Kays Alatrakchi examines the pros and cons of running macOS on hacked generic Intel PCs.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since I built my first Hackintosh. Back in 2012, my original “Cheesegrater” Mac Pro was running too slowly and I needed a more powerful alternative for my studio. As a longtime Apple Logic Pro user, a Windows PC was not an option.
I heard through the grapevine that a ragtag group of adventurous programmers had figured out a way to install OS X (now called macOS) on off-the-shelf PC hardware, and my research eventually led me to Tonymacx86. It’s a well-organized and extremely informational website, replete with a buyer’s guide for the most compatible components. It also has a slew of utilities to configure and customize Hackintoshes depending on your needs.
With trepidation and a shopping list of components, I patronized my local Fry’s Electronics (RIP). In the worst case I’d still have had a perfectly functional Windows PC to use as a host for Vienna Ensemble Pro and Pro Tools.
But there are positives and potential negatives to be aware of with Hackinoshes.
Building and configuring a Hackintosh has become considerably easier. There are now many excellent step-by-step YouTube tutorials, user-friendly utilities, a large user group base, and advanced Bootloaders* that strive to run macOS as it runs on a real Mac with minimal modifications.
I have built several Hackintoshes for friends, other composers, editors, and even one for a local theatre here in Los Angeles. While my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, the Hackintosh way is not for everyone.
For starters, installing macOS on non-Apple hardware is a violation of their EULA (End Users License Agreement). While Apple has not shown interest in going after Hackintosh users who aren’t out for commercial gain, neither I nor Synth and Software can officially recommend that you engage in illegal activity.
Even though Hackintoshes tend to be quite stable and reliable, small issues can pop up from time to time that require at least some basic troubleshooting and Google-fu skills. To complicate things further, there is a tendency for tech support people to assume that the issue is specifically related to the Hackintosh, when that might not be the problem.
Along with the many advantages (customization, access to the latest generation of hardware, cost…), there are some disadvantages that musicians and audio professionals need to be aware of.
The main one is Thunderbolt support. While Hackintosh does support Thunderbolt and many motherboards come with built-in ports, getting them working often requires configuring them in Windows before they will work in macOS.
In general, I have found USB audio interfaces and controllers to be very reliable on Hackintoshes. My RME UFX audio/MIDI interface runs great, and so do my NI Komplete Kontrol 88 keyboard controller, NI Maschine, PreSonus Faderport, as well as the iLok dongles.
“Strength to your ARM processor, then.” ― George R.R. Martin (somewhat paraphrased)
And then there’s Apple’s transition to a new family of processors. During 2020’s Worldwide Developers Conference in the midst of the pandemic, Apple announced that it would switch from Intel processors to ARM processors, similar to the ones in iPhones and iPads.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the Hackintosh community. Reliance on off-the-shelf Intel processors has been key to being able to run macOS on non-Apple hardware. By moving to its own custom CPU architecture, Apple would effectively shut down any future possibility of running macOS on anything other than its own hardware.
Was this the end of the road for Hackintosh?
“Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated” – Probably not Mark Twain
While it would seem to be, I have reason to believe that there are many years of life left before it is no longer a viable option.
Apple has released Intel-based Macs as late as the Summer of 2020, and the Very Expensive Mac Pros were only released a couple of years ago. They’re likely to continue releasing macOS and Logic Pro updates for their Intel machines for quite a few years.
In addition, the Hackintosh community has been incredibly clever and resourceful, even figuring out how to run macOS on AMD processors that Apple has never used in its computers. It’s possible that clever use of virtual machines and even off-the-shelf ARM processors will allow Hackintoshes to continue that way.
“One more thing.” — Steve Jobs
There is however another factor that might make a Hackintosh less desirable than an official Mac: ARM processors provide a substantial leap in power and efficiency! The new Apple M1 Macs are fast, consume very little energy, and they run Intel applications almost as fast as native ones. Most importantly, they’re priced well.
Consider that at $699, the latest M1 Mac Mini runs circles around any of its previous Intel incarnations. While at the moment the current hardware does have some limitations that make it less than ideal for today’s audio professionals (namely a maximum limit of 16gb of RAM and 1TB of internal storage), it is only a matter of time before Apple releases new iMacs and Mac Pros with much higher specs.
As a Hackintosh user, this is the first time in almost a decade that I am truly excited about where Apple is headed. My Mac Book Air M1 is a joy to use, and it runs all my music and audio apps fast and efficiently, making it an excellent option for when I’m on the road.
Things change quickly, and the advantages of ARM chips are likely to eclipse the benefits of Hackintoshes sooner than later.
Until then, do I think that building a Hackintosh still makes sense in 2021? Absolutely. The level of customization, upgradability, and cost still make Hackintoshes an attractive option for many musicians and audio professionals.
What is a Boot Loader?
In the simplest of terms, a boot loader is a small application that runs on startup and allows a computer to boot and operate in a particular operating system. It’s what allows macOS to run on a Hackintosh.
In the early days, the boot loader of choice was Chimera. While Chimera worked quite well, it was also a very finicky. macOS updates routinely broke Chimera and required that several components be reinstalled.
A few years later, a better boot loader was created: Clover. Clover improved on reliability and made it compatible with newer versions of macOS, including Catalina and Big Sur. In addition, most macOS updates no longer break the boot loader, making keeping a Hackintosh updated with the latest OS as easy as on a real Mac.
A new boot loader has emerged recently, this one called Open Core. Open Core promises a very much hands-off approach, as it leaves macOS virtually untouched. It boots faster, it’s much more reliable, and is fully compatible with macOS’s latest security features. In addition, Open Core works with AMD processors. This is a notable development, as AMD hardware offers more processing cores than Intel while being very energy efficient.
Boot loaders also allow the ability to install multiple operating systems on the same computer. When starting up, you can choose to boot in macOS, Windows, or even Linux (depending on the OSes you’ve installed).
So you want to build a Hackintosh?
There are plenty of great video tutorials available (see links below), offering step-by-step instructions on how to build and configure a Hackintosh. Here are some insights and considerations that those tutorials might not cover.
Believe it or not, the biggest challenge I encountered when building my first Hackintosh was finding a computer case I liked. Apple’s enclosures are works of art with superb design touches and high quality materials. PC cases by comparison are generally boxy and use mostly plastic or steel.
When searching for a case, it’s important to keep in mind that PC motherboards come in different sizes, and not all cases will be compatible with the motherboard you choose. At the larger end of the motherboard spectrum you will find ATX, which are typically motherboards that can accommodate as many as 6 PCI cards, with plenty of connectors for memory, external drives, and cooling accessories.
Next are Micro-ATX (sometimes known as M-ATX). These are a bit more compact, and while they typically feature most of the same connectors as ATX motherboards, the PCI slots are limited to two or three at most.
Lastly, at the smallest form factor we find the Mini-ITX cases, which are designed for the PC equivalent of a Mac Mini. Mini-ITX will typically have half the RAM slots and a single PCI slot at most.
The motherboard size you end up choosing will have an impact on the available options for computer cases, so keep that in mind and read the specs very carefully, or you might end up with some bad surprises down the line.
Power supplies are another important consideration that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. A 750W supply should be enough for most users, but you should know that the original Cheesegrater (Aluminum) Mac Pro has a 1000W power supply, and the most recent Mac Pro comes with a whopping 1400W one. If you’re planning on using more than a single graphics card or a CPU with a high core count, you might want to go with the most powerful supply you can afford.
Another seldom talked about topic is RAM – how much and how fast should you get? Keeping in mind that most PC motherboards can only accommodate four RAM DIMMS, I’d recommend getting the largest individual DIMMS you can afford.
Most modern motherboards and CPUs can support up to 128GB of RAM. But to max out your RAM, you will need four 32Gb DIMMS. It’s a good idea to buy your memory all at once and from the same manufacturer, as different brands may have slightly different specs.
Cooling is key in order to keep your processor and components running smoothly. I recommend a liquid cooler for your CPU, as it can dissipate heat more efficiently than an air cooler. Your computer case will come with a handful of fans, but chances are they will be fairly noisy, which can be a problem in the studio. Thankfully, low-noise fans are available to help keep your Hackintosh silent.
One of the best features of a Hackintosh for musicians is the ability to use ultra-fast NVME M.2 storage. These solid state drives have insane read/write speeds, and most modern motherboards can support at least one NVME drive (but in some cases as many as three). I use a 1TB NVME drive as my system drive and one 2tb NVME for my most-used sample libraries. This not only makes for an incredibly fast boot up, but loading even the largest sample library is practically instantaneous.
Last but not least, if you do require Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, you should know that most motherboard chips are not compatible with macOS. You will need to purchase a separate PCI card that will give you access to wireless connectivity. Those made by Fenvi use the same chips as Apple, and should provide full compatibility with macOS.
Kays’ current Hackintosh parts list:
Motherboard: GIGABYTE Z390 AORUS MASTER
Power Supply: Corsair HX Series, HX1200, 1200 Watt
CPU Cooler: Corsair Hydro Series H100i PRO RGB AIO Liquid CPU Cooler
Graphics Card: Sapphire Technology 11293-09-20G Radeon PULSE RX 5700 XT
Memory: Crucial Ballistix Sport LT 3000 MHz DDR4 DRAM Desktop Gaming Memory Kit 64GB
Internal Storage: Western Digital 2TB WD Blue SN550 NVMe Internal SSD
Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Card: Fenvi T919 for macOS PC PCI Wifi Card Continuity Handoff BCM94360CD
Silent Fans: Noctua NF-S12A ULN, Ultra Quiet Silent Fan
External links to tutorials and resources:
Technolli – Excellent step-by-step video tutorials on how to build a Hackintosh.
TonyMacX86 – The original web site that started it all.
Dorthania Guides – An invaluable resource for the Open Core boot loader.
Peter Paul Chato’s Channel – A fun tongue-in-cheek Hackintosher with lots of opinions and insights: https://www.youtube.com/c/PeterPaulChato