The pros and cons of going by the book.
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
I bought a new desk a while ago. My old desk (in the cramped home office I shared with my long-suffering wife) was one I made myself and was chiefly composed of cheap bits of wood and optimism. It was bolted to the wall at elbow height as a sort of glorified shelf, and did it’s job remarkably well. It was, of course, hideous and an appalling travesty, but that rather goes with the territory when considering that it lay squarely in the category of Things Built By A Man With No Skills.
Shame drove me to ultimately unbolt the thing and break it down. Shame and the fact that the wall started to creak ominously, so instead of risking major property damage and marital disharmony I bought a nice standing desk with a motor that makes it go up and down. It’s probably one of the nicest things I’ve ever spent any money on. Unfortunately, buying the new desk lead to a sort of office Renaissance, which included painting the place, putting up art, actually finding places to put paperwork, and reassessing my computer needs. The ancient, wheezing Mac mini (one of a small stable scattered around the place) had started making ominous noises of a one-day-I’m-not-going-to-turn-on nature, so I decided that it needed a replacement.
What I wanted was something with a lot of storage and a decent amount of oomph. Nothing ridiculous – I don’t have any aspirations to do a lot of rendering or power computing – but I do have a huge media library and a lot of documents, VM images and large installers of various sizes and descriptions. A nice new iMac seemed like a good move – but also seemed like staggering amount of money to a man who’d just bought a near-as-dammit thousand dollar desk (still not going to feel bad about that. It goes up and down).
I had a nice screen, and it seemed a shame for that to go to waste. Another Mac mini wasn’t going to cut it either; the new models are hamstrung by their lack of upgradeability and general fussbudgetry, and the new Mac Pros were altogether too much computer for what I needed. Putting one of those on my desk was tantamount to buying a Maserati to make runs to the grocery store.
Apple didn’t make the computer I needed, so I decided that the thing to do would be to make my own. Enter, ladies and gentlemen, the world of Hackintoshes.
There are lots of articles and posts out about how to build a Hackintosh. If that’s what you’re after then you can’t go too far wrong going over to tonymacx86.com and reading some of the guides on what to do and what to buy. There are a dizzying array of options available once you step outside of the Apple sandbox and start bolting together your own hardware, so I’ll just state for the record that I built the equivalent of a really, really nice iMac (except using the screen I had already and putting in two 4TB drives and a 500GB boot SSD) for less than $1100.
The title of this post promised pros and cons, so I’ll get to those now.
You have to do a lot of setup to make the thing work, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Setting aside all the fiddling around with bolting the thing together correctly (which itself involves a lot of research about what bits are compatible with other bits) you’ll probably also end up reading the manual – which is an anathema to the average geek. Motherboards have jumpers and settings and specific foibles and wiring requirements. Said jumpers and settings are usually documented in manuals that have the flavor of being translated from Chinese to English by a Korean gentleman who oversold his English language translation skills to whoever wrote the wretched thing in the first place. As a work of literature you can almost taste the indifference.
Once you’ve got that handled, you also have to create a version of OS X that will actually install and boot the computer. Fortunately there’s excellent documentation on UniBeast and Clover over at tonymacx86.com, but it’s documentation that you have to read carefully.
Once you’ve got it all up and running there are often tweaks. My Hackintosh, for example, would randomly lock up now and again; it turned out that it needed to be persuaded that it was an iMac and not a Mac Pro. Once that was done it went back to working perfectly. Depending on build, hardware and software you may find things that are system-dependent (like sleep) work inconsistently.
Some things don’t work (or work in unexpected ways). Messages – for example – will only work on an Apple machine with a legitimate Apple serial number. There are ways to acquire a legitimate serial number, but they’re all fairly shady. iTunes won’t play DRM-protected video. That doesn’t bother me particularly as I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies on my computer, but it’s a probably a potential deal-breaker for some.
There’s no warranty, and support is limited to the kindness of strangers. If you break something while fiddling around with it then there’s no phone number to call, no returns procedure. You have to figure out the problem and fix it yourself. Okay, maybe this belongs in the “pro” column. Spending a couple of hours tinkering and humming happily over non-functioning computer hardware is pretty much the definition of My Happy Place™.
You have to be very careful with OS upgrades. Most point upgrades (i.e. 10.11.3 to 10.11.4) work fine and require no particular hand ringing. More major upgrades require some research to make sure that the computer isn’t just going to stop working.
You get a heck of a lot of bang for your buck. My Hackintosh has 16GB of fast memory, a quad-core 3.5Ghz processor, a ridiculously overpowered 2GB video card and a 500GB fast SSD. It’s the fastest Mac I’ve ever owned. Frankly I could have shaved a couple of hundred bucks off what I spent on the thing and still had something more than I really needed.
You get a lot of say in what you want configuration-wise. I have a huge old Thunderbolt RAID that I cobbled together from other broken bits of gear, and it sits hooked up to another old Mac mini in a closet doing network backups of everyone’s desktops and laptops. I wasn’t thrilled about pushing nearly 3TB of backups from my desktop over the internal network on a regular basis, so I put the bulk of the data on an internal 7200rpm drive and installed another 5400rpm drive in the thing specifically for doing Time Machine backups of the boot drive and the data drive.
It’s a good machine and a good fit for me. But then again, this is what I do all day long. If you have the time and the inclination (and if you don’t mind spending a certain amount of time and effort doing things like gnashing your teeth and trying to wade through badly-translated boot menu BIOS options) then it’s an inexpensive and productive way of getting exactly the machine you need.
If I’m brutally honest, I think that mostly I like the fact that it looks really good on my new desk. It goes up and down.