So eight years ago, Macworld columnist Rob Griffiths decided to take a stab at building an unofficial Mac clone. With Apple’s switch to Intel processors in 2006, it seemed logical that you could do such a thing, take generic PC parts and somehow induce them to run Apple’s OS, and many have tried. Rob called his completed computer a “FrankenMac.” Overall it worked, well mostly, but the setup process required lots of babysitting and false starts.
But that was early in the game. Over the years, building a Hackintosh has become easier to manage, largely because there are online communities that specialize in testing PC hardware of compatibility and devising the best ways to install macOS. So if you choose the recommended hardware, you stand a decent chance of building a mostly usable computer.
I say mostly, and you’ll see why in a moment. You see, the big problem is that macOS is tightly integrated with a specific number of Macs with certain hardware configurations. Where you have the option — and it’s one not often available anymore — you can install third-party RAM and maybe even a third-party drive. None of that should present a compatibility problem.
But when it comes to using third-party motherboards, processors, graphics cards and other parts, all bets are off. That the process works at all might be a near-miracle. But when you consider the limitations — and I’ll get to them shortly — why should you bother?
Now Rob hit a wall with his current Mac, a Late 2014 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display when he tried to run his favorite game, X-Plane flight simulator. You might not believe it, because, when well equipped, it’s actually a powerhouse for the most part. But Rob encountered subpar frame rates, from “decent to slow.” Worse, the iMac’s cooling fan accelerated to full speed — and it’s audible — whenever the app was running.
Now I sort of feel his pain. I just added a YouTube channel for my other radio show, The Paracast, and I prepare the content in iMovie, combining an illustration with the audio file. The process creates a multi-gigabyte file that, at the start of the Share process, sends my iMac’s fan roaring at full speed. After the initial encoding process, it quiets down.
The real problem I confront is relatively slow upload speeds, and that won’t change until I live in a place where I can actually set up a regular ISP. This housing complex offers “amenity Internet,” meaning adequate, at 15 megabits down, and 3 megabits up. It’s all right most of the time, and Netflix streams are pretty solid, but there’s no hope for 4K. But since I don’t have a 4K set, it doesn’t matter.
Bob recounts his Hackintosh installation in a Macworld article, and I recommend you pay close attention to the problems he encountered if you hope to use one of these boxes to replace a work Mac.
You’ll see what I’m getting at in a moment.
Now the biggest problem for Rob was the fact that Apple’s choice of graphics cards in that Late 2014 iMac was more about pushing millions of pixels, but not pushing them fast enough. The top-of-the-line for this model is an AMD Radeon R9 M295X with 4GB video RAM. The most powerful and expensive component for Rob’s Hackintosh was an NVIDIA GeForce GTX N-1080 graphics card, which sold for $550 at Amazon. It helps that NVIDIA had the good sense to release Mac drivers, which serve two types of customers. One is using an older Mac Pro, before 2013, when you could easily swap out the graphics card, and, of course, a Hackintosh builder.
The good part is that, after his new computer was set up, Rob reported an improvement of 70% in frame rates over his iMac, and the graphic card’s three cooling fans didn’t intrude. All told, Rob spent $1,567 on parts, but it required countless hours trying to make this faux Mac run almost acceptably.
He got it working to the point where he could play his favorite game reliably. But that’s where it ended.
Routine macOS functions, however, were hit or mess.
“After way too many hours of effort, I have given up on making my Hackintosh my every day Mac. I never got Messages working. My audio works until the machine sleeps, then it won’t work until I reboot. Sometimes the machine won’t even wake from sleep. Handoff and Continuity do work…sometimes (but hey, that’s no different than a “real” Mac!). I never got iTunes protected video to play. And on and on goes the list of “little things.”
But even before you decide to give it a try, prepare to have lots of patience. All of the debugging required even to get a basic subset of functions to operate requires plenty of work, and you’ll confront roadblocks along the way that may never be solved. Obviously, Rob is still going to hold onto his iMac.
That said, maybe Rob’s best move now is to consider buying the 2017 version of the iMac. According to some of the benchmarks I’ve read online, it’s graphics card, an AMD Radeon Pro 580, using the Polaris architecture, soars way past its2014 and 2015 counterparts. It may well be fast enough to satisfy Rob’s needs, assuming he is willing to sell off the computers he has.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got enough money for his 2014 iMac, and his Hackintosh, to cover that purchase of a new computer. Rob: What do you think?