It was 2009 and I desperately needed a new Mac. My G5 tower was showing its age and woefully underpowered, not to mention being officially phased out by Apple. After crunching the numbers, I concluded that if I were to buy a Mac Pro (sadly, audio and video pros are the last two holdouts who still need the extra horsepower and drive bays of a desktop tower), I was essentially buying a $1,250 computer in a $1,250 case. When my G5’s power supply failed, and I found out that replacing it would have cost almost exactly what the entire computer was worth, my mind was made up: Hac Pro or bust.
In a nutshell, building a low maintenance Hackintosh boils down to the careful selection of three things: the motherboard, the graphics card, and the wireless card. As long as you pick parts that are similar to (or exactly the same as) the ones Apple uses, you’re going to have a good time. As far as specific builds, there are a million websites for that kind of thing. Rather than bore you with specs, here’s some audio workstation specific tips I picked up along the way:
- Audio software generally doesn’t need ultra-fancy-pants graphics, so I just bought a decent one that users widely reported as Mac OS friendly. If you’re worried about compatibility, buy a Mac Pro graphics upgrade from the Apple Store.
- I opted for an overbuilt, rackmount, “quiet” (that’s a relative term) case made by Antec. It’s as least as quiet as the G5 it replaced, with plenty of drive bays and room for upgrades. Sadly not an aluminum work of art (though people have done that), but it’s a tank that gets the job done.
- Speaking of drive bays, I have five drives in my Hac, each with its specific purpose: A drive for samples, two drives for sessions, a drive with my main user folder (except my user Library folder), and a solid state drive for my OS, applications, and my home Library folder. (Since the Library folder is accessed constantly for things like application preferences, caches, fonts, logs, and the like, keeping it on the SSD is a huge speed boost.)
- Just as I had done with my G5, I added an aftermarket Firewire card, since I wanted to run my audio interface off a different Firewire controller than my hard drives. I can’t tell you if it gave me any huge performance increase, but it’s worked without any hiccups.
- Like most recordists these days, I use my internet connection all the time for downloading sessions, sending email, delivering mixes, etc, so I needed a bulletproof connection to the outside world. For wireless, I opted to use a PCI adapter card with an actual, Apple-branded Airport card, and it has worked flawlessly from day one.
- That said, this computer probably won’t be moving around much, so a hardwired ethernet connection is also an option. I actually use mine instead of Airport 99% of the time (when I use AirDrop once a year).
- In my experience, if you pick the right motherboard, once you manage to boot the machine (see below), things like hard drives, optical drives, USB, firewire cards, etc, just work (Macs are nice like that). Of course, your mileage may vary.
I personally have only used one tool for installing Mac OS X on PC hardware: Kakewalk (not to be confused with Cakewalk). I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s a beautifully designed utility, free of charge (donations welcome) and, if you chose your hardware off the list of supported hardware, using it is literally a cakewalk. (Well, not literally a dance contest with confectionary prizes. But you get what I’m saying.) In a nutshell, the software does this:
- Merges the user-supplied OS X installer (whether from a DVD or—since Lion—downloaded from the App Store) with a motherboard-specific Mac bootloader, then installs that on a USB flash or hard drive.
- After a couple small BIOS tweaks (which are very easy, and explained well in the Kakewalk manual), allows you to boot off your USB drive, then installs Mac OS X onto your hard drive.
- You then run the bootloader off your USB drive, but boot into OS X.
- Lastly, you run the Kakewalk application once again, which installs system-specific kexts (drivers) and puts the Kakewalk bootloader onto your hard drive.
- That’s it—if all went according to plan, your new Hac Pro should just…work.
There are some potential downsides to owning a Hackintosh:
- No AppleCare or Genius Bar support (though it’d be fun to see someone try).
- Software and peripherals makers might conceivably refuse to offer support, since you’re not using officially sanctioned hardware. That said, I’ve never had a problem with any other software or hardware peripherals, audio and otherwise. (Oh—except iMessages. iMessages doesn’t like Hackintoshes for some reason.)
- Major OS upgrades can be slightly nerve wracking. Just in case, I usually set aside a day with no deadlines to do any major updates (there have been only two such occasions since I’ve owned the machine—Lion and Mountain Lion). However, they’ve both gone off without a hitch, and I have multiple backups in case they didn’t.
GO FORTH AND HACK
Let it be said: Building and maintaining a Hackintosh is not for everyone. They are not nearly as high maintenance as some online forum threads would lead you to believe, but you will most likely have to get down and dirty with kexts and kernels at some point. If the idea of that makes your palms the least bit sweaty, buy a real Mac. Any savings you might enjoy will be rendered moot if you invest more than a couple days troubleshooting this computer.
If, however, you get a perverse enjoyment out of troubleshooting cutting edge technology, and don’t mind diving into the hard and soft guts of your machine every once in a while, then go for it. All in all, it’s been a great experience, and perhaps most surprisingly, as stable and reliable as any real Mac I’ve ever owned. And best of all: If my power supply breaks again, I can have a new one inside of an hour for a sixth of the price.