Category Archives: Hackintosh

The computer for the best of us

Mac Pro 2009 – Part I

Yer what?!

For an index of all my Mac Pro articles, click here.

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2009 Mac Pro CPU upgrade service.

I have, it is true, been doing more than my share of jaw dropping and falling off the old office chair of recent, but those incidents were solely the results of the craziness visited on world markets by a Federal Reserve Board seemingly gone mad. It seems that Americans, too, are to be subjected to European austerity, politics of greed and further unwarranted wealth transfer to the unspeakable 1%.

But no, what occasioned this latest bout of gluteus maximum soreashellus and jawus brokus was a call from none other than that pseudonymous hacker to the stars and expert Hackintosh builder, my friend FU Steve. I use the term loosely.

There’s no way of breaking this gently. Here were the first words on the call from the mouth of the hackosaurus:

“I’m buying a 2009 Mac Pro and scrapping my Hackintosh. You will too, mate.”

The 2009 – or is that 2012? – Mac Pro. Not a wire in sight.

Had the man been in the room I would likely have dashed for a cold compress and something even colder with a high proof rating to calm the nerves. FU’s and mine. As it was, I just politely suggested that I had the number of a local looney bin handy and that maybe a few days R&R away from the mother-in-law were called for. The stream of invective which followed has no place in this family-friendly journal. Suffice it to say that he started with some possibly valid inquiries into my parentage, followed with suggestions of what might happen to my dog on his next visit, rounding the whole thing off with a reminder that he is a foot wider and two feet taller than me.

Now in addition to his bulging biceps and general bigness, FU is also distinguished in the area of grey matter where, most agree, he has more than enough for two of us regular schmoes. So after the heart rate had come down a bit and FU had vented his spleen I decided to listen. It’s not like the man has ever let me down and his judgment in all things Mac and Hack has been pretty solid over the years.

Thus, I listened hard.

“Why 2009, FU? You could get a dozen of the latest 2012 versions or maybe even four of the Apple JokePro

“Dude” quoth he, “If you see $3,000 lying on the sidewalk I doubt even you are so dumb as to pass it by.”

The man had a point.

“But 2009? That’s ancient in computer terms.”

“Not so, chum. If you study the specs hard you will see that there was absolutely zero mechanical change between a 2009 Mac Pro and the 2012 model. Zero. Only two things changed. The good people at Intel came up with ever faster Xeon CPUs and the poor dears at Apple had to spend a few minutes upgrading their firmware to recognize the latest CPUs and newest RAM. That and making a newer, higher price tag. But the Mac Pro world, comprised of Mr. and Mrs. Doofus, as usual bought Apple’s dictate that the Mac Pro could not be upgraded other than by issuing Cupertino a check for the latest machine. This, of course, is the purest rot.”

“You mean you can upgrade a 2009 to 2012 specs?”

The most beautiful computer ever.

“You know it. It’s called Hack-a-Mac and it’s childishly easy. Why, even you could do it. Here’s the scoop. First, forget about those poncy single CPU Mac Pros. Go out and buy a 2009 with the two 2.26GHz Xeons in base spec – 6GB RAM, small HDD, and so on. They run $800-1,200, the costlier ones reflecting an absence of scratches from that gorgeous piece of sculpture which is the Mac Pro’s case. The real Mac Pro’s case, not the GarbageMac. And forget the 2008 or prior. They cannot be made to work with today’s speedier DDR3 memory and additional RAM is crazy expensive, worse than a hammer procured by the military. I’m talking $550 for 16GB.

Despite the slow 2.26GHz clock speed of the 2009 Xeons, you get a Geekbench score of 12,200, which is a smidge slower than the 12,500 in your Sandy Bridge i7 HackPro. In other words, perfectly serviceable.

Now the GPU in that old Mac Pro, likely an nVidia GT120, couldn’t make the tea, but you can swap in the current GTX660 from your Hack at a cost of precisely nothing. The 6GB of 1066 MHz RAM is slower than the current 1333MHz, so another $132 plonked down at DataMemorySystems gets you 16GB of 1333MHz matched RAM. Do not buy the RAM for the 2009. Get that for the 2012 – it’s faster and we will make it work at the faster speed. We cannot do 1600MHz, but the practical difference in speed is negligible and nowhere near the ratio suggested by those frequencies. And don’t waste your money at Mac Sales/OWC where the memory is identical but 30% more.”

I began to glaze a bit, but he was on a roll.

“Need USB3? A $40 PCIe aftermarket card will give you four sockets. And all your SSDs and HDDs will transplant nicely to the Mac Pro, though the SSDs will benefit from this $20 gadget from MacSales as the twits at Apple never thought anyone might actually want to mount a 2.5″ SSD in a Mac Pro. Geez.”

He paused and I knew better than to ask. The sound of ice cubes in a glass told its own story.

“Now, where was I? Oh! yes. So now for your $1,210 you have a very decently specified Mac Pro with 16GB of RAM, your excellent GTX660 GPU and all the connectivity and drive storage transplanted from the Hackster. You can easily remainder the unused CPU/memory/motherboard and case from the Hack for $400, and you are out $810.

But the real magic sauce comes with the hacking part – you knew that was coming, right? – which makes our 4 year old Mac Pro look as attractive as a young Bardot in a skimpy bikini. More of that later. I gotta catch my date. But you are gonna like it because the results will be almost as fast as the new 2013 garbage can and a whole lot more expandable.”

And with that he rang off.

One thing we can be sure of. When Mr. and Mrs. Doofus are suckered into the new Mac Pro/garbage can imitation, there will be no shortage of used 2009 Mac Pros hitting the market.

Design as art. Note the choice of motherboards.

That parts schematic is exceptionally useful for finding replacements for parts which wear out – like the fans and the power supply. Just input the part number to Google.

More in Part II.

Haswell for the desktop

Does it make sense to upgrade?

I asked my computer builder FU Steve to pen a few words on upgrades of Intel CPUs in Hackintosh machines.

* * * * *

AnandTech just ran an interesting piece on a high-end PC equipped with an overclocked Intel i7 Haswell CPU, the CPU which obsoletes the current Ivy Bridge. They use a very high-end ($700+) graphics card which muddies the waters somewhat, but their conclusions regarding the new CPU are clear.

Click the picture to read the full review.

AnandTech’s expert has written a fine no-punches-pulled review. It’s a site I like to visit for hard-core analysis compared with the likes of Gizmodo or TechCrunch which mostly seem to uncritically repeat press releases accompanied by puerile writing.

Haswell comes in many flavors (I count over 60 on Intel’s excellent site) but maybe a key comparison is between the i5 mobile version found in the 2013 MacBook Air and the overclocked i7 in the machine reviewed by AnandTech. Here is the comparison from Intel’s site, and I have extracted a section below:

Apart from the speed differences, the desktop Haswells can support 32GB of RAM, compared with a maximum of 16GB for the mobile i5, so for heavy-duty video processing, the desktop version may make sense offering higher CPU speed as well as doubled maximum memory support.

As I wrote earlier, the 2013 MacBook Air is a significant improvement over even the 2012 model, with doubled battery life and 30% faster graphics, making even so early an upgrade seem like common sense. But what about the Hackintosh?

AnandTech’s review, above, concludes that the gains in CPU performance are negligible in moving from Ivy Bridge to Haswell. The low 70 watt idle power consumption is hardly a reason to upgrade; Thomas’s HP100+ idles at 100 watts, and that includes a pair of HDDs, a pair of SSDs, a GTX660 GPU, 16GB of RAM, a wi-fi card, a Z68 motherbooard and five fans. 30 watts saved is irrelevant. You will never recover the cost.

Most Hackintosh users have one of Core2Duo/Core2Quad (2010 and prior), Sandy Bridge (2011) or IvyBridge (2012) CPUs in their machines. Here are my thoughts on the wisdom of upgrading.

Intel Atom: Commonly found in hacked netbooks. Upgrade immediately. Way too slow for modern CPU-intensive applications.

Core2Duo/Core2Quad: Thomas’s current Hack started with a Q9550 Core 2Quad, 2.83GHz stock, which I overclocked to 3.6GHz. An upgrade to anything later makes sense, doubling CPU speed. You will need a new motherboard, new, faster memory and a new CPU. It makes sense to jump right to Haswell as it’s the current design. The cheaper i5 is fine for all but heavy video processing, and 8GB is more than adequate. There’s no need to overclock (i5 or i7 with the ‘K’ suffix in the model number can be overclocked and run a few dollars more) unless you are into intense video processing.

For video consider the i7 and 32GB of RAM. For regular still photography processing, no separate GPU is needed, a substantial saving. Just use the integrated HD4600 which comes with the i5 and i7 versions of the CPU.

Used Intel CPUs retain remarkable resale values. There is still strong demand for the Core2Quad and in fact, I sold mine 2 years ago for more than it cost new! Newer graphics boards also make sense. Used ones have little value. The still photographer gets best price/benefit from something like an nVidia GTX 660 (which Thomas now uses) though for most even something as inexpensive as a used 9800GT will be fine. Easily found for $30. The videographer should go with a GTX660ti or GTX680. The latest GTX7xx cards are too bleeding edge to be a safe choice.

Sandy Bridge: No upgrade needed. Ivy Bridge does not offer enough advantage, though you can apply a BIOS update to most Gigabyte motherboards which will permit the use of Ivy Bridge on a Sandy Bridge motherboard as both use the same socket. If you want more CPU speed consider upgrading an i3 to an i5 or an i5 to an i7 for a 50% speed increase from each step. Used Intel CPUs retain remarkable resale values. Sandy Bridge desktop CPUs can support up to 32Gb of RAM.

Ivy Bridge: Upgrading to Haswell makes no sense. You need a new motherboard and CPU for negligible benefits. Ivy Bridge desktop CPUs can support up to 32Gb of RAM.

* * * * *

Thank you, FU.

Mac Pro 2013

Much less than meets the eye.

Announced with much hype at this week’s Apple WWDC, the new MacPro is an exercise in trying to be different for difference’s sake, a solution looking for a problem. I stopped watching the hypefest after the third use of the now meaningless “awesome” and got on with better things.

2013 Mac wastepaper basket, errr …. Mac Pro.

Had they really thought about it, maybe the monolith from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ would have been a better form factor than a garbage can, but whatever. 1:4:9 form factors are nothing to make a joke of.

The driving thought behind this design – other than trying to look innovative – is the same as behind almost every Apple product. Take away user choice and lock up the box. The last Apple machine to offer user expandability in any meaningful way is the current MacPro. As Apple disregarded that machine as it morphed into a cell phone maker, the 2012 (more like 2007) MacPro is seriously overpriced and seriously dated, easily outperformed by any number of MacBook Pro laptops. Laptops! This has left a lot of graphics pros unhappy, with many migrating to high end HP and Dell workstations, trading the horrors of Windows for the speed of current silicon.

Now nothing Apple does to the MacPro will move the needle on its sales and profits, both a rounding error to the world’s largest technology company. But it’s a flagship product with high exposure to ‘tastemakers’ (ugh!) in Hollywood and much smarter people in Lawrence Livermore Labs, so as a vanity product it makes sense to retain it in the line. Apple has taken the approach of locking up the box, making it very small and doubtless thermally challenged (sound familiar?) and delegated all the storage goodness to external devices. With Intel’s Thunderbolt2 providing high speed connectivity, all your drives will be in very costly external enclosures, connected with TB cables. The Intel Xeon CPU and the twin AMD GPUs in the MacPro’s cylinder will do their thing on externally stored files. Sure you can use USB2 drives, but then much of what is good in the can is lost. However, there is an HDMI socket and the GPU supports 4K video, so this will make a great HTPC for the well heeled!

All of your old drives, heretofore cheaply connected internally running at 3GB/s (6GB/s never having made it to the MacPro) will have to be removed and placed in costly TB boxes or simply junked after the data are migrated. And as for the strange – comical almost – cylindrical shape, blackened in anticipation of huge thermal challenges, who on earth cares when the machine will immediately be stashed under the desk? Sure, the old MacPro is gorgeous to look at, but that’s a phase called ‘unpacking’. After that, it disappears, though unlike the 2013 model (“Awesome! 12% of the volume of the old one. Innovation!”) it will not fall over as soon as you accidentally kick it. Nor will it overheat when taxed. But, heck, with the 2013 MacPro feel free to enjoy the jumble of external boxes and cables which it will demand, and save on home heating bills, too. And as for PCIe expansion cards for all those high end audio and graphics users, fughedaboutit. And your apps use nVidia’s ‘awesome’ CUDA graphics acceleration technology? Ha! You’re out of luck because the ATI graphics in the new MacPro will not support that.

The costly 12core Xeon CPU and two AMD GPU specs, doubtless complemented by overpriced and soldered in SSD storage for the OS and apps, make it hard to think that this machine will sell for under $5,000. Call it $8k with external storage, optical drives, card readers, etc. Not that the desperately in want audience will care as, for the most part, they are spending the boss’s money, not their own.

Well, you can rejoice in the knowledge that the gadget will be assembled in the USA by four displaced Detroit auto workers who should adequately fill the demand.

The MacPro. Looking better already.

You will never be able to add the highest speed RAM to that old box, but you can plug in PCIe USB3 and Thunderbolt cards if needed, which makes it almost current while still running cool. As for DVD and Blu-Ray burners, no problemo.

It’s too bad more high end users will not make the time to learn the simple process of creating a Hackintosh. For 20% of the cost of a 2013 MacPro you get an ugly box, state of the art components and exceptional cooling, and no one will laugh at you when you show them just how ugly your box is. It’s the same box you assembled 5 years ago and have updated annually for $200 to maintain performance leadership. A Hummer isn’t pretty either, but its looks are consonant with its goals – brute strength and reliability. Much like a good Hackintosh. The 2013 MacPro is no Hummer. More like one of those low end plastic Mercedes beloved of the polyester set.

Hackintosh – the Hummer of computers.
Everything worth knowing in one picture.

HDMI on the Hackintosh

The last frontier.

As I’m clueless about the tech aspects, I have handed over this latest Hackintosh column to pseudonymous Hackintosh ace and all around good egg FU Steve:

“Thanks, Thomas. Your own recent upgrades to Blu-Ray capability in your HackMini make what follows especially timely.

A brief summary of Hackintosh creation shows that it involves two fields.

Hardware: The Hackintosh is made of cheap stock PC parts, available from many online vendors or from your local Fry’s Electronics. The hardware aspect of the ‘build’ has always been the easy part, and it’s literally no more difficult than making a Lego toy. If there’s a tricky bit it’s inserting those fiddly connectors for the front panel power switches and the LED activity lights, as those are not keyed. No smoke results if you get these wrong – just try again. As for the rest of it, all connectors are keyed and it’s impossible to get them wrong. For brands, the only ones which matter are Intel CPUs and Gigabyte motherboards, because that’s what the Hackintosh community favors. While ATI make some nice Radeon GPUs, if you are using a separate graphics card – increasingly unnecessary in these days of excellent integrated GPUs which come with the CPU – then nVidia is the way to go. It does not pay to be a pioneer here – stick with the GTX6xx series or earlier. Let the GTX7xx lads do the bleeding for you first. Other than those, nothing else is brand sensitive. Have at it when it comes to memory, power supplies, cases, keyboards, displays, speakers, etc. The world is your oyster. The only honorable exception is wi-fi where you simply must use the TP-Link wi-fi card. It’s $42, plug and play, confers full Airport capability and life is too short for the alternatives.

Software: Always the witches brew when it comes to Hackintoshes. Back in the OS Tiger days this was truly a job only for masochists and the terminally insane. Today, with Mountain Lion and superb free tools from (time for a name change, guys?) hacking OS X to run on your PC parts has never been easier. Not as trivial as the hardware part, but follow the excellent instructions on that site and you will succeed, aided by an enthusiastic membership.

But there remains one aspect of software hacking which is still in the Dark Ages, and that is the process of getting the HDMI socket on modern builds to convey audio.

A brief history. A few years ago VGA (Video Graphics Array) was the way to go. IBM’s brilliant invention conveyed video through 15 pin connectors from the Hack to your display of choice. Sound was carried on a separate 3.5mm coaxial cable (or cables, for multichannel sound). VGA is robust, very easy to implement – nothing needs be done most of the time – and delivers excellent analog video.

Then along came DVI (Digital Video Interface) in a bewildering set of variations:

And one or more of these is what every Hack and most PCs use to convey video to a display with, once again, a separate cable for audio. DVI video can be analog or digital, depending on the connector, whereas the audio remains analog over the separate cable.

With the advent of large flat panel TVs the need to simplify things saw the creation of HDMI, the High-Definition Multimedia Interface, which conveys video and audio, both in purest digital, from Hackintosh to TV set. Getting video working requires only that an HDMI cable be connected between TV set and the Hackintosh. It’s audio which is an SOB. The problem is that getting HDMI working on a Hack is sheer bloody hell. There is no standardization, many software apps are needed, the hacking involves the most arcane changes to code in various files and the results are anything but guaranteed. Just look at the length of the discussion on this topic on the above referenced board and you will see they frequently stretch to dozens of pages and hundreds of postings, many issues remaining unresolved. So the Hackintosh community definitely needs to go where no man has gone before and come up with an app to do this for all but the code monkeys of the world.

But there is a simpler solution. Having tried – and failed – to make Thomas’s HackMini enable its HDMI socket audio (via his nVidia GT430 graphics card), I resorted to the easy fix. Using TonyMac’s Multibeast I added the Voodoo kext to his System->Library->Extensions directory and then moved the existing AppleHDA.kext to an applications directory for storage. The two do not coexist. Then I rebuilt permissions, just to be safe. Here’s what I’m talking about:

There are several versions of Voodoo – just keep trying until one works. The first did the trick for me.

Then you need to go into Applications->Utilities->AudioMidi Setup and dial in 48000 Hz as the Format, thus:

Restart and you will have working HDMI video and audio, the latter after going into SystemPreferences->Sound->Output and choosing one of the four ‘Digital’ options – try one after the other until it works. No need to restart for this step.

The upside of the Voodoo approach is that it’s fast and easy. The downside is that if you restart the Hack you may need to redo the AudioMidi Setup step, which takes all of five seconds. Further, you will be limited to 2+1 channel sound, not the 5+1 or 7+1 offered by the proper hack. Until the Hackintosh community develops a systematic hack to get HDMI audio working, this is the easiest way.”

* * * * *

Thank you, FU. Now my Blu-Ray experience is complete …. until I add a 90″ Sharp LED display and 7+1 surround sound, that is!

The Sharp 90″ newly listed by Costco – for all of $7,500.
Remember when the Pioneer 104″ was $100,000 not so long ago?

The other night I was watching the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West where the steam train idles while Charles Bronson gets off to meet the assassins. The breathing of the train’s massive piston is like nothing I have ever heard, and HDMI digital audio is to thank for that. I then changed to Steve McQueen’s Le Mans also in Blu-Ray and reveled in the sound of two of the greatest endurance racers ever – the brute Porsche 917 and the beautiful Ferrari 512. Though calling any Ferrari ‘beautiful’ is an exercise in the tautological. Just ‘Ferrari’ suffices.

If you have not yet done so, I encourage you to look into adding HDMI connections for video and audio to your TV. Beware that the colors are all over the place after using VGA so be prepared to re-tune things.

For those disinclined to build a Hackintosh, the only Apple solution is in the current MacMini which is the only Mac which an HDMI output:

Of course, you will have to add external storage and an external BluRay drive if you want to watch Blu-Ray movies and rip them for storage. Also hope the gadget doesn’t overheat. Apple claims the HDMI output delivers audio and video; I have not tested it, nor will I be. New MacMinis start at $600. The cheapest version with an SSD runs some $1,099 with 4GB RAM and no DVD drive, which is outrageous. Used mid-2010 (the one with HDMI added) can be found on eBay for $400.

4TB drives

Bigger is better.

When I wrote about installing a 4TB drive in the HackMini the other day, to store large Blu-Ray movie files, I added:

Well, it did not take long to admit I was wrong, and I have installed a second 4TB drive in the HackMini and given away all my Blu-Ray DVDs to friends. There’s nothing quite like direct access to a movie which has been stripped off all the junk they typically come with nowadays (sort of like Windows come to think of it, though the preferred path there is to avoid the product all together) and physical media deny ease of cataloging and retrieval, both easily added once the movie resides on a hard drive.

Two 4TB drives in the HackMini, plus the usual cable mess.

The cheapest 4TB drive currently at Amazon is the Seagate ST4000DM000, retailing at some $175 + tax. In fact you can get it in a USB3 enclosure for even less than that – $165!

Seagate 4TB drive with enclosure.

So if you need a 4TB internal drive, buy the boxed one and discard the enclosure. (A similar waste of materials applies to cheap and excellent Brother laser printers. Rather than replace the fuser at the end of its life, it’s cheaper to buy a new printer ….)

The full complement of drives driven by the HackMini:

The six 3TB external drives reside in two Mediasonic boxes – with room for two more drives. The SSD contains the OS and Applications, with a small Hitachi notebook drive backing it up. You can see the Blu-Ray player at the bottom of the list.

The pricing per terabyte for 2, 3 and 4TB drives is identical. Reckon on $45 per TB. 1TB drives are no longer economical at $65. A few dollars more gets you double the capacity.

Now storing data on so large a drive makes no sense without an identical backup drive. The thought of losing 4TB is not one calculated to improve your sleep cycle.

This piece gives a good overview of areal density trends in HDDs, suggesting we will be seeing 10TB HDDs – probably for a lot less than $45/TB – in 2-3 years’ time:

More than enough for all those D800 monster files!

I’ll report back in the event I have any reliability issues, but after one year of running four 3TB drives (2 Seagate, 2 Western Digital) in my Mediasonic box, I have not had one problem, so I’m optimistic all will be well.

Speaking of the excellent Mediasonic box, I can confirm that mine sees and formats the 4TB drives fine. By contrast, my ancient Aluratek drive cradle which holds a 1.5TB Time Machine drive for my main Hackintosh sees 3TB drives as 1TB and 4TB drives as 1.8TB, so it’s useless for these large HDDs. So if you propose using a 3 or 4TB drive in a drive cradle or older HDD enclosure, first check that the enclosure will work properly.

What is most disappointing is how slow Solid State Drives have been to reap economies of scale. These are generally from makers who have no legacy HDD business, so they have every incentive to innovate and improve. Yet at the time of writing, 1TB SSDs cost an arm and a leg – over $2,000 which is plain silly – and 500MB ones run $400-500, or $1,000 per TB. That’s twenty times the cost of HDDs. It seems that every time prices of SSDs drop, HDDs make another storage leap, keeping SSDs uncompetitive.

HDD makers – from Wikipedia. Only three remain.

There are still great advantages to SSDs and all my three Hackintoshes use a small 64 or 128GB SSD ($60-90 today) as the start-up drive, containing OS X and applications. Start-up is so fast that there’s no going back to HDDs for this purpose, and while my Hacks run months on end, powered 7/24, the very fast application launching SSDs add makes them worthwhile. They run much cooler too, of course.