You can build a Hackintosh for cheaper than a Mac mini, but it's so not the same

After pricing out Hackintosh components, we found you can get partially to a Mac mini, but you'll be missing out on a lot.

This is the first article I've written using my new 2018 Mac mini. Writing an article doesn't stress the machine nearly as much as producing video or doing a 3D model. Even so, it's nice to be able to sit down at the new machine and start doing real work.

One of the themes I've noticed among the comments on my articles and videos about the new Mac mini is that it's expensive, especially compared to a traditional Windows PC. Some of my commenters have stated flatly that a Hackintosh is a far better deal than buying a machine like the Mac mini from Apple.

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As I mentioned before, building a Hackintosh was my fall-back strategy if Apple didn't announce a new machine this fall with a workable configuration. Since I'm now using my Mac mini, it's clear that Apple met enough of my needs to separate me from my hard-earned cash.

That said, I've been really curious. What would it take to clone my Mac mini as a Hackintosh? How much would the Hackintosh cost? Did I spend way too much?

That's what this article sets out to answer.

What I bought

Let's start out with the configuration I'm rocking. I bought the highest-end i7 processor offered by Apple. I configured it with 8GB of RAM, with the plan to upgrade it myself to 32GB. I added the 10GB Ethernet port and 1TB of flash storage.

Also: Apple Mac mini (2018) review: The little Mac that could

If you're curious about why I chose this configuration, I've documented my reasoning here.

All told, the machine cost $1,999 from Apple. I also spent $288 on some Corsair Vengeance Performance 32GB (2x16GB) 260-Pin DDR4 SO-DIMM (PC4 21300) RAM from Amazon. That made my total cost $2,287.

So, here's the question: Can we build a Hackintosh for less?

What we're going to need

Let's plan out the parts we're going to have to source to make this work. I like to start with the mobos highlighted on TonyMac86, because the community there has really thought out what it takes to make a Hackintosh that works.

Motherboard: The starting point is the motherboard. The challenge here is to find something that's as small as a Mac mini. Ideally, that would probably be a mini-ITX board, but the lack of slots may cause some issues.

Also: Mac Mini 2018 teaches an old design new tricks CNET

Processor: I bought a Coffee Lake i7 processor in my Mac mini. According to the GeekBench app running on my machine, that's an i7-8700B processor. According to CPUbase, there's not much difference in performance between the 8700 and 8700B, except the B is the mobile processor variant. Both have the same speeds and feeds.

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GeekBench tells us this is an i7-8700B.

Video: The onboard video for the Mac mini is adequate, not fantastic. Even so, we're looking for Intel UHD Graphics 630 compatibility, which fortunately will come with the processor.

RAM: I didn't subject RAM to a huge evaluation. I bought the Corsair Vengence RAM mostly because I wanted it shipped overnight and Amazon had it in stock. It's working fine. The key is that it's 2666 Mhz, which means it's pretty fast.

USB 3.0: The Mac mini has two of these ports. Almost all motherboards support USB 3.0, so that's not a big issue.

Thunderbolt 3: Most of the motherboards I've found support USB-C, which is USB 3.1 Gen2. While the connector is the same as Thunderbolt 3, and Thunderbolt 3 ports can run USB-C feeds, Thunderbolt 3 is four times faster than USB-C. The gotcha here is I haven't found a TonyMac86-approved motherboard that has USB-C onboard.

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Flash storage: I configured my machine with 1TB of storage, mostly because Apple's storage prices are ridiculously high. Be careful in trying to match this, though. A simple SATA-based SSD won't go nearly as fast. Some NVMe SSDs are as fast as Apple's soldered-in flash, so that's what we'll go with in our comparison build.

Network: This is going to be another high bar for the Hackintosh. I spent an extra hundred bucks and equipped my Mac mini with a 10Gb Ethernet port. Most motherboards just don't come with Ethernet above 1Gb (although more and more have two 1Gb Ethernet ports).

Case: Face it, the Mac mini is tiny. It's going to be hard to find a case that can fit everything I bought in a size that small.

Power supply: The Mac mini's power supply is tiny, but it works. We'll need to find a reasonable power supply to meet our needs.

Fans: The Mac mini has one fan that's doing all the work. Although there are nearly as many different PC cooling options as there are PC builds, we'll look for an inexpensive fan for our build.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: The Mac mini supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking and is a/b/g/n compatible. The machine also supports the new Bluetooth 5.0 spec.

HDMI 2.0 output: Most motherboards with on-board video support the faster bandwidth required for HDMI 2.0. Even so, we'll keep the requirement in mind.

Apple's custom T2 chip: This is the wildcard. Obviously, we can't configure the T2 chip in our Hackintosh build. There is some speculation that the T2 might wind up being the special sauce that kills Hackintosh builds. For now, though, the primary benefit of the T2 in the Mac mini is faster video encoding and encryption speeds. Hackintoshers won't get this benefit.

Finding a motherboard

The TonyMacx86 site recommends two motherboards for Mac mini-style machines, the ASUS ROG Strix H370-I Gaming and the Gigabyte H370N WIFI. Both of these are known to work with MacOS Mojave. Unfortunately, they don't have the specs we need, and with only one PCIe slot there's no way to get there from here.

I wanted to stick with a known-working mobo, so I worked my way up the TonyMac buyers' guide to the Pro-level motherboards.

Also: Mac Mini 2018: Cheat sheet TechRepublic

The site recommended two ASUS ROG motherboards, one of which was in the mid-three hundred buck range, and the other over $400. By contrast, the Gigabyte Z370 AORUS Gaming had similar specs (it also had Bluetooth), but is available for $129.95 on Amazon.

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This motherboard is known to be MacOS compatible.

From CNET: Gigabyte Z370 AORUS Gaming specs

We'll start here. It supports the memory we need, the flash storage, the USB 3.0 ports, has a huge range of ports (Including a PS/2 mouse port...because). It also has two PCIe Gen3 x4 slots, which we'll be using later. It also supports NVMe M.2.

Unlike the Mac mini, it has RGB. I am personally not a fan of the PC RGB craze. But hey, if you want that for your Hackintosh, there are tons of RGB options. Yay?

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Ouch!

While the mobo has two USB-C ports, it does not have four. It also doesn't support Thunderbolt 3. It supports Bluetooth 4.2, but not Bluetooth 5.0. Also, some forum threads seem to imply that the onboard networking needs to be replaced with PCIe cards, but I'm going to skip that for now.

One thing I'll tell you is that this isn't known science. Everything about configuring a Hackintosh is trial and error. You have to search forum posts which point to other forum posts which, in turn, point to more forum posts. In practice, you pretty much have to buy the parts, jump through all the configuration hoops, and hope it works.

As such, the computer based on the products I specify in this pricing run will not necessarily result in a working computer. Don't buy these items because I'm telling you about them in this article. Instead, research each component on your own.

We are starting with a motherboard that will run Mojave. But it doesn't have four Thunderbolt 3 ports (or even four USB-C ports), 10Gb Ethernet, or Bluetooth 5.0.

In any case, we've chosen a motherboard that's $129.95. Let's move on.

Processor, video, and RAM

While the Mac mini has a 6-core i7-8700B, we'll spec out an i7-8700K desktop class processor. It also has 6-cores, but it runs at 3.7 GHz (turbo up to 4.7). This is faster by a bit than the Mac mini's 3.2 GHz (up to 4.6 GHz). We'll take the win where we can find it.

Our chosen processor also gets us the onboard Intel UHD Graphics 630, which puts us on parity with what's in the Mac mini.

The best price I found with a minimum of shopping around was $369 from Newegg. That brings our total system cost up to $499.94.

Also: 2018 Mac Mini blocks Linux, here are alternative small form factor PCs TechRepublic

Next, we'll add RAM. When I bought my RAM two weeks ago, it was $288.49. Earlier today, it was up to $410.99, but now, as I type this, it's back down to $309.99. That's the thing with RAM. Prices fluctuate. A lot.

I found a better deal at Crucial, with a 32GB kit of DDR4-266 SODIMM RAM for $273.99. Since I generally like buying RAM from Crucial anyway, it's a win. We'll add that to our total system cost, which is now $773.93.

Storage

I just ran a quick Blackmagic Design storage speed test. I'm getting 2712 MB/s on reads and 2640 MB/s on writes. That's the number we're looking for in NVMe flash drive.

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I feel the need -- the need for speed!

Crucial offers what they call a budget NVMe M.2 SSD, but the fastest they get to is 2000 MB/s reads and 1700 MB/s writes. By contrast, the Samsung 970 EVO M.2 2280 1TB PCIe Gen3. X4 claims 3,500/2,500 MB/s. While benchmarks and claims never match real world performance, it's definitely in the ballpark of what I've been seeing.

This is where the Apple Tax seems extreme. I paid an extra $600 for 1TB of soldered-in flash storage. The Samsung 970 EVO stick is a mere $227.99. That brings our total system cost to $1,001.92.

Add-on boards

Now, we have some decisions to make. Assuming the onboard Wi-Fi on our mobo actually works, which is always a big question with Hackintoshes, we have three capabilities missing: 10Gb Ethernet, four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, and Bluetooth 5.0. We have only two PCIe slots, so which do we choose?

There's not all that much right now that utilizes Bluetooth 5.0, but I have a server right here in my office that supports 10Gb Ethernet. So we'll need to find a board for that.

This is a big challenge, because it's not just what board you buy, but which board has components that Apple supports. I've always found that the Intel Ethernet boards are the most compatible across the board, so I'm going with an Intel X540T2 Ethernet Converged Network Adapter. For the record, I don't know if this board works with Mojave, it just has a better chance because it's Intel.

Also: Apple MacBook Air (2018) review: Apple's veteran ultraportable gets a facelift

The Intel Ethernet board is available from Newegg for $199.99, which brings our total system cost up to $1,201.91.

As for Thunderbolt 3, I've been striking out. There are not many PCIe Thunderbolt 3 cards out there. Those that exist appear to be tied to specific motherboards. That's because the PCIe channel isn't enough to feed Thunderbolt 3. It needs PCIe lanes as well as a DisplayPort connection. As such, I haven't found any Thunderbolt 3 cards that work with the recommended motherboards.

If we're willing to settle for four USB-C ports instead of the much faster Thunderbolt 3 ports, we can purchase a card that will augment the two USB 3.1 ports on the motherboard. I found the StarTech.com Dual Port USB-C Card for $44.11 on Amazon. Not a bad deal, and that brings our system cost to $1,246.

Case and power supply

Unfortunately, the ATX motherboard costs us the ability to build a small form-factor machine. If we were willing to sacrifice either the 10Gb networking or the extra USB-C ports, we might have been able to go with a smaller case.

But the whole point of this exercise is to see if we can build a Mac mini clone, and what it would cost. That means we want to include as much of the Mac mini's capabilities as possible, and that means we need a bigger case.

Also: How I learned to stop worrying and love USB Type-C

Here, I kind of took the easy way out. There are so many full-sized ATX cases out there that searching for just the right one was just not worth the effort. Instead, I chose Amazon's Choice, which is a Rosewill ATX mid-tower design. What makes it ideal for our needs is that it includes the case, a 500w power supply, and fans. That's $69.99.

This brings our total cost to $1,316.01.

Wins and losses

I spent $2,287 for my Mac mini from Apple, with added 32GB of RAM. For just about a thousand dollars less, we were able to configure a similar Hackintosh machine.

So is that it? Does that mean that you can get a better, cheaper Hackintosh than a Mac from Apple?

It really depends on what you want. The Hackintosh we built does have more USB 3.0 ports and an old PS/2 mouse connector. You won't be able to use that, but it's there for conversation.

Don't get me wrong. I would have loved to save a thousand bucks. But I'm not thrilled with the trade-offs. Here's what the extra thousand dollars spent on the Apple product buys you.

Far less setup hassle: Yes, the RAM install was hairy, but there's no hassle wondering if all the parts you're buying will work, or are even available.

Thunderbolt 3: It seems that it's nearly impossible to add Thunderbolt 3 to a Hackintosh. While USB 3.1 speeds are nice, four times faster is four times faster. When it comes to external GPUs and external storage, faster is better.

Bluetooth 5: As our article says, Bluetooth 5 offers double the speed and four times the range. Once again, it's up to whether you need more power. Not much (beyond the new iPhones) supports Bluetooth 5 today, but the IoT capabilities of that much speed and range definitely point to an active future.

Compatibility: Will the 10Gb Ethernet card I found work with MacOS? We don't really have any idea until we test it. Will the onboard sound on the motherboard work reliably? We have no idea until we fight with trying to configure it. Do we really need to add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cards as add-on cards to make them work with MacOS? Probably.

Much smaller and nearly silent: There's no doubt that the Mac mini is far smaller and far quieter than the unspectacular case I picked out. Sure, we all had big boxes under our desks for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, but this is the modern world. The Mac mini is tiny and quiet.

Updates: Updates are notorious machine killers for Hackintoshes. Hackintosh users turn off auto-updates and generally wait until some brave Hackintosh pioneers try out the update first, to see what it kills. If you want to stay up to date, without constant configuration hassles or threats of bricking, you probably want to stay away from a Hackintosh.

Whatever the Apple T2 chip does for us: The T2 chip can help with encryption and video rendering, yes. But don't forget that future versions of MacOS may require it, which may render your Hackintosh an Obsoletintosh.

Bottom line

The bottom line is simple. You're going to pay a thousand bucks more for an Apple Mac mini with the specs I chose. But with that thousand bucks, you get a much more convenient and hassle-free build and user experience, way faster communications, and a much smaller footprint.

While it's true you can build a cheaper PC or a Hackintosh than the Mac mini, it is unquestionably NOT true that you can clone the Mac mini as a Hackintosh. Not even close.

The Mac mini is a really special little machine and that's why I, for one, am glad to see it back in the product line with the capabilities it offers. It's why I bought one and didn't build a Hackintosh.

Also: No, Apple hasn't activated a secret Mac repair kill switch -- yet

But, as always, what you do depends on what you decide. If you need or want the benefits the small Mac mini provides, buy one. If you're budget-constrained, don't mind fighting configuration files and reboots until your machine doesn't crash, and don't mind a much bigger, noisier box, go with the Hackintosh.

I may still build a Hackintosh, just for kicks. But the odds are much less likely that I'll need to with the new 2018 Mac mini on the market. Of course, that's assuming that sometime between now and 2022, Apple upgrades it again.

Have you built a Mac mini Hackintosh? If so, what trade-offs did you encounter? What's the final build you wound up with? Are you happy with your choice? Any tips you'd recommend? Feel free to share 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.

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