How to build a Mac for £300

The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, built the Apple brand on its synergy between hardware and software. 25 years on, you pay a premium for that.

It’s £599 for the cheapest Mac Mini. £1999 for an entry level Mac Pro. But since 2006, new Macs have had a very similar internal architecture to Windows PCs. The same Intel CPUs, the same Nvidia graphics.

Since then, people have been hacking together Macs in their bedrooms. They call them Hackintoshes; PCs that run OS X for a fraction of the price of a brand new Mac. My aim was build the cheapest, usable Hackintosh possible.

Basic hardware configuration

Forget all about bells and whistles like Blu-Ray and 5.1 surround sound. I wanted to get a basic system up and running with the barest of necessities.

I needed to choose a motherboard and compatible CPU, DVD drive, a SATA hard drive, 2GB of RAM and a video card. All were picked to fit nicely into the ATX case of my choice and most of the components were bought on eBay. This was my build:

Case: GMC R-3 Corona with built in 350 watt PSU
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2L
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad q8200 running at 2.33GHz
Heatsink and Fan: Intel Socket 775 Heatsink & Fan for Core 2 Quad
RAM: 1 x 2GB DDR2 PC2-5300 Memory module
Hard Drive: 3.5 inch Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB SATA
DVD-R: Pioneer DVR-S18L
Video: Gigabyte nVidia 8400 GS

G31M

MOBO: The Gigabyte G31M-ES2L, a low cost motherboard chosen for the high level of success reported by other Hackintosh builders

The final damage? After adding in a couple of fans, some thermal paste and a USB Wi-Fi dongle, £303.40.

When you consider that an entry level Mac Mini packs a similar wallop, but comes in at £599, that’s a bit of a bargain. You can see the full build cost as a spreadsheet here.

There were other things I had to take into consideration, though. I had to design the machine, I had to put it together and then I had turn it into a Mac…

ATX case

CASE STUDY: The ATX case I chose shows you what the final Hackintosh looks like. It’s not quite a Mac Pro…

Compatible hardware

Thank ye olde Gods for the OSx86 Hardware Compatibility Lists (HCLs). In fact, thank them for the entire OSx86 Wiki – a must bookmark for wannabe Hackintosh builders. I picked out the components for my build based on the experiences posted there, cross checking with the HCLs for potential pitfalls.

HCL

CHECKLIST: It’s essential you check drives, cards and motherboards against OSx86 Hardware Compatibilty Lists, or your custom Mac project may never get off the ground

Another way to make sure your system will run OS X is to use someone else’s tried and tested build. At the time of writing, the build I’ve listed above is running Snow Leopard 10.6.4 and – for the most part – it works. There are many other Hackintosh build guides available, though. Here are some other build resources I’d recommend taking a look at:

Insanely mac

Insanely Mac is the community flipside of OSx86 with a message board where users exchange advice. They also post full hardware build details, which is very handy if you don’t know where to start. Check out the Tutorials section.

tonymacx86

Then there are a series of builds at tonymacx86. They’re all centred around Gigabyte P55 series motherboards. tonymacx86.jpeg – tonymacx86 Blog started as a document of the author’s specific build. Now it’s a general resource for Intel based custom Mac projects. Handily, Tony also provides downloads for boot tools and an OS X installer. More on those in a moment.

Some guides will tell you that building your own Mac is legally grey. It’s not grey at all. Apple’s OS X license says quite explicitly:

‘You agree not to install, use or run the Apple Software on any non-Apple-branded computer, or to enable others to do so.’

We’re unaware of any individual case where Apple has enforced this condition – though it has pursued companies who make Mac clones for profit vigorously. As a homebrew Mac maker the licensing conditions practically mean that you’re on your own if things go wrong. And things quite possibly could go wrong.

Snow leopard

OS: The Snow Leopard upgrade disk costs just £25. If you’re planning on installing Snow Leopard on more than one machine, you should purchase the five-license Family Pack

Having got the warning out of the way, there are several fairly reliable methods for getting OS X to run on PC hardware. Let’s have a look at two boot loaders that’ll do the job. The first is the version I used in my build, iBoot and MultiBeast. Briefly, you’ll need a PC built using OSx86 compatible hardware, a legitimate, retail copy of Mac OS X Snow Leopard, iBoot and MultiBeast.

iBoot is a ready to burn CD ISO that will enable your PC to load Chameleon, a boot loader for Mac OS X. You see, Mac OS X was specifically designed to run on Apple hardware only. Chameleon fools your OS X retail disc into thinking that it’s being installed on a Mac. There are full instructions at tonymacx86 which I heartily recommend you follow to the letter, but briefly the process should be:

1. Tweak the target machine’s BIOS settings so it boots from CD
2. Reboot your computer using the iBoot disk
3. Eject iBoot and insert the Snow Leopard Retail disk when prompted
4. Format your hard drive using Apple’s built in Disk Utility
5. Install Mac OS X
6. Reboot your computer using the iBoot disk, again
7. Launch OS X on your homebrew Mac…

BIOS

BIOS: You’ll need to set your CD drive as a primary boot device and enable AHCI as the SATA/Raid controller type – at least. See full instructions for your chosen boot loader

The second method I’d recommend uses a tool called MyHack. Again, there are full and comprehensive instructions for getting OS X up and running on a custom built PC at MyHack’s site. The method is nearly identical, except that MyHack boots from a USB drive, meaning that there’s no need to swap CDs. The disadvantage is that you’ll need a Mac to prepare the flash drive.

Post install

When I built my Hackintosh, there were still some tweaks to make after the ‘Welcome to Mac’ intro had played. I ran Apple Software Update and downloaded upgrades to the system. In my case it was the combo update to 10.6.4.

When that had finished and been applied, I tested the Mac/PC to see what was working and what wasn’t. The sound ports, video settings and Ethernet got a work out. I tried each USB port in turn. My careful planning has worked out. USB and ethernet were fine on the Gigabyte board – but I needed to install drivers for audio and video to get them working properly.

Multibeast

MULTIBEAST: MultiBeast offeres two types of post-installation. You can enable hardware level compatibility using a custom DSDT file and add support for installed peripherals on a driver by driver basis

That’s where MultiBeast came in. It’s a combination boot sector creation tool and driver installation application. I fired it up on my Hackintosh and was able to select the additional drivers – called ‘kexts’ – I needed, writing them to the local disk.

MyHack has a similar post-installation function, enabling you to write drivers direct to your Hackintosh drive. Crucially, both tools add their boot loader to your local drive, so there’s no longer any need to boot from CD or USB stick.

Finally, the moment of truth. I took out the iBoot disk and restarted the machine. It launched into OS X with sound working correctly, running in the native resolution of my Nvidia graphics card.

OS x welcome screen

SUCCESS: If all goes well, this is the screen you’ll see when you finally reboot your Hackintosh. If not, it’s best to retrace your steps and start again

After all that, did I end up with a suitable substitute for an Mac Mini or even a Mac Pro?

There are some definite cons. The finished machine doesn’t look anywhere near as good as Apple’s range of computers. Sleep doesn’t work properly and I’ve yet to find a successful workaround for that. And every time I apply new, official updates, my heart pounds in mouth. It’s not an undertaking for casual users.

What I do have is a machine that effortlessly copes with video editing, 3D graphics and office applications. It runs creative tools like Photoshop and games like Left 4 Dead 2 without any problems, on Mac OS X.

And all it cost was £300 and a couple of my weekends. Can’t be bad.

(Via TechRadar: All latest feeds.)

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