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How the Hackintosh Suddenly Caught Fire

Anarchy amid the abdication of Mac Pro

By Mark Christiansen | April 03, 2013

Yes, it literally caught fire.

This is the story of one man’s experience assembling and running a Hackintosh. For anyone unaware of this illicit, but not yet forbidden alternative to the Mac Pro and alterative systems from Apple, it is a custom-built computer - one which would straightforwardly run Windows or Linux - with an installation of a slightly modified (hacked) Mac OS that will boot on non-Apple hardware, in clear violation of the terms of the Mac OS.

Video professionals as a group have become much more curious, if also still wary, of this option given that It significantly outperforms Apple hardware at roughly half the cost of even the most basic new Mac Pro system. For their part, Apple has neither condoned this approach, nor have then implemented the types of technological barriers that would make it impossible to implement. Officially, it’s unsupported, legally, it’s a gray area, and in real-world terms, it involves more trade-offs and complications than just owning a Mac. This is one article about the benefits and trade-offs for a video professional.

So why do it? Late last year, I found myself in the perfect position to dip my toe into the world of Hackintosh (or, as it is sometimes spelled, Hacintosh). I had negotiated with a client to purchase a system specifically for use on a set of projects, and when I presented them with the cost of a new Mac Pro system, even with all possible extras purchased from third parties, the cost was several thousand dollars out of budget; at that time, over $7000 delivered, without the storage or memory needed. A prosumer iMac, which is all the rage in design firms these days, was not ideal due to the need for advanced graphics and the desire for built-in support for large storage, dual monitors, and full connectivity, not to mention enough brute-force processing needs to benefit from the 30-60% difference in performance. Even the current Apple Mac Pro offering outperforms the latest iMac by 30%, and for jobs that involve a good deal of rendering, even that difference adds up to days over a period of months.

A VFX supervisor friend in San Francisco had, years ago, pitched a side business he and a friend had to build Hackintosh render farms. We priced out a system that, even including the $500 assembly and installation feel, indeed came in at exactly half the equivalent cheapest Mac Pro system, and in computing terms was a full generation newer. All but two of the 23 components were available and/or least expensive from Amazon (one more case of getting value from a Prime account). 

Configuration

IvyBridge... NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680... Liquid cooled...

Key components in this system were as follows:

  • IvyBridge 4-core processor. Some contemporary Hackintosh systems are built around the latest SandyBridge-EP hexacore processor, which offers the best Geekbench scores (mine with this system is around 17,000, and I’ve seen scores in the low to mid-20,000’s with hexacore). Ivybridge currently has a more modern chip architecture than Sandybridge, which means each of the four cores is a bit faster, and for real-world work that doesn’t distribute and peg multiple processors as well, this can offer the best real-world performance, particularly since the processors can be overclocked (not possible with the dual-processor SandyBridge-based Xeons). More processors don’t always scale. (Apple’s Mac Pro is still built around the Nehalem architecture, which can be scaled to as many as 6 cores and two processors, but is a good deal slower).
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 graphics card with (closed loop) liquid cooling and a power supply to support it and the processor. What is a great system for graphics work also happens to be what many would consider a killer game machine.
  • Ugly case, assuming your aesthetic is more Jonathan Ive than Michael Dell, but accessories you don’t find on a Mac Pro: built-in Thunderbolt. USB3 ports, and the space to add more (which I did). Bluray writer. Six drives total, including a SSD Mac boot, a separate Windows boot, and a 4-disk RAID-5 (a format Apple doesn’t yet support natively).

The full list of components proved unwieldy to break out into a table for this article, so rather than further delay posting the article for that reason, I elected on the above summary. Needless to say, if you're building your own system, you or the person you work with should be up to date on the latest components and their relative merits and deficits.

After the fire, a tangle of wires, but the liquid cooling unit shows blue, indicating system health nonetheless.

Elation

Needless to say, I was thrilled to have a system that only cost a few thousand dollars and put my 3-year-old Mac Pro to shame. Among the features I liked best were the liquid cooling unit, which I could monitor with a sensor in the menu bar, but which also features an integrated LED display that allows it to a display a color that reflects its current temperature - blue or teal until you get into the 70-90 degree Celsius range where it turns an intuitive red/orange/yellow to warn that you’re getting close to where you might see some problems. I loved having USB3 and Thunderbolt included, even if the latter came with system limitations from Mac OS - no hot-swapping. I was happy running off an SSD, and the boot system was clean, if a little odd - no apple logo on gray at startup, but instead an ugly screen from the motherboard’s ROM that looked like it hadn’t been redesigned since about 1993.

Among the limitations of the current Mac Pro that are resolved by the Hackintosh, as run down by the guy who built mine:

  • Old Nehalem system, pre Sandybridge and IvyBridge, with old, slow cores of which you can have a lot is replaced by latest, most efficient architecture.
  • Thunderbolt support; the Mac Pro has no current path to thunderbolt
  • 4 slot limit (effectively 3 or even 2 due to video card) opens up to whatever your custom case can handle (realistically 7 cards plus Thunderbolt expansion)
  • Very limited graphics card support requires Hackintosh-like workarounds if you want to work with latest video cards
  • Some Mac Pro models currently in use won't boot Mountain Lion - requires 32 bit EFI - granted these are rather ancient
  • ProTools users (with perfectly useful PCI-based hardware) have almost no choice but to build Hacintosh - PCI is required, and Jetway offers a PCI motherboard, but not Apple

Bottom line: this system performs like a hot rod, which means it is on the bleeding edge of performance and as a consequence can involve trade-offs and extra maintenance you wouldn’t expect with a stock system.

One result of the hack is a system that self-reports in Mac OS up as a Mac Mini—the fastest such Mac anywhere.

Tribulation

And then, early one recent morning, an acrid scent filled the studio.

Once as the system was up and running, I proudly tweeted a Geekbench score of 17,025 (processors overclocked to 4.7Ghz) and got to work - and almost immediately ran into stability problems. Applications that I knew to be rock-solid were crashing, and there was no other obvious symptom such as an overheated system. Within a week we were backing down on the overclocking and ordering a replacement CPU to cross-ship to me under warranty.

Here I will pause to emphasize the patience required to get a Hackintosh up and running, despite its tremendous speed benefits once implemented, and how necessary it is to have a dedicated, knowledgeable tech who can built, configure and troubleshoot the system. This is not truly what I would call DIY, unless you are the type of person who likes to noodle around with BIOS and so on - a personality type more associated with Windows and Linux than Mac, perhaps. Things will come up that, while par for the course for Hackintosh, are outside the experience of a regular Mac user.

Instead of Applecare, I had support from the guy who built the machine, who was very patient about ironing out issues with the processor and who reassured me that my system was an outlier. You could look at it as reassuring that if I had a substandard yet functional component as essential as the core processor, it’s good luck that it was in a system that would clearly show it to fail, and would allow me to return just the chip via a warranted cross-ship. I’ve often noticed that two Macs that are configured identically don’t perform the same, and those of us who have worked in larger shops are aware that some systems are simply more or less stable and high-performing than others, which can even become the problem-child machines that are most likely to fail renders and so on.

Once we had a new processor installed and the machine was overclocking properly (as much as a non-sequitur as that may sound), I noticed a few quirks - some intermittent, some persistent:

  • External port quirks. Some of these are known, such as no hot-swapping with Thunderbolt (an OS-level limitation), but I also found that some ports were better behaved then others, both built-in to the case and via peripheral add-ons. One remedy is that there are a LOT of ports on this system.
  • Log-in latency. This is an example of a strange, intermittent issue that can’t be solved by calling Apple technical support or googling forums; it can take up to a minute for the login screen on Mac or Windows to accept keyboard entry of my password. I haven’t tried swapping the Mac keyboard, which may be the culprit, but this doesn’t happen on a regular Mac Pro. It’s an example of the type of problem you can’t simply have solved by Applecare once you go down this road.

And then, early one recent morning, an acrid scent filled the studio.

Yes, I know just what you’re thinking. This clearly wasn’t at all related to overclocking or bleeding edge graphics; a big hole was burned in the optical drive, indicating a probable short that also took out enough of the cabling and interior of the system to require a case replacement, and caused a drive in the RAID-5 (also not a standard Mac OS option, and thank god I had it configured that way) to fail. The acrid scent hung around for a few days, and of course, if one component fails even in so spectacular a manner, the manufacturer of that component cannot be held responsible for the several hundred dollars of costs associated with fixing the other damage.

So now I have a new, marginally less ugly case, RMAs for some damaged components and a need to have the system reassembled while I’m at NAB.

The culprit: an optical drive gone wrong.

Summation

Given the choice today between an overpriced, underpowered Mac Pro, switching to Windows, or running Hackintosh, would I choose the last one again? Ask me again when I have more choices.

Let’s be clear: the situation with Apple and the Mac Pro right now is identical to what was going on with Final Cut Studio in the years between its final version and Final Cut X.

In other words, there’s no reason for Apple to be stealthy or mysterious with its plans, unless they are likely to upset a large set of Mac users. Other PC manufacturers are open with information on plans to reconfigure existing systems to accommodate the latest chipsets and components, and unlike them, Apple effectively has no competition for Mac OS platforms—other than ones like what I’m running here. If HP, Dell or Acer were to offer only similar systems for the same cost, it would exactly like saying, “we no longer wish to compete in this market.”

So, while I wouldn’t encourage anyone to build a Hackintosh on their own without a good deal of interest in doing so, nor would I encourage doing it without the support of someone who will work through all of the various quirks and actual failures that can occur with going down this road, I would suggest that the reason Apple hasn’t made it impossible for you to run a Hackintosh is that they don’t plan to offer a true alternative. History suggests that the Mac Pro is EOL (end-of-life) and that any alternative will fit into the vision of keeping powerful, complex hardware and software remote, and user systems lean, fully connected and as useful to consumers as professionals. Given the choice today between an overpriced, underpowered Mac Pro, switching to Windows, or running Hackintosh, would I choose the last one again? Ask me again when I have more choices.

What will you do?

(Note: Article updated 4/11 for extra and more commentary on components and comparisons to Mac Pro, based on comments from the builder of the system)

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Comments

commenter: | April, 04, 2013

Having run Hackintoshes for years now I have to say you really went into this, from the sounds of your article, with your eyes closed. How your ‘guy’ managed to convince you that an overclocked, water cooled Hack was a good idea for a production environment blows my mind. That he set your system profile up as a Mini also makes no sense at all, further if you didn’t have the Apple logo at boot you misconfigured your Hack plain and simple.

That you refer to chip architecture is laughable, yes the chip may be a Sandybridge sure but your using a Core i5 or i7 not the Xeon in an Apple Mac. Totally different chips that while they may be of the same architecture are not the same chip. You need to get past marketing names and learn what the actual chip is that your using, again showing your ignorance here.

Whomever you had build the box, has he never heard of cable management? There is no reason for the spaghetti in your case except for a dramatic photo.

Committing to building and using a Hack isn’t something that you just wake up and do. There is a lot of research needed and yes, you will need to get your hands dirty. Articles like this really do little to promote Hack’s as an alternative to a Mac, not because a Hack is difficult but because you expect them to be easy, like… a Mac. I’m not saying that a Hack has to be the most difficult PC you’ve ever used but there is quite a bit more involvement which you obviously didn’t want to take part in. 

Please stick to whatever it is you do best because building PC’s certainly isn’t it.

Mark Christiansen: | April, 04, 2013

Thanks for the comment - I want to make it extra clear that I was indeed the inexperienced client here, not the builder, as I think are over 99% of the people reading the article.

If the response is that Hackintosh is like a hot-rod - suitable only for those who want to build and work on it, not for those who like to be able to take it to the mechanic to be repaired - I’m more inclined to agree than when I started on this.

I know a lot of people who don’t really want building and maintaining a system to be a time-suck are nonetheless contemplating this option simply because Apple isn’t providing a satisfactory alternative. So if this serves as a cautionary tale - well, like I said, it did catch fire…

As for some of the specifics, I will encourage the guy who did the build to comment. He’s out of town this week and of course wishes to remain anonymous, in any case.

TimKolb: | April, 05, 2013

Hi Mark,

It all sounds a bit frightening…pyro without the expensive plugins and all.

As one who went over to the “dark side” about a decade ago, I’d urge you to remember that Darth Vader only came back toward the light at the very end. 

You may have actually saved a Windows system… 

grin

onehundredtrees: | April, 05, 2013

Mark, I would gently caution you that this “acrid” smoke is extremely toxic and a powerful carcinogen.

If you ever smell it again, please note that and dramatically reduce this toxic exposure to a horrific brew of heavy metals and worse.

just_some_guy: | April, 11, 2013

Hello,
This is in response to the first commenter.
I am “the guy” mentioned in the article and I wanted to respond to some of the issues point by point.

- “Water cooled” is technically accurate, but that term is often associated with custom designed cooling systems on the fringe of computer enthusiasm. The cooler used in Mark’s system is actually a very standard closed loop water cooling unit. These units have become very mainstream as alternatives to over-sized and often noisy air coolers. There is nothing unusual about the cooler; it is a high end unit meant to optimize noise and temperatures.

- Overclocking your custom built system is a very common, completely safe (when done properly and tested) way of getting “free” performance. It has a very long tradition. I have personally been building overclocked systems for almost 15 years and frankly I think it’s a terrible waste not to claim some of this performance when your custom system has the ability. It is very uncommon, but occasionally individual processors will not overclock as well as they “should”. They are statistical outliers that normally are quickly outed when performing simple stability tests. Ivy Bridge did introduce some unusual behavior in terms of heat-voltage-stability curves, however if you do a bit of research you can easily find the sweet spot of your CPU and then back off that point a bit for safety and never have a single stability issue due to overclocking. The replacement CPU in Mark’s system has been stable. Several nearly identical systems have never had any of the stability issues he had with his original CPU (nor any other stability issues for that matter). We have run moderately overclocked systems in production environments for years without issue.

- Mac Mini is the correct system definition for Mark’s system. The system definition only affects a few characteristics of the system. One of these is CPU and platform power management. Setting the system to a Mac Mini system definition enables proper CPU power management for the sandy and ivy bridge platforms including proper idle states and in-between power states. It also makes enabling graphics power management for the nvidia GPU easier than with some other system definitions. Additionally it enables airplay functions and other intel quicksync features of his CPU. There are a few trade-offs in choosing a system definition that are beyond the scope of this article, but using one that matches your CPU and platform closest is almost always the correct choice.

- The “no Apple logo” issue that Mark mentioned in the article is a bit confusing. What I am sure he meant is that when you first turn on the system, you are greeted with a regular PC POST screen. In this case an unattractive AMI BIOS Logo. Once the OS is chosen (he has both windows and mac installed) the appropriate logo appears as the OS is loaded. I don’t recall but we may have swapped his OS X boot logo for something cheeky, but the apple logo can and would be present during the booting of OS X.

- There were some corrections and clarifications made to Mark’s description of CPUs and platforms since the article was originally posted.

- Chip architecture is actually the more important consideration. The differences between the XEON and Core series of the same architecture are incredibly small. The main ones being additions to the E(P) series of more PCIe lanes, addition to XEON of the requisite interfaces for multi CPU configurations, and the allowance of ECC memory (and at considerable expense, the availability of additional cores per CPU). Platform support between the XEON and Core versions is a bigger issue, though there is even some crossover there. In the process you would lose the Core series ability to use quicksync (and the requisite iGPU), the ability to overclock the CPU, and, more recently, platform support for USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and other modern improvements that have yet to make it into the XEON platforms at all, which remain behind a half to a full generation architecturally. “Core” and “XEON” are actually the marketing names. Sandy, Ivy, Nehalem, Westmere, E(P) and derivatives are actually the geeky code names used more inside the industry. In any case what really matters here is the architecture, and within that architecture, how many cores and running at what speed. The 3770K in Mark’s system has 4 Ivy Bridge cores, hyperthreading, an unlocked multiplier (intel’s way of saying “please overclock”) and is running at up to 4.6GHZ if I recall.

Continued…

just_some_guy: | April, 12, 2013

... Continued

- Regarding cable spaghetti, the photo was actually taken after the dramatic optical drive fire, after most of the cables had been pulled out or disconnected for a period; and since the case needed to be replaced, there was no point in tidying up a bunch of cables that would need to be pulled out a couple weeks later. That said, Mark’s point is still valid. Even with pretty anal-retentive cable management the inside of a PC/Hack does not come close to the elegant design of the inside of the mac pro. Part of this is due to the modular nature of PC components, and it is partly due to the added functionality and I/O the Hack has and the additional cables and routing this requires. I don’t know why that would be terribly important to someone, but that is the case.


Hopefully this has clarified some of the issues that may have been confusing, and corrected you on some of your points or assumptions. Many of these topics are quite complicated or detailed, and I have had to do some generalization, lest I write my own article, which I am not inclined to do. All that said, I would emphasize – for what it is worth – I have never seen a component fail as spectacularly as Mark’s optical drive. And add to it the poor overclocking stability of his initial CPU, and a few other growing pains- I am almost inclined to call his system a “lemon” if only that made sense, since its hard to think of this collection of individual parts in such a holistic manner. I hope he will do a follow up in a few months titled something like “The Resurrection of the Hackintosh: How it Literally Saved the World”. Until then, stay tuned…

wsmith: | April, 22, 2013

I think “commenter” is rather “superior” sounding. For my part just let me say I’m glad I’m not caught up in the illusory Mac-trap and cannot will myself out of it by doing the logical thing and moving on to Windows. 

I’ve been building Windows PCs specifically for my own NLEs for about 15 years using liquid cooling by Koolance. I think LQ is fairly mandatory with such home-built systems. The HPs and Dells et al of the world don’t dare scrimp on engineering their boxes for adequate cooling by air throughput. Without that engineering a home builder really must use LQ to eliminate that hassle and for peace of mind.

Never once have I dared to overclock, leaving that for people who like to play games with their systems… Moreover when we are talking about the performance gains of a fast i-built Windows or Hackintosh box over that of a top Mac Pro, I’d think the speed increase by overclocking rather unworthy of the risk of overheating the CPU itself and burning it out. 

A number of things are omitted in this article and the response by the builder. Was the MOBO’s BIOS temp monitor used?  Was Prime95 used to stress test the CPU (before and after overclocking) during testing? 

Insofar as modern CPUs automatically shut themselves down when too hot and thus causing a reboot, which is not mentioned as a symptom. As a non-overclocker, I admit to not knowing if a CPU’s auto-shutdown even works when overclocking.

If I had to bet, I would doubt that the CPU needed to be returned. I suspect that adequate testing was not done with respect to potential heat issues (#1 concern when building) before overclocking was done. In any case the CPU should have been installed in a compatible MOBO, if available, and “Prime95’d to stress it. No better way to get it to generate maximum heat and test stability.   

By looking at the picture of the drive and seeing that the burnt I/O interface, I highly suspect that the real culprit was somehow related to driver compatibility issue involving the BIOS/ OS/optical drive - or all of those combined. It’s possible to have a compatibility issue that goes unreported by the BIOS and or the OS because such issues are unknown to the BIOS developers; I doubt such testing was even done by them on such a “hypothetical system” as this. So the MOBO and BIOS were deaf, dumb and blind to it when it happened. Good thing you were there at the time.

By the way, as I understand it, the Ivy chipset’s benefit over Sandybridge, is that it supports quad channel memory and PCI Express 3.0 - both a definite big step up. My current system is based on a Sandybridge MOBO and a Hexcore i7 980. I’m given to understand that a top speed quadcore can outperform it but then Adobe certainly is multi-core aware and the more cores the better so I figured Hexcore to be better, at the time I built it. I also used an Asus Sabertooth MOBO which is specially designed to withstand heat like no other MOBO currently on the market, I understand.

Anyway, I love it when my Mac-bound NLE friends come over and get wow’d by the speed and yet nevertheless cringe at my suggestion that they come to their senses and abandon their Macs. 

Mr_timecode: | April, 25, 2013

Very interesting and amusing article. I nearly made a hackintosh until I gave my 2009 Nehalem 2.66 4-core MacPro a touch up. Spend $600 upgrading the processor to a W3680 3.33 6-Core. Geekbench went from 9125 to 15804. And running a flashed gtx 680 and 32GB RAM.
BTW, it is very stable.

Sowatt Music / Michel Gallone: | April, 25, 2013

It is naturally clear that the macpro line is outdated but in practice the 12 cores Mac Pros with sufficient ram are amazing machines.
When you compare prices with same level brand names PCs like Dell or HP, you pay the same money.
Now I agree that it is high time for the Mac Pros to come up with a new line. In the last year, they have been really left behind by similarly priced Dells or HPs. Naturally they not even compare to properly assembled custom PCS.

For video professionals the video card compatibility issue is really annoying. I know Flashed GTX 580 or 680 work, but this should simply not be an issue in the first place.

On the other hand stability is the key here. In a pro environnement,  you either work on a Win 7 high end PC with applications that are made for it or you work on a mac and must to be quite patient .....
Still, as a audio and video studio equipment consultant, I have been telling clients to not renew Mac Pros with newer ones for the past year and half, it must come to an end!

tom: | December, 14, 2013

I’m astonished by the level of stupidity of this report. The author clearly doesn’t understand the simplest facts about computer electronics.

The fact that your optical drive was fried is likely due to power supply failure, cabling faults, or simply component failure. It has absolutely nothing to do with the operating system.

It’s almost funny that you might think it does. Unless the optical drive was designed to catch fire by the manufacturer, there is no set of computer instructions that the operating system could give it to make it fry - which by the way, is the job of the operating system.

For your information, an operating system doesn’t regulate power supply to peripheral devices. The only interaction *any* operating system can have with an optical drive is through digital signals via the means of serial or parallel buses. It is literally impossible for an operating system to somehow manage to use that bus to make any peripheral catch fire.

When your peripherals start catching fire, I would recommend you get a new power supply and carefully check the wires. Power supply failure is actually quite common. When power supplies get old, the voltages they put out are outside the tolerance bars for the components that use them. More voltage being applied to a device means more power is delivered, and that can easily cause over-heating,  circuit failure and similar problems. I would recommend you do this before your hard-disks start catching fire as well.

As for the rest of the article, sure Hackintoshes are difficult to build and even more difficult to maintain. The reason for that is Apple intended them to be that way. It implies they are not for everybody. That includes the average joe that doesn’t understand anything about the underlying mechanisms of the operating system, isn’t willing to learn, and isn’t ready to face obstacles. It isn’t for the dumbed-down Apple fanboy that just lays there and expects Apple to spoon feed them all the answers.

Do you sometimes wonder why Apple’s computers are over-prices for lower the performance? Apple is charging the extra cash exactly for this kind of spoon-feeding.

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