Well, it’s been some time since my last blog post here. I have been pretty busy with school, building websites, and…. well, let’s be honest here: Hackintoshing. More specifically, I have been spending a lot of time learning about and tweaking my DSDT, which is the heart of a smooth-running, fully functional, Vanilla Hackintosh now-a-days. For those of you who don’t know, DSDT stands for Differentiated System Description Table, and it is part of the ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) specifications. What does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? Basically, the ACPI tables, which include the DSDT, contain information that lets the hardware and the operating system communicate with each other. These tables are loaded up at boot from the BIOS or EFI. All modern OS’s use this specification, including Mac OS X. Many motherboards (*cough* Gigabyte) come with poorly written ACPI tables embedded in the BIOS, and this can cause problems for any OS, but especially OS X. By getting in there and patching things up and making a few small tweaks using the standards that Apple uses, one can make certain PC hardware function very much like a real Mac. This reduces the number of kexts that one needs to load from outside of OS X.
So, following the example of a couple of very knowledgeable pioneers on the InsanelyMac and EFIX-Users forums, I was able to get my 6000 line jumble of code down to around 500 lines, and reduce the number of kexts in my Extra folder down to 3. Everything, including auto sleep, the scourge of many a Hackintosher, is working perfectly. Now what the hell am I going to do?
Why, start over from scratch, of course!
Since the UD3P is working so smoothly, I decided it was time to pass it on to Mrs. Aargh-a-Knot, who has been working on a MacBook Pro for quite some time. She was ready for an upgrade. And so was I.
Do to financial resources, or I should say, the lack thereof, the prospects of building a new computer right now were pretty slim. The geek that I am, however, I like to research the trends in Hackintosh-land and configure builds in my imagination, using Newegg.com’s wish list feature. It finally got to be too much for me, and I started taking stock of all the unused stuff that we had laying around the house that I could sell on eBay to fund my latest build. I was determined to build my dream rig, while it was still close to being cutting edge.
Well, Christmas time rolled around, and Mrs. Aargh-a-Knot saw that twinkle in my eye every time I started talking about core i7 processors and what-have-you. Probably, she also got sick of waiting for Flash to load up every time she switched apps while on the MBP, and my promise of faster computing power spurred her to do what any loving pirate-wife would do: She found my NewEgg wish list, and bought me everything on it for X-mas. She even did some research and upgraded my choice in memory to something better. I definitely married the right woman.
I was originally going to follow the herd, and get one of the new p55 Gigabyte boards. After all, Gigabyte seems to be the preferred mobo for Hackintosh, and there was bound to be tons of support. Then, I got inspired by a member of the forums I frequent, mm67, who had a lot of praise for MSI motherboards. Based his suggestion that the MSI boards work almost out of the box with OS X, I decided to go in that direction… much to the dismay of Mrs. Aargh-a-Knot, who had already ordered the Gigabyte board I had picked out.
Turns out that mm67 was right, and deleting only 8 small lines of code in the MSI DSDT, I was able to boot right up with Chameleon. Everything worked straight away except sound, but adding the HDEF device into my DSDT and a kext in my Extra folder, I am now good to go. Wow, that was easy! I still plan on removing all the extraneous devices and methods from the DSDT, but that may be more of a long-term project, as this DSDT is 9000 lines long and very different from the Gigabyte DSDT that I have spent so much time getting to know.
Alright, now on to the good stuff! What did I choose for this build?
This may not be the most important component of a computer build (apart from temperature management), but it is the physical part of the computer that you have to look at every day. Especially in my ‘case’ (pun intended), because my office is in our tiny living room. I am a big fan of Lian Li cases, but their aesthetic has changed over the last few years to accomodate the gamer crowd. Well, I do not want my computer to look like a Transformer, so I had been stalking one of the older Lian-Li models, released before Lian-Li hired an out-of-work comic book artist to design their cases. The case of my affections, the v1000-z, was still fetching top dollar on eBay, and the places you could still buy it new were becoming scarcer by the day. Then one day I found a listing on eBay, from some huge freight company, who had done a terrible job at listing the case. Not only was the description lacking, but check out the photo that they used:
I might not have even gone for this thing, but it had been sitting at .99 cents for 4 days, with only 3 days left. It really looked like the thing was crushed in a train wreck or something. But, using my mad-geometry-skillz, I decided that there was something not quite right with this photo. I put on my sleuthing hat, and started to look through some of the other items that the seller had. Sure enough, I found several other examples of objects that were supposed to be square, but looked like reflections in a funhouse mirror. What the hell are they using to snap those photos? Even a homemade pinhole camera made from a hobo’s boot would take a better shot than that! I decided to take a chance, and go for it. Of course, the damn auction turned out to be closing right in the middle of my final exam, but once again Mrs. Aargh-a-Knot came to the rescue with her super-sniping abilities. Apparently a few other people decided it was worth going for as well, because it got bid up to $70 at the last minute. However, this case normally goes for closer to $250, so as long as I didn’t need the jaws-of-life to get the hardware inside, it was a steal.
Turned out to be brand new in the box. Sweet!
One of the best features in this case is the hard drive bays. There are 6 slots, that have a SATA connection board behind them. The case comes with 6 brackets that attach to the hard drives, making it extremely easy to pop them in and out. While my last Lian-Li case sure looked sweet, it was a major pain in the ass to add or remove hard drives. Another great feature was a built-in 3 speed fan control switch on the back. I wont be using it for the back fan, since it is controlled by the CPU fan controller, but I think it will be handy for the front fan that blows across the hard drives. There is also an E-SATA connection in the front with the firewire and usb ports. This is quite handy for me, since I have a hard drive dock that I use quite often, and which has an E-SATA connection for fast transfer of large amounts of data.
As I said above, I decided to go with an MSI board this time. But which one? It used to be that there were far less options for a mATX mobo when building a Hackintosh. At least most of the good ones were full ATX, which made options for a more compact HTPC far fewer. With the release of the p55 chipset however, most manufacturers released at least one mATX option that had most of the same offerings of the full sized boards. Why does this matter for me, since I bought a larger case that can easily accomodate an ATX board? I don’t really have ananswer to that, other than “because I can”. I also had an unsubstantiated idea that the mATX boards might run a bit cooler, but this may have been completely farcical. I also wanted to try out a mATX board in case I want to build a media computer for someone in one of the smaller HTPC cases.
I decided to go with the MSI p55m-GD45. I don’t plan and adding a whole lot of expansion cards to this, so it has all the space I need. The one thing that I do regret, is not having the extra sata ports that come on some of the bigger boards. But for the price, I can’t complain.
I originally considered getting one of the new core i5s for this build, due to their low price. Fortunately, I came to my senses and chose the the core i7 860. The main difference between the i5s and the i7s is hyperthreading. Each of the i7’s 4 cores is hyperthreaded, and is essentially seen by the OS as two cores, for a total of 8 virtual cores. The difference this makes can really be seen in the benchmark results (see below). At stock speeds, my computer easily beats the results that one would have seen with a dual-quad core Mac Pro just a year ago. Of course the new Mac Pros now have dual quad core hyperthreaded processors, for a total of 16 virtual cores, so their benchmarks blow mine out of the water. But, they also cost 3-4 times as as much my rig…
The 860 runs at 2.8GHz at stock speeds. The only option above this one is the 870, which runs at 2.93GHz. But, at twice the price for a fraction of a GHz increase in speed, you’ve got to wonder what they are smoking over there at Intel. One of the main benefits of the new Lynnfield i7s is their conservative use of power and the resulting lower temperatures. This makes for easy overclocking. In fact, many people are reporting success OC’ing their 860s in excess of 4GHz on air, much faster than the stock speeds of the severely overpriced 870. No need for fancy water cooling systems to get those kind of speeds any more. Which brings me to the next component…
Since I use my computer as my media pc right in my living room, noise is definitely a consideration. This can make cooling the CPU a little tricky, because a big beefy CPU fan can output some dBs. I have never used a water cooling system before, and frankly, the thought is kind of scary. A bunch of valves, hoses and fittings full of cooling liquid interwoven with my sensitive electronic components? Err… no thanks. But then I came across a new kind of cooling solution: an all-in-one, maintenance free, self-contained, water cooling system made by Corsair, the H50. It seemed like some sort of gimmick at first glance, but after reading scores of 5-star reviews, I decided to give it a try. I must say, I am very impressed with it. The pump is built in to the part that clamps down on the CPU. There are two flexible tubes connected to a 120mm radiator, that goes in the exhaust fan outlet on the back of the case. A 120mm cpu fan attaches to the radiator, but pulls air into the case instead of blowing it out. You could easily switch it around to go the other way at the expense of a few degrees, but I decided to go with how the manufacturer recommended to do it. As long as there is a way for the air to get out somewhere else, it works pretty good. The included fan is a little bit louder than I would like, but not too bad considering how cool it is keeping my CPU, which is idling between 26 and 30 degrees celcius. At full throttle encoding video for hours on end in Handbrake, the temps barely get up to 50 degrees… not much higher than the idle temps of my Q6600! I will probably replace the fan with something a little quieter, and hopefully keep these low temperatures.
The Graphics card:
I do not do any gaming, so I did not need some monstrous, power-hungry card. In my previous build, I had used an 8800gt to which I had added a passive cooling setup in place of its stock fan. This worked great, but the 8800gt cards have seen a few minor issues running in OS X, especially after 10.6.2 was released. I wanted something a little newer that worked well in Snow Leopard with little or no tweaking, that was passively cooled. There aren’t a whole lot of choices, if any, in nVidia’s 2xx line that fit this last requirement. I found the Asus 9600gt Silent card, and it is perfect for my needs. I had no problems with it being detected and it works well with my dual monitor setup, which is kind of crazy. I have a mechanical switch setup on the second output, which switches between my second desktop monitor and our home theater projector that is mounted on the ceiling above me. With the 8800gt, I had some issues when I switched between the two. In fact, 10.6.2 brought an instant KP when I would connect to my projector. I had to remedy this by using legacy Apple kexts from 10.6.1. No issues like this with the 9600gt. I couldn’t be happier with it.
I had originally picked out some OCZ Gold memory for this build, but when Mrs. Aargh-a-Knot went to buy it, Newegg was out of stock. She did some research and found that while the OCZ memory didn’t have the worst ratings, they weren’t the best either. After spending some time looking into it, she wound up getting me 4GB of Corsair Dominator DDR3 1600 SDRAM. It was a little on the pricey side, so I am holding off for awhile before adding another 4GB. What can I say… it seems to be working well and runs at 1600 MHz. Has cool looking heatsinks and got some pretty good reviews.
Here is where I kinda cheaped out. I got the same PSU that I had put in my last build, the Antec BP550 Plus. I like it because it has modular cabling, cutting down on the clutter inside the case. Since I’m not going to game on this box, I am only using one graphics card, and the new i7 cpus are fairly energy efficient, 550 watts seems to be plenty for this build. Antec has a fairly good reputation and this model runs pretty quiet. I kind of picked it by default, because I have always used Antec PSUs and they have been reliable for me. I’m sure there are some better choices out there, but this Antec seems to do well for the money. I just didn’t want to gamble with something unknown.
I already had this from my last build, but for an optical drive in this rig, I used an LG Bluray drive. In addition to playing Blurays, it also burns CDs and DVDs, which is a must if you are going to use MakeMKV. For some reason the app won’t work unless your drive has some sort of burning capabilities.
This was an easy choice. I have been using Western Digital drives for a couple of years, and have never had a problem. (Knock on wood!) I have read stories of failing WD drives, but I have not had the experience myself. I have tried the WD Green, Blue and Black series, and really I like the Blacks for their speed. My strategy is to use the Black for my OS drives, and the more energy efficient Green drives for my backup drives. They are all really quiet, and this is a big plus. I bought a few Samsung drives a few years ago, and they sound like freakin’ helicopters trying to take off in a tornado!
Case: Lian Li v1000z
Mobo: MSI P55M-GD45 LGA 1156 Motherboard
CPU: Intel Core i7-860 Lynnfield 2.8GHz
Cooling: CORSAIR Cooling Hydro Series H-50 CPU Cooler
Graphics: Asus 9600GT Silent 512MB GDDR3 Video Card
Memory: Corsair Dominator 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600
PSU: Antec BP550 Plus 550 Watt Modular Power Supply
Optical Drive: LG Black 8x BD-ROM
Hard Drive: WD Caviar Black 1TB 7200 RPM SATA Hdd
The best real-world indicator for performance for me is encoding times in Handbrake. When I had my Mac Mini, an average movie would encode at around 10-15 fps. I was excited after my last build to get close to 50 fps. It seemed like quite the feat to get the encode times close to real-time, meaning that if the show was 1 hour long, and I could re-encode it in one hour, I was very happy. So, you can imagine how elated I was to see Handbrake going at 200 fps with this new build. One of the first things I encoded, a 45 minute episode of 24, finished in less than 10 minutes. And the temperatures barely got over 50 degrees.
I am still running at stock speeds while I get all the small details ironed out, but I plan on overclocking the CPU to 3.6GHz, which seems to be the upper limit of efficient & cool without a more elaborate water cooling system. I did a 64 bit Geekbench test, and got a score of 9525. To put that in perspective, an early 2008 Mac Pro, Intel Xeon X5482 3.2 GHz (8 cores) benches out at 9273, nearly 250 points less than my score. And this is before I overclock. But that, my friends, is the subject for another post.
UPDATE: This Hackintosh is for sale! Will deliver only within the continental US.