Build a custom Apple machine

Build a custom Apple Machine using a Hackintosh

Why did I switch from Mac products to a hackintosh?  You're about to find out!

Apple products sure look pretty.  I could have googly eyes all day just looking at their products and marveling at the sleek OS. Let me count the ways Apple does things right:

  • They're minimal -- that flush screen, gah!
  • Oh so compact!
  • User-friendly out-of-the-box

I know a lot of us designers tend to go the Apple route and it's seems clear why...doesn't it?

Doesn't Apple make the best products for designers we could possibly desire?

Short answer: Not unless you want to pay a premium for mediocre parts, inadequate cooling and, most importantly, an awful built-in screen for color matching.

Long answer: Now I don't want this post to get too technical, but I'll cover the basics and link outward to good resources if you'd like to research more.  I just feel like we, as designers, should be using technology to our advantage and not just succumbing to Apple's brilliant marketing.

What Apple does:

When Apple designs an iMac, it's essentially a compromise between good, fast, or cheap, pick two of those. They chosen to focus on user experience, which severely curtails the type of hardware they use.  You see this when you build a hackintosh as a limitation on what motherboards (the computer highway) and graphics cards (the pretty visuals and rendering).  You also see it in the "Apple approved" extras that "add to" the user experience. Read: white.

What Hackintoshes bring:

When building a hackintosh, you are limited to the type of hardware you can use for compatibility with OS X. The upside of this is that if you buy the right hardware, you can customize functionality in the way that Apple computers won't let you do.

Upgradable: you won't have to throw out your iMac or pay through the nose when one part explodes.

So, you go from a $3,000 repair to a $300 repair.  And not only is it easy to replace that component, you don't need specialized tools and the chance of breaking the screen is non-existent. Unless you throw your other monitor out the window =)

What we built:

  • CPU: I7 4790 K.  This is also known as a central processing unit.
  • CPU cooling: Closed-loop liquid cooling -- not recommended for first-timers
  • Motherboard: Asus 97 series with built-in AC WiFi.
  • GPU: NVidia GTX 660 -- there are limitations of GPUs you can use in a hackintosh, so make sure it corresponds to a GPU that Apple already uses in their own computers - this is liquid cooled as well...this is also not for beginners.
  • RAM: 16 GB (4.x4) DDR3 2600 MHz -- if you get matched sets of RAM from the manufacturer, this is the biggest improvement for the CPU for Photoshop and Illustrator.
  • Hard Drive: Samsung Evo 840 solid state drive -- Picking a fast drive is crucial to fast application load and save times.  You can pick traditional hard drive to save to.  SSDs costs less than a dollar per gigabyte whereas a traditional costs 10 cents per gigabyte for storage capacity.
  • Monitor: Asus 24.1 inch  IPS PA248Q
  • Case: Thermaltake Core V31. -- This case is optimized for liquid cooling. And it has a pretty side panel =)

A note on liquid-cooling: a big pro if you're noise-sensitive or if you live in a hot environment.  The downsides are: cost, getting a case that will accommodate the radiators, leaks will not be fun.  If you invest in nice liquid-cooling, leaks won't be top of mind.  I've had luck with Corsair.

Monitor Comparison with iMacs

In design, color is important.  The more colors you see the the screen, the more accurate the end product will be.  There's a thing called a Look-Up Table (LUT) -- this determines the number to discreet colors a monitor can show.

With an iMac you can have 255 colors based on an 8 bit look-up table (LUT).  That equals to only 256 shades & 16.7 million visible colors on the screen.

With the Asus screen I purchased there are 1023 colors based on a 10 bit look-up table (LUT). Through math magic, that equals to 1024 shades and 68 BILLION visible colors.  Yep.  That's crazy-town...and a giant leap with the 2 extra bits per pixel.

There are also monitors with 12 and 14 bits (but those are very expensive).

And the good news, is, that in December 2015, Adobe enabled 10-bit compatibility! YAY!

If you're totally confused about what I just said, you can read up on LUT resource material on PCMag's article "How to Choose the Right Monitor for Graphic Design"

Setup procedure for building your hackintosh:

Now is where we mention there is an amazing website called Tony Mac X86 where they have a list of approved hardware that you can pick and choose depending on your budget and if you need help, there are forums where people document their successful build and are available to answer questions.

Downsides to a hackintosh

  • You'll need a copy of the operating system software.  The easiest way to get that is with an existing Apple machine to access the OS download from the App Store.
  • Upgrading the software on your hackintosh will not be as simple as downloading from the App store.  This is NOT recommended.  You should read up on documentation for how hackintoshes react to new updates prior to installing it yourself.
  • You should be comfortable with a command-line interface (using the Terminal application) for installion and initial boot-up. Note: Some builds will require quite a bit of trial and error with boot switches to boot continually. They are also used to load kernel extensions for hardware that isn't completely approved by Apple.

Upsides to a hackintosh

  • Half price computer that can hang and definitely exceed a top-of-the-line MacPro's workflow. Mo moneys in yo pocket and less time waiting around for programs to load and do their thang.**
  • Choice of screens.  iMac is limited to 2 screens.  Mine is not.
  • Sound.  Choice of speakers.

**This is the number one reason to go with making a hackintosh computer.

Wrap Up:

-The solid state drive loads programs and saves files significantly faster than a traditional hard drive. An upgraded CPU and increased cooling (fans/liquid) speeds up anything a computer does to process files. -RAM is crucial to Adobe programs because it will load all your files into the RAM and treat it like a hard drive.  It is much fast than an SSD.  Side note: You should buy one 4x4 kit, not two 2x2 kits. The are spec'd at the factory to work together and it will save you a lot of headache if you buy a 4x4 (16GB of ram). -The GPU is like a CPU but it does a lot of short operations faster.  So imagine having ten arms with two fingers on each hand.  Whereas the CPU is having 2 arms with 10 fingers.  You can make more complicated objects but can't make as many as fast.


If you have any burning questions, I may be able to help if you shoot me an email about this topic.

Disclaimer:  I don't receive any compensation for any opinions for this post.  It is purely all from my own experience and knowledge.  I also had tons of help from my Engineer who is also a hardware nerd.  This guide is meant to assist you in making your own hackintosh, but this is by no means the end-all-be-all.  It is simply what worked for me. Happy upgrading!