Macs switched over to Intel processors years ago, but it is still a huge headache to run OS X on a PC. Read on as we explore the technical hurdles in installing Apple’s OS on a PC framework.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Braiam wants to know what the technical obstacles that prevent normal computer users from installing OS X on their PCs are:

Lets forget about the EULA and any other legal regulation. I’m not interested in those.

Everyone knows that until recently, OS X (or Mac OS) could only be run on PowerPC-based Macs, but that changed when Apple started using Intel’s CPUs, and opened up the possibility of installing OS X on PCs. Again lets forget about legalese, I’m going for factual and technical references. After the switch, users started experimenting until it was possible to install and run OS X on a PC.

Does anyone know why OS X wouldn’t work on a normal person’s PC? Is it some piece of hardware that is custom made or tailored for OS X that only Mac computers have? Or is it  just Apple making computer users’ lives difficult on a technical level?

Is it really as complicated as it seems ‘hardware-wise’ to run OS X on a PC, or are the differences between Mac computers and PCs smaller (and simpler) than most people believe?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Journeyman Geek has the answer for us:

Oddly enough? Apple systems check for a specific chip and refuse to run or install without it. This is called the system management controller, and in effect is a glorified fan controller amongst other things. Practically speaking, this is the reason, outside of some other specific things that might be different – such as video card firmware for video cards and OS X specific drivers for various things (sound cards come to mind) that you can’t ‘just’ boot a vanilla copy of OS X right on your beige box pc. Of course, this isn’t that hard to get around, which is why your average OS X hosted VM host can run OS X VMs, and there are Hackintosh distros floating around.

Most Hackintosh install methods these days use variations of boot132, a bootloader that was provided when Apple was transitioning from PPC to Intel with some modifications. The original bootloader was open source, and built with some changes for Darwin. As an aside, there have been some attempts to repackage Darwin as an open source OS.

Apple supports a limited range of hardware you know will work. Otherwise, you’re going to have to scrounge up tested hardware or hack hardware into working. This is what makes running OS X on commodity hardware difficult. The SMC is relatively trivial to get around. Getting your unsupported sound chip (nothing like having your mic stuck at maximum volume on a laptop to ruin your day), video adaptor, and other hardware is the tricky part. If you have an AMD processor, for example, the stock kernel will take one look at it and panic like a mouse ran up its pants. In many cases, the solution ends up being building a new kernel, with patches off Darwin source (which is FOSS) and using that.

In short, the big problem isn’t the magic chip, it is OS X needing to play nice with the entire system.

As you can see, while it may not be easy to get OS X up and running on a PC, it is doable. Interested in building your own Hackintosh PC? Then make sure to read through our terrific guides here:

The How-To Geek Guide to Hackintoshing – Part 1: The Basics

The How-To Geek Guide to Hackintoshing – Part 2: The Installation

The How-To Geek Guide to Hackintoshing – Part 3: Upgrading to Lion and Dual-Booting

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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