Hackintosh 101: How to Build a 4K Editing Machine for Half the Purchase Price of a Mac
Don't buy your next computer, build one with the performance of a Mac Pro—for half the price!
If you’re like me, the data rate of your footage may be multiplying faster than your current computer can handle. Why not build your own upgrade? It worked for me.
As a relative novice to the world of computer builds, practically all I'd done prior to this was install RAM. Putting together my first Hackintosh was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and saved me a heck of a lot of money. If you're interested in doing the same, I've compiled a step-by-step beginner's guide (including a detailed list of components) based on my experience to help you get started your first machine.
Building a Hackintosh (or CustoMac, depending on your vernacular) had been on my mind ever since Ryan Koo posted the original No Film School Hack tutorial a few years back. This past year, I decided to finally do it because: a) my old computer was dying a slow pinwheel of death, and b) I didn't have the budget for a real Mac Pro. I also wanted to have a better understanding, as a video editor, of how my editing machine actually worked. With that in mind, this guide is meant to help you not only choose and build your system, but give you a beginner's primer on how and why everything works. A couple notes from the outset:
Note that it is illegal to sell a Hackintosh. (Remember Psystar?) But building your own is legal gray area. The way Ryan Koo first explained it, building a Hackintosh may violate the End-User License Agreement (EULA) that you agree to when you download Mac OS X. But that’s not a crime that would land you in the clink; it's a contract violation. Just keep in mind that neither Ryan, myself, or any NFS writer is an actual lawyer. Carry on at your own risk.
I enjoy figuring out how to build things from the ground up, and you probably do too, or you wouldn't be reading this. With that being said, deciding on a build and assembling it can be both nerve-wracking and tedious. Why not enlist a partner?
I asked my friend Peter Reinhard to team up with me. Peter is a software developer and SQA analyst who’s built tons of PCs from scratch, but never a Mac. I’d never done a build, but have worked on Mac since Apple IIe—hello, 65 KB of RAM! Not only did having a partner like Peter help tremendously in finishing the build without any catastrophes, it also made the process way more fun.
I. Choosing the Right Parts
What makes building a Hackintosh trickier than a regular PC build? You can’t make one out of any old components—you must use parts that have OSX drivers. Since Mac OS was designed to run exclusively on proprietary Apple parts, most hardware vendors just aren't writing OSX drivers for their hardware. Since drivers are the software that tells the OS how to interact with the hardware, you must seek out parts that have an OSX driver. Tonymacx86 is the hub for all things Hackintosh, and has an amazing selection of supported builds that are always up-to-date. If you want to peruse the plethora of current options, go there.
I’m calling this build Video Editor on a Limited Budget Pro. It comes with a 4.00 GHz quad-core CPU, H170N-WIFI motherboard, EVGA GeForce GTX 970 GPU, and Samsung SSD drive among other things for between $1200-$1500. Parts change all the time, and more importantly, Hackintosh support for parts changes all the time, so it's a good idea to check the Tonymacx86 Buyer's Guide for news on build components. (Recently, support was announced for NVIDIA 'Pascal' cards. Neato.)
And while the components and software may change, understanding the process does not. Here's an introduction to what each part of your Hackintosh does:
The motherboard is in charge of all the communication between the components of your computer. It’s like your computer's nervous system, telling the heart to beat, and the legs to walk.
Mobo for short, this all-important printed circuit board must be compatible with a Hackintosh build because, when you’re fooling software into thinking that it is running on proprietary components, that communication all starts with the Mobo. So whatever else you do, choose one that’s hack-approved!
My build: GIGABYTE Motherboard GA-H170N-WIFI
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) does the bidding of the programs you install on your computer, so the more GHz you can get, the faster you’ll be able to import, cut, apply, render, and export!
Since a Mac Pro’s CPU is pretty similar to a PC version (it’s just a Xeon-branded Intel chip) deciding on a CPU is easy. For comparison, the current entry level MacPro comes with a 3.7GHz Intel Xeon E5 CPU with 10MB L3 cache/Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz. The sixth generation quad-core Skylake Core i7 I went with is a solid choice.
In case you were wondering, GHz is the unit of clock frequency. When you hear people talk about ‘overclocking’ this refers to setting the clock frequency higher so it can perform more operations per second. Cool! Not literally of course, as overclocking makes it quite hot. You'll need a heavy duty CPU cooler either way, but especially if you plan to overclock.
To cool the expensive, gold speckled CPU, you’ll likely use a fan and a heatsink. It’s actually the heatsink (pictured) that’s primarily responsible for moving heat away from the sensitive internal organs of your computer.
The heatsink is usually made of a metal like copper because it’s a great heat conductor. (It can also be made of aluminum, which compromises a little heat conductivity to be more lightweight.) The heat dissipates from the CPU to the Heatsink to the air (or in some cases, liquid) and keeps your whole system from melting off the face of the planet.
My build: ARCTIC Freezer 13 CO (Copper)
A video editor’s best friend, a graphics processing unit (GPU) is designed specifically for handling graphical images, which helps with video workflow. It’s an electronic circuit like the CPU, but with an uber efficient specification of just processing images and graphics.
Note: While the GTX 980 came out shortly before I did my build, I stuck with the GTX 970 because it only 10-15% less powerful than the 980 for a big price difference. Different models go in and out of stock on Amazon and Newegg. Just make sure you have one with ACX 2.0.
My build: EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB ACX 2.0 SC+
An SSD does that same thing as the regular HDD, but it has none of those breakdown-susceptible moving mechanical components. You know those spinning disks on your regular hard drives, the ones you can hear start whirring when you plug them in? They even sound slow. SSDs are quicker, quieter, and more reliable. They can also get expensive, so if you’re on a budget, you may opt to use your SSD strictly for the programs on your computer, and save the rest of your storage needs for a cheaper internal or external HHD.
Note: SSD is getting cheaper everyday!
You’re probably familiar with RAM (Random-access memory) as the kind of memory that makes your computer programs go faster. Random-access means that data can be read or written in the same amount of time no matter where the data is located. It’s the difference between walking through a library with a Dewey Decimal number, versus instantly pulling a book out of thin air the moment you want it. Video editors, in particular those who stay up late to do lots of effects or rendering in third party programs, will want as much RAM as possible.
Note: they come in pairs that add up to the total RAM amount.
Wireless Internet cards, or Local Area Network (LAN) cards, can be a real pain-in-the-butt on a Hackintosh. Macs, unlike PCs, only use very specific Wi-Fi hardware. The WI-FI card that comes on your Motherboard will not work, so you will have to remove the stock card and replace it with one that identifies itself as Apple-branded to the OS. After skeptically ordering a card on Amazon that took two weeks to make it here from China, and then troubleshooting some drivers, my WIFI works great.
Power Supply Unit
This provides the juice. Make sure that your power supply unit meets (or exceeds) requirements specified by video card manufacturer, and have the right connectors for the video card and other peripherals. Also, make sure it fits in the case! (I forgot to check this before ordering; more on that below.)
As with the power supply, make sure your Hackintosh parts will fit inside your Hackintosh case. How do tell? Pay attention to the form factor. Also, double-check the dimensions of your GPU, make sure the case has enough clearance for the CPU heat sink. You'll also want to make sure that the front end connectors (like USB 3.0, USB 2.0, Firewire, etc) match the connectors on the motherboard.
Form factor is a size specification that comes from the Motherboard, and includes dimensions, power supply type, mounting holes, etc. Mini-ITX, mATX, and ATX will be the form factors you’re consider for your Hackintosh. So, for example, if you get a motherboard that’s Mini-ITX, get a power supply and case that are Mini-ITX too. I actually got a power supply that's ATX while my Mobo and case are Mini-ITX (woops) but luckily it fit just fine.
You'll also need a few tools. Here's a list of what to have on hand:
- #2 Phillips Screwdriver: If you want to buy a kit, get one with Allen (hex), Torx, and possibly five-pointed Pentalobe (for use on Samsung SSDs). This bare bones magnetic kit comes highly rated.
- Anti-Static Wrist Strap: While there’s a heated debate on their effectiveness, an anti-static wrist strap is cheap. There’s little risk to using one compared to the bigger risk of not and having invisible static electricity from your body pass through and fry an exposed, expensive piece of hardware.
- 32 Gig USB Drive: For software installation in Part III
- Thermal Material Remover/Purifier and Thermal Paste (Optional but Recommended) When you stick your CPU to the heatsink (CPU cooler), the metal between them is slightly porous. This means little pockets of air can trap heat. To keep your CPU as cool as possible, use thermal remover/thermal purifier followed by thermal paste. (Note: the Thermal Material Remover/Purifier is only needed if the CPU heatsink comes with a thermal pad attached.)
- 3-Prong Parts Retriever (Optional) You will probably drop a screw or two during your build. Save your sanity and get this tool to retrieve it.
- Headlamp (optional) For peering into the depths of your build.
II. Assembling the Hardware
This is the part where you drink caffeinated beverages, tangle your anti-static wrist-strap on everything, and giddily drop miscroscopic screws into dark crevasses of your build. If it's your first computer build ever, this this Wikibooks overview might come in handy. Each part has its own manual, so I won't rewrite the book. While your build may differ from mine, this is more-or-less a foolproof way to put any build together.
1. Open the case and attach the power supply unit.
2. Plug in the power supply unit.
Make sure the PSU power switch is flipped to OFF. Because the outlet in your house is connected to a ground, you will then be grounding your case.
3. Put on anti-static bracelet and attach it to the grounded case.
In theory, any static discharge will go straight into the ground!.
4. Install the I/O shield to the case.
This comes with the motherboard; use it to line up the motherboard and screw it in place.
5. Replace the stock WI-FI card on the motherboard with the Apple-compatible card.
6. Attach the CPU to motherboard.
Lift up the lever of the CPU socket on the motherboard and attach the CPU. Line up the arrows, and pull the lever down to lock CPU into place.
7. Flip you case upright and insert memory RAM into motherboard slots.
8. Wipe off the heatsink.
Use the thermal material remover to wipe off any factory goo called the "thermal pad" on the heatsink, followed by the thermal surface purifier to prep the surface for the new, better Arctic Silver glue.
9. Spread the glue.
Spread a very tiny dab over the surface very, very thinly using a handy-dandy plastic bag finger cover. If you put too much on, it can get onto the CPU socket and cause problems down the road, so the conventional wisdom is to use half of what you think you need!
10. Attach the heatsink to the CPU.
11. Attach the fan to the heatsink and connect fan wire to the motherboard.
12. Attach the GPU to the motherboard.
13. Attach the SSD to the case using rack.
14. Connect all the wires.
Connect all the appropriate wires, including from the SSD, power supply unit, and case to the motherboard. And make sure to connect the power supply to the video card. Missing this is an easy rookie mistake! (Not that I made any rookie mistakes, nope.) Finally, double check the manual to be sure you haven't missed any other connectors.
15. Close the case. Case closed!
III. Running the Software
We’ve got Frankenstein all stitched up. Can we bring this computer to life as a Macintosh? To do it, you need to load up one magic USB drive with a bunch of necessary goodies that will make your non-Mac components work on Mac OS, courtesy of the third party software and additional drivers. Let us take a moment to thank the men and women who have developed this software for specifically for us to use in the creation of a Hackintosh. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The best place to check for up-to-date instructions on getting the most current Mac OS working on your hackintosh is the Tonymacx86 Installation Guide. The lengthy process is explained there quite well, so here I will only briefly list which programs you will be using and why. For my build, I followed Tonymac moderator Ammulder's detailed guide for installing for a build like mine under El Capitan, and later Sierra. Here’s a synopsis of the steps.
- Download Mac OS X from the Apple Store.
- Download everything else from Tony Mac or otherwise as mentioned below.
- Using your USB, follow the steps until every component on your Hackintosh is up and running.
Here is most likely what you will put into your USB drive, and why:
- UniBeast 6.x: a tool that creates a bootable USB drive from any Mac App Store purchased copy of OS X, created by MacMan and tonymacx86. (It can also be used as a rescue boot drive, so keep it around.)
- MultiBeast 8.x : a post-installation tool for configuring Mac OSX on your build, that allows you to boot from your hard drive and install the support for all your peripheral goodies.
- Clover Configurator: a Mac OS X application meant to help Hackintosh automate the start of the system as well as create custom configuration files for the Clover EFI bootloader.
- KextBeast: is an installer for .kext, .bundle, and .plugin files. Wait, what's a kext? It's short for kernel extension, and is basically a driver for Mac. Remember those magical drivers we need to run hardware with Mac OSX? On your Hackintosh, you'll need special kexts to load code to run stuff like sound and ethernet.
For my build, these were the component-specific kexts (Mac OS drivers) and other drivers needed. When downloading, make sure to check for the most recent:
- NVIDIA Driver
- Rehab Man's Inject All
- SSDTs: SSDT-USB-H170N-WIFI.aml
- For HDMI audio on Nvidia cards: Nvidia HDMI Audio SSDT
- Wireless: RehabMan-FakePCIID
- Bluetooth: RehabMan-BcrmPatchRAM
Testing & Troubleshooting
Use your preferred benchmark app to test out your Hackintosh performance. Check everything else. Does WIFI work? Is my GPU selected by default? Will my computer shut down properly? For every problem, there is usually a workaround, driver, or troubleshooting tip on the internet. You may spend several hours to months getting all of the kinks out of your machine.
Congratulations, Doctor Frankenstein!
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve just built yourself a sweet new editing machine and saved at least a thousand dollars in the process. And you’ve probably learned a lot about computers along the way. Congratulations! Time to edit something RAW.
Have you done a Hackintosh build? What components worked (or didn’t) for you? What did you learn? Let us know in the comments.