Building a Macintosh

At work, I came to be a Mac fan. It’s based on BSD, but adds a much more polished GUI. It’s got a very user-friendly interface, and yet it’s trivial for me to pull up the command line and do “real” things there. So when I decided to build a new desktop, I decided I wanted to build something that would run OS X. Unfortunately, Apple’s hardware is ludicrously expensive, and I was on a budget. The good news is that you can build your own!

It used to be that you had to download a “cracked” version of OS X, which had a bunch of patches applied to make it run on non-Apple hardware. Now, though, the tweaks occur elsewhere — some minor changes to the bootloader, and a couple kernel modules to do the rest. The install process wasn’t too convoluted, and the result was well worth it:

It’s not actually a Xeon, but that’s okay.

Here’s what I used for hardware. I tried to stick to things that were fairly close to the hardware Apple uses, to ensure compatibility:

  • Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5. NewEgg hasn’t carried it in a long time. I got mine somewhere else. This is one of the few components that you have to be careful about, verifying them with hardware compatibility lists.
  • CPU: Intel i7-930, a quad-core 2.8 GHz processor with plenty of cache.
  • CPU cooler: I’m used to my laptop running hot, so I went overboard and bought a huge Zalman cooler.
  • Graphics: I went for an EVGA-branded GeForce 9800GT, because it’s easy to get working. This and the motherboard are the two main components to watch for OS X compatibility. A fairly simple “enabler” script brought me from crappy VESA display to dual displays at 1920×1080, with 3D acceleration. I was going to skimp on the video card, but Kyle convinced me that I’d regret it. Within a couple weeks of building the system, Steam launched a Macintosh client, so I was in business playing TF2. The card runs great.
  • RAM: 6x 2GB DIMMs. I went for these OCZ sticks. The RAM ended up costing me more than any other component, but I’ve spent pretty much my entire life wishing I had more RAM. It’s really great to have more than enough. I probably would have been okay with 6GB, but in my experience, 4GB is inadequate, and I wanted room to grow.
  • Hard drive: I should have bought an SSD, in hindsight. But I was trying to keep the cost down, and I was used to having inadequate disk space, so I sprung for a 2TB SATA disk. At 5400rpm, it’s a slow performer, but I don’t do anything too disk-intensive. Some day I may pick up an SSD for the OS, applications, and the portion of my home directory that isn’t 75GB of photographs or 10GB of music or 250GB of backups.
  • Bluetooth adapter: this little AZiO adapter fits in one of the myriad USB slots, protruding only a minuscule amount, powering my Bluetooth mouse. I was concerned about Mac support, and the reviews are full of people complaining that it doesn’t work on Windows 7. But it’s plug-and-play on the Mac.
  • Case: I got a nice big, roomy Zalman case. It’s kind of a ludicrous amount of money for a case, but I think it’s well worth it to have a really quality case. Little details, like slide-in rails for the power supply — or the fact that the power supply is the bottom and not the top — plus tons of hot-swap bays on the front — make it a pleasure to work with. The USB ports on the top front are a nice touch, too.

I have an actually-legally-purchased copy of OS X. I used the digital_dreamer install scripts, which required having an already-functioning Mac. Luckily I had a Mac laptop. I connected the hard drive via USB (about the thousandth time that I realized my USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter was a great purchase) and formatted it properly, did a retail install of OS X to the drive, and then ran a script to patch in the requisite drivers. Then I plunked the drive into my new machine, booted it up, downloaded the latest OS updates, and ran a couple things like the “enabler” scripts for my Ethernet cards and the graphics. Now it runs superbly well; the only thing I lack is a sleep mode. I think that’s easy to fix, actually, but I haven’t bothered yet.

For fun, a few photos of the build.

This kind of amused me. The processor came in a huge package. In the course of removing the heatsink, this little silver square fell out. The little silver square, of course, is the processor:

Here’s the motherboard fitted with the processor and the default heatsink:

But I didn’t trust that fan. Here it is with the Zalman cooler installed. (Yes, the protective plastic is still on. This was a dry fit, before everything was mounted. Yes, I remembered to remove it when I installed it for real.)

Quite a bit larger. Good thing I got a roomy case.

I’ve been quite happy with the setup, and I’d highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “Building a Macintosh

  1. Does the licence allow that? I thought it limited the hardware you could run MacOS to Apple brand hardware? Just wondering. I’ve always thought Apple control of machines its OS could run on was morally wrong and the same sort of thing IBM was sued for years ago.

  2. The OS license only allows installation on “Apple-branded” hardware. (Some have argued that putting an Apple sticker on your computer makes it “Apple-branded.”)

    Most people, myself included, agree with you about it being a questionable restriction. (Can you IMAGINE if Microsoft tried it?)

    I tend to be pretty good these days about “doing the right thing” and certainly about paying for the software I use. I have no moral qualms about using a paid-for copy of OS X on hardware I didn’t buy from Apple.

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