My “NUCintosh” Journey

The last time I used an Apple computer regularly was when I was in grade school and played “educational software” on an Apple II at the local library.

I loved learning.

That gives you an idea of just how much I know about Macs. My computing adventure really started with the Radio Shack TRS-80, then IBM clones running DOS, then Windows, then Linux and beyond.

Wrote my first program on one of these.

Apple just wasn’t on my radar. I don’t even have an Iphone. I’ve always been more interested in customization, flexibility, and freedom than…what’s the word? Reliability? Slickness? The Apple Mystique?

Apple is notorious for their controlling nature, and they tend to produce computers not meant to be tinkered with. This level of control usually results in stable, well-performing products, but at a steep cost. Plenty of people out there want a Mac but don’t want to pay so much for it, so they opt to go the “hackintosh” route, using cheaper non-Apple hardware that works as well as (in some cases better than) the real thing.

I’ve read about the hackintosh movement over the years and have been fascinated by the community of people eager to make their own Mac, despite Apple’s efforts to squash such creativity. But it was never really something I’d thought about doing myself.

Apparently NUCs are popular as hackintosh systems due to their size (smaller than Mac Minis), comparatively strong specs, and lower cost.

This kind of says it all.

Recently I’ve had several people ask me about trying this with a NUC, wanting to know how “easy” it was to turn a NUC into a “hackintosh”, or what’s more affectionately called a “NUCintosh”.

See what they did there?

After fielding more than a few questions I was totally unqualified to answer, I decided to give it a try just to see for myself what the big deal was. I wanted to know if the resulting system would be usable, and how long it would take to build. I used MacOS “mojave”, their latest version.

Three days. That’s how long it took. Three days of sifting through how-to videos and online guides. I went through about a dozen different guides, watched all the videos, downloaded a ridiculous number of tweaks, tools, drivers, and utilities. I learned the hard way that roughly 95% of the online guides are incomplete, inaccurate, outdated, or flat-out wrong. They leave critical information out, rely on tools that don’t exist anymore, or tell you something works when it just doesn’t.

The good news is there actually are some good how-tos out there. The one I relied on the most was the fantastic guide from tonmacx86.com.

It’s a step-by-step walk through that is nearly complete. I had to fill in a few missing pieces, but I enjoy solving problems so I was fine with that. If you’re going to build your own hackintosh, I highly recommend this guide as a starting point. If you start there, and you’re willing to do a bit of supplemental research, you’ve got an excellent chance at a successful build.

I decided to use an i7 Dawson Canyon NUC. No particular reason for using that model, other than it was handy and not currently doing any work for me. It was also listed in the guide as a good model to use.

A Virtual Start

Part of the difficulty is that most of the guides assume you already have a Macintosh you can use to make the USB installer. I don’t. I tried a few guides that swore they’d help me create the USB installer without the pesky need for a Mac, but the resulting thumb drives just didn’t work. They would’ve worked to upgrade an existing Mac, but there’s that whole “I DON’T HAVE A MAC” issue.

The solution was for me to create a virtual machine (using VirtualBox), install MacOS to it, and then use it to create the USB Installer.

And it’s free too!

Setting up a VM for “mojave” presented its own challenges, but in the end I got it set up. Ah, fun times.

I liked working with mojave in Virtualbox. It gave me the confidence of knowing I could always start over if I messed something up (which I did, a few times).

Once I had the VM up and running I followed tonymacx86’s guide to create the installer and add the missing drivers for the NUC.

The Installer

It took me several tries (something of an understatement, actually) to get the installer built. I’d say I made that USB stick a couple dozen times before I got it right. I got more than a few looks from my wife with all the back & forth from my desk to my workbench. But once I got it working, installing MacOS “Mojave” on the NUC was surprisingly easy.

This was a beautiful site when I finally got there.

Post-Installation Lessons

Now you might be thinking once the Mac operating system is installed you’re done, but there’s more to do. The installer puts Mojave on the NUC, but it doesn’t make it bootable. The guide walks you through running a tool called Multibeast, that lets you install a boot loader so the NUC can boot without the USB installer.

It also walks you through installing missing drivers for things like audio, USB, networking, etc. It can be tricky because there are a ton of drivers to pick from and it isn’t always clear which one is the right one for your system. Still, using Multibeast is much easier than manually copying drivers over and editing config files, so it’s a big help.

I learned going through the forums is that there really isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” process for making a hackintosh. The right guide will get you most of the way, but you have to follow up with tweaks to make it work for your particular hardware. Remember, Apple creates their software for the hardware they use, so sometimes you’re just not going to get everything working. For example, the WiFi/Bluetooth card that comes with Dawson Canyon isn’t Mac OS compatible, so it’s just not going to work. I did all of my installation, testing, and configuring connected to Ethernet.

Even Ethernet proved to be a bit of a challenge. The USB installer included a driver that worked for my NUC’s on-board Ethernet, but once I booted the NUC without the USB stick, Ethernet stopped working. I had to go down a few rabbit holes in hackintosh forums to learn that I needed to install an Ethernet driver. Multibeast let me do that, but I had to figure out which of a half dozen drivers was right for my system. That meant trying each driver one at a time, with reboots in between.

It was this one.

Be Willing to Learn

The point I’m trying to make is that this whole hackintosh thing isn’t for someone unwilling to get their hands dirty. The right guide is more of a launching off point than a complete solution. You’re going to spend a lot of time googling, searching through forums, and trying different suggestions before you’ve got everything working. In short, you will learn a lot…whether you want to or not.

And sometimes you just have to decide to live with little quirks. For example, Dawson Canyon has two HDMI ports and audio only works on one of them, so you need to be sure to use the right one.

In some cases you may get something working but have no idea how you did it, so you’d be hard pressed to repeat it. Audio didn’t work for me at first, so I tried many different suggestions for getting it working. Unfortunately I didn’t have the patience to try them one at a time, so when sound started working I wasn’t sure what fixed it.

To Update or not to Update

I’d heard and read rumors that allowing system updates on your hackintosh could potentially break something (or everything). But in my case I was able to update to the latest version using the System Updates app without any problems at all.

The Hackintosh Community

Something that surprised me during this experience was the hackintosh community itself. For some reason I’d always assumed anything related to Apple would be made up of friendly, polite people eager to help. What I found was the online hackintosh community is just like any other. You have nice people willing to help, but you also have not very nice people eager to pounce on “newbies”. For every user willing to jump in and offer advice to a newcomer, there were a half dozen jumping down people’s throats for not asking the question in exactly the right way, or for having the audacity to ask a question that had already been answered somewhere else. I never asked for help myself, as every question I searched for had already been asked and answered multiple times. But it was frustrating to see exchanges like this:

Newbie: “Hey, I’m making my first hackintosh and I can’t get X working. Has anyone else had this problem?”
Forum “expert”: “You didn’t ask this in the correct format, and you didn’t include logs with your question. You probably didn’t do something right because you clearly don’t know how to read. Why don’t you try googling before asking a stupid question.”

Not the most welcoming of messages. My wife called them a bunch of “a-holes” (apple-holes). That being said, there were still tons of friendly, helpful people and that’s where most of my tweaks and workarounds came from.

Conclusions

Getting a working “NUCintosh” was quite the journey for me. I learned more about Apple’s MacOS than I ever thought I would, and I had fun solving the various issues that popped up.

In the end, my “NUCintosh” was fully functional (except for WiFi & bluetooth), and worked remarkably well. Since I don’t have a Mac I can’t really make a side-by-side comparison. But my resulting system was pleasantly usable and entirely stable. Unlike most newer NUCs, Dawson Canyon has a replaceable WiFi card, so if I wanted I could swap out the WiFi card for something that MacOS supports. I found a few supported cards on Ebay for around $10. I’m not going to bother with that, though, since I’m not keeping this setup. It was a fun experiment, but I really don’t need a Mac for anything. Which kind of sucks, because now that I know how to do it, I could make these things all day long.

If I were a regular Mac user who wanted to avoid paying a premium for Apple hardware, AND was willing to put in the time and effort, this would definitely be an option. It’s cheaper than a Mac, and it gives you a crash course in the MacOS. What’s not to love?

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I'm a self-described technology nut, as well as a writer. That means the only thing I love more than learning about and playing with new technology is writing about it! Techster means "one who techs", and that's me!

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