Hackintosh vs. Macintosh: Choose wisely

Buying and upgrading a Mac using only parts straight from Apple can be quite costly, but you can build your own OS X PC using third-party parts

If you're thinking of buying a computer from Apple and opt for its cheapest Mac Mini line, you'll be presented with several upgrade options at checkout. For the 2.3GHz quad-core version, for example, you can move up to 16GB of RAM memory for $300, or ditch the standard 1TB hard drive and upgrade to a zippier 256GB solid-state drive, again for $300.

Some shoppers are happy to pay this (judging by Apple's results of late, many are) and have everything built to the company's quality and design standards, under warranty. But others shop around a bit and discover that 16GB of equivalent RAM currently can be purchased for around $70, and a similar SSD for around $200.

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The shoppers might also wonder about the large number of graphics cards and other components that Apple doesn't offer at any price, and if there is another way.

Well, there is a way: The Hackintosh, a computer built from self-bought components that runs Apple's OS X operating system.

Apple first announced its computers would switch to Intel-based processors in 2005, and the hackers got started soon after. After 10 years on the PowerPC architecture, which never took hold in the mainstream personal PC market, Macs were coming over to the more common x86 architecture, and the immediate question was obvious. Can the Mac operating system be tricked into running on non-Apple hardware?

The answer was a definite yes, and solutions soon emerged, but in those early days it was often a rough slog to get them working, filled with crashes and highly technical remedies, plus limited support for hardware.

Now, things are considerably easier. Sites like Tonymacx86 offer free software to help install the OS plus compatible drivers and detailed instructions by developers who often lurk on the online forums to answer questions. Other sites like Kakewalk offer all-in-one installation tools for free, as long as compatible hardware is used.

Some pages offer detailed lists of computers from other manufacturers that can be coerced into running OS X, and steps to install it. A trove of beautiful and helpful online guides, some with detailed shopping lists for assembling high-end machines, has also emerged.

The hyperactive developers on the forums mean that new hardware or versions of OS X are often supported very quickly. In recent months, solutions to run the newest motherboards from Gigabyte and the latest Nvidia graphics cards were often available only days after the hardware went on sale.

Enthusiasts will point to these trends, and the cheap but powerful builds available online, as well as the endless configurations of high-end machines that can be assembled at a fraction of what it costs to buy from Apple.

But would-be Hackintoshers should remember that they build such computers at their own risk, with no warranty or help line, and steps that are glossed over in the online guides can lead to hours of frustration.

The forums are filled with desperate Hackintoshers gone awry, pleading for help from the more experienced builders. A few recent examples from Tonymac's site include "After install complete, now unable to boot," "Grey screen with spinning status wheel," and "Machine continues to Reboot :/"

Also, Apple's software updates can cause issues with working systems, and often set off a fresh wave of angst among users while they strive to get everything working again.

One other potential turn-off is that creating a Hackintosh may put users on shady legal ground. Early install methods that involved pirated, modified copies of OS X were in clear violation, and have been replaced by those that require users to purchase software directly from Apple, so nothing is stolen outright, but that hasn't resolved all the issues.

Apple wants you to buy its hardware along with its software, and mandates this in its legal requirements (which users must agree to when they use Apple's software). As the company states in its license agreement for the latest version of OS X, Mountain Lion: "The grants set forth in this license do not permit you to, and you agree not to, install, use or run the Apple software on any non-Apple-branded computer, or to enable others to do so."

In short, users looking to run OS X and save money on a powerful machine, or build in components like graphics cards not offered by the company may want to consider a Hackintosh. In exchange, they'll sacrifice some late nights as they get everything working, and they likely will end up with a boxy computer far less beautiful than a genuine Apple, which they use on perhaps dubious legal ground.

Those who want the Apple experience and aren't technically inclined, or don't need the advanced hardware, are better off paying the premium for company-built products.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.