Hackintosh: Subterranea

March 23, 2016

Brace yourself: I grew up in a house with computers.

Naturally, the qualifier — for anyone with enough years to recall such — is that not everyone in the late 1980’s had a computer, or multiple computers. Most had no awareness of bulletin board systems (BBSes), what could sensibly be regarded as the pre-cursor to the internet as we know it. My dad was a big nerd. He ran one, on a second computer, in our upstairs computer room. A single-line BBS — initially operating at 2400 baud — meaning it could be utilized, by a single, dial-up modem user at a ludricously slow throughput, to participate in local message boards, send local email or play amazingly basic ANSI graphics-based door games, presented in upwards of 16 colors. I am quite nostalgic and romantic for all of this, as you can hopefully detect.

He was what would, by standards of the day, be considered a hobbyist: trolling computer shows, building switches with blinking lights and dubious functionality, and eventually building several DIY home computers. It was within this environment that I was exposed to computers, trojan horse viruses, the command line, King’s Quest, BBSes, online friendships, and whatever variety of enthusiasm and curiosity I have for anything digital.

I could, quite frankly, drone on and on about this: how it shaped my appreciation for gaming in its most primitive (the one-color text adventure game), primed my mind for endless mental tinkering with regards to organization and workflow, tinkering with Linux and other OSes, DIY builds, etc., etc. I’m already quite off the beaten path, however, so I’ll refrain.

As a graphic designer, I naturally gravitated away from the DOS/Windows machines of my youth and toward the Mac OS environment; it’s always felt, for me (and many others) as the perfect platform upon which to do any variety of creative work. Even as I type this, on a Mac, using iA Writer, I feel more connected to the output than I feel I would on a PC. No disrespect, just a personal preference.

Early last year, when planning for a new studio computer, my penchant for hardware and software tinkering (and self-imposed stress, anxiety and frustration) led me to research the concept of building a Hackintosh – a DIY, Mac OS-based box running on a compatible, yet not officially sanctioned combination of hardware. In theory, it could be more budget friendly, more customizable and upgradeable, and just as powerful as a legitimate Mac — the trade-off, of course, being the lack of official support and the promise of hours spent trolling message boards seeking solutions to problems. And as someone somewhere has said (and I will likely be paraphrasing, here), “it is not a matter of if you will run into issues with a Hackintosh, but when.” So, naturally, I was sold.

Utilizing the build lists (March 2015) featured on the indispensable tonymacx86 site, I decided upon the following hardware combination. Please note that the following is not meant to be a tutorial or build how-to, but simply a rough recall of my own build experience.

The all-in, for the above, was ~$1200. Factoring in the other random bits (used 23” Apple Cinema HD Display, keyboard, mouse, power strip), the final tally came to $1445. I gave the machine the moniker Subterranea (as it's located in my basement [on the roughly refinished work table left behind by the late, previous homeowner]).

My short-term needs were pretty basic: a solid, better-than-entry-level machine to run Logic Pro (digital audio workstation software) and a bevy of VST/AU plugins with minimal CPU impact/lag at peak usage. Beyond that, potential for considerable RAM expansion (32GB max), easy accommodation of additional HD’s (I’ve since added a 250GB SSD for Windows 10 booting), plus the option of a video card upgrade, down the road, if need/desire arises.

Assembling the machine was easy, as you’d imagine. The motherboard, for as much as computing technology has evolved, remains practically identical in its form to the first computer I put together as a kid. Even for someone doing their first build, it’s really nothing a YouTube video couldn’t show you how to do in 5 minutes.

Then — even though this isn’t a tutorial (see here for that) — a few suggestions I found worth honoring before proceeding with UEFI/BIOS configuration and OS install:

My first install centered around the Chimera bootloader; it was billed as the entry-level option, so to speak. I quickly abandoned it for Clover, the more full-featured (read: complex) option. It resides on your drive’s EFI partition (versus Chimera's home at the root of your boot drive), meaning it doesn’t get touched by [almost any] user process (that isn’t intentional, at least). After surmounting a portion of the notoriously steep learning curve of Clover — a bit over-exaggerated, in my experience — you can configure it to your heart’s content, circumventing any (or most any?) foibles your particular build may exhibit. My motivation, perhaps hilariously, was a nonfunctional Messages app, the Apple ID-based iMessage client. Out of the box, Messages wouldn’t work — and couldn’t be configured to work, within Chimera — so Clover proved a worthwhile investment of time and energy. In addition to a fully operational Messages, I’ve since configured it for a streamlined dual-booting OS X/Windows 10 setup, defaulting (after 3 seconds of inactivity) to boot OS X automatically. Perfect.

After your first successful UniBeast-aided boot into OS X (which will, likely, be in ‘Verbose’ and/or ‘Safe’ mode for troubleshooting), the MultiBeast tool operates as a post-installation helper. For my configuration, it installed Clover to the EFI partition of my boot drive 'Primary’ (to no longer require USB to boot), the essential FakeSMC, enabled TRIM support on my third-party SATA drives and installed the necessary system extension for my ethernet interface. It would, in theory, also install the necessary extension for a built-in audio device chipset of your choosing, but I use an external USB interface (and thus eschewed to circumvent a needless, duplicate audio interface). At this point, assuming no other foibles await, booting sans USB should now be possible.

In retrospect, most — not all — of my issues following a relatively uneventful OS installation stemmed from the use of a dedicated video card. If drivers were not present in OS X and my card was present in its PCI slot, I’d get a kernel panic. This issue manifested in strange ways, even sometimes from seemingly harmless point updates of the OS, even when manually booting with the nv_disable=1 boot flag. It is only now, having been through this with several point updates (and even one particularly invasive ‘Security Update’), that I know to focus my own troubleshooting on the video card if I run into kernel panic. If nothing else worked, removing the card temporarily — and enabling integrated graphics within UEFI/BIOS to successfully boot in order to install updated drivers — would always work as a last ditch effort. It is, like anything else, largely predictable once you know what to look for. It’s highly individual, too, as troubleshooting requests from users on /r/hackintosh or tonymacx86 have seemed to prove.

So, if not for tutorial purposes — and if not a complete, note-for-note document of my troubleshooting — what is the point of all this? I’m not entirely sure, honestly. As it’d been a long time since I’d relied on a DIY build for my primary computer, it seemed to endure in my mind as more enjoyable and notable for being such. In addition, as I’d only met one other person who’d relied on a Hackintosh for their primary computer, it seemed to become a conversation whenever I mentioned my own. I’d come across and enjoyed reading a sizable number of personal anecdotes of a similar nature during my own build, so when all was said and done, it seemed only reasonable to encapsulate the experience in writing; whether for myself and my own memory or for the random search engine result that leads here.

Now, a year later, Subterranea has rivaled the stability and performance of any legitimate Mac I’ve owned and bests them in versatility. As a studio computer, it’s handled flawlessly whatever CPU load I’ve thrown at it without a single crash. While my own needs may not match that of other artists/producers, I’ve been impressed with the end result. The uniqueness, also, of learning the idiosyncracies of your configuration — while certainly not for everyone — increased my appreciation of the overall build experience. Hopefully, this document is telling of that.

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