Building a Hackintosh

My journey to an affordable, upgradable, and extensible Mac

Hackintosh

So I really gave it away in the title, but, uhh, I built a computer. And that computer allegedly runs macOS. Why would I do this? How did I do this? What was my experience like? I intend to answer all these questions my friends.

Why Would I Do This?

I have many reasons. Some of them you may agree with, others may make you laugh. But these are my reasons and I’m sticking to them.

I Work at a Desk

99 percent of my computer time is spent working at my desk.1 My former workhorse and daily driver, a 2015 15” MacBook Pro, rarely left its customary place to the left of the two desktop computer displays it was connected to. I wrote before about my laptop overheating issues. The truth is, while that was the most extreme case, my laptops have always run into graphics card burn out issues sooner than I would want or expect. And that’s because I mostly use my laptops as desktops.

I’ve always done the laptop thing because I need a computer with me when traveling.2 But it’s been apparent to me for some time that what I really need when working at my desk is a desktop computer. One that is well ventilated with a lot of thermal headroom and GPU power for my three displays.3

Apple doesn’t make a desktop computer I’m interested in and hasn’t for some time. Like I said, I need thermal headroom, and an iMac doesn’t meet this qualification. iMacs may be less thermally constrained than the MacBook pros, but they’re still thermally constrained and they run too hot for my taste. I have a friend who’s had graphics card fry-age 4 issues with iMacs as well.

Apple thinks all-in-ones are cool—and they kind of are… for consumers. Apple is, at the time of this writing, taking pre-orders for the iMac Pro. Why does Apple feel this is the right computer for professionals? Which of us was asking Apple to seal all the parts in a tight enclosure with a display, make only the RAM upgradable,5 and do it all at the expense of cooling?

Cooling

I have yet to get the fans on my new build to do more than idle. And I’ve done some stress testing on the CPU and GPU. Because there’s lots of room in the case—and I was able to choose a damn efficient liquid cooler—this baby runs extremely cool. The cooler those parts stay, the more likely they are to operate longer without failure—which is what makes this custom build with lots of airflow and thermal headroom so appealing. When I’m in my office at my desk, I don’t need the thing to be as compact as possible. Space is not at a premium. I need it to run as fast as possible and cool as fast and efficiently as possible.

Throw-Away Culture—I Don’t Like It

I’m becoming more and more disillusioned with the throw-away culture of modern computing. There is no part of my MacBook Pro that is upgradable, not even the RAM. I mostly forgive this on laptops where space is at a premium,6 but I’m at a loss to figure out how building a desktop computer in this manner is excusable—particularly for pros. If any part of an iMac (or a MacBook Pro) becomes too outdated, you have to chuck the whole thing and buy an all new one. For the machines I need and want, that comes with a pretty hefty price tag. The displays Apple is making right now are gorgeous. They’re also expensive. And unfortunately those displays are attached to expensive parts that age more quickly than the display itself. 16 GB of RAM may be (mostly) adequate now, but those big beautiful retina displays will still be worth using long after that stops being enough RAM.

The same can be said of most other computing parts (hard drives/SSD, graphics cards, etc.). I need and want to upgrade those parts more often than the displays. Those computing parts change upgrade needs at different paces. My Hackintosh currently has 32GB of RAM because that felt like the sweet spot for price at this time. The logic board 7 I chose can max out at 64GB of RAM, and in a couple years when that’s a reasonable price, I’ll gladly swap out my four 8GB DIMMS for four 16GB DIMMS because it will be easy and cheap. You can’t do that easily on any modern Apple computer, and you can’t do it at all on most modern Apple computers.

In five or eight years when I want a better graphics card, I’ll get it and slide it in the PCI Express slot. Or if there’s a newer, better standard of PCI available on a new logic board, I’ll get a new logic board too. Because I can.

Computing Power and Price

The iMac Pros are not widely available yet, and I’m not under any illusion that my custom build will outperform the iMac Pro in any way. However, my Hackintosh outperforms any other Mac in most ways, and certainly in every perceivable way. I also paid a lot less than I’ve paid for any Apple computer. My graphics card is a fairly high-end NVIDIA card with 6GB of video RAM, and it is easily the best performing graphics card I have ever had in a computer. Apple has been having a feud with NVIDIA so you simply can’t get an NVIDIA graphics card in a Mac.

Apple’s user-base suffers as a result because NVIDIA is top dog in graphics the majority of the time. Simply put, I was able to build a lot of computer for a lot less money. In the past I’ve always been willing to pay Apple premium 8 for computers that just work. But I’ve been finding that position more and more untenable as Apple spends less and less time focusing on its desktop computer users.

Why a Hackintosh at All?

Why not run Windows or Linux? Before I built my computer, I tried out various flavors of Linux—and Windows for that matter. While there are ways in which each of these systems have some bit or bob that is better than macOS, they still suck majorly in a lot more ways than I’m willing to put up with. macOS has certainly not been getting the attention that it deserves, and frankly, the stuff that’s slipping through Apple QA with High Sierra is alarming. But it’s still the best (for me anyway) desktop computer OS out there and its the only one I’m willing to live with on a long term basis. At the same time, I want a modular, easily upgradable, high performing, affordable computer. No, not just want, I need (most of) those things. And I’m willing, at least at this time, to put up with just a little bit of software fiddling to get them.

What About the (Upcoming) Mac Pro

At this point, the upcoming modular and user expandable Mac Pro is still vapor ware. All we know for sure is that Apple said they’re working on it and it’s coming. We don’t know when and we don’t know what it will look like. Given that, I have no guarantees that it will be the computer I want. I believe it will be at least as expensive as an iMac Pro and I’d be willing to bet all my money it will be less configurable and upgradable than the computer I built. I will not discount the possibility that I will own one in the future, but right now I doubt it.

How Did I Do this?

So let’s talk about how I accomplished this build. I started to get an interest in doing this about a year ago as I heard of more and more people doing it. Then Dan Benjamin did it and put up the Hackintosh Method website, which I certainly consulted—I sort of used it as a jumping off point, really. Ultimately, I also consulted the tonymacx86 Buyer’s Guide. This was extremely helpful to compare and choose a few newer and more up-to-date parts since Dan did his build about a year ago. Armed with the knowledge from these two websites, here are the parts I built my computer with:

Installing macOS

The thing to know about working with macOS on non-Apple hardware is that macOS is built for the hardware Apple knows it supports. Unlike Windows (or Linux, but mostly Windows), Apple does not attempt to make sure macOS supports the wide range of available hardware out there. In addition, macOS expects certain things to be present in the firmware of the logic board, etc.

Fortunately at this stage of the Hackintosh community, installing macOS on hardware from the tonymacx86.com buyer’s guide is not all that difficult. I did have to take a run at it twice. The first time around I followed this guide for installing Sierra on supported Intel-based PCs 9. This guide almost worked. Almost.

At first I had trouble getting past the Apple Logo when booting from the USB installer I created. The Apple Logo would come up on a black screen, the progress bar would appear, and then there would be no progress. I waited for ten minutes once to make sure it was actually stuck. Eventually I found instructions that worked for me that involved going into the Clover Bootloader settings and selecting “Fix USB Ownership”.

Unfortunately, there were still a lot of other weird issues and I finally started over with this guide on Installing Sierra On 200 Series With KabyLake Processor even though I have a Skylake processor. Because I have a 200 series board, this guide worked perfectly fine for me and I ran into (almost) no trouble.10

iMessage

The hardest part of this entire thing was getting iMessage working.

I could write a long screed about what hot garbage the architecture of iMessage must be… actually, I think I will write that screed. I’m a software developer, and if I released software as finicky as iMessage, I would be out of a job.

After the amount of work I put in to getting iMessage working on this computer, I believe I have a greater understanding of why iMessage breaks for no explicable reason on legitimate Apple hardware. I actually love what iMessage offers in terms of being able to send and receive message on my Mac with a real keyboard. I don’t need to pick up my phone for SMS messages either. While not 100 percent necessary for me to get on with my life on a Hackintosh, I wanted to get this working.

As best I can tell—and certainly from the mountain of evidence I found while getting this to work—it seems that an identity is not generated when you sign in to iMessage by Apple’s server. It relies on a number of parameters set in the Macintosh’s firmware including the machine’s serial number, board serial number, product identifier, and apparently the ethernet’s MAC address (or if you have a Macintosh that is ethernet-less, the wi-fi MAC address). That ethernet port must be set as en0 in the system’s network configuration. All of this comprises the system identity for unique delivery of messages to the correct place.

This is horrifying. I’d be willing to bet this insane architecture is part of the reason why it’s taken so long for iMessage to come to the cloud and why that feature was yanked from iOS 11. De-tangling this nightmare obviously takes some doing. If only there was a way of assigning a unique ID in software… OH WAIT! Why the sam-holy-hill Apple’s servers don’t assign a unique ID when a user signs in with the correct Apple ID, is beyond my ability to comprehend.

So to get iMessage working, I used An iDiot’s Guide to iMessage. It seemed to work at first, but I started to notice weird issues after re-boot. Sometimes I could send and receive messages, sometimes I could only receive, sometimes I could only send. And other times, iMessage seemed to be completely broken on my new Hackintosh. I was crushed. It’s one of my favorite “nice-to-have” features of being on macOS.

After a few days, I decided to go through the guide again very carefully. One of the problems is that the guide was written for a previous version of Clover Configurator. Because of that, they reference a “Magic Wand” tool in the SMBIOS utility which no longer exists. This is where I flubbed it up the first time when I did the best I could to interpret the instructions. The long and short of it is that, because I flubbed it up, a Board Serial Number was never set. This caused my system identification to iMessage to be wonky I guess.

In any event, I signed out of all iCloud services, rebooted, deleted a bunch of preference files, rebooted, ran through the Clover Configurator steps again, making sure to click generate on the serial number several times, and ran through the guide very carefully. The result seems to be a completely stable iMessage.

Trouble Along the Way

The original logic board I ordered and assembled the computer with was the ASUS Z170-AR. I’m sure it’s a fine logic board but I never got to find out. Though I was very careful and wore my static wrist strap anchored to the computer at all times, the logic board was either damaged by me on installation, or it was defective. In either case, the result was the same. Though the logic board would show a single LED light when the power supply was turned on, and it would supply power to the fans, it would not boot. It would not even POST. Nothing.

I decided to take it to a local computer shop for diagnostics and they confirmed it was a bad logic board. I asked if I had damaged it or if it was defective. They said it was hard to tell and saw no “smoking gun” pointing out damage by me but that it was rare to see defective logic boards from ASUS. I haven’t yet tried to return it, but I may and we’ll see what happens then.

In any event, this little computer shop was familiar with Hackintosh builds and recommended the ASRock Z270 KILLER SLI/AC logic board. Since it was already in the shop, and it was only an additional $70, I had them install that board.11

Is It Worth It? Do I Recommend It for Others?

Performance

It’s early days so it’s hard to answer that definitively. So far, now that things are running smoothly, I love this computer. It definitely feels like the fastest “Mac” I’ve ever used 12.

One of the things I like to do on any new system is stress test with HandBrake. I find this to be really telling about the performance capabilities of any new computer because HandBrake is great at maxing out all cores of the processor. If you open up the CPU Core monitor in Activity Monitor, you can see that any time HandBrake is encoding, all the cores are maxed out. On my past Macs, the computer gets pretty sluggish while this is going on. On my new Hackintosh, not only did it not take a long time to do some encoding, but the computer felt completely normal while this was happening. My fans never did more than idle.

As a PHP developer, I use PHPStorm, which I have a love/hate relationship with. The love aspect is that it’s a great IDE for PHP. The hate aspect is it’s a performance dog. When indexing, or with very large projects, it can bring my laptop to its knees. Not so with the Hackintosh

While I’m not much of a computer gamer, I do love to play Portal occasionally. I fired up Steam and Portal—which normally, again, makes my laptop beg for mercy. I cranked up the frame rate, the resolution, and generally did everything I could to make my new Hackintosh angry with me. It never even broke a sweat.

So performance is one aspect of looking at this, and it’s great.

Money

The other aspect is that I have somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,100 in this computer. As a professional, it’s the most power for the least amount of money I’ve ever had. It’s really nice. In day-to-day use, it still feels like using a Mac (now that everything is set up, of course).

Can Be Fiddly

As you will note if you read through all of my article thus far, it can be a little fiddly to get stuff to work. It hasn’t been fiddly since getting things set up, but updates can be fiddly too. You have to make sure you turn off auto-updates and read up on the updates. WAIT to update. Make sure tonymacx86 has written about the update. Make sure all your drivers are compatible, etc. This is particularly true if you are using NVIDIA graphics cards like I am. The NVIDIA drivers are macOS build specific 13. When an update first comes out, it will take a week or three for the NVIDIA drivers to be updated. Hackintoshes come with a bit of a maintenance tag that real Macintoshes do not. It’s a trade off you have to be willing to make.

Recommend?

A qualified yes so far. If you love tinkering, you love the idea of building a computer, of replacing individual parts as they become outdated, and you’re not afraid to dive in and troubleshoot. Yes. Build a Hackintosh. I found it a very fulfilling experience, and I still find it rewarding. If any of that scares you, stay away. Stay far away.

Remember too that, what the future holds for the Mac is uncertain. We’re seeing Apple embrace a path for the Mac with things like the T2 controller that may make future macOS compatibility with Hackintosh systems less tenable. Then again, maybe not. We just don’t know. It’s working great for me right now, and I would do it again.


Update on 12/27/2017 at 11:12am CST: Updated SSD to reflect the one actually purchased. Changed from 250GB to 1TB.

  1. I have a standing desk now for health reasons, given that I work a good bit more than eight hours a day. 

  2. In fact, I’m traveling over New Year and I’m very grateful to have a laptop to travel with. 

  3. I like to spread my work out, okay??? 

  4. Technical term 

  5. The RAM in the iMac Pros is purported to be upgradable, but only by an Apple Authorized service center or Apple itself. There is no RAM door, so you have to take some amount of the computer apart to do it and they are not traditional DIMM slots from what I can glean. 

  6. Though I find the lack of upgradable RAM pretty hard to excuse 

  7. Motherboard for you PC people 

  8. Apple tax, some call it. 

  9. Yes, Sierra. I’m not yet willing to touch High Sierra with a 10 foot pole. 

  10. I think the big difference was the kext kernel patches for making macOS play nicely with the 200 series board. Additionally, the NVRAM option solved some boot trouble I was having. 

  11. I had already disassembled and assembled the build several times at this point and I was just done doing that. 

  12. Probably no small thanks to the killer graphics card I have and the 32GB of RAM. In my monitoring with memory hungry apps I have yet to come anywhere near touching the RAM. 

  13. This is actually not new. At the film company where I used to work, we had a high end NVIDIA card of some kind in the big Mac Pro. Even though it was a legit Mac Pro, because of that aftermarket NVIDIA graphics card, we had to be careful with OS X updates.