Will Apple Silicon kill the Hackintosh? The odds against a self-built MacOS Arm computer

Big Sur running on an Arm PC? Contrary to what you might expect, there may be life in the Hackintosh even after Apple moves to Arm.

First look at Apple Silicon

Apple finally made the news we've been expecting for a few years now official. The Macintosh is moving to Arm, or what Apple is calling "Apple Silicon." This is not the first, or even the second major processor architecture transition for the Mac. 

In fact, it's the third. In 1994, Apple moved from 68000-class processors to PowerPC. In 2005, Apple moved from the PowerPC to Intel x86. And now, in 2020, Apple is moving from Intel to Apple Silicon based on the Arm architecture. I discussed earlier the implications of this move to what I guess you could call "regular" Mac users. In this article, I want to discuss what this means to Mac users who use self-built Intel machines running MacOS, better known as Hackintosh users.

The Hackintosh community

Because so much of the Intel-based Mac architecture is based on off-the-shelf technology, a relatively substantial number of Mac users have decided to build their own machines throughout the years. Communities identified which motherboards, processors, network cards, and video cards were the most compatible, and then built custom drivers and boot loaders to make the whole thing possible.

While building a Hackintosh has never been as easy as firing up an Apple-produced machine, over the years Hackintoshes have become easier and easier to build due to better and better community-provided software tools.

Contrary to popular belief, Hackintoshing isn't just about saving money. While you can build an inexpensive Hackintosh to run MacOS, as I showed back in 2018 when I bought my then-new Mac mini, it's hard to achieve spec parity with a Hackintosh and save money.

As one of my favorite Hackintoshers Peter Paul Chato shows, what you can do is customize the machine with features not normally included in a Mac. Chato talks about adding a CD-ROM burner to his Hackintosh, which allowed him to burn CD-ROMs for an old, restored 1990s-vintage PowerPC Mac he was tinkering with.

Motivations for building Hackintoshes range from the need for flexibility and a custom system to the desire to tinker, to cost savings, and more. Back in 2017, when Apple pretty much abandoned Mac upgrades for extreme pro users, Hackintoshes were just about the only path forward for folks who needed more power.

Now, with more capable mainstream Macs as well as the terrifyingly expensive Mac Pro, users who need power have the option of buying from Apple. Some will still build Hacintoshes, but how long will that ability last?

Apple Silicon changes the game

Apple is farther along with Arm than many of us expected. At WWDC, all the MacOS features demonstrated were demonstrated on Apple Silicon rather than Macs running Intel. Apple is already shipping beta versions of MacOS that include Arm functionality, and the mainstream release of MacOS Big Sur in the fall will include Arm support as well as Intel.

Apple expects to ship its first Arm-based machines "by the end of the year" and expects the full transition to take two years. By that metric, we can expect the last Intel-based Mac to ship from Apple in 2022.

The thing about Apple Silicon is that it's very definitely not an off-the-shelf component. Apple has innovated with the iPhone and iPad in a large part because it controls the complete hardware stack. The company will be able to do the same with the Arm-based Macs.

That means it is highly unlikely (but not impossible, as I'll discuss below) that Hackintoshs will be viable once MacOS goes fully Apple Silicon. If off-the-shelf parts aren't available, the movement to build Hackintoshes from off-the-shelf parts will be seriously stymied.

So what does this mean for Hackintoshes? Let's take a look at two paths: what it means for Intel-based Hackintoshing, and under what wildly unlikely set of circumstances might there be a path forward for Arm-based Hackintoshing? Let's do Intel first.

The future of Intel-based Hackintoshes

Put simply, the future of Intel-based Hackintoshes will be the same as the future of Intel-based Macs. To get more clarity from my crystal ball, we'll need to look back into Macintosh history, back to 2005.

The last PowerPC-based Macs were the PowerMac G5s introduced in October of 2005 and sold until August 2006. 

The last version of MacOS (then called OS X) to support PowerPC (and only the G4 and G5) was 10.5 (otherwise known as Leopard). It was introduced with build 9A521 on October 26, 2007 and was revised eight times, until version 10.5.8 was discontinued on October 5, 2009. Leopard supported both PowerPC and Intel processors.

When Snow Leopard (10.6) was introduced on August 28, 2009, it only supported Intel processors.

As it pertains to transitioning processors, Apple released an OS version that still supported PowerPC a full year after the last PowerPC Mac was sold. It revised that code eight times over the next few years. The first supported release of an OS that no longer supported the old chips came out exactly four years after the last old chip Mac was introduced.

Let's apply that to what we know of the Apple Silicon transition. Apple expects to start the transition now and move all Macs to Arm by 2022. We can expect, then, that the last Intel Mac will come out sometime in 2022. If this transition tracks with the previous one, we can expect support for Intel to last about four years.

In other words, don't expect updates of MacOS for Intel Macs after 2026. 

Of course, it's possible to use machines after their OS stops being updated. Figure another few years before software developers have moved far enough off of the old architecture that key apps just stop working.

My guess is that Intel Macs will be reasonably viable machines until about 2028-2030, or, essentially, for the rest of this decade.

In other words, feel free to go ahead and build an Intel-based Hackintosh. But understand it will be obsolete by the end of the decade — and so, probably, will be the practice of Hackintoshing.


The possibility of Arm-based Hackintoshes

Hackintoshes exist because it's reasonably practical to take off-the-shelf parts and turn them into a PC that runs MacOS. But there are quite a few Hackintoshes that weren't based on a PC build, but instead were repurposed laptops that had enough compatible hardware to make the conversion possible.

Microsoft has been flirting with a move (or at least a cohabitation) with Arm for years now. As far back as 2012, we were mocking Microsoft's attempts to move Windows to the very ill-fated Windows RT.

But there are modern Windows machines based on the Arm processor, such as the Microsoft Surface X. It runs traditional 32-bit x86 apps in emulation, so most Windows apps will run on the Arm processor. If Surface X and other Windows products like it prove to be a success, expect more Arm-based Windows machines to be introduced to the market.

So let's move our crystal ball forward to, say, 2028. By that time, there's an entire army of Arm-based Windows laptops, which are fast and support the great battery life that's an Arm trademark.

Problem #1 for Arm-based Hackintoshes will have been solved. There will be enough Arm-based machines to form a foundation for Hackintoshing.

Apple has a tendency to name its OS versions after California locations, so I'm going to call the imaginary 2028 release of MacOS Copperopolis (it's real, look it up). That brings us to Problem #2: Can Apple Silicon-based Copperopolis run on off-the-shelf Arm systems?

That… depends. Back in 2016, we were worried that the introduction of the proprietary T2 chip to new Macs would spell the end of Hackintoshing, but it has had virtually no effect.

If Copperopolis and other future Apple Silicon-based MacOS releases rely heavily on special chipset functions, then no. But if those future releases merely rely on performance-related custom silicon, then it's possible non-Apple Arm-based PCs could run MacOS — at least with the same level of discovery and tweaking that it took to get off-the-shelf Intel to run MacOS.

We won't know for a while. But I'm betting that since the upcoming Big Sur will support Arm, and the beta for Big Sur is actually available now, some members of the Hackintosh community are already testing MacOS on off-the-shelf Arm processors.

So keep coming back to ZDNet. If some intrepid Hackintoshers manage to get Big Sur running on an Arm PC, we'll let you know. 

As for the future of the Hackintosh, we have to turn to our Magic 8 Ball for an answer: "Reply hazy. Try again."

Do you Hackintosh? What are your predictions, hopes, and fears for the future of Hackintoshing? Let us know in the comments below. 

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.