Hack Back to the Mac

Why the Hackintosh era, even if it looks like it might just dead-end thanks to Apple Silicon, was still a useful phenomenon for the Mac.

Today in Tedium: I warned I was going to do it. Then, I did it. I got an M1 MacBook Air this week, returning to the Apple fold to give the company money for a Mac product for the first time in years. I of course, was perhaps vocal about my reasons for leaving the Apple flock in the first place … the company just wasn’t releasing products that I could see myself wanting to purchase. (Something about the keyboard. Turns out writers care about keyboards, who knew?) So I dove head-first into the realm of the Hackintosh a few years ago, and embraced my role as the guy using the Mac with the brass trims and the touchscreen. I even wrote a guide on how to do it yourself. That guide, and the laptop on which I based it on, still hold up, though some of the methods have changed. (It now rocks 32 gigs of RAM and a 2TB SSD that dual-boots Linux.) But one cannot deny the juggernaut that is Apple Silicon. Today’s Tedium reviews the new machine, and ponders what we gained from the Hackintosh era of the Mac and why it’s worth keeping that spirit alive somehow, even in the Apple Silicon era. — Ernie @ Tedium

Before we get going, be sure to check out today’s sponsor, SetApp.

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“If your software uses deprecated and supported KPIs, you’ll need to factor out deprecated components into a stand-alone system extension. If your software uses new system extensions and legacy kernel extensions, you can distribute to supported operating systems. Software that supports a broad range of macOS versions should continue to use kernel extensions for older versions and run system extensions where supported.”

— A technical document from Apple discussing its plans to deprecate support for kernel extensions (also known as kexts), a key element of Hackinitoshing over the years. Big Sur, the recently released version of MacOS, now puts up a warning about them. Despite this, Big Sur is totally Hackintoshable.

Mac Book Air

Solid gold. (photo by me)

Is the M1 chip good enough to get Hackintosh users to come back to the fold? Maybe

Speed isn’t everything, nor is battery life. But it can excuse a lot.

That seems to be the takeaway I have from the past few days of using the M1 MacBook Air as my daily driver.

I admittedly find myself torn, though. It works quite well, better than I was expecting, and the battery life is just unspeakably amazing. (My wife, Cat, has informed me that I cannot talk about how amazing the battery life is anymore in conversation.)

But it leaves two of my biggest problems off to the side—the ability to upgrade anything, and the high cost of storage and RAM upgrades at time of purchase. In a world where buying a 2-terabyte NVMe SSD that can be easily screwed into a laptop costs less than $250, Apple has convinced the world that its SSDs are somehow special, despite the fact that it is possible to get similar or even faster speeds with PCIe 4.0. (Upgrading to a 2-terabyte drive costs an eye-watering $800.)

I did a rough test of my current Hackintosh machines, and while the MacBook Air outpaced both machines on write speeds (about 2,800 megabytes per second, versus 1,400 on each), my Xeon easily kept pace on read speeds (2,800 megabytes for each), despite the fact it doesn’t officially support the NVMe spec and I only can use it as a boot drive thanks to Clover.

To put it another way: Apple doesn’t allow people to upgrade the SSD themselves because Apple is Apple. You can tell me every day of the week about the security reasons for it, but the truth is, if Apple cared about upgradeability, it would figure out a way to make it work.

I won’t bore you with performance numbers because you’ve seen them everywhere else on the internet. I will say, however, that these machines perform great, but don’t bend the rules of physics: If your general usage approach feels like it might be cramped with eight gigs of RAM, you will still feel cramped here. But on the way to being cramped, you will feel quite light-footed and agile before you slam into that inevitable wall, like a clumsy ballerina.

This is not magic hardware, but it works well—especially if you’re adept with USB-C, which honestly does a lot to simplify hardware setups. And not having a fan in the Air will open up opportunities that may not have been possible previously, particularly in the case of audio.

Mac Book M1 Battery Life

Kind of hard to argue with this.

Ultimately, the thing that seals it as a worthy buy for me is the battery life. You could take this thing on a road trip and not plug it in the entire time. Windows laptops have promised something like this, but Apple has delivered in an overwhelmingly convincing way. It’s comparable to the Pinebook Pro, except with performance that makes it less of a tinkerer’s plaything and more something that you could use every day.

Hackintoshers, for years, had it both ways—you could tinker to your heart’s content, but still edit 4K video at speeds faster than a desktop Mac. Apple has basically made the case that it has improved the machines so much that even tinkerers might want to take a look.

Should they? Yes. But if you want to keep your old machines with their perfectly tailored Clover or OpenCore directories around, you honestly should, because they still have their place.

I, for one, am still going to want to have that kind of control over my hardware sometimes … along with the ability to upgrade the RAM.

Vivaldi Error Rosetta

Rosetta apps mostly worked fine, but Vivaldi had some entertaining glitches.

Five early observations about Apple Silicon Macs from a Hackintosh nerd

  1. Eight is not enough (at least for me). Many of the early M1 Macs come with eight gigs of RAM as a baseline, with the 16-gigabyte versions delayed by weeks as Apple works through stock. While Apple appeared to be making a strong push that 8GB was enough for most people, I sort of felt like I was hitting the limits from my fairly aggressive style of normal use, especially with Rosetta apps like my browser of choice, Vivaldi. (I am trying other browsers to account for this.) I ultimately decided that the upgrade was worth it, and will be returning my 8GB machine once the 16GB model comes in.
  2. Rethink your computer’s relationship with swap files. One thing that I’ve noticed with this machine is that swap is used pretty heavily, which traditionally has been a sign that things are about to slow down in a big way. But for the most part, unless I really push it or do something stupid like open a gigantic text file, it feels smooth. Even though 8GB of RAM is not enough for me, it almost was, in part because of how efficiently the Mac handles swap.
  3. Maybe hold off on connecting your cloud apps. Anyone who has been reading my Twitter account over the past few days knows that I had a comical experience getting my Dropbox account loaded onto this Mac. (Long story short: Do not save Node.js projects in your Dropbox folders.) Once your files are loaded, Dropbox works fine, but it is only available in an Intel variant at this time and will see a performance hit as a result. With an 8-gig ceiling, you will feel the overhead.
  4. The Photoshop beta shows the real potential. Of all the things I’ve had a chance to try on the M1 Mac this week, I’d say Photoshop made me happiest. It felt like comfort food, and it largely works well, without much in the way of sluggishness. I loaded up 20 recent GIFs from issues of Tedium and felt no lag, even when a GIF was playing in the background. Of course, Photoshop’s weaknesses are still there, too—after all these years, Adobe still doesn’t support Apple’s native full-screen mode.
  5. The difference in speed is making old distinctions matter less. When you can literally unplug your laptop and not plug it in for another day or two, that creates mindspace for productivity that wasn’t once there. On top of that, something surprising I’ve noticed on the M1 Mac is that it somehow makes web browsers that have traditionally felt sluggish to me, like Firefox, suddenly feel less so. To put it another way, the improvements are big enough that issues of performance in many types of apps are going to stop mattering as much, to the point where you might choose a browser based on its functionality, rather than its memory management capabilities.

HP Spectre Folio

The HP Spectre Folio, which uses leather for its casing, is a bold example of what the PC industry is doing on the industrial design front these days. The chip on it is a bit weaksauce, though. (HP)

What I hope Apple takes away from the rest of the PC industry now that it’s going to Apple Silicon

When I started doing my research into Hackintoshing three years ago, my concerns were generally driven by the fact that Apple’s computers at the time were simply not very good, and I couldn’t see myself buying something with a crappy keyboard.

Going thin beyond the point its customers really asked for, the laptops faced serious thermal issues, as Intel’s chip designs did not hold up to the tight quarters Apple had put the computers in. The desktops, meanwhile, had gone years without a respectable update—the Mini sat around about four years without upgrades, while the Mac Pro sat stationary for six.

There were elements of these machines that were good, even then: Apple is better at trackpads than basically anyone else, for example, and the consistency of the Apple designs make them very comfortable to get into even after an upgrade. Having found religion in an array of dongles, I also have to argue that USB-C is honestly a pretty great innovation that has proven its weight in salt.

But in the end, while I think their operating systems have held up—Mojave is quite good, fight me—the company let its competitors best it in areas of design and upgradability for years.

I think the HP Spectre line of laptops offers a perfect example of this, as it is a line of laptops that directly competes with the MacBook Air on many fronts, but has evolved significantly with the times in a way the Air simply hasn’t. In the roughly three years since I got my model, newer iterations of the machine have added a lot of great features, including:

  • Added a number pad on the 15-inch model
  • Introduced a “gem cut” design that moved one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports to the corner to make it easier to use for charging
  • Introduced a model with an experimental leather design (its sister line, the Envy, released models with wood wrist rests)
  • Introduced an OLED model and a model with a “privacy screen”
  • Added Microsoft Precision trackpad drivers so the trackpad was easier to use
  • Added LTE support
  • Added additional color variants, just in case black and brass aren’t your thing
  • Cut the bezel sizes
  • Switched from a 16:9 display to a 3:2 display
  • Introduced a 14-inch model

These changes didn’t all happen at once—they were iterative, reflecting a willingness to evolve. The result is that while its direct predecessor looks roughly the same as the latest model, the late 2017 model is significantly different from the late 2020 model.

During this same period, the Air saw a redesign that added a variant of the retina display already in the MacBook Pro, the addition (and then removal) of the butterfly keyboard, and (in this edition) the removal of a fan. That’s basically it.

And HP is not alone here with the constant design evolution—other PC manufacturers such as Dell and Razer have frequently iterated on their designs, improving and tweaking them constantly. It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, they say, but Apple has lost a lot of ground by not experimenting more with their industrial designs in recent years. (Or, arguably, experimenting with them in ways that nobody asked for—again, goodbye butterfly keyboard.)

The closest equivalent to Apple in the PC laptop space is, ironically, Microsoft, which uses a bold design with the Surface, and iterates on that design very modestly year-in and year-out.

The challenge that Apple faces is that this kind of quick iteration used to be their modus operandi. If you go back to the Power Mac desktop line between 1999 and 2003, it lived up to this sort of constant experimentation, with a design that kept changing based on the processor inside. The iMacs of the era did the same thing, and now … well, the company has basically offered the same design for its all-in-ones since 2012, an eternity in tech years.

The Mac has found a lot of strength in the winnowing down of its product lines, and it has honestly been a good thing for Apple. But my time in Hackintosh-land forced me to look a lot harder at the rest of the PC market, and I honestly liked what I saw. (Don’t try to get me to use Windows, though.) I’m not saying that the industrial designs were across the board good, but there seems to be more willing risks, more attempts at crowd pleasing. One gets the feeling that HP and Lenovo read all the laptop reviews, and directly address the little frustrations each time out.

The big PC manufacturers get things wrong, too. Dell introduced a low-angle webcam on the XPS 13 at one point, pointed out that it was difficult to move back to its original place, but then found a way to solve the problem. It took time to fix, but it wasn’t like Apple, where it kept the bad keyboard around for more that three years seemingly out of pride.

I hope, now that Apple has a chip architecture that doesn’t get in the way, it ramps up its industrial design … and more importantly, it reads the reviews and iterates more thoughtfully and consistently.

Because, for those who haven’t looked in a while, PC laptops are better than you think, at least from a design standpoint. A lot better.

914

The number of Patreon donors, at current count, that have set aside money for Hector “marcan” Martin, a Linux programmer who has pledged to work on an Apple Silicon version of the Linux kernel. Martin, who worked on Linux support for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, has pledged to make the project his full-time job in an effort to expand the capabilities of Apple Silicon.

Just because I got this tiny laptop that seems to be totally groundbreaking in its capabilities doesn’t mean that I expect to decommission my Hackintoshes or anything.

There are practical reasons for this: I rely on virtual machines to work on development for my site, and Apple Silicon doesn’t really have a lot of support for those right now, so the old machines will still need to stick around for now. And honestly, my $50 Xeon, which doubles as a Plex server, was purchased because I wanted to keep an old machine alive. It still runs really well, even if the fans kick up more than they did a year ago—even if, absurdly, the tiny laptop is somehow more powerful for many tasks.

Spectre x360

Still use it every day. Still holds up!

The Spectre, meanwhile, has a bigger screen and in some contexts is arguably better for media consumption, and even writing, as a 16:9 screen is a pretty good ratio if you want to have a text editor on the screen at all times, as I always do. And while its fans kick up relatively often, it has never been bothersome. And because it has a lot of RAM, it’s good for kicking around virtual machines; recently, I spent a little time checking out Haiku, a revival of the classic BeOS, on Parallels.

I think the other factor is that, a few years from now, Hackintoshing will remain valuable in some contexts as a way to keep older machines active and useful for years to come—while still offering headroom for upgrades.

YouTuber and comedian Paul Chato, who I wrote about the last time I wrote a piece on the culture of Hackintosh (and who has become a friend of mine since), noted that it seems like Apple has finally figured out a way to open up a door to folks who brought OpenCore and Clover into their lives—by coming out with something so good as to threaten to make the whole conversation nearly irrelevant.

“A lot of people are just plain tired of driving their standard transmission Hackintosh and want to drive an automatic Macintosh again,” Chato said in a recent video discussing one of the many types of reactions he’s seen to the new hardware.

I’m convinced there will always be people around the edges that will try to bend the rules around the Mac because they’re not entirely happy with Apple’s offering—though Apple Silicon might get them to change tactics. Maybe those people will help push Linux support on Apple Silicon, or figure out ways to get eGPUs working.

But while this community is small, it is passionate. I hope that Apple takes the opportunity to better understand them—and why they left in the first place.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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