the top of the CPU. This ensures better conductivity between the CPU and the heat sink, and makes for dramatically more efficient cooling. Your CPU should have shipped with a small container of this paste. If you want to be extra sure that you have some, you can order a tube along with the rest of your gear.

The Scythe Ninja does not require any tools for installation, as it has special snaps that fit into holes on the motherboard. Again, since most vendors are conforming to well-codified specifications, as long as you get a heat sink that is compatible with a 775 socket, your heat sink should fit your motherboard and processor with no problem.

With the motherboard assembled, you’re ready to mount it in your case. The P182 provides good instructions for getting the motherboard into the case. More importantly, it comes with a huge bag of screws for bolting down the motherboard, as well as the power supply, and most other parts that you’ll be installing. When handling the motherboard, you want to be very careful not to push or pull on it in such a way that you flex it too much.

Once the motherboard is mounted, you’ll need to connect power, as well as several other connections. For example, if your case has front-mounted ports, they will need to be connected to the motherboard, and you may have fans that need to be connected. Again, your motherboard manual will specify power and data connections.

Next you’ll need to insert your vido card. Like RAM, your video card should only install in the correct slot, and in the right orientation. Depending on the size of the cooling unit on your video card, you may have to connect power to the card.

An option you don’t get from Apple: video cards with hot barbarian chicks on them.

Your optical drive and hard drive will also need to be installed in your case, and your case manual will provide instructions for this process.

On the Antec case, you open a magnetically latched door to access the front-mounted drive bays, such as the optical drive.

Throughout all of this installation, you’ll be wrestling with cable management. In addition to the power cables that need to get from the power supply to the motherboard, hard drive, optical drive, fans, and possibly your video card, you’ll have all of the data cables that will need to be strung from the motherboard to the various appropriate components. There’s no right or wrong to how you arrange the cables. Just make sure they aren’t pinched, or pulled so tightly that they’re stressing a card, or that they bump into any fans. While the fans won’t be able to hurt a connection, a cable that brushes a fan will be very noisy.

With the Antec P-182 case, you can remove the right side of the case to reveal a large panel with built-in twist ties. This provides a place where you can string some of your cable to keep it out of the main part of the case.

When you’re finished building, you’ll have a case crammed full of all sorts of stuff. It may not look like much, but if you plan and organize the contents, you’ll be able to easily swap components in and out later. You might also find a less tangible quality to your new computer: having selected, handled, and installed each component yourself makes the machine compelling in a way that a pre-assembled computer never is.

Finally, I added an option that Apple doesn’t provide on any of their towers. Because I will be using this machine as my primary image editing workstation, I installed a front-mounted card reader which offers support for every flash memory card format you can think of. After inserting the card reader in the case’s 3.5" bay (which is usually used by Windows users for a floppy drive) I connected its single cable to one of the USB-2 ports on the motherboard.

My Hackintosh’s front-mounted card reader is speedy, cost all of $14 and, best of all, I know where it is. No more digging through a drawer full of cables.

With the case assembled, you’re ready to install the OS. The OSX86 page provides lots of instructions and discussion on getting the Mac OS to work with your new hardware, and while you may have to try a few times to get it to work, if you’re using components that have been shown to work, then you should be okay.

Performance

So how does a hand-built Mac compare to a factory model? Unfortunately, I didn’t have a MacPro to compare against, but for those of you who are upgrading from a G5, I have some very compelling numbers to show you. (For those who want to see a comparison against a MacPro, Rob Griffiths has numbers from his Hackintosh, which uses the same motherboard and processor.) I threw a number of benchmark tests at the Hackintosh, and then ran the same tests on the other Macs I had laying around. Here’re the machines I tested against:

• Dual 2.7 GHz Power PC G5 with 4 GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra DLL video card.
• 2 GHz Mac Mini with 2 GB of RAM.
• MacBook Pro with 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and 2 GB of RAM.

I started with XBench, a simple benchmarking app that you can download for free. XBench runs a suite of processor, video, and drive tests and you can easily run it on your own hardware if you want to see how your machine compares to the Hacktinosh.

XBench generates a composite score that can be used for overall comparison. This graph shows the composite XBench score for each of my test machines (longer bars are better):

Because XBench’s final score is a composite of many different elements of the system, machines like the MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini get brought down by their weaker video cards and other subsystems. In a moment, we’ll get to some "real world" benchmarks.

Earlier I mentioned overclocking as a way to speed the performance of the Hackintosh. To overclock, you boot the computer and enter its BIOS configuration pages. Different motherboards have different mechanisms for this process. On the Asus board, you hit the delete key as the computer’s booting. By changing a few BIOS parameters, you can increase the clock speed of the computer. After setting the clock up to 3.02 GHz, I re-ran XBench and got the following:

As you can see, with a simple BIOS tweak, you can eke a good amount of additional processing power out of your Hackintosh. As mentioned earlier, your computer will run hotter, so you’ll want to monitor heat carefully, and turn on additional fans, or throttle the processor back if things get to hot.

After running XBench’s suite, you can save an XBench document which lists all of the scores from each test it performed. You can download a Zip archive of all of my XBench documents here, to compare against your own hardware.

Next I turned to another benchmarking tool, Maxon Software’s Cinebench, another free download which uses Maxon’s Cinema4D 3D animation and rendering engine to perform a number of benchmarks. First, it tests OpenGL performance, which gives you a good measure of your video card’s speed. Next it renders a scene using a single CPU, then re-renders the scene using multiple CPUs (if your machine has them). Here’re the results (longer bars are better):

As you can see, the Hackintosh’s superior graphics card delivers better OpenGL performance than the cards in my other machines. While its single CPU rendering is not signficantly better than any of the test machines, when the additional cores are thrown in, performance goes way up, with the overclocked score nearly tripling that of the Dual G5 that the Hackintosh will be will be replacing.

For real-world testing, I employed two tests. First, using the Photoshop Action Pack, I built a simple Photoshop workflow. Nine 12 megapixel raw files were passed to Photoshop. Each was rotated 12°, then bicubically interpolated up 130%. Unsharp Mask was applied, then a Motion Blur, then a mode change to CMYK. Finally, the results were saved as JPEG files. All times are in seconds, and shorter bars are better:

I don’t normally keep Photoshop on my Mini, so I didn’t include it in this test.

Finally, I performed a Final Cut Rendering on the G5, and the regular and overclocked versions of the Hackintosh. This was a short piece of DV footage that had a filter applied to it (Red Giant Software’s Magic Bullet Looks plug-in for Final Cut Pro). Again, all times are in seconds and shorter bars are better.

As before, the numbers are pretty clear, the Hackintosh far outperforms the G5.

All of my hardware has worked just fine so far, with no unexpected crashes. My Harmon Kardon SoundSticks plugged in and worked just as if I’d plugged them into a "real" Mac. External hard drives and media readers, as well as USB microphones also work as expected. So far, there’s been no practical differences in connectivity and interfaces.

Other options

My dad also decided to build a Hackintosh, but he took a different route. He was more interested in a media hub-type machine – something like a Mac Mini. While he couldn’t find a case as tiny as the Mini’s, he did find a nice, all-metal microATX case that’s attractive and seemingly indestructible.

With three hard drive bays, and 5.25 and 3.5" front-mounted bays, the Shuttle machine provides everything you need for a multimedia hub, including surround sound output. Also, it comes with a power supply and a motherboard that is hackable for the Mac OS. When he’d priced out the case/motherboard along with a Core 2 Duo, a gig of RAM and a hard drive, the final cost was around $375 (and, of course, you’ll need a copy of Leopard). So, if you need a small footprint machine with a lot of power, you can build one for cheaper than Apple’s low-end offering.

Conclusion

There will be those that will be quick to point out that that there’s no comparison between a Hackintosh and a Mac Pro for the simple reason that when you take a Mac Pro out of the box, you only have to plug it in and it works. And this is true. There are a lot of hassles to the Hacktinosh. If you’ve never built one before, assembling the hardware can be tricky, and configuring the software even more so. While my machine consistently boots up, sleeps, and wakes with no problem, it doesn’t always completely power down when I select Shut Down (I have to flip a switch at the back to get it to turn off). You can’t wake it up from the keyboard or mouse, only from the power switch.

Software updates and most OS tweaks will work just fine and install directly from the Software Update System Preference. But any time there’s a full OS update – for example, the upcoming 10.5.3 update – then there’s a good chance that your system will have to be repatched, and you may need to completely replace the OS. In practical terms, this usually means that you shouldn’t do the update until you see on the OSX86 forum that people have sussed things out and identified the patches you need. Because of this, you’ll usually be a few months behind the latest OS. Personally, this doesn’t bother me as I prefer a stable machine to the latest updates, and given how unreliable I’ve found Leopard to be, now that I have a stable system, I’m fine with keeping it that way for the foreseeable future. However, if you absolutely always want to run the latest and (sometimes) greatest OS update, then a Hackintosh won’t be for you. Application updates from Apple and other vendors, and subsystem updates such as QuickTime and Security updates work fine.

Obviously, Apple won’t supply any support for a Hackintosh, so you’re out on the frontier if you go this route, though you will get warranties against hardware failure for your individual components.

Finally, if time is money, then you could argue that the amount of time that you spend building and fiddling with the computer makes the machine as expensive as a MacPro. That may very well be. If you’re curious about computers, though, and have never built one before, then the time you spend will be entertaining, and very educational.

The Hackintosh has many advantages over an Apple-made tower. In addition to the tremendous cost savings – my $1000 Hackintosh is delivering performance at the $4000 Mac Pro level – you can build a machine that’s far more flexible than an Apple offering or, more importantly, build a machine that fills a niche that Apple doesn’t currently serve. For example, you could build a mid-size tower that delivers Mac Pro performance in a much smaller space than Apple’s tower. With enough work, you could even build a true sub-notebook, as there are many laptops and portables that are proving to be hackable. (Also, don’t forget that this machine can run other operating systems, so you can easily get Windows or Linux running on it.)

My machine has a few extras that a Mac Pro can’t provide. First, there’s the front-mounted card reader. Next, there’s the huge assortment of drive bays. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that I can pop the CPU out at any time and replace it with something else. So, if a better processor comes along that still adheres to the 775 spec, I can buy one, at fairly minimal cost compared to the price of buying an entirely new computer, and drop it in my machine.

So far, I’m very happy with my new “Mac”.

 

Addendum, April 28, 2008.Something I didn’t mention in the article is that this machine is VERY quiet. The P182 case and the Scythe Ninja cooling system are designed to be quiet, even when running overclocked, and they work! The Hackintosh is much quieter than my Dual G5 was. I have not had a chance to work with a Mac Pro, so I can’t comment on how it compares. One other note: because of some hacks that must be applied to the disk format, you cannot create a bootable backup of a Hackintosh drive. If you want to use a program like Carbon Copy Cloner, or Super Duper to create a bootable backup, you won’t be able to. However, you can install a second drive in the machine, install a hacked OS on it, and then use normal backup software to back-up to that drive. That will leave you with a bootable backup should your main drive fail. Personally, I’m just running my normal backup process (Dantz Retrospect). If I ever have a bad crash, I’ll just rebuild the boot drive, and restore normally.