Building My $1,200 Hackintosh
I’ve wanted a new Mac for awhile now. Now I have one faster than almost any Mac that Apple can sell you. Here’s how I built it.
I’ve always been the type of Mac user who has a laptop and connects it to an external monitor on my desk to get real work done. I’ve been using a 15" retina MacBook Pro (Early 2013) slid into a BookArc for a few years, for a combination of design and development work. It has an old processor (2.4Ghz Intel Core i7) not much memory (8GB DDR3) and most days I really wish it was flying around Photoshop, Keynote, Sublime Text and Xcode the way I know the new 5K Retina iMac does for friends of mine.
I did make a hardware upgrade recently though, from a Thunderbolt Display (which Apple recently discontinued) to an utterly amazing Dell 3415W which is a 34" slightly curved ultramegafuckingwidescreen monitor. No, it’s not retina sharp, but it is wide enough to have 3 large application windows open side-by-side-by-side, and I prefer the wideness of it to the sharpness of the 5K Retina iMac’s display as it makes me feel much more productive.
Now let’s get to the Hackintosh decision.
A few weeks back, I was at a baseball game with a bunch of my wife’s coworkers when I started talking to a developer named Ian who said he just got done building a Hackintosh and it was amazing. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about the Hackintosh community in years, I actually forgot it was still a thing. Ian said the community was now organized around a website called TonyMacx86.com and it had hardware guides, build tutorials, forums, lots of updates, and had been extremely lively in the past 18 months or so as it’s now easier than ever to build a Hackintosh. When he told me how fast his custom Mac was (faster than any iMac and most Mac Pros), and how little it cost (around $1,200–1,300) it struck me as impossible. I know that Apple hasn’t updated their MacBook Pros or Mac Pros in a long time, and I know there’s an “Apple Tax” you pay when parts like RAM or a processor are included in an Apple-designed computer, but the more we talked about his build the more excited I became. It was as if someone told me, yeah, duh, of course there are flying cars, check out my flying car over in the parking lot. You want a flying car, too?
So I did a lot of research, then made the decision to give it a shot.
Back in the day, building a Hackintosh was a gigantic pain in the ass. Getting the right hardware components and the right kernel extensions for those components and the right drivers was a total crapshoot. It required a lot of free time and a lot of technical know-how to build one. And any OS X Software Update had the potential to hose your entire setup, forcing you to start back from the beginning.
Nowadays, the incredibly helpful tinkerers at TonyMacx86.com have basically put together all you need to know to 1) buy the parts, 2) put them together and 3) make it all work. Every few months they put out a hardware build guide that lists the components that are the most compatible and friendly to create a Hackintosh with, and my build follows this guide pretty closely. Here’s their June hardware build guide, and what I ended up with:
- Motherboard: Gigabyte Gaming-5, $137 on Amazon.
- Processor: Intel i7–6700K at 4.0 Ghz, $342.
- GPU: GTX 950, $169 on Amazon.
- Memory: 64GB DDR4 Ballistix Sport, $229 if you get the red color.
- Hard Drive: Samsung 850 500GB SSD. $154.
- CPU Cooling: Corsair H60 liquid cooler. $59.
- Power Supply: Corsair CS650. $81 but see note below.
- Wi-Fi: TP-Link PCI-E card. $38.
- Case: BitFenix Phenom. $86 at Amazon.
- Monitor: Dell 3415W 34" widescreen. (Already owned.) $751.
- Keyboard: Apple wired keyboard. (Already owned.) $49.
Total (not including tax or what I already owned) was about $1,280. If you go with 8GB of RAM, a 250GB SSD, or a slightly slower processor, you can easily build a Hackintosh for under $1,000.
Some notes on the hardware I purchased:
- It’s not a full-size, tall tower build. I was optimizing for the look and size of the case more than expandability. It’s essentially cube-shaped, with dimensions 12×16×18"
- Liquid cooler! The last time I built a computer (back 15 years ago…) I had to affix a massive heatsink to the processor. Now there are liquid cooling systems that need no maintenance for $60. Crazy.
- The Corsair power supply I ordered arrived dead. I spent at least 2 hours unplugging and triple-checking things thinking that I screwed up a pin or a connection somewhere, but no, the power supply was DOA. I ended up buying another one at a local computer store. He said getting a DOA power supply from Corsair was insanely rare. Yay, me.
- The Intel i7–6700K processor is Intel’s latest and greatest, formerly known as Skylake. The only Mac you can buy from Apple with this chip in it is a custom-configured 27" 5K iMac. It’s quad-core and fast as shit.
- 64GB of RAM running at DDR4 speed for $229? Are you serious? I was originally looking to get 32GB but it was only about $90 more to double the amount and go full throttle. By the way, Apple charges $1,200 to configure a Mac Pro with 64GB of RAM, and those are slower DDR3 sticks. That’s almost as much as this entire system.
- I’m not a gamer and wasn’t building a VR system, so the GTX 950 graphics card was perfect. It’s extremely capable, it’s just not fast enough for high-end VR (and neither is any GPU in any Mac Apple sells.) If you are a gamer, or do want to build a VR system, make sure you can access the correct drivers for your card. Do some research to see what cards are supported and commonly used in Hackintoshes. Desperately want to throw a GTX 1070 or 1080 in? The drivers for them don’t exist yet. Getting the GPU fully operational was actually the most time-consuming part for me.
When you build a Hackintosh (or any custom PC) you need to actually build the machine, which means getting a ton of boxes delivered to your door from Amazon, taking every one out of the package, and then assembling the computer from scratch. Before this build, I had only assembled one other computer, and that was back in the early 2000s as part of a college networking class. Things have definitely changed: some things are much easier, some things are more complex. Fortunately, there is now a website called YouTube where people walkthrough how to build a computer, and you can watch them do it and learn how to do it yourself. Incredible, right?
I watched a number of videos of people putting a Hackintosh together, from boxes to finished build, and I think that’s basically the best way to learn how to do it and to feel confident in what you can accomplish. Here are my favorites.
- Chris Fusco posted a SUPER detailed video guide of his build and software setup. More recently, Chris published an updated version of his video guide walking through a Hackintosh running Sierra. His entire YouTube channel is awesome.
- 9to5Mac had an incredible write-up on building a Hackintosh. Highly recommended article + videos.
- Jesse from the CreateThis channel on YouTube posted a 3-part series of his Intel 6700K Hackintosh build, from selecting the components to the hardware build to the installation of Mac OS X. Long videos, but great commentary on all the decisions he made along the way, and issues to watch out for.
- Searching YouTube or Google for “El Capitan Hackintosh” or “6700K Hackintosh” (the Intel processor you’ll be using) will get you pretty far down the rabbit hole as well.
Building a Hackintosh is basically a 2-step process. The first step is going from boxes of parts to a completely built computer that can turn on. If you don’t have any computer hardware knowledge, or have never been elbow-deep inside a computer case before, building your Hackintosh and getting it to turn on will be challenging unless you read instruction guides, follow manuals and watch YouTube videos. I had to install and uninstall case fans multiple times, unplug and re-plug motherboard wires because other wires were in the way, so it definitely wasn’t a 30-minute process for me to get the computer to turn on.
After I finally got my system to turn on (remember my power supply was bad, and I didn’t realize it until exhausting all other possibilities for what was going on) it was time to turn this PC into a Hackintosh, which means making it boot Mac OS X.
Something to note about running a Hackintosh: system software updates can break your configuration and stop your computer from working without some tweaks. Right now the latest non-beta version of Mac OS X is 10.11.5, so my goal was to build a Hackintosh that can run 10.11.5, which is also the minimum OS requirement for Xcode 8, needed to build apps against iOS 10. When 10.11.6 makes it out of beta, I won’t be immediately upgrading my system to it like I would have in the past with a real Mac. Instead, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on the TonyMacx86 forums and blog to make sure it’s safe and others have been successful.
To get my machine running Mac OS X, I primarily followed this TonyMacx86 step-by-step guide which walks you through the entire process. The 9to5Mac article and video linked above also has an excellent guide. In general, you need to:
- Already own a Mac, download El Capitan from the App Store
- Have a USB stick with at least 16GB of storage
- Reformat the USB stick so you can boot from it
- Use an application called UniBeast to make the USB stick bootable
- Once you’ve booted from the USB stick, update some BIOS settings
- Install Mac OS X onto your computer’s hard drive
- Use an application called MultiBeast to tweak various system and driver parameters once you’ve booted into Mac OS X
- Download the right graphics drivers for your video card and install them onto your new Mac. Important: I had to make sure to download the right NVIDIA driver for my OS X version (10.11.5) because if you download the wrong driver, nothing works.
- Boot up with the nvda_drv=1 option set so your Hackintosh will use those downloaded graphics drivers.
- Be joyful that you have a working Hackintosh!
Not everything is rosy in Hackintosh land though, so here’s a call-out to some issues I encountered:
- My audio doesn’t work. There are simple guides to make your audio work, but I haven’t followed them yet, mostly because I have a USB DAC I use, so I don’t need to use the headphone jack.
- Continuity and Handoff don’t work. After a lot of research and reading, the core reason why they don’t work on most Hackintosh systems is because the chip that runs the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth needs to be a Broadcom chip which is what Apple uses for all their computers. This is the PCI-E card you need to purchase if you need Continuity and Handoff to work. I believe there are some software hacks you can use as well if you don’t want to buy that card.
- iMessage on my Mac doesn’t work. Getting iMessage to work on a Hackintosh is basically the holy grail of the Hackintosh community, because its functionality is tied to your computer’s serial number and other settings, and spoofing/setting this to make iMessage work is tricky. Search for “Hackintosh iMessage El Capitan” on Google or YouTube to read more about this issue. Here’s one tutorial, but it seems a little shady.
- AirDrop between this Mac and other Macs works, but I have to choose “Search for Older Macs” from AirDrop to get my Hackintosh to be discoverable. Not too annoying, but if you rely on AirDrop, keep this in mind. I’ve read that you can solve this issue by using a Broadcom Wi-Fi chip like the PCI-E card I linked above.
- I had a hell of a time getting my Hackintosh to recognize and use the graphics card drivers that I downloaded. I had the right drivers, they were installed, but when I connected my monitor to my graphics card and rebooted with the nvda_drv=1 flag set (forcing my Hackintosh to use NVIDIA drivers I downloaded) the screen would go blank. After a lot of research and reading, it appears that if Mac OS X thinks your system is an iMac (you can choose what system you want to appear to be as you setup your Hackintosh, I selected a 27" iMac as it’s supposed to be a pretty compatible system definition) there’s a chance it won’t recognize a graphics card in a PCI-E slot because iMacs don’t use that slot. I found this incredible page on the TonyMacx86 forum, downloaded the AGDPFix script at the bottom of it, ran it, and now my Hackintosh works great and the graphics card is recognized. You can probably avoid this issue by choosing a Mac Pro system definition when you’re configuring MultiBeast.
People used to build Hackintoshes because they were a good bit cheaper than an equivalent Mac you could buy from Apple. Now though, since the Mac Pro hasn’t been updated in 3 years (and the components on the board were already about a year old) people are building Hackintoshes because you can build a Mac that is faster than the fastest computer Apple can sell you and, oh yeah, it costs $1,000+ less than even the base Mac Pro model. If you’re a professional photographer, programmer or video editor that currently owns a Mac Pro, Apple has forsaken you. Maybe it’s time to look into building a Hackintosh.
Here’s a comparison of my Hackintosh’s Geekbench runs compared to all other Macs. The multi-core score isn’t surprising considering my CPU only has 4 cores in it, but it does almost beat a 6-core Mac Pro. And the single core test shows my system is faster in day-to-day usage than any Mac that Apple makes.
After running the Cinebench GPU benchmark test, here’s the result: dramatically faster graphics capabilities than even the most high-end 12-core Mac Pro with dual D700 cards, which is a little crazy considering that machine costs almost $7,000 more than mine.
Building a Hackintosh is not for everyone. If you need portability, you should probably hold out for a new MacBook Pro and hope it’s unveiled in the next few months. But if you’re looking at a Mac Mini, an iMac or a Mac Pro, you can definitely build yourself a faster and less expensive machine if you go the Hackintosh route. Of course that means purchasing computer parts yourself, building the computer, running a hacked bootloader, tinkering with cryptic flags and kernel extensions, violating the Mac OS X EULA by running it on non-Apple hardware, searching web forums for tidbits, worrying about system software updates, and general computer hardware nerdery that most people wouldn’t want to deal with.
But if that person sounds like you, I think you’ll have a lot of fun.