Making a Macintosh with off the shelf PC parts….for a fraction of the cost.
Before I get into this computer building saga, I want to say a word of warning. Unless you are a very technical person who knows how to navigate a basic PC BIOS (motherboard OS) or how to swap out some computer code or know some specifics about piecing together a computer from scratch, I suggest getting help. Even though I am a pretty technical person, and I have built a Hackintosh before, I still needed help. Even after getting help with the first Hack, I still needed help. A lot of it was advice on parts, but the vast majority was in installing the modified OS, and making sure that everything in the BIOS was set for the computer to work. Yes, there are step by step instructions online, but some of these assume you have some basic assembly skills, and BIOS knowhow and a bit of troubleshooting chops. I had that, but still needed help. So if you intend to do this, I suggest you find someone who has done this before, or someone who is technical enough to help decipher what some of the code and tech lingo means. I could not have done this without the gracious help, and patience, of Stefan Avalos and Patrick SheffieldThe reasons will become clear as the saga unfolds.
My old tower is a 2008 MacPro, 16GB of RAM, with a decent graphics card (great for certain older applications). But it’s 2016, and the machine is 8 years old, ancient in computer terms. But it has served me well. Lately I’ve been relying on my 2012 MacBook Pro when cutting in my home office. And I have fully decked it out with 16GB of RAM and two internal SSD drives. It does well too, but really only with Avid Media Composer and simple Resolve and Adobe projects. Since most of the jobs I do in my home office are online and color grading, and I’ve been getting more and more into Davinci Resolve, even this laptop is getting long in the tooth, it’s only four years old, and it still has some life left in it, but forget trying to do 4K with it. And I have several 4K projects on the horizon.
So I need a new computer.
One big stumbling block in this quest for a new computer is that I am a die hard Mac user. I have been since I bought my first computer in 1991. I’ve only owned one PC, and it was solely for gaming. But Apple is fairly behind in their professional line of desktops. The latest MacPro came out in 2013…it is THREE years old. One year younger than my laptop. Sure, the latest iMac came out in Oct, 2015, but I have issues with the expandability of the model. BOTH models to tell the truth. Neither one allows one to swap out the GPU for a better one…one more suited for Resolve and Adobe Premiere Pro. Neither one allows for more internal drives to be added. Neither one allows me to be able to install any sort of card to add ports like eSATA or Fibre or SAS or an internal capture card without using an external box. Apple is dropping the ball on the professional computer needs for video post, this much is clear.
So what about the other option? A PC running Windows. And yes, there are great computers out there for this…the HP line is especially popular, and a solid choice. You can get a decent machine for $2900 and put in one or two very high end graphics cards, as well as additional hard drives. And they can go to upwards of $5000 to $7000. These are decent prices for companies or individuals that use them all the time, and have rental income on them year round. I don’t, I do projects here and there. And have small budgets.
But I have another issue…most of my clients require specific video codec (ProRes) exports…something Windows machines can’t encode (Apple made it…so they are very protective). They are either coming from Apple editing apps and need either to be round tripped, or they need ProRes Quicktime exports to meet network delivery requirements. So if I went with a PC, I’d have to keep an old Mac around to convert the exports (my MacBook Pro will do that). It’s a BIG issue on Windows, as recently Apple announced that it would stop supporting Quicktime on Windows altogether, so just having it installed is an issue. But this would also mean double encoding and risking losing quality and having colors shift.
This had me looking at Apple options. I spoke to many people and they said that interesting enough, the Retina iMacs were more stable with applications I was leaning towards using (Resolve and Premiere Pro) than the late-model MacPro. And there were reports of graphics cards issues on the MacPro…an issue so bad that Apple offered a repair program for it. Many people recommended that I get the best iMac there is, and maxed out with everything…better processor, the most RAM it could get, best graphics card offered. I priced that out and it came to be $4200. And any expansion, as I said, is all external, which means a more cluttered workstation. And very VERY limited graphics card options.
That got me to thinking…what about a Hackintosh? (That’s a computer built with off the shelf computer parts that runs the Mac OS…one that’s been modified a little to work with these components) I’ve built one before. And I have a couple friends to have also done this before, quite a few times. They have built multiple systems for themselves and others..Hackintosh models that they use professionally, for years. So I got to looking into that option.
NOTE…in order to build a Hackintosh need to get very specific computer components that have been tested to work properly with the modified Mac OS. I set about researching this starting with the go-to site for this,
And see posts of people’s success stories, and what components they’ve used…as well as failure stories where they explain why certain OS versions or certain hardware components don’t work. So it’s a good place to see what to do, and what not to do.
In looking for a basic motherboard, I found one that many people used…it has two Thunderbolt 2 and lots of USB 3 ports, and it one of the MacPro build options. The issue was that it was a couple years old, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. When I looked for more current motherboards, I found some with Thunderbolt 3, but people said that when they built their hacks with them, the TB3 wouldn’t work. The MacOS doesn’t have drivers for that yet…one place where Apple is falling behind in tech that IT introduced. I found the other components I wanted, but without that motherboard that has Thunderbolt 2…I was stalled.
So I set about saving up money for that iMac, or one of the PC options. And just when I was about to do that, I started chatting with Stefan about this (one of the hack makers), and he was trying to convince me to make the hack (one thing he said was “friends don’t let friends use Windows!) . And he was able to look up a couple builds and track down the board I needed.
I ordered a Motherboard ($140), RAM ($183), Processor ($340), Processor Cooling ($40), Graphics Card ($389), solid state hard drive ($158), Case ($120), and Power Supply ($110)…and tax/shipping for all of this was $130.65 So the total cost of all the parts was $1593.65. Less than half the price of the iMac, and four times cheaper than the MacPro (it can be equipped with slightly faster processors, and it has dual GPU…down the line I intend to add another GPU) I already owned the two 23” displays, keyboard, mouse, and Thunderbolt 2 Bridge. And this configuration doesn’t include a wifi card or capability. Patrick (the other helpful guy) had a wireless ethernet receiver that he had sitting unused, so he gave that to me. Otherwise, you’d either need to get one, or have the ability to connect your internet router directly to the computer.
The processors in build is more on par with the high end iMac. If you configure it, you can equip it with an 4.0Ghz i7, which is the same general model I purchased. But mine can turbo boost to 4.4Ghz, where it caps off at 4.2Ghz. And while it is called a QUAD CORE processor, it has 8 threads, so essentially an 8 core processor. As for the MacPro, those processors are called 6-core, 8-core and 12-core, but from research I can see that Apple disables hyperthreading in them. Don’t get me wrong, they still will out-perform the processor I have….but I’m also not shelling out what it costs for those machines, and their iffy GPUs.
I ordered all the parts…the fun was about to begin.
“Are there supposed to be two of these?” My wife texts me at work. “I thought you were only making one of these.”
On Friday the parts for the computer arrived. And apparently something happened with the order, as TWO computer cases arrived. So my wife, who knew I was building ONE computer was confused, as TWO arrived. Actually, I know what happened. I ordered several things from Amazon and they all cleared, but the order for the case for some reason needed validation from my bank. I answered all the bank questions, but got one wrong, so they declined the order. So I ordered from another source (manufacture direct) and that order cleared. And then unbeknownst to me, the other order cleared too and the item shipped…although the notification for that didn’t arrive until it already arrived on my doorstep. OK, no problem…I’ll return one of them. But this seemed to be an omen of things to come…
So, here it was, Friday night and all my stuff arrived. Time to assemble the computer! My buddy Patrick wanted to come over for that so after dinner he arrived and we set to building the computer. I had to put a few things on the board before I put it in the computer. First thing to do is the processor. So Patrick made sure that I bought some good thermal paste, for the connection of the processor to the cooling fan. Both Patrick and Stefan said that I needed to get a good cooling fan, as the one provided was…well…lacking is the term. As you can see, the difference is huge.
If this baby was going to deal with high end video (including 4K), it would kick into TURBO mode, and for that, it needed really good cooling. So I put the processor in place, wiped it clean with an alcohol wipe (that Patrick brought with him in his “Hackintosh kit”) applied thermal paste, spread it with a small spatula (provided with the paste) and screwed everything into the motherboard. Then I went to install the RAM… Wait. Where’s the RAM? Dammit! The RAM didn’t arrive. I look at my web orders and sure enough, I FORGOT TO ORDER RAM! Lordy. No worries, in Patrick’s Hack kit there were 2x4GB sticks and 1x8GB stick of RAM that we used for this install. Install those, go online to order RAM. OK, whew. So we inserted them and then mounted the motherboard into the case. OH…I should mention that when I found that the motherboard was available, I ordered it right away, before anything else. because I knew it was in short supply. And Patrick ordered one too, for when he was going to upgrade his machine. His arrived quickly, mine did not. After two weeks I emailed to ask about it, and they responded, apologized, and got one out to me ASAP, and included a “goody bag” of a few neat items (alas, not RAM, like I hoped, given my current situation).
Then came time for the power supply. Installed that, and then with all the power cords that came with it, set about plugging them into the power unit, and then into the motherboard. Then I plugged various cables onto the motherboard for power, the Power LED light, the FANs, the USB connectors, audio connectors. This I had done before, having made a hack before. But when I first did it, Patrick was a great help. I’d have been a bit lost in the manual on this…or slowed down a bit. But I soon got things into place. And connected the hard drive power to the power supply as well.
So I had this 2.5″ Solid State drive for my main system drive, and it doesn’t fit into the standard 3.25″ drive bay, not without an adapter. I knew this and had ordered one with all the rest of the stuff. But it was cheap and plastic ($4) and it broke in a couple places. Joy. But that’s when I discovered that the case I ordered appeared to come with some sort of mount on the other side of the case where I put the motherboard. Patrick figured out that that’s where one can mount two SSD drives. COOL! That meant that I’d have more room in the three 3.25″ drive bays for three SATA drives I had. Perfect
OK, I now had everything installed and was ready to install the Mac OS! We were going to install Yosemite, as it was the best one for this specific setup.
Now…one doesn’t simply install the OS that Apple has. Oh my no. You need to go to the Tonymac site and download one of their modified installers, and follow their specific install guides (brilliant coders modify the install to work with certain off the shelf parts, thus why you follow a guide for what to buy). I followed this one for Yosemite and made an install flash drive. This is the one Stefan recommended as rock solid, and the one he used to make several Hacks. And it was very similar to the one I used the first time I made one. BUT, first things first, we need to modify things in the BIOS (that’s the motherboard OS) before we install. turn off certain things, enable others. It’s all in that guide.
So I did all that…correction, Patrick did all that…
And we modified things and started the boot! We did it in what is called VERBOSE MODE, meaning it shows all the code as it starts up. So you can see what process is happening. So if something bad happens, or the install fails, you can see why.
What I found fascinating about this is that this code was filled with very casual conversation instructions. “THE TIMEOUT KEY IS NO LONGER RESPECTED. IT NEVER DID ANYTHING ANYWAY.” “THIS KEY DOES NOT DO ANYTHING, PLEASE REMOVE IT.” “THE HIDEUTILCHECKIN UTILITY IS AN ARCHITECTURAL ISSUE. PLEASE TRANSITION AWAY FROM IT.” Can you believe that? POLITENESS! IN THE CODE! “Please’s” all over the place. And while this is the modified installer, all of this code is actually the real installer…this is code from Apple.
Ok, we see that code for a while and then it stops. And stayed stopped. It was hung. It did say something about the NVIDIA driver, so hmm. A bit of research on that and we found a post on Tonymac where someone had a similar issue. They solved it by Typing some code in the install options to disable the NVIDIA driver.
So we did that…and it froze again. Hmmm. Well, let’s look in the BIOS…did we miss something? No, not that we can see. Let’s disable THUNDERBOLT, just in case. We try that. Nothing. Patrick was prepared for this, and in his Hack kit he had a different installer, one that he made based on instructions from another site. So we try that one. Freeze. Hmm…let’s disable a couple things. Freeze. DRAT. The drive isn’t formatted yet, perhaps that is it. It was something I planned to do when we were in the install screen. So I mount it in a drive doc and connect that to my laptop. I format the drive MacOS Extended, and put it back into the Hack. Boot…freeze. Well, OK then. Stumped. And by this time it’s midnight and we have things to do in the AM. I’ll research more and he will, and Stefan will (I was keeping him in the loop via Skype) and we’d tackle it later.
THE NEXT DAY.
Saturday afternoon arrives…and so does my RAM. Wow…that was fast. I just ordered it the night before, at like 10 PM. Crucial seems to be giving AMAZON a run for it’s money in terms of delivery speed. OK, I install that RAM and make another install drive, based on another site. I try booting that and…boom, the computer restarts. Odd. I try again. The computer gets so far, and then restarts. Damn. I try another method. That one too restarts the computer. Patrick was busy today, but Stefan was available, so he drove over with HIS install flash drive. The one that he knew was bullet proof, and what he used to make his Hacks. So he arrives and takes over the command chair. He looks at the BIOS, adjusts a few things, and then boots off the flash drive.
We watch the process..it goes…goes…then the code goes away and I see a white screen! Wait, something is happening. I lean forward looking at the screen…this is truly a LEAN FORWARD moment.
BOOM! THE INSTALL SCREEN! YES YES YES! OK, let’s install this. We start the installer, it starts installing. YAY! OK, this is working. I must have messed something up on my end with the installer. 13 Min remaining….11, 10, 9…black screen. What? Then the BIOS popped up again. DAMN, restarted. install failed. What? OK, so we try again, but we need for format the drive first, as it has a partial install on it. So we go to the Disk Utility and go to wipe the drive…erase failed…couldn’t dismount the drive. Try again, same message. Try to just partition the drive…failed, couldn’t unmount. So we google the issue. One solution was to use TERMINAL to do the wipe. We try…fail. Damn. Well, I had to format it with my computer. So I do that, put it back into the Hack. Try the install again. 13, 12, 11…REBOOT.
Stefan starts googling and reading about similar events. Finds some post on an Apple forum about this. One suggestion is that the SATA cable might be bad. STUPID solution, but what the hell. So we swap out the cable. Boot the installer, go to wipe the drive…IT WORKED! BAD CABLE! YES, that was the issue! We run the installer again. 13, 12, 11…reboot.
DAMMIT. OK, what is this? Disabled the NVIDIA card, hmmm..is the RAM I ordered bad? I take it out, put back in the RAM Patrick bought. Reboot, reformat the drive, start the install. 13, 12, 11…reboot. Crap. OK, let’s unplug the Nvidia card and plug the monitor directly into the motherboard DVI. 13, 12, 11…reboot. CRAP! Ok…it was 1AM, and I started a job the next day and needed to get up early. And Stefan needed a break too. This perplexed us both…these are solid installs.
TWO DAYS LATER
Monday. After work I get home to a package. RAM. Yup, MORE RAM arrived. This was actually the RAM I ordered when I realized that I didn’t order RAM. Only I DID order RAM, it just invoiced separately (this happens on Amazon, apparently…happened with the CASE too). So now I had two orders of RAM. OK…guess I need to RMA this. But…let me try it in the computer first. After dinner Patrick came over with an installer that he made custom for this build, using yet another method. Same base installer as before, but more modifications. Install the new RAM… fiddle with the BIOS, boot the installer…fiddle with boot options…then go to install. Get to the installer, reformat the drive, run the installer. 13, 12, 11, 10, 9….8. I LEAN IN AGAIN! This one is going to work it’s going to…
DAMMIT! We both curse and hit the desk at the same time. We thought for sure this would do it. But alas. So more fiddling, more install attempts. No go. This just wasn’t working. And it was getting late again, the kids school started tomorrow, and I needed to be up at 5:30, so Patrick offered to take my machine. I take the RAM out and set about RMAing it. He takes my machine and I bid him farewell.
Patrick texts me in the evening. “Dude. Bad news.” Uh oh. “I literally disconnected one computer, put yours in its place and hooked up keyboard and monitor, pressed power, the light flickered and nothing, then I smelt burnt electronics.” CRUD! The computer is fried! NUTS! “I suspect power supply, but I have to open the case and test.” Actually it was his son that first discovered the smell. “Dad, why does it smell like that?” And he quickly unplugged the machine. I had a question for him. “Don’t happen to be missing your glasses are you?” “Um. Yes…” “Well, I have some bad news too…”
I found them in the street near where he parked his car. BUT, they were cheap reading glasses so it wasn’t horrible news. It wasn’t a fried computer.
Patrick bought a power supply tester and tested my power supply. It tested good. OK, so it wasn’t the supply that sizzled. That meant that it was something else…the motherboard. Great. BUT…do you recall early on that I said that he bought an identical board? That evening he was nice enough to take apart the computer, unplug all the power and computer connections, take the board out, take out the processor, clean it off, and reinstall it and the heat sink and all the connections to his motherboard.
Can you guess what happened next?
“Dude! I transferred your CPU and memory (cleaned the CPU of all heat sink compound and re-applied). Mounted it in your case, hooked all the cables. Went with internal gfx to start and adjusted the BIOS settings, put in your SSD, and booted and bam! It all worked. No glitches or errors, ran Cinebench just fine. Of course the internal GPU is only 24 fps as opposed to 124 for the Nvidia, but damn. It all worked.”
img src=”http://www.littlefrogpost.com/pictures/Amphibi-Hack_BootScreenBlack.PNG” alt=”” />
IT WORKED! The damn thing worked! It was the motherboard…the whole time it was the flipping motherboard. This is actually something that Stefan said might be the issue. This install not working didn’t make any sense, and with the amount of troubleshooting we made, he was fairly certain it was the motherboard. “Get an RMA for that motherboard, it’s clearly bad.” Patrick messsaged. “You can smell the burnt electronics on it.”
The machine boots just like a Mac, Apple load screen and all…
And there you have it. The Saga of the Amphibi-hack. ALL of this trouble installing things, all of the issues and errors, and it was the motherboard. Some flaw in it caused the install to fail. The next day Patrick brought it back, and I hooked everything up and it booted just fine. And QUIET too (it is a QUIET case). It’s running 10.9.5, and I was able to install Avid Media Composer 8.6.0, Resolve 12.5 and even FCP 7 and DVD Studio Pro. I haven’t gotten around to installing Premiere Pro yet. I let my subscription lapse as I don’t use it for anything yet, I have CS6 on my laptop and use that for quick family videos. I hope to install it soon.
And, as you can see, doing all of this required help. If this were a smooth install, were the motherboard a good one, the initial installer would have worked fine, and I would…should…have been able to do this fine on my own. The instructions are pretty clear on what BIOS settings to adjust and what boot options to enable and disable. But man, when things go wrong, it’s nice to have someone who knows better at your side. Even better, two.
So yes, I deem this a worthy venture and I have a very nice new computer…EXPANDABLE computer…to work with (note the three internal SATA drives…and remember, the SSD is on the other side). And thus far it’s running gangbusters. And the Hacks my friends made all work great too, and are their primary work machines. So if you want to embark on this adventure, I encourage it. It helps build ones technical knowledge and gets you invested in your computer. But I do advise you try to find someone to help out, if you can. Because as you can see…shit happens.