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Ask LH: How Do I Choose The Right Hardware When Building A Hackintosh?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve read your guides on how to build a regular Hackintosh and a Hack Mini but the hardware I want is a little different, plus some of the parts in those guides are no longer available. How can I figure out what hardware will work so I can build the best Hackintosh for me?Sincerely, Puzzled About Parts

Dear Puzzled,

Figuring out the right Hackintosh build can be a little tough at first because, like you said, some parts become unavailable pretty quickly and sometimes you want a better graphics card, a faster processor, and so on. Figuring out the right build is actually pretty easy once you know a few core things, however, so you should be able to pick your parts and have a working, custom Hackintosh in no time. Basically, there are some components to your new custom computer that need to be very specific. With these parts, you’ll have very limited choices. With many others, you’ll be able to pick pretty much whatever you want. First let’s talk about where you’re limited.

Your Hardware Limitations

The Motherboard and Processor
Your choice of motherboard is pretty restricted to motherboards that are known to work and have an existing file called a DSDT. DSDT stands for Differentiated System Description Table and basically tells Mac OS X about the hardware in your machine. Unless you’re going to create your own you don’t really need to know too much about these DSDT files and just know that there is one for the current firmware version of your motherboard of choice. If you do want to be as informed as possible, here’s a little more information to get you started. So how do you find these DSDTs? Tonymacx86′s site (a resource you’ll use often) has a DSDT database where you can download them for specific motherboards. The ASUS and Gigabyte motherboards in the database have been tested and verified, but the others aren’t. Just because there’s a DSDT doesn’t mean you’ll get a fully compatible motherboard, so you’ll need to do a little more work to find the right one.

There are two good ways to find a usable motherboard. The easiest is to choose one from an existing build. Our guides provide a few, but we usually reference Tonymacx86′s CustoMac builds so those are definitely a very good place to look. Alternatively, you can browse or post on the InsanelyMac forum to find motherboards others are using. If you’re looking for up-to-the-minute results this is a good place to go. Tonymacx86 also has a good forum you can use as well.

Once you’ve found a good, Hackintosh-compatible motherboard you just need a processor. The upside is that generally any processor the motherboard supports will work with your Hackintosh. Generally you’ll want to double-check and ask questions on the previously mentioned forums if you’re not sure, but if Apple has used the same processor type in one of their official Macintosh computers you’re good to go. If you’re going the AMD route, however, be sure to look for evidence that your processor and motherboard are fully compatible. Again, you can do this by posting to the previously mentioned forums or finding the information on existing builds.

The Graphics Card
While finding a Hackintosh-compatible motherboard is the most difficult task you’re going to have, choosing a graphic’s card is a close second. As previously mentioned, your best bet is finding an existing build with a GPU that’s known to work. There aren’t a ton of options, so when you can get the exact card in a working build you should. This doesn’t just mean the same model with the same specifications, but the same brand as well. Not every brand of a specific graphic’s card is exactly the same and you can end up with problems if you swap an EVGA for a Zotac, for example (although both brands tend to work pretty well on average). In the event the GPU you want to buy is no longer available, or you want something more/less powerful than the option you find in an existing build, you’re not out of luck. Tonymac86 has a GPU-compatibility listing so you can check and see what works and what doesn’t before you buy. InsanelyMac also has a nice compatibility database that might help you find more options, plus you can always ask about compatibility questions on their GPU forum.

Selecting a GPU isn’t too hard, and sometimes you can get away with using a different variant of a card that’s known to work, but your best bet is to stick with something that’s been verified in a posted build and many have used. If you do that, you should be OK, but as one final paranoid measure you may want to look for potential issues. Do a web search for the name of your card, the word hackintosh, and the word problem. This will generally turn up issues users are seeing. Sometimes they will be minor and you’ll learn the HDMI port, for example, doesn’t work or doesn’t support audio. You might not care about that. On the other hand, you might find that a large majority of users experienced incompatibility issues once they upgraded to a specific version of Mac OS X. Sometimes GPU compatibility information isn’t as up-to-date as it could be, so it never hurts to check and see if there are issues. It’s also worth remembering that you can get a bad graphics card and may see issues for that reason, or the issues some users see could come from other hardware or a Hackintosh with the wrong drivers and tweaks. When you buy your GPU the most important thing is to buy from a store with a good return policy. If you do that, at least you can send the card back and get a new one should you run into trouble.

Your More Flexible Hardware Options

RAM
If the RAM you want is compatible with your motherboard you can pretty much get whatever you want. This isn’t a guarantee, but we’ve yet to run into a case where this isn’t true.

Hard Drive or SSD
Essentially any drive you purchase will work if it’s formatted for Mac OS X, but there are sometimes compatibility issues with SSDs. This is pretty rare, so when you pick an SSD just make sure it’s compatible with OS X. You don’t even have to look for information as it relates to Hackintoshes as many Mac users are performing their own third-party SSD upgrades. We’re pretty fond of the OCZ Vertex and Agility series SSDs, as they’re very fast and you’re usually able to get them at a good price, but brands (such as Corsair, Kingston, OWC, etc.) tend to work just as well. If you can’t find any information about incompatibility you should be just fine.

The only other thing to pay attention to has more to do with building a computer than it does with getting a Hackintosh-compatible drive. For the most part, you’ll be purchasing a drive with a SATA interface but you’ll want to be sure. Your drive’s interface and your motherboard’s interface need to match up, whether that’s SATA, PATA, or something else.

Optical Drive
As with your hard/solid-state drive, your optical drive simply needs to share a compatible interface with your motherboard. This doesn’t necessary mean the interface will be the same as your hard/solid-state drive, so just make sure everything matches up correctly.

Case and Power Supply
The case you choose is pretty much irrelevant to Mac OS X, so you can pick virtually anything you want. All you have to remember is that it needs to support the type of motherboard you’ve chosen and fit all your other components inside of it. You’ll be able to choose from mini to super ATX towers, MicroATX desktops, and Mini-ITX desktops. Your motherboard’s specifications will tell you what type of case you need, so just pick that type of case and you should be good to go. The only time you’ll really have to worry about fitting everything is if you get a small case and have a large graphic’s card. That said, for the most part you shouldn’t run into trouble. This Hack Mini is pretty tiny and fits a very large, dual-slot GPU just fine.

As for the power supply, your case may have one built-in that’s sufficient for your needs. Alternatively, if you need to buy one, just make sure it can handle the power requirements of the other components you’ve chosen for your machine.

If you want more general information on choosing hardware for a custom-built machine, we have a night school lesson about that.

What’s Next?

After you’ve got your hardware you just need to build your Hackintosh and install Mac OS X. If you need more help on building a computer, we have five lessons that take you through the entire process (with video!). Additionally, our Hackintosh and a Hack Mini guides both detail the process of installing OS X. While things change (such as upgrading to Lion), the installation process tends to remain the same. You just need to install the necessary kexts and apply the tweaks specific to your hardware. This is generally pretty easy to figure out when using a tool like Multibeast, but it may require a little trial and error. By learning the process in our guides, and through other guides on the web, you should have little trouble figuring out what you need to do. With the most recent Hackintosh I built, there was no guide and I just made educated guesses. Fortunately, it worked perfectly on the first try. Thanks to tools like Multibeast, Hackintoshing is easier than ever. So start building!

Cheers
Lifehacker


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