The apple of my eye: building my core i7 hackintosh pro rig

A Snow Leopard follow up to this post is here.

A couple of months ago I built a quad-core Mac Pro equivalent “Hackintosh” based on Intel’s X58 and Core i7. All components were selected for their compatibility with Mac OS X Leopard. My goal was to build as close a Mac Pro clone as possible using off the shelf parts, with the ability to do Apple Software Updates on a retail, unmodified OS X installation as you would with a real Mac. First though, a little background…

BIRTH OF A DELLINTOSH

For five years I’ve used a trusty Dell Optiplex GX280. It’s a 3Ghz Pentium 4, Hyper-Threading system. I’ve never had any issues with it which probably had something to do with the fact that I’d stuck with Windows XP Pro throughout and didn’t bother “downgrading” to Windows Vista. From video editing using Sony Vegas to Photoshop usage, the system was rock solid and stable.

Back in August of 2008 I jumped on the Hackintosh bandwagon by installing OS X on it.

To test out whether my Dell works with OS X, I got hold of a bootable, modified installation disc that allowed me to do just that. These Hackintosh distros are dubbed “OSx86” as they’re patched to work with non-Apple x86-based systems. For instance, Apple uses EFI to boot while non-Apple machines use BIOS, so the distro has to emulate EFI in some way. Additionally, as the kernel provided in OS X only works with a Core/Core 2 CPU, the distro includes a modified kernel that works with a Pentium 4. The distro also includes additional/replacement kernel extensions (kexts) to drive hardware not usually found on Apple systems.

To my surprise, OS X booted up just fine; it even recognized my dual monitor setup. It didn’t identify the on-board Broadcom chipset ethernet, which was easily rectified by using a Realtek chipset ethernet card that I got for around three dinars (eight dollars).

I was even able to edit and render 1080p video using Final Cut Pro without a hitch. It soon became my system of choice and I hardly ever booted XP.

Following that little experiment, I went ahead and installed OS X permanently on my Dell, dual-booting with XP using the Darwin bootloader. Granted, the Dell was only a P 4 system, yet OS X worked smoothly and flawlessly, recognizing the two virtual cores provided by Hyper-Threading. I was even able to edit and render 1080p video using Final Cut Pro without a hitch. It soon became my system of choice and I hardly ever booted XP.

With its Unix base, OS X took me back to the days when computing was fun, when one could dig under the hood and run shell scripts and do all that good geekery. It’s like FreeBSD or GNU/Linux but with popular application support and a great user interface. I was hooked.

OS X has the best of both worlds: like a *nix system, it is rock solid and allows one to easily get under the hood and elegantly script and code for it, all the while having a mature desktop as Windows does.

Prior to the introduction of OS X, I never had the inclination to get a Mac, since the Classic Mac OS (Systems 7-9 having been used by me) seemed rather pedestrian. OS X has the best of both worlds: like a *nix system, it is rock solid and allows one to easily get under the hood and elegantly script and code for it, all the while having a mature desktop as Windows does.

The only snag with my Dell Hackintosh was that I wasn’t able to update easily or without the risk of breaking the system installation. Part of that is due to the fact that I was using a non-vanilla kernel as well as various other kexts in a way that if they were overwritten by the Apple Software Update, it would render my system non-working.

The Hackintosh community did come up with various ways to install system software updates without the risk of breaking an OS X installation, yet by that time I had been using OS X on my Dell for a little over a year and decided its time to finally upgrade my rig.

CLOUDNUMBERNINETOSH: A CORE i7 HACKINTOSH PRO

I thought of buying a Mac Pro. Whether I purchased it locally or had one shipped from the States, the cost would be significantly higher than if I built my own customized Hackintosh Pro system. True, a Mac Pro uses

Instead of a true Mac Pro clone, I’d be creating a sort of “Mac Pro jr.”, a mythical machine that costs a bit more than an iMac but is as fast as a W3520 Xeon-based 2009 Mac Pro, and has expansion potential similar to the Mac Pro.

way more expensive server-class Xeon CPUs instead of the Core i7, comes in a great case and has an unmistakable quality feel to it. Then again, with the right motherboard, the Core i7 has great bang-for-the-buck when overclocked compared to a Xeon. Instead of a true Mac Pro clone, I’d be creating a sort of “Mac Pro jr.”, a mythical machine that costs a bit more than an iMac but is as fast as a W3520 Xeon-based 2009 Mac Pro, and has expansion potential similar to the Mac Pro.

Besides, what’s the fun in buying something pre-built? I’ve built a PC nine years ago and it was great fun, and the thought of doing it again was more tempting than simply walking into the local Apple dealer and handing him a wad of cash for one box. I wanted crates of components and I wanted to build it myself.

THE BUILD

I’ve ordered most components from Amazon.com. I would’ve loved to order from newegg.com, but they were being jacks about accepting my non-US CC and shipping to my Aramex mail-forwarding box.

The table below compares the Mac Pro vis-a-vis my Hackintosh configuration’s components and shipping price. The motherboard of choice is the Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5, which has been shown to work quite well with OS X.

Item 2009 W3520 Mac Pro Quad 2.66GHz Hackintosh Pro 2.66GHz Hackintosh Pro Item Price (USD)
Processor 2.66GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon W3520 2.66GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 920 289
Memory 3GB 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM 6GB 1600MHz DDR3 (Corsair Dominator) 312
Hard Drive 640GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA 3Gb/s 640GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA 3Gb/s 66
Graphics Card NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 512MB (GT 120 is a rebranded GT 9500) NVIDIA GeForce GT 9500 1GB +NVIDIA GeForce GT 7600 256Mb

Providing a total of 4 DVI outputs.

140
Optical Drive 18x SATA SuperDrive Samsung 22x SATA SuperDrive 40
Mouse Apple Mighty Mouse Logitech Wireless 40
Keyboard Apple Keyboard Logitech Wireless 40
Motherboard Apple Proprietary Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5 289
PSU Apple Proprietary Cooler Master Silent Pro M700 Series Modular 700W 131
Case Apple Proprietary Gigabyte Aurora 3D 172
Card Reader None 5.25″ Multi-Card Reader/Writer 37
5.25″ SATA Dock None 5.25″ IcyBox SATA slot 36
CPU Cooler Apple Proprietary Noctua NH-U12P SE1366 Silent CPU Cooler 80
OS X Leopard Included with Mac Pro Single-User Retail – Required to be legal! 99
Shipping and Taxes – New York USD 41 106
Aramex Shop & Ship forwarding to Bahrain USD 401 210
Mac Pro from US (USD) USD 2,942 Hackintosh Pro Total (USD) USD 2,080
Mac Pro from US (BHD) BHD 1,109 Hackintosh Pro Total (BHD) BHD 784
Mac Pro from Apple Center Bahrain (BHD) BHD 1,220
Mac Pro from Apple Center Bahrain (USD) USD 3,236

The table below provides the savings potential from going the Hackintosh route instead of buying a Mac Pro locally in Bahrain or from the US.

Price Difference
Mac Pro Purchased from US vs Hackintosh Pro
Savings (USD) USD 862
Savings (BHD) BHD 325
Savings (%) 29%
Mac Pro Purchased from Bahrain (Apple Center) vs Hackintosh Pro
Savings (USD) USD 1,156
Savings (BHD) BHD 436
Savings (%) 36%

Note that I could have saved over 44% by settling for less, and slower memory instead of the 6GB 1600MHz Corsair Dominator, and settling for one graphics card instead of two.

INSTALLING OS X LEOPARD

The process of installing a retail copy of OS X is simplified by the wonderful “Standard Retail DVD Install” script and instructions provided by digital_dreamer at InsanelyMac.

Apple Software Updates can be performed safely without the risk of breaking the installation.

This method of installation provides for a completely retail, vanilla install and uses the Chameleon bootloader to load any necessary modifications at boot time, without affecting the original system files and/or structure. This ensures that Apple Software Updates can be performed safely without the risk of breaking the installation. This makes the Hackintosh as good as a real Mac with hassle-free updates.

I also installed Windows 7. I don’t usually boot directly into it (though I can), since I use VMWare Fusion to run it in a virtual machine under OS X. Works like a charm. The same goes for other OSs, including Ubuntu and AROS.

I’m currently using three Dell 20.1″ monitors and running four virtual desktops, each one spanning all three monitors. The following is a screenshot of the setup using Exposé:

Windows 7 is running in a virtual machine on the left screen of the first desktop, while AROS is running in another VM on the middle screen of the lower left desktop. Photoshop, Google Earth, VLC and a host of other programs are running as well. Yes, even when zoomed out in Exposé, the videos, Google Earth’s animation, etc. are playing without a hiccup. Mac OS X is THAT good.

BENCHMARKS: HACKINTOSH PRO FASTER THAN A W3520 XEON-BASED 2009 MAC PRO

Without overclocking the i7 920, I’m pleased to say that the Cloudnumberninetosh is faster than a W3520-based 2009 Mac Pro. It has a Geekbench score of 8667, while average W3520-based 2009 Mac Pro scores are at 8144.

Compare this to my old Dell’s score of 1805!

Having at your disposal four real cores and a total of eight virtual cores (each core is virtualized into two) means that whatever you throw at this rig, it won’t break a sweat.

Once I get around to overclocking this beast, I’ll update this section. Based on the experience of others with a similar setup, I can easily get a score of 12,000+ with a 3.6-3.8GHz overclock.

Having at your disposal four real cores and a total of eight virtual cores (each core is virtualized into two) means that whatever you throw at this rig, it won’t break a sweat.

CONCLUSION

Is it worth it? Absolutely. If you’re willing to spare the time and don’t have the need for all the other additions/advantages that a Mac Pro provides, then this is a great way to get a machine which is super-fast and expandable while remaining only slightly more expensive than a high end dual-core iMac (even if you add 100 dinars or so for a decent monitor) and cheaper than a Mac Pro.

Besides, if you’re a Windows gamer, the motherboard comes with three NVidia SLI and ATI CrossFireX PCI Express slots which you can take advantage of for connecting up to three same-model graphics cards to get higher frame rates. SLI and CrossFire is not available on the Mac Pros and is not supported by Leopard, though on a Hackintosh such as the Cloudnumberninetosh you may keep the cards bridged as it won’t affect the operation of OS X. When using Windows, you can turn on SLI/CrossFire for certain games to get higher frame rates.

Note: In no way do I condone software piracy. Having installed OS X on three machines to date, I did buy a brand new, shrink-wrapped OS X Retail Family Pack from eBay for US$149 (a bargain multi-license if you compare it to other software), which gives me a license for up to five installations. I know Apple’s end-user license agreement (EULA) states that OS X should not be installed on ” non Apple-labeled” machines. That is subject to interpretation. Apple-labeled could well mean slapping an Apple sticker on the machine (which is what I did). Besides, in some jurisdictions post-purchase agreements such as EULAs are not valid. I’m not sure what Bahraini law’s take on that, though I doubt it’s advanced enough to deal with such issues.

Don’t ask me for copies of OS X! You can get your own single-license copy from amazon.com for around USD 99.