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Building a Mac Pro Hackintosh for $1000

By December 31, 2013 awesome, building, diy, misc., software

So, here’s something really exciting, a GUEST POST! Today’s guest author is Jonathan Forby, an extremely good friend and business partner of mine, and the designer of the ILTMS logo! Enjoy! – Bob


“How hard could it be?” That’s where this all started. This was the question on my mind as I found myself in need of a new computer. I’ve built my own PC before but I’ve worked almost exclusively on a Mac for the past 5 years. After reading up on the various successes and pitfalls of building your own Hackintosh computer, I decided to go ahead and build a powerful dual-boot Mac/PC with a goal of under $1,000.  Apple’s Mac Pro refresh may still be a rediculously impressive machine, but for enthusiasts who want to get their hands dirty and save a good amount of money, building your Mac Pro Hackintosh can still be a great option.

Why?

While Apple can charge a premium for beautiful construction and design, it’s not always in the budget. I wanted a workhorsea machine that could handle a variety of graphics applications from Photoshop to After Effects to Cinema 4D or Blender rendering. As a side bonus, this machine should also be able to handle most modern computer games with relative ease. No more laptop gaming on medium-quality settings!

Another draw to building your own machine is really knowing your hardware. Each configuration has it’s own little battles to fight and complications to figure out. If you stick with it, by the end you’ll really know what’s in your system and how you can maintain it and upgrade it in the future. The hackintosh community is extremely active with tons of users with similar ambitions and specs.

There are a lot of posts around the internet that can show you how to assemble each piece of the machine, or each step in the software installation.  Each build will be different, so for the sake of brevity I will only briefly describe each step in the process to give you a starting point of reference and scope for this type of build.

Parts

All the partsAn easy place to start is the monthly buyer’s guide from tonymacx86.com. I used the August 2013 guide and it had great starter configurations for many budgets. With the guide and some research, I ended up with this part list:

Processor Intel Xeon E3-1230 V2 3.3GHz Quad-Core
Motherboard Asus P8Z77-V LK
RAM 16 GB (2×8) G.Skill Ripjaw DDR3-1600
Graphics Card EVGA GTX 580 3GB
Hard Drives Sandisk Extreme 120GB SSD
Seagate Barracuda 1TB HDD
Power Supply Corsair CX 600W
Case Fractal Design Define R4 (Arctic White)
Accessories Rosewill RNWD-N9003PCe Wifi Adapter
IOGEAR Bluetooth 4.0 USB Micro Adapter

I already owned several external components like a monitor, mouse, keyboard and speakers, which definitely helped to keep the cost down and allowed me to go for a more expensive GPU. You can also use PCPartPicker.com to price out your components with different online retailers and even searches for current rebates and promotions. Between PCPartPicker and Ebay, I had all of my components ready to install.

I went with the Xeon processor because I had read that it offered comparable performance to the i7 with a lower price tag since it doesn’t incorporate integrated graphics. The EVGA graphics card would be handling all of the video work, so I didn’t figure integrated graphics would be important.

The EVGA card is a few generations old, but was a beast in it’s heyday and still holds up pretty well. I was able to find it used on ebay for a great price. It’s also highly rated for use with Blender’s Cycles rendering engine which depends on the CUDA cores on the card. I was getting a little tired of 3 hour renders that could easily take a minute with this card 🙂

I own some games that are only available on PC, so I decided to dual-boot this machine with Windows and OSX. The SSD would be split in half for the two system drives, and the 1TB drive would also be divided up for document space on each system.

For the case, I chose the R4 for it’s clean lines, minimal accents and FRONT DOOR. I chose not to install an optical drive, so there would be no need for all of the front bays. This case also has sound-dampening material lining the walls and pretty good ventilation. And it doesn’t look like a futuristic fighter jet.

Assembly

MotherboardOnce all of the parts arrived, it was time to put it all together. I highly recommend investing in an extra set of cable ties. There are usually some included with the motherboard, but it helps to have more in case you need to reposition your cables.

PC assembly isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Almost every component plug has a corresponding and unique socket.  It’s a puzzle. You may need to read a manual or two, but it’s mostly a matter of attaching a component or card to the motherboard and then connecting one or two cables to power it.

Motherboard First

With the motherboard out, start by installing the CPU and the CPU heatsink. Next plug in the RAM in the correct slots on the motherboard. Next you can usually install the motherboard into the PC case with the small risers that are included with your board. Once that is in, you can begin to install the cards that will take up the PCI slots, like the graphics card and wifi card. Hard drives will usually be mounted in the front bay slots with cables running to the motherboard (for data) and PSU (for power).

PSU and GPU

GPU and Power Supply

Next the power supply can be installed (sometimes it needs to go in first depending on the case configuration). This will have several cables to power all of the components. Usually one will connect to the motherboard and the rest to the graphics card, drives and fans. There will also be some wires to connect from the case to the motherboard to make sure that the USB, case power and lights work.

Ram and CPU Installed, connecting front panel

Ram and CPU Installed, connecting front panel

That’s a simple run-through but it’s basically all that it takes. Make sure you’re organizing and tying your cables down as you go. It will help keep the space clear to work and will help with air flow in the case as it’s running.

Startup

So we have a computer, but we need to install the operating systems to make it run. I took two USB drives and installed both Windows 7 and OSX Mountain Lion on each in preparation for the install. The first step was to make sure the BIOS was set up correctly, which is the Motherboard’s own settings system and handles stuff like CPU speed and startup order. I had a few settings to tweak to make sure that my RAM was being read correctly. This BIOS was exceptionally easy to use, with native mouse support and easy navigation, setup was a breeze.

The first step was to split the system drive into two parts. OSX has a very easy utility for this included in their Install image. Restarting the computer with the OSX USB drive starts the OSX setup. Since this hardware isn’t a configuration that OSX would typically like, I used UniBeast from tonymacx86. This helps you create a bootable USB drive from your OSX installation while including many files that get the system working on your hardware. After starting UniBeast into the OSX Setup, I used Disk Utility from the top menu to format the SSD into a Mac OSX Extended (Journaled) and a NTFS partition.

Windows

Windows

Now that we have designated areas for each system, I restarted with the Windows 7 USB key to start the Windows setup. I had to select “Custom” for the installation type and format the NTFS partition that I had just created for windows. After that, possibly thanks to the speed of USB3 and the SSD, the installation took all of 9 minutes. After a few minutes of trackign down drivers for the graphics and wifi cards, I had it running smoothly!

OSX

Mac

The next step is to install OSX and the Chimera bootloader. Chimera is also from tonymacx86 and provides a way for you to choose which operating system you want to load at startup. After restarting again with the OSX USB drive, we’re once again at the OSX setup screen. This took around 30 minutes total, but once it’s done, you’re finally into your fresh install of OSX.  Wifi worked immediately for me, but you may need use an ethernet cord to access the internet this time around.

Chimera

Once you have OSX up, I hopped over to tonymacx86 again for their post-installation utility, MultiBeast. This will help you install all of the specific drivers and files that are specific to your system, as well as extras like the Chimera bootloader. For my installation, MultiBeast was needed to get the sound working, the SSD and USB3 correctly configured, and the Graphics Card working. Once MultiBeast has finished, you now have an “Extra” folder at your system root which allows you to set extra flags (in org.chameleon.Boot.plist) that change the requirements your system needs to start correctly as well as configuration for Chimera.

Now, when we restart, we are presented with all of the drives on the system as startup option. Obviously only the Mac and Windows system drives are what we want, so I edited my org.chameleon.Boot.plist file to hide all but those two drives. I also installed a theme that mimics the OSX login screen.

Follow Up

That was a very broad summary of my Mac Pro Hackintosh build experience. All things considered, I only went about $10 over my budget. There were also several small technical issues that I had to work through, like getting the graphics card to be used by default and getting the Mac’s sleep function to work (still working on that one). Each Hackintosh will have small complications, but with persistence and active searches on forums like Insanely Mac and OSX86.net you can usually find someone with a similar build that had to deal with the same issues.

In terms of hardware issues, the custom CPU heatsink that I purchased didn’t end up fitting quite right on my motherboard, so I had to use the stock heatsink that came with the CPU. I’m still searching for a better heatsink that will fit, but the stock heatsink will work fine for a while as long as you’re not overclocking.

I also might recommend a larger SSD for other builders out there. It’s been fine for me so far, but I could see it being a problem in the future for some. I moved my OSX user directory to my 1TB media drive, so the SSD pretty much only houses the Applications directly on the mac side. Also on the Windows side, I’ve moved several of my games to the media drive as well. So far there’s been no perceptable speed loss from that decision.

So far, the machine has performed BEAUTIFULLY. After using a closed MacBook Pro with an external Cinema Display for many years, the transition to the Hackintosh has been practically seamless. My desk setup is identical but with the added space and processing power of the custom Hackintosh build. I would HIGHLY recommend the process to anyone looking to own a powerful mac computer for a relatively inexpensive price.