State of the Hackintosh 2014: A peek into a shadowy subculture of Apple fans

These are the computers Apple never built, and never will — a water-cooled Cube; a teeny-tiny G5; a faux Mac Pro in a trash can.

Oh wait. Apple did the trash can, but not a genuine rubbish bin with a matching toilet brush, like the purple beauty in the Hackintosh gallery above.

These homemade Macs, built from non-Apple hardware, come in a thousand different shapes and sizes, built by legions of dedicated, ingenious hackers. In the nine years since Apple switched to Intel processors, a DIY subculture dedicated to building alternative Mac hardware has steadily grown. It’s not a strictly legal endeavor — Apple’s EULA forbids OS X from running on non-Apple hardware — but Cupertino turns a blind eye to hobbyists.

“You know what? We’ve never gotten anything from Apple other than a few anonymous employees asking for help :),” said Tony, who runs Hackintosh website tonymacx86.com, in an email to Cult of Mac. “It’s clear that tonymacx86.com doesn’t sell hardware. I would think that they’d understand that we are promoting the purchase of OS X and Apple peripherals and laptops, and have zero tolerance for piracy.”

There could be up to 2 million active Hackintosh enthusiasts, according to John, owner of OSX86.net, one of the most popular Hackintosh forums. John, who asked to remain anonymous, based his estimate on the number of registered users on his forum and others like InsanelyMac, tonymacx86.com, Project OS X, OSXLatitude, myHack and Russian site AppleLife.

The scene depends on talented hackers who figured out how to get Apple’s operating system running on unsupported hardware. Even though the Hackintosh subculture is growing, John of OSX86.net says there’s been a lot of attrition. “Only those who are really OS X enthusiasts are still active in the Hackintosh scene today after almost nine years of Hackintoshing,” he said.

Recent developments like Clover, a bootloader that promises to make installation and upgrades much easier, may breathe new life into the hobby. But how does one venture into the Hackintosh world? Here are the latest entry point and trends in the world of DIY Mac hardware.

Installing OS X on a purchased PC

The easiest way to get your hands on a Hackintosh is to install OS X on a prebuilt computer from a manufacturer like Lenovo or Hewlett-Packard. Just run an installer tool like Unibeast, myHack or Kakewalk, add a few drivers, and it should be ready to go. Unibeast is the most popular, but Kakewalk makes things really easy if you have a highly compatible PC. You can get a machine that rivals a Mac for several hundred dollars less.

Note, installing OS X on a purchased PC is still a headache, and it’s not guaranteed the machine — especially if it’s a notebook — will work 100 percent. Some or many things may or may not work, depending on compatibility of the machine’s hardware. And, of course, you get none of Apple’s hardware finesse.

Desktop machines are generally easier, but lots of newer, Intel-based laptops are compatible with OS X. Hewlett-Packard’s ProBook notebooks are a popular choice, costing in the $400 — $600 range. MacBreaker has a good guide to newer laptops and OS X Mavericks. Some notes on laptop compatibility can be found here.

Netbooks used to be popular machines for hacking but seem to have fallen out of favor because of their limited functionality and general crappiness. MyMacNetbook has a fairly comprehensive compatibility chart of what works and what doesn’t.

Building a custom rig

The biggest problem building a custom machine is researching what hardware is compatible and then locating a simple, easy-to-use guide. It’s not the only place (there are lots of guides on the forums above), but TonyMacx86 has a good starter’s guide and publishes monthly Buyer’s Guides.

“It’s easier to start from a motherboard and work out from there,” said Tony. “We tend to keep it simple and make sure all of the stuff we recommend in our monthly Buyer’s Guide are the easiest and best supported options.”

A perennially popular project is to build a powerful substitute for the fastest Mac available, which right now is the Mac Pro. Earlier this month we featured a hot-rod Hackintosh that’s claimed to be as fast as a Mac Pro but costs about $1,500 less. It’s got a Geekbench score of 17,764, which is better than a similarly configured Mac Pro (but not as good as the really high-spec ones).

hackinbeast_tower_2

In September 2012, the HackinBeast was one of the fastest Macs on the planet with a GeekBench score of 36,918.

Based on a pair of Intel Xeon X5690 CPUs, the machine’s total cost was $4,500. That’s less than half the price tag for an equivalent 2012 Mac Pro, which would have cost more than $10,000 and topped out with a Geeekbench score of 25,000.

“It took me from January 2012 to Sept 2012 (a total of nine months); the same amount of time it takes to have a child,” wrote its maker, PunkNugget.

Some of the fastest machines are likely to be based on x79 boards with Ivy Bridge E or Sandy Bridge E chips (MacPro 2013-like CPUs) such as this Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge machine and this one built into an old PowerMac G4 case.

Intel NUCs and tiny, prebuilt desktops

One of the latest trends is building a Hackintosh from a micro PC, a teeny-tiny Intel NUC not much bigger than an Apple TV. There are several on the market, sold as kits that include a motherboard, CPU, case and a small external power brick. Owners have to add a solid-state drive and RAM. Because the micro PCs are so small, they tend to be underpowered compared to bigger desktop machines. But what they lack in computing power, they save in electrical power: Most draw less than 100 watts.

“Extremely small form factor micro-PC kits are gaining steam,” said Tony, who built a Hackintosh from a Gigabyte BRIX Pro mini PC.

Adding AMD to the mix

AMD is Intel’s big rival in the chip business, but because OS X’s kernel (the heart of the operating system) is designed to run on Intel chips, AMD-based machines have largely been locked out. However, recently a handful of “great developers” have been bringing their attention to the issue, said OSX86.net’s John.

“There is great progress at the moment with AMD development,” said John. “AMD users are getting close to have an almost 100 percent working Hackintosh.”

It’s “a good thing,” he added. Here’s a video of Mavericks booting on AMD. “Fast booting (and) butter-smooth performance in Mavericks!!” wrote DeeKay Goswami on OSX86.net.

Easier than ever with Clover bootloader

The Clover bootloader is another big development. A bootloader is a piece of software that loads the operating system. For Hackintoshes, a good bootloader to load OS X on a mishmash of non-Apple hardware has long been a Holy Grail. Clover is a new EFI-based bootloader that’s more comprehensive and easier to use than previous ones. With Clover, hackers can perform a system Software Update without worrying about overwriting custom drivers (impossible in the past), or use Apple’s unmodified installer because Clover can perform patches on the fly.

For example, to make custom hardware (such as a video card) work, the Device ID had to be added to a KEXT file (a kernel extension that basically acts as a driver for OS X). After a Software Update, the ID has to be added again if the update altered the kernel. But with Clover, the patching of the KEXT file can be done on the fly.

Open source and free, Clover “makes the final trick to have our Hackintoshes almost 100 percent equal to a real Mac,” John said.

Classic Mac conversions

By far the most popular Hackintosh project is updating a classic Apple machine — adding new guts to an older case. See the gallery for notable examples.

Apple’s design is often timeless, and users have upgraded every machine from late 1980s classic Macs to the latest Mac minis.

This is the world’s first water-cooled Cube — or so it’s claimed. Made by prolific modder, minihack, it’s based on the iconic PowerMac Cube, which has gone down in history as Apple’s hardware failure. Yet the Cube is still beloved by many. The hack required a ton of customizing, including the world’s shortest water-cooling loop, which is about an inch.

Also popular are Apple’s towers with latched sides that open up the case for full access to the insides. Not only are the cases distinctive, the doors make customizing them very easy.

This is a water-cooled PowerMac G5. The coolant loop includes three beefy fans to dissipate heat. The original G5 ran so hot it had nine fans.

“I’ve always loved the style of the PowerMac G5 enclosure,” wrote it’s creator, MrAhlefeld.

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About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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