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Build your own Mac with EFi-X

November 17, 2008

efix_pc_thumb3v2_2Several months back, I saw a post on Engadget or Gizmodo (or probably both) about a device called EFi-X.  It’s a small device that plugs into a USB header on your motherboard and essentially turns your plain “beige box” PC into a Mac.  Now, obviously it doesn’t magically transform your case and hardware into a shiny aluminum cheese grater, but it does provide an EFI bootloader so that you can boot and install a plain, unhacked retail version of Mac OS X onto certain PC hardware.

Why should you care?  Well, if you’ve ever wanted the Mac experience but didn’t feel like paying the Mac tax to get super pretty hardware that you can’t modify, this is your chance.  For under $1000, you can build your own Mac, with components of your choosing and space to expand and choices in cases, lights, etc.  It brings the Mac OS to the PC modding community!

So, why am I writing about this?  Simple:  I just got an EFi-X chip and built my own “Mac”.  Because I have owned numerous REAL Macs in my life, I had my original retail disc of 10.5 around.  I checked the EFi-X web site, which has a handy dandy hardware compatibility list, and I bought a few items off of NewEgg to round out my new computer.

So, my new computer consists of the following components:

3.0GHz Core 2 Duo Wolfdale 45nm processor

Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R

8GB DDR2-800 RAM

GeForce 8800GT video card with 512MB onboard memory (more on this in a few seconds)

The case I already had and I picked up a cheap 585 watt power supply to round everything out.  A couple of SATA DVD drives and a SATA hard drive (they HAVE to be SATA…no PATA drives here), and I was up and running.

At first, I had a few problems getting the EFi-X chip to properly boot up.  Apparently, you have to disable AHCI and RAID modes on your SATA devices in the motherboard BIOS before you begin.  Since the EFi-X chip didn’t ship with any instructions, I had to search around their forums before I found this out.  Since the chip is only compatible with a handful of motherboards, it would be nice if the EFi-X people would include a quick checklist of BIOS settings that need to be disabled or enabled on the boards.  It would make the installation a bit more seamless.  One other thing about the packaging:  it’s really top-flight.  It actually reminded me a bit of Apple’s typical retail packaging.  But be careful and don’t throw it away when you get the chip out.  Tucked away underneath the chip in a small cardboard “hidden compartment” is a USB extension cable in case the EFi-X chip doesn’t fit perfectly in your case!  Some guy on the EFi-X forums didn’t know this and actually took a Dremel to his case and chopped out a small section in the bottom!  Again, there is NO indication on the packaging or in the packaging that this cable is inside.  If I hadn’t known about it beforehand, I probably would have ended up doing the same thing as the Dremel guy.

Okay, so everything is installed and I finally get the BIOS settings correct.  Sure enough, the EFi-X chip displays it’s bootloader menu, which allows you to select what device you want to boot from.  Initially, during installation, you have to disable AHCI in the BIOS.  After the OS is fully installed, you can reenable it, but the installation WILL NOT WORK if AHCI is enabled in the beginning.

As stated, the device works like a charm.  My OS X 10.5 retail DVD was recognized and the installation started up and finished very very quickly.  When I say very quickly, I mean that this “hackintosh” is easily the FASTEST Mac I have ever used.  I’ve had everything from G4 Mac Minis to 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo “Santa Rosa” MacBook Pros and nothing has ever compared to this self-built “Mac”.

And EFi-X works better than any “hackintosh” approach I’ve ever used.  Usually, when you deal with hackintoshes, you use a certain installation media that has been hacked with all kinds of kext mods and special drivers.  This usually means that you can’t use the Software Update utility in Mac OS X or you’ll screw up your installation.  But I upgraded my EFi-X machine to 10.5.5 without any problems and no extra steps from me.  It really is flawless so far.

I still haven’t tested out all the capabilities of my motherboard to ensure that ALL onboard devices are functioning correctly, but so far, everything seems good.  The onboard audio works just fine.  My monitor initially displayed at 1280×1024 resolution and I couldn’t change it.  Once I upgraded to 10.5.5 however, the monitor is fully recognized with color profiles and resolutions.  Now I’m running at native resolution again.  And speaking of graphics, I mentioned the 8800GT that I have has 512MB onboard.  For some reason, with EFi-X, even though the card is correctly recognized as an 8800GT in System Profiler, only 256MB of onboard memory are identified.  Not a big deal.  Everything runs just fine.  Quartz Extreme and Core Image work, so you get all the fancy eye candy.

EFi-X provides firmware updates so you can upgrade the capabilities of the chip.  Right now, as of this writing, the Windows firmware update utility is unavailable on their web site.  I read in the forums that it is unavailable because a new firmware version is just about ready to be released.  If that’s correct, I’m hoping that it helps resolve the memory identification problem on the graphics card.  We’ll see when it’s released!

But I can honestly say that I am a happy EFi-X owner.  I have the most powerful Mac I’ve ever owned and it cost me less than $1000.  The only real Macs you can get for that price is the Mac Mini or the white plastic MacBook.  Not much choice from Apple.  Which is funny considering that they are the company that challenged people to “think different”.  Well, Steve, I did think different.  Which is why I’m running an EFi-X chip on hardware that I can afford and that I can expand.

Do you have any questions about the EFi-X chip?  Planning on building your own and want some answers about how to do it?  Post some comments and I’ll do my best to answer you based on my setup!

Links:

Main EFi-X web site

USA distributor for EFi-X

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