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How to Build a Hackintosh: Part 1

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Gift

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In theory, the only way to get an OS X computer is to buy a Mac from Apple; however, in practice, it is possible to build a computer and hack OS X into running on it. There’s a small, but dedicated, community of people who build Hackintoshes. In this series of tutorials I will show you how to join them.

While it is true that Apple controls the hardware of the computers that run their operating system—unlike Microsoft—it is still, for the most part, the same stock, off the shelf components available to everyone. 

Apple uses CPUs from Intel, hard drives from Samsung and video cards from NVIDIA. If you carefully select your parts then getting OS X to run on your computer is surprisingly achievable.

In this tutorial I’ll explain why you might want to build a Hackintosh, take you through what parts go in a modern computer, how to choose them and what choices I made. In the next tutorial I will show you how to physically assemble your computer and in the third, and final tutorial, I will take you through installing OS X 10.9 Mavericks.

Hackintoshes—the Pros and Cons

Building a Hackintosh is a project. While it is surprisingly easy to do, it is not as easy as visiting an Apple store and buying an iMac. You’ll have to dedicate time to selecting parts, building the computer, setting up the software and trouble shooting the inevitable minor problems.

There are many great reasons to built a Hackintosh:

  • You develop a much better understanding of how computers work
  • You get more power for less cost
  • You have more choice with components
  • You can upgrade your computer as better parts are released
  • It’s fun!

For every good reason, however, there’s also a reason you shouldn’t:

  • You lose many of the advantages you get for buying a Mac—Apple’s support, guaranteed compatibility and a computer that just works
  • Your computer might have some quirks
  • HDMI Audio is almost impossible to get working
  • Your computer may crash more, especially when you are first configuring things
  • It’s more fun in hindsight!

Whether the pros outweigh the cons, or not, is a matter for you to decide. For me, the pros did, but that won’t be the case for everyone. One thing worth highlighting—when I was 13 my dad built a computer with me; it was an extremely fun (and frustrating) experience.

Importantly, it gave me a far deeper understanding of technology and is almost certainly the reason I am writing this tutorial today. If you are a parent, building a Hackintosh with your kids is a great way to educate them on technology and bond with them at the same time.

My Hackintosh

When you are building a Hackintosh you have far more control of parts. You don’t have to upgrade to the model with a faster CPU just to get more RAM. You can build the computer that you want to build. 

I wanted a computer for editing photos and didn’t want to spend over €1000. Adobe Photoshop is, more than anything, a RAM intensive application, although it is also heavily CPU dependant. With this in mind, I knew I wanted at least 16GB of RAM, a decent, but not top of the line, processor and everything else was secondary.

The Key Components

Every computer has a few critical components: the CPU, motherboard, RAM, power supply and storage drives; and, typically, a few optional components like a video card, wireless card or DVD drive.

Motherboard

The motherboard is the most important component in a Hackintosh. If you’ve only bought prebuilt computers before this might surprise you—it’s rarely listed on spec sheets.

The motherboard links all the other components together. It has sockets for the CPU, RAM, video card and other extension cards. They also supply most of the ports you are familiar with—USB ports, ethernet ports, audio ports and, sometimes, HDMI ports.

The choice of motherboard determines many of the options you have for other choices—all the parts must be compatible with the motherboard. 

Motherboards come in different form factors; the larger the motherboard the more internal expandability it will have, but also the bigger, and more power hungry, the resulting computer will be. The most common sizes are based on the ATX standard. 

A regular ATX motherboard goes in a full size tower computer. A MicroATX motherboard is slightly smaller and goes in, what is often called, a mid-tower computer. 

You can also get other sizes such as ExtendedATX motherboards or FlexATX motherboards which are useful for more powerful workstation computers and media centres respectively.

For Hackintoshes, many of the most popular, and recommended, choices come from Gigabyte’s 8 Series. Many of the 8 Series motherboards work with only a little tweaking.

Other motherboards often require complicated patching of the DSDT file which is, frankly, far more hassle than it’s worth. The range of supported Gigabyte motherboards covers most price and feature points so, unless you have an extremely compelling reason to use a different motherboard, I suggest you stick with a Gigabyte.

I chose the Gigabyte Z87MX-D3H. It is a MicroATX board that supports Intel’s latest CPUs, has plenty of USB ports, three PCIe x16 slots and a PCIe x4 slot for plenty of internal expandability and four RAM slots. 

For this tutorial I’ll detail the exact process required to set up a Hackintosh with this motherboard. If you want to use a different motherboard I will flag the information you will need to find and what to do with it—however, the closer you stick to this guide, the better result I can guarantee you will have.

If you want to built something smaller—the equivalent of a Mac Mini say—the Gigabyte Z87N-WIFI is highly regarded and easy to configure. On the flip side, if you want to built something with even more power the Gigabyte LGA–1150-Z87 is a huge board with all the expandability you could want.

Gigabyte Motherboard
My motherboard selection.

CPU

The CPU—Central Processing Unit—is the brain of the computer. All the tasks from the operating system and the applications it is running are processed by the CPU. The faster the CPU is, the faster it can perform tasks and the faster the computer is. 

The speed, or clock rate, of a CPU is measured in GigaHertz, abbreviated as GHz. All else being equal, a 3.3GHz CPU will be faster than a 2.8GHz CPU.

Many modern CPUs are multi-cored. Multi-cored CPUs are essentially multiple CPUs on a single chip. Some tasks the computer performs are capable of being performed in parallel—or example, cracking encryptions, or mining Bitcoin—and get a huge speed increase from a multi-cored CPU. 

Other tasks need to be performed in sequence and so more CPUs don’t greatly increase the speed at which they’re done—a lot of programming and photo-editing falls into this category. Unless you know that you need your computer to perform fast parallel processing, there’s not much need to look beyond quad-core processors.

Since the mid–2000s, OS X has run on Intel processors. While there have been some  attempts to get OS X to work on other CPUs, it is not worth considering for your first Hackintosh. Regardless, the motherboards I recommend only support Intel chips. With the CPU choice you have a bit more freedom than with the motherboard. 

Any current generation Intel Core chip should work without problems. If you’re on a budget, pick up an i3 or low end i5. If you need something with a bit more juice, go with a high end i5 or an i7. I went with the 3.4 GHz Intel Core i5–4670K Quad-Core.

As a bonus, Intel’s CPUs come with integrated graphics. This means that you don’t absolutely need a video card; although if you plan on doing any gaming or graphics intensive work it’s still a good idea.

Intel CPU
CPU selection.

RAM

After the CPU, the computer’s RAM—Random Access Memory—has the largest effect on its overall performance. When the computer is performing tasks, everything it needs for that task is pulled from the hard drive and stored in RAM. 

It is far quicker for the CPU to access things that are stored in memory than on the storage hard drives. If the computer has sufficient RAM for the task it is performing, it will run smoothly, however, if it doesn’t have enough RAM it will have to resort to pulling things from disk and this slows it down.

To run a modern OS, like OS X, and regular applications like web browsers and word processors, you want at least 8GB of RAM. If you are going to be using professional applications like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro X, you should probably get at least 16GB.

RAM is one of the few things that Apple, in some cases, lets users change—any third-party RAM that is available for iMacs should work in a Hackintosh. I went with 16GB of Corsair Vengance DDR3 RAM. You can also get it in an 8GB pack if you want something smaller, or double up and go for the full 32GB. 

RAM
My choice of RAM.

Hard Drive

Hard drives are, for a change, one of the areas where you don’t have to be over careful with your selection. The way the drive is formatted, which you’ll take care of later on, is far more important than the drive itself.

To be on the safe side though, it is worth picking drives that are known to work in Hackintoshes. For most people, the best thing is to buy two drives—one a low capacity solid state drive, or SDD, for the operating system and applications, and the other a high capacity spinning disk HDD. 

The cost of SSDs has come down a lot and the speed increase they give your computer means that they are well worth the additional cost.

I went with a 250GB Samsung 840 EVO for my SSD and a 2TB Seagate Barracuda for my storage drive, however, I would actually recommend a 240GB SanDisk Extreme SSD over my selection. On the day I bought it, rather than being approximately the same price as usual, the Samsung drive was more than 50% cheaper!

SSD Drive
My SSD selection.

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

All of the wonderful computer parts are only so much scrap silicone unless they have electricity running through them. For that you need a PSU. Every internal computer component has a Watt rating—the amount of power it requires to run. 

The PSU also has a Watt rating, however that is how much power it provides. The equation is simple, make sure your PSU provides more power than your components use. The biggest power drains in most computers are video cards—hardcore gamers often use two, or more, linked together and this requires a huge amount of power.

The choice of PSU is not critical to a Hackintosh. There is no software component so any PSU that fits your case and motherboard, and provides enough power, will work. I like the Corsair CX Modular range. 

As you will see later, keeping the wires inside a computer neat is a task for saints. With Corsair’s Modular PSUs you can add or remove power cables as you need them which helps keep things tidy. The range features 430, 500, 600 and 750 Watt models. I went with the 600 Watt model.

Power Supply Unit PSU
My PSU selection.

Video Card

The video card is how you add a more powerful Graphics Processing Unit, GPU, to the computer. The GPU is responsible for the images that display on the monitor. The Intel chips I recommend all come with integrated graphics so a video card is not essential unless you want to play games, or run one or more large displays at a high frame rate.

Video cards are, unfortunately, one of the areas where you can’t just pick any old one. Some are compatible out of the box, some require patching drivers to enable full functionality and some are not supported at all. 

The NVIDIA GeForce series of video cards is one of the most popular for Hackintoshes—there are fully compatible cards for most budgets. I didn’t need much GPU power so I went with the fairly low end 1GB ASUS GeForce GTX 650. If you want something with more power, the EVGA GeForce GTX 760 is a well regarded card.

Video Card
My choice of video card.

Wireless Card

The majority of motherboards come with built in Ethernet ports; unless you are using a motherboard that also has built in Wi-Fi, like the Gigabyte Z87N-WIFI, you need a Wi-Fi card if you want to connect to wireless networks. 

Some people build an exact replica of Apple’s Airport card using parts bought from Ebay, but a simpler solution is to use the TP-LINK TL-WDN4800 wireless card. It is one of the more expensive wireless cards on the market but is also one of the few known to work easily with Hackintoshes. 

A wireless card is entirely optional. If you are building a desktop computer, because it shouldn’t be moving very often, it is worth connecting it physically to your network using Ethernet cables.

Case

The computer case is another purely hardware choice. Different cases offer a mix of extra ports and cooling options. The most important thing is to make sure the chosen case supports the motherboard size you have selected. I chose this Fractal Design mid-tower because it was small enough to fit on my desk and worked with all my selected components.

Computer case
The case I chose.

Optical Drive

In true Apple fashion, I built my Hackintosh without an optical drive. Realistically, you are unlikely to need one either. The majority of OS X apps are released for download with no physical product available. If you need an optical drive, this Optiarc drive apparently works without issue. Alternatively, you could pick up an Apple USB SuperDrive.

Peripherals

To complete your Hackintosh you also need some peripherals—at a bare minimum a keyboard, mouse and screen. As a general rule, if it works through USB, it will work with a Hackintosh. 

Any USB keyboard and mouse will work fine, and are actually required for setting everything up. I like Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and Magic Trackpad so I used the IOGEAR USB Bluetooth adaptor to connect them to my Hackintosh.

The screen is a more complicated issue. VGA support on Hackintoshes is unreliable—for some set ups it will work where as for others it won’t. You are likely to need to use HDMI or DisplayPort out, depending on what your motherboard or video card supports.

Sound is similarly a slightly complex issue. The integrated sound on the motherboard you use is likely to work through the 3.5mm ports but not over HDMI. You are likely to need either desktop speakers or a pair of headphones if you want to have sound on your Hackintosh.

Resources

There are a number of forums dedicated to building Hackintoshes. People post builds that work, lists of compatible components, configuration settings and loads of other useful information. The easiest ways to work out whether a particular component will work in a Hackintosh is to search one of the forums and see what results other people have had with it.

My first port of call when I’m looking for Hackintosh information is the tonymacx86.com forums. They are one of the largest Hackintosh resources on the internet. Many users post completed builds to the forums along with the relevant configuration settings. 

The site is responsible for the tools that you will use to install OS X on your Hackintosh in the third tutorial. They also publish a monthly buyers guide which lists loads of Hackintosh compatible parts.

The OSx86 project is a similarly useful source of Hackintosh information. Their InsanelyMac forums are another great source of user builds and their wiki also features lists of compatible parts.

PCPartPicker is the best way to buy computer parts. The site lets you configure a hypothetical computer and then it tells you where the cheapest place to buy those parts is. You can save your builds and the site will even track the price changes over time for you. PCPartPicker also tells you whether your PSU is sufficiently powerful and if there are any compatibility issues between your chosen parts.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I’ve shown you through the pros and cons of building a Hackintosh, the parts that make up a modern desktop computer, how to select parts that will make OS X as stable and simple to install as possible and described the parts I chose and my rationale for it. 

In the next tutorial I will take you through the process of assembling the cellophane wrapped computer parts into a working computer and then in the final tutorial I will take you through setting up OS X.

If you’ve any questions about choosing compatible parts, or comments on my selections, please let me know in the comments.

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