I like OS X for development including Windows development which is my primary job. OS X provides access to Unix tools, building and testing using virtual machines, and an efficient interface for multi-monitor and multi-desktop work. Of course, a Mac is necessary for building iOS applications. Doing all my work on a single machine taking up little desk space seemed very attractive, and that’s what I did in 2009 with the purchase of an iMac.
One problem cropped up: I started avoiding LightWave 3D (CPU intensive 3D modeling and animation software) due to heat. Although the aluminum body on the iMac dissipates heat well, it’s not good enough for CPU intensive tasks running more than a few hours. Placing a fan on the desk moving air behind my iMac helped, but wasn’t desirable. With my iMac getting on in age, I decided to look for another solution.
The only breathable desktop Apple offers is the Mac Pro, but the current selection of machines are based on three-year old technology at overinflated prices. (Apple doesn’t normally reduce prices over time.) Intel was late delivering new Sandy Bridge Xeon processors, but once they did Apple didn’t update the Mac Pro line. Rumor claims, an update may come next year. I don’t need more than 32 Gb of RAM, so I’d be happy with something between a Mac Mini and Mac Pro that supports desktop graphics cards. This xMac doesn’t exist. Might it come next year? If Apple plans on redesigning the Mac Pro, this might be a good time to adjust their desktop selections.
I decided to give building a “hackintosh” a try to see how a mini-Mac Pro might work out. Following the guides on tonymacx86.com (remember to purchase a copy of OS X from the Mac App Store and get it onto a USB drive,) I selected parts targeting OS X Mountain Lion:
- Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD5H motherboard (BIOS tips at tonymacx86.com)
- Ivy Bridge i7-3770 CPU
- Asus nVidia GTX570 graphics card
- 16 GB Corsair Vengeance RAM
- Cooler Master HAF 912 case with 120mm fan
- Arctic Freezer 13 CPU cooler
- 1 TB Western Digital hard drive (for Windows)
- 500 GB Western Digital hard drive (for OS X)
120mm quiet fan
Quiet is good. I replaced the stock CPU heat sink with the Arctic Freezer, and the case fan with a larger 120mm fan. The Asus GTX570 consuming three slots remains quiet under heavy load.
I installed Windows 8 Preview on the new drive for reference and make sure all my hardware is functioning. After running a stress test, I installed OS X following the guides. Some say hackintosh installation has become much easier in recent years, but it’s still not something I would recommend to those without PC building experience.
The process of installing the software isn’t push-button easy, but made simpler by choosing known compatible parts. I had to pull my graphics card out for the first phase, relying on the HD4000 in the CPU (which worked perfect.) After first OS X boot with the basic Multibeast files, I put the graphics card back in and everything was happy after that. Note the Multibeast instructions carefully (try this one at macbreaker.) Checking the wrong box may mean restarting the entire installation. Add one thing at a time and reboot after each to make sure OS X starts and the added hardware driver works before going on to the next. My biggest problem turned out to be the audio, which still doesn’t work.
I ran some benchmarks to make sure everything is working properly. The Cinemark test surprised me at 44.5 FPS as I wasn’t expecting full 3D OpenGL acceleration with the GTX570, but scored lower than in Windows 8 at 56.7 FPS. The following charts include the 2009 iMac with i5 for reference.
“LW Sum” represents the sum of three single-frame renderings in LightWave 3D 10.1. According to Geekbench (Primate Labs,) the new machine is nearly twice as fast as the iMac scoring better in Windows 8. In LightWave, tests show near dead even between OS X and Windows 8 at more than twice the speed as the old 2009 iMac.
Except for the audio problem, the HackMac seems to be in working order. I’m uncertain if I want to depend on HackMac for regular work as I hate to be interrupted when I’m deep in the creative process. At this point I’m considering keeping my iMac for iOS development, Photoshop, and VM testing. I’ll use the new machine for LightWave 3D in Windows 8. Besides, I’ve always felt two computers are better for heavy multi-tasking than one monster computer. (Raytracing 3D images can take many hours.)
using the iMac as a monitor to save desk space
Using the iMac as a monitor has one curious issue: the iMac puts out a bit of extra heat while in Target Display Mode and the fans don’t seem to want to speed up. To compensate, I use smcFanControl to bump the minimum fan speed a little (+300 RPM.)