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Turning PC into Apple Macintosh: Hackintosh Computer

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Hackintosh: The Real Deal

Some of the earliest Hackintosh work was done on netbooks, but I’ll be working with desktop components since you have more freedom to design your system this way (and a netbook is hardly a replacement for a Mac Pro, either). There are two classes of desktop Macs: the consumer machines are the diminutive Mac Mini and the all-in-one iMac, both with limited expandability, while the professional system is the Mac Pro. As a programmer, I’ve used Mac Pros since they came out with the IBM PowerPC G5 processors in 2003, and my current system is a 2006-vintage machine with two dual-core Xeon processors running at 2.66GHZ and 9G of 667MHz DDR2 error-correcting FB-DIMM memory. While obscure now, FB-DIMMs were the memory Intel specified for these processors in 2006.

The basic appearance of the Mac Pro hasn’t changed in the past 7 years: they’re workstation-class computers in thick-panelled aluminum cases. Internally, the computer’s layout is almost supernaturally neat, with almost no visible cables. On my machine, memory resides on pull-out cards for each processor; modern Mac Pros use ECC DDR3 memory and the processors and memory all live on a single pull-out tray for easy upgrades. The closest PC equivalent to these heavy-duty systems would be something like an HP Z800 series workstation.

hackintosh_mac_pro_offset1.jpg

2006 Mac Pro interior showing memory cards and hard drive caddies.

However, since we’re building a Hackintosh, we needn’t worry about exotic workstation-class hardware; we can, within some limitations (well, to be honest, quite a few limitations) use generic PC hardware. For the software, I’d recommend the latest Mac OS X 10.6.3 “Snow Leopard” since it’s the first version of OS X to be a “pure Intel” release, and is available for a mere $29 online from Apple or at your local Apple store. Another alternative is the “Mac Box Set” available from Newegg for $119: it includes Snow Leopard, the iLife software suite (iPhoto, iWeb, iDVD, iMovie, etc.) and the iWork office suite.

The Roadblocks

But while the latest “Snow Leopard” version of OS X runs on Intel-based Macs, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to get it running on other computers. Modern Macs may use “standard PC hardware”, but they’re still different enough to make running OS X on anything else rather tricky. There are several impediments to running OS X on non-Apple hardware:

  • Apple doesn’t want you to. To this end, parts of OS X are encrypted.
  • Along these lines, the OS X EULA specifically prohibits you from installing it on non-Apple hardware. Apple has used this provision to shut down Mac cloners like Psystar, but (so far) has shown no interest in going after individuals or the multitude of Hackintosh sites on the net.
  • Macs use the modern EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) instead of the ancient BIOS; you can’t boot a Mac volume from a BIOS.
  • Apple only has to worry about device drivers for their hardware. You’ll need hacked drivers for PC motherboard chipsets, audio, video, networking, and other devices and interfaces.

My own impetus for building a Hackintosh was curiosity: I’ve been using Macs since they came out in 1984, and have been using the Mac Pros since their introduction in 2003. I’d casually investigated the idea for a year or so, but it seemed dauntingly complex (even though I’m a programmer) and online reports of compatibility and usability problems and overall system reliability deterred me. But the state of the art has advanced since then, and while it’s still hardly “plug and play”, it seemed as though it could be fairly easy…if you started with the right hardware.

There’s also the cost issue. While Mac Pros are competitively priced compared to other workstation-class machines like the HP Z800 and Dell Precision series, the starting price of $2,500 for a single quad-core processor model running at 2.8GHz (and going up past $5,000 for a dual hexacore processor model) is still pretty high. The problem is that the iMac and Mac Mini have very limited expandability, so if you want more than one internal hard drive or optical drive, more than two memory slots, discrete video cards, and so forth, the Mac Pro is your only choice in the Apple lineup. And while it’s possible to upgrade a Mac Pro, the single processor and dual processor models use different motherboards (so your single-processor model can’t be upgraded to dual processors). Also (frustratingly for hackers) it’s difficult or impossible (depending on the model) to overclock a Mac.

After some research I determined that I had hardware— specifically, a motherboard, processor, and video card— that seemed to be well supported. So I decided to give it a shot.


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