It's the (other) thing everyone does and won't talk about: Building a Hackintosh.
 
Although you'll never see us do a full article on this for rather straightforward reasons (Hi Steve!), one of my personal projects this month has been loading Mac OS X on to one of my computers to see what all of the fuss is about. I already have a Mac but integrating that in to my normal desktop machine rather than needing to keep two sets of hardware and switching between them has a certain level of attractiveness to it. After getting it up and running, I've decided to whip up a short blog on the process and some thoughts on it.
 
Above all, I am absolutely amazed at how well Mac OS X runs and how easy it is to install on a regular PC, considering it's a bootlegged operating system running on hardware it wasn't entirely designed for. I'm not sure where the credit for Apple ends and the credit for the hackers who have made this possible begins, but there's certainly enough to go around. As far as installation goes, using a pre-hacked distribution disc made the process extremely easy, right up there with the Vista installer in terms of effort required. In fact I'm rather impressed that hackers were able to get away with using the normal Mac OS X installation service, I would have expected it to be text based or a light-GUI at best.
 
As to be expected, hardware compatibility is sketchy but far less problematic than I was expecting. Since all of Apple's x86 hardware is composed of Intel processors and chipsets this is naturally the best way to go, and while with some digging it looks like it's possible to install it on other hardware (e.g. NVIDIA chipsets, AMD processors, etc) it doesn't look like it's as easy as it is when staying as close as possible to Apple's own hardware. For what it's worth I have no complaints about the compatibility with a GA-P35-DS3R + 8800GTX; the only post-installation work required was installing a modified driver for the DS3R's on-board sound and a driver to make OS X's included NVIDIA GPU driver recognize the stock 8800GTX (this being another surprise; the Nvidia driver works with a lot more than the few NVIDIA GPUs Apple uses once it can recognize the hardware). I did encounter a problem with the DS3R's Jmicron controller however, as for whatever reason the IDE driver OS X uses with it is not 64bit-safe; it would kernel panic periodically. Switching the Jmicron controller to AHCI mode resolved that issue.
 
Once OS X is fully up and running, there's little to differentiate a real Mac from a Hackintosh, other than the obviously incorrect information from the System Profiler. Performance has been excellent for a Mac, particularly since a Hackintosh allows one to live in that gap between the iMac and Mac Pro: a fast quad-core processor and full video card without the penalty of needing slow FB-DIMMs like the Mac Pro. I don't have a comparable Mac Pro on hand, but for consumer use I could easily buy in to the idea that it's faster than the Mac Pro since the FB-DIMM penalties are the most pronounced when gobs of RAM can't be used to boost application performance. System stability has been excellent once the AHCI issue was resolved, and I have not had a single issue with system or application crashes beyond applications that were already unstable on a proper Mac.
 
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole ordeal is how little effort Apple makes in trying to block Hackintoshes. Off of the top of my head I can think of a dozen easy ways to block OS X's functionality on non-Apple hardware (targeting the EFI emulator comes to mind) but Apple apparently does very little in this respect. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise since they also refuse to go with CD-keys for the non-server versions of the OS, making the OS easy to pirate even on proper Macs. The only part about a Hackintosh that I've found hard so far are system updates; while the EFI emulator means that the kernel itself can be run without modification, the 10.5.2 updater overwrites hacked drivers with Apple's own updated drivers. This necessitates getting hacked updates from other sources, a less than ideal situation for a power user, but also one that will keep Hackintoshes from becoming common with the non-technical crowd.
 
Ultimately the hacked nature of the operating system means that I would not consider it suitable for day-to-day use (there's no promise your computer won't blow up one day) but it's a fun project if only because it's something I've been wanting to do for 7 years now. Hacking issues aside, far as Mac vs. Windows is concerned there are still a few issues with Mac OS X that leave me leery on ever switching over to a Mac for all of my desktop needs. I am not particularly smitten with Leopard, the stacks feature and icon changes were both really bad design decisions; you don't know frustration until you're trying to figure out which blue folder is the Applications folder since they all look the same now. Apple has fixed some of this with the 10.5.2 update, but it's still not quite enough. My other major issues comes down to sound; Windows since at least XP has included a headphones mode that applies spatialization processing to all sound to compensate for the ear isolation effect that results from using headphones, meanwhile OS X doesn't have such a feature. Game performance is also poor, but that's another issue entirely.
 
But to wrap things up, this blog isn't just about building a Hackintosh, but also about what it means for Apple. The fact that the Hackintosh even exists gives us a lot of mixed signals from Apple. Conventional wisdom has been that Apple will never separate Mac OS X from Apple's hardware due in part to the problems with compatibility, but the Hackintosh violates that idea; Apple could clearly support a number of products using common Intel chipsets and ATI/NVIDIA GPUs without an extreme amount of effort from the company. Furthermore their lacking effort to block Hackintoshes is an interesting paradox in and of itself: does Apple secretly want techies building Hackintoshes, perhaps as a way to encourage Mac sales? And why is Apple shooting itself in the foot by not offering a full sized desktop Mac for consumers, something techies are turning to Hackintoshes to fulfill?
 
Right now Hackintoshes are too easy to build and work too well, something is not quite right about the situation. Perhaps like Apple's Project Marklar (the secret project to keep an up-to-date x86 port of Mac OS X) Apple is up to more than they are letting on? The situation right now is too good to be true.
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  • heulenwolf - Monday, March 03, 2008 - link

    To answer one of the questions posed in the post, Apple doesn't bother preventing hackintoshes because their target market isn't folks who want to search the web for hacked drivers, custom build their own computers, or even crack open the memory bay on their laptops. They're not going to make money on us. Apple is looking for customers who want to pay for their clever and attractive designs, who want a system (HW and SW) that is easy to use (no searching for hacked drivers required), and are looking for something other than the standard PC beige box. Otherwise, how could they justify their price premium? They can't beat the Dells nor Neweggs of the world on volume with their current market share so they're not trying to.

    Its a little like the RIAA's argument that they're losing kagillions of dollars on music piracy. Actually, in my opinion, the pirated music is making its way into the hands of people who simply would not have bought it if their only option were to pay full price. They really don't lose anything. Apple is simply smart enough to not bother adding additional complexity to prevent what isn't really a loss (and could be seen as a free gain).

    As an example, look at how much they charge for memory upgrades: Going from a base-model macbook to one with 4GB of RAM adds $500 to the cost of a new system. The same upgrade from crucial.com, which guarantees compatibility, costs $109. I would argue that upgrading the RAM on a laptop is even easier than doing so on most desktop systems. While I doubt they sell many Macbooks with 4GB RAM, I also don't think they're loosing much business to DIY upgraders like you and me.
    Reply
  • unatommer - Friday, February 29, 2008 - link

    I think the point is running OSX on your hardware of choice. Why should we be limited to the extremely limited choices of hardware that apple offers? (well, besides to make Apple more money.) This is why the Hackintosh exists. Reply
  • agentlion - Friday, February 29, 2008 - link

    "I already have a Mac but integrating that in to my normal desktop machine rather than needing to keep two sets of hardware and switching between them has a certain level of attractiveness to it."

    obviously you're aware of the alternatives, but I have to wonder why you say this with no mention of 1) running Windows in BootCamp (which would give the exact same effect as your Hackintosh), or 2) running Windows in Parallels or VMWare Unity?
    Both of these methods are legal and supported.
    Reply
  • AncientRelic - Friday, February 29, 2008 - link

    Because a lot of people don't want to run Windows at all. This isn't about a bootcamp situation, there's a lot of software that's just nicer on OS X than Windows, Twitterific, Handbrake, and Adium come to mind to start. I have a Mac Mini at the moment, and am mostly satisfied, but I crave better graphics performance. Even if the mythical xMac doesn't come to fruition, a Mini-esque box with either a better video card onboard, or a single PCIe card slot would be a huge deal for Apple, and probably squelch most of the Hackintosh attempts out there. Reply
  • agentlion - Monday, March 03, 2008 - link

    you've obviously missed my point.

    I also am a Mac user, and do agree with you that "a lot" or even most software is nicer on OS X - that's one of the main reasons I use Mac. I also run VMWare Unity for the single Windows application I can't live without - MS Money.

    But the author clearly still wants to run both Windows and OS X, hence his comment "needing to keep two sets of hardware and switching between them", implying he runs both Windows and OS X for different reasons, and wants to integrate all his uses onto one machine. Which is a fine goal, but when broaching this subject, I would expect at the least some mention that this goal is already fully attainable using free (Boot Camp) or retail (Unity, Parallels) software on a Mac. If he has a reason not to use this solutions, that's fine, but I would expect him to at least acknowledge their existence.
    Reply
  • nilepez - Saturday, March 01, 2008 - link

    Let me get this straight because you don't want to run windows at all (which isn't a goal of the Author), the the author shouldn't point out other alternatives to running hackintosh?

    One could argue that if you want the extra slots or better graphics, you should invest in something other than the cheapest Mac.

    Reply

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