Hackintosh: PC insights

Article By : Brian Dipert

Anyone who claims PC architecture innovation has stalled hasn't been paying close enough attention, at least in this engineer's opinion.

hands-on projectLast time, I introduced my latest “Hackintosh” (aka “OSx86“, i.e., MacOS on PC hardware) hands-on project, and mentioned that I’d purchased three different form factor variants of the HP Elite 8300 for it:

  • Convertible minitower (CMT)
  • Small form factor (SFF)
  • Ultra-slim desktop (USDT)

I rationalized the seemingly redundant acquisitions by nebulously noting, “each of them offers a unique implementation spin on the “Hackintosh” concept.” And I then teased that I’d explain my stance in greater detail in the next post in the series. So I suppose that’s a good place to start this particular writeup, which will give an overview of lessons learned so far. Admittedly, as a “Mac guy” of late, I haven’t done an in-depth hands-on of a PC in a while, so at least some of what I’ll share may be old news to at least some of you. And I feel compelled to point out, if it isn’t already obvious, that I intend for each of these systems to do robust long-term double-duty booting both MacOS and Windows 10. With those qualifiers stated, let’s dive in.

Note, first, that the Ivy Bridge Intel CPUs that these particular systems are based on come with two different flavors of integrated graphics, depending on the specific processor model: HD Graphics 2500 or HD Graphics 4000. HD Graphics 2500 works fine in Windows 10 but isn’t fully supported in MacOS … this isn’t a problem if you plan to exclusively leverage a MacOS-compatible graphics add-in card (assuming, of course, that an add-in card is even an option with a particular PC form factor). If not, however, you’ll need to focus your attention on a system with an HD Graphics 4000-equipped CPU … these particular processors also tend to be at the higher end of the Ivy Bridge range with respect to physical and virtual core counts, integrated cache sizes, clock speeds, and the like, which is another upgrade motivation (counterbalanced by their higher prices, of course).

Speaking of which, let’s look first at the USDT:

At 2.60×9.90×10.00 in and 6.8 lbs., it’s the “nugget” (as my wife might say) of the three form factor options. It offers only two slim drive bays, one populated by an optical drive and the other (internal) for a 2.5″ HDD or SSD, the latter with an accompanying dedicated connector and cable to the motherboard:

On the motherboard itself you’ll find only limited expansion slot support: one mini PCI Express (PCIe), one MXM (mobile PCI Express module), and one mSATA (mini SATA). In other words, the USFF offers no option for conventional graphics add-in cards, necessitating a processor with HD Graphics 4000 capabilities (for MacOS, at least). There’s also only one conventional SATA connector on the motherboard, and it’s already in use by the optical drive, meaning that you’ll need to boot both MacOS and Windows off the same HDD or SSD (that is unless you want to use an external USB3-tethered drive for one of the O/Ss). Two SoDIMM connectors, each supporting up to 8 GBytes of 1600-MHz non-ECC DDR3 SDRAM, are also available. Basically, this is a laptop design in a mini desktop form factor.

Move up to the SFF form factor, and you have larger size and weight (4.0×13.3×14.9 in, 16.7 lbs.) but also much more implementation flexibility:

Now there are two external drive bays (one each 3.5″ and 5.25″), plus an internal drive bay for a 3.5″ HDD (or two 2.5″ SSDs plus a mounting bracket). Add-in card (which need to be low profile in height, for both the card and bracket, as well as reasonable in length) slots support PCI, PCIe x1, PCIe x4, and PCIe x16 (one each). There are two SATA 3 connectors on the motherboard, along with one SATA 2 and one eSATA. And there are four DIMM memory sockets (two each per channel for two channels max), each supporting up to 8 GBytes of 1600-MHz non-ECC DDR3 SDRAM. Implementation of the concept is adaptable but also a bit complicated:

The system will automatically operate in single channel mode, dual channel mode, or flex mode, depending on how the DIMMs are installed.

  • The system will operate in single channel mode if the DIMM sockets are populated in one channel only.
  • The system will operate in a higher-performing dual channel mode if the total memory capacity of the DIMMs in Channel A is equal to the total memory capacity of the DIMMs in Channel B. The technology and device width can vary between the channels. For example, if Channel A is populated with two 1-GB DIMMs and Channel B is populated with one 2-GB DIMM, the system will operate in dual channel mode.
  • The system will operate in flex mode if the total memory capacity of the DIMMs in Channel A is not equal to the total memory capacity of the DIMMs in Channel B. In flex mode, the channel populated with the least amount of memory describes the total amount of memory assigned to dual channel and the remainder is assigned to single channel. For optimal speed, the channels should be balanced so that the largest amount of memory is spread between the two channels. If one channel will have more memory than the other, the larger amount should be assigned to Channel A. For example, if you are populating the sockets with one 2-GB DIMM, and three 1-GB DIMMs, Channel A should be populated with the 2-GB DIMM and one 1-GB DIMM, and Channel B should be populated with the other two 1-GB DIMMs. With this configuration, 4-GB will run as dual channel and 1-GB will run as single channel.
  • In any mode, the maximum operational speed is determined by the slowest DIMM in the system.

Finally, there’s the largest (17.6×7.0×18.0 in, 24.5 lbs) but also most flexible form factor option, the CMT:

There are three external 5.25″ drive bays, plus three internal 3.5″ ones. Three PCI add-in card slots, plus one each for PCIe x1, PCIe x4, and PCIe x16; all support full height cards this time, too. Two SATA 3 connectors, plus two SATA 2 and one eSATA are included. And it has the same memory flexibility and fine print as the SFF form factor described earlier.

A few words on the power supplies: the USDT one is external (did I already mention how reminiscent this was of a laptop design?), and bulky at that:

The PSUs for the SFF and CMT systems, respectively 240W and 320W, are both internally located within the enclosures. However, they’re non-mainstream (supposedly the rare CFX form factor, versus ATX or another more common industry standard), both in terms of their dimensions and their cabling. This design decision by HP has several potential impacts. For one thing, there’s no supplemental PCIe power connector offered by the PSU, so a graphics (or other potentially high-power) add-in card will be limited to drawing no more than 75W from the PCIe connector (surgery aside). Plus, just as I mentioned earlier with dried-out CPU thermal paste, PSUs exhibit a variety of potential Achilles’ heels as they age … bulging capacitors, recalcitrant fan motors, etc.

And speaking of CPUs, here are the most common Ivy Bridge Intel options I’ve seen in the refurbished Elite 8300 systems (of various form factor varieties) that I’ve seen for sale at Amazon, Ebay, and elsewhere during my research:

  • Core i3-3220 (HD Graphics 2500, 3.3 GHz base clock, no Turbo clock support, 2 cores/4 threads, 3 MB L3 cache)
  • Core i5-3470 (HD Graphics 2500, 3.2 GHz base clock, 3.6 GHz Turbo clock, 4 cores/4 threads, 6 MB L3 cache)
  • Core i5-3570 (HD Graphics 2500, 3.4 GHz base clock, 3.8 GHz Turbo clock, 4 cores/4 threads, 6 MB L3 cache)
  • Core i7-3770S (HD Graphics 4000, 3.1 GHz base clock, 3.9 GHz Turbo clock, 4 cores/8 threads, 8 MB L3 cache)
  • Core i7-3770 (HD 4000, 3.4 GHz base clock, 3.9 GHz Turbo clock, 4 cores/8 threads, 8 MB L3 cache)

Which option did I choose, and for which form factor(s)? For the answers to those questions, and others, you’ll need to wait for the next posts in this series. Until then, as always, I welcome your comments and questions!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

Also in this series:

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