One of my favorite nerdy hobbies is ending, whether I want it to or not. And it's Apple's fault.
Back in 2016, I was frustrated that Apple hadn't updated its Mac Mini, iMac or Mac Pro computers in at least a year. The company pumped out new iPhones, iPads, AirPods and MacBooks at a regular pace, and I had at least one of each. But the desktop Macs weren't getting the same attention.
I wanted a low-cost multipurpose machine I could rely on for work and play for the next several years. But if I plunked down the $499 starting price Apple wanted for its Mac Mini computers at the time, I'd be paying the full amount for a machine whose innards were more than two years old. Not OK.
So I decided to do one of the nerdiest things a techie Apple user can do: I built a PC.
I bought all the parts I needed, including a storage drive, system memory and a graphics card. Next, I put them together in a rather generic-looking case. Then I tricked Apple's MacOS software into powering it.
The project took about $800, many nights of squinting at computer code, and a couple of frustrated bangs on my keyboard, but eventually I'd done it.
I'd turned my DIY computer into a Hackintosh.
It's not something Apple supports, and it may be a violation of the MacOS software licensing terms. (Apple declined to comment for this article.) But the result was that I had a desktop Mac computer on my terms. I'd wrestled control away from Apple.
What's more, I felt like a winner. During the day, I'd move between my MacBook Air and Hackintosh for work, using all the specialized Mac software I've come to rely on to track my to-do lists, manage my calendars and find clever GIFs to use in idle banter.
At night, I switched the Hackintosh over to Microsoft's Windows, which powers more than 73% of the world's computers. That's one of the only ways to play well-regarded virtual reality games like Valve's sci-fi shooter Half-Life: Alyx, which CNET sister site GameSpot just named game of the year for 2020.
And if some component, like the video card, just isn't doing enough, I'm able to upgrade the machine with little hassle. Nerd paradise.
Sadly, that all changed this past summer when Apple CEO Tim Cook walked onto his company's virtual, livestreamed stage and said Macs were changing forever. Their microprocessing brains, formerly made by chipmaker Intel, were being replaced with Apple's custom-designed M1 chips instead. Apple said it was doing this because the technology behind its iPhones and iPads are better-suited for Mac computers than the Intel processors Apple's been using to power Macs since 2006.
"Advancements of this magnitude only come from making bold changes," Cook said when announcing Apple's first M1-powered devices going on sale in November.
Those first M1 Macs were the MacBook Air, a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a Mac Mini, and each of them received good marks from reviewers. CNET reviewer Dan Ackerman says they perform much better than their predecessors, even besting Intel-based Macs released earlier in 2020.
Unfortunately for me and many other Hackintoshers, you can't buy Apple's M1 chips on your own. Which means I can't stuff them into my computer and fool Apple's MacOS software into running on it.
Apple said its transition away from Intel will take about two years. A few years after that, the company is expected to stop upgrading software for Intel-powered Macs.
At that point, my Hackintosh dream will be officially over.
Apple's notorious for how much control it exerts over its devices. You can't download apps for the iPhone or iPad unless you go through Apple's App Store, where each program is reviewed by the company before being posted for download.
It's no surprise Apple would put an even tighter grip on its computers too. But I'm still sad to see Hackintoshes go.
So I decided to build one last hurrah. The shiniest fake Apple I could muster.
A hobby and a workhorse
It's gotten much easier to put together a Hackintosh over the last few years. That's mostly thanks to better hacking tools and active communities filled with people who love to help. Some of them even write step-by-step guides with lists of the parts you can buy, how to configure them and what to do when they aren't working.
One of the people whose posts I've come to rely on is Mykola Grymalyuk, a 20-year-old college student studying computer science (what else?) in Canada. He'd gotten into Hackintoshing through his stepfather, who had one of his own. At one point, Grymalyuk found himself recovering from a medical episode, with a lot of time on his hands.
"I was constantly in a hospital bed, I couldn't really walk much, couldn't really do much, and I felt kind of worthless," Grymalyuk said. "But the Hackintosh community gave me something to do."
He noticed there weren't many up-to-date or comprehensive guides to help people build Hackintoshes, so he decided to write some of his own. At first, he created a list of video cards that worked best with Apple's software. Then he wrote about how to tweak bits of your computer to make everything work better. And most helpful for me, he created detailed guides to help understand the apps and processes you need to follow to initially set up a Hackintosh.
"It just spiraled from there," he said.
Earlier this year, he corralled his work into a website he co-founded called Dortania. It's named after a flower so obscure he hoped it would mean the website could easily shoot to the top link on Google (It did). The site doesn't have any ads, and he doesn't ask for any money. He does encourage people to donate to Crohn's and Colitis Canada.
As much as Grymalyuk enjoys plugging away at his Hackintosh instruction guides, he knows Apple's M1 chips mean it'll all end in five years or so. By then, he expects all Macs and Mac apps will have transitioned to Apple's chips. At that point, Apple will likely begin phasing out software updates for Intel-based computers, since it won't be selling them anymore anyway.
As a self-professed fan of Apple products, Grymalyuk said he's recently gotten into helping people run older Mac software on new computers, and helping others run new Apple software on older Mac computers.
His dream is to channel all this knowledge into writing documentation for other tech products. He wants to help people understand the minutia of what makes their computers tick, whether they were made by Apple or not.
"I want to teach, not just get to the end result," he said. "I want people to maintain their machines. When you know what breaks, how it breaks and what to fix, you feel like, 'Wow, I can maintain this machine all by myself. I don't need external help.'"
My last Hackintosh
I was inspired to build my latest Hackintosh because of the M1 Macs. I decided to create a machine with the latest microprocessing brains and more than twice as much storage as the 1 terabyte I use today. I also chose a similar AMD graphics card to what's in the latest Mac Pro computers, to ensure it'll work more easily with MacOS. I wanted to make sure this machine will suit my needs for at least the next several years.
If I get stuck, I'm grateful I'll have the community of Hackintoshers to help fix whatever bugs I run into. Websites like Grymalyuk's Dortania, Reddit's Hackintosh community and tonymacx86 are still popular. So are YouTube channels like Snazzy Labs, which discuss Hackintoshes every so often. Some of these communities even saw spikes in interest when Apple released its first M1 computers in November -- in part because people are curious about how Hackintoshers are preparing for when MacOS no longer works on Intel chips.
"There is still a thriving worldwide community of active hackers," said Tonymacx86. The person behind the username and website prefers to stay anonymous to avoid overzealous fans and detractors alike.
Tonymacx86 says that after Apple fully cuts off Hackintoshes, the websites and guides will likely be refashioned into tributes to the more than a decade that people have spent building these Frankenstein-esque machines. They'll also likely become support communities for people who hold onto their computers past the time they can get any software updates from Apple.
I'll probably be done Hackintoshing by that point though. I know that some day, I won't be able to keep the machine I just built running MacOS smoothly. When that time arrives, I'll need to either rely more heavily on the Mac laptops I have, or buy a new desktop from Apple.
Hopefully by then, Apple's computers won't be as disappointingly outdated as they were when I started.