One of my first goals for the new year was to reorganize our computer setup. Here are a few of the things I’ve been working on to get us ready for another year of photography.
For a couple years now we’ve used Hackintoshes (custom built computers that can run the Mac operating system) as our photography workstation computers. We made the switch to Hackintoshes because at the time Apple hadn’t updated their Mac Pro line in over two years, and with a Hackintosh you can build something with similar power for a fraction of the price that Apple charges.
Fast forward to today and Apple has just recently launched their iMac Retina, and they now have a newly designed Mac Pro (which is already a year old).
I wanted to refresh our current computers, and for a long time I debated between getting the new iMac Retina, and Mac Pro. You can find reviews galore all over the internet for both computers so I’ll spare you the in depth details about them.
Despite the impressive specs of the new Apple computers, we ended up keeping our current Hackintosh computers. Here’s why:
The iMac retina is currently the fastest available Mac for single core processing, and it’s only around 15% slower than the fastest Mac Pro for multi-core processing. A fully loaded iMac is a little over $4000, and a decently outfitted Mac Pro starts around $4000.
Our current Hackintoshes are about 30% slower than the fastest iMac Retina. That’s quite a bit slower, but it’s not paralyzing. I decided that the 30% increase wasn’t worth the additional $8000 (we need two computers). We would also need to invest in external storage enclosures (which are expensive!).
Another detail is that the next round of processor upgrades Apple puts in their iMac Retina and Mac Pros likely won’t produce much of a bump in speed – instead they’ll be more energy efficient.
What that means is that we’re probably looking at a couple more years with our current Hackintoshes until Apple releases something significantly faster.
If you’re interested in learning more about Hackintoshes then you need to check out www.tonymacx86.com. You’ll find all the parts lists, programs, and installation guides you need to build your own Hackintosh.
You don’t need a ton of experience with computers to be able to put a Hackintosh together. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert with computers, but it was easy to work through the guides on tonymac, and search for solutions to problems on their forum.
After having Hackintoshes for a couple years I wanted to switch back to real Apple computers. You certainly save a ton of money compared to purchasing a real Apple computer, but overall I’m not sure they’re worth the trouble (especially if you use your computer professionally). Once you have the Hackintosh set up they’re fairly reliable. What was frustrating was not being able to do the system software updates easily. You would have to wait for a Hackintosh patch to be released, and then you would install the patch and things like sound or internet would stop working and you would have to go searching for a solution. Eventually I stopped installing the system updates – not great.
Despite the shortcomings of Hackintoshes I’m already invested in all the hardware, and the best option for us is to continue using them for the time being. I’ve reformatted both our Hackintoshes and freshly installed all our software. One downside (or possible benefit) is that we have to keep using the Mavericks operating system (10.9). The new Yosemite OS (10.10) is currently too buggy with our old Hackintosh hardware. From the reviews of Yosemite, it seems like it might be a good thing that we can’t upgrade – all our software still works fine anyway!
One program I haven’t seen the Hackintosh community talk about is SoftRAID. We’ve been using it for years and it’s an excellent program for managing your computer’s hard drives. SoftRAID isn’t just for Hackintoshes, anyone with a Mac can use it!
SoftRAID recently released a new version of the program that is capable of RAID 5. What this means is that you can connect several drives to your computer to act like one big drive. The data is written across all the drives. RAID 5 also writes parity information across all the drives, so that if one hard drive fails you still have all your data, you just need to replace the failed drive with a new one and the RAID array will automatically rebuild.
Up until now mac users basically had to purchase a separate enclosure capable of RAID 5, since the software included in OSX isn’t capable of RAID 5.
Another advantage of a RAID 5 array is that the read and write speeds of the array are much faster compared to using a single hard drive.
For professional photographers and videographers with a lot of data to store, RAID 5 is a good solution. You’ll still need to backup your data on other hard drives, but with RAID 5 you’ll be safe against a single hard drive failure.
I’ve setup a RAID array using seven 3TB hard drives. That gives me a total of 18TB of usable storage space (after accounting for the one extra drive required for parity). Read and write performance of the RAID 5 array is stunning:
It’s much faster than a single hard disk drive, or single solid state drive.
Sure it’s not as fast as a single PCI-Express solid state drive found in the Mac Pro, and if the RAID array were made of regular solid state drives instead of hard drives the speed would be much faster. However, since my existing storage setup was based around 3TB hard drives it was the most affordable option to go with 3TB drives for the RAID array.
The nice thing is that you don’t need to create one big 18TB volume (and you shouldn’t!). I have several small volumes (no bigger than 3TB) which makes it easy for me to backup data onto individual 3TB hard drives.
SoftRAID is especially beneficial for people using Hackintoshes professionally since with a Hackintosh you normally have a tower with tons of room to connect additional hard drives.
Even if you don’t have a Hackintosh SoftRAID can still be useful. OWC has external hard drive enclosure bays available that let you connect hard drives to your computer through a Thunderbolt connection. You can even buy SoftRAID bundled with a Thunderbay.
If you’re just getting into photography then I would recommend checking out Apple’s iMac Retina. It offers tremendous value – you’re basically purchasing a 5K screen and getting a free computer. I wish it was fast enough for us to justify an upgrade, but for now we’ll keep trucking with our Hackintoshes.
If you have an Apple computer with Thunderbolt and you’re looking for large capacity, blazing fast, external storage then definitely check out OWCs Thunderbays and SoftRAID.
Finally, if you’re interested in building a Hackintosh I would weigh carefully the costs involved (and not just in terms of the price of parts). If you’re using your computer professionally then it’s probably not worth going down the Hackintosh path. I personally regret the time I’ve spent wrestling with the computer. If you’re an enthusiast interested in building computers and don’t mind the extra setup work, and ongoing maintenance then it’s worth further investigation (you can build a powerful computer for a fraction of the cost of a real Apple computer).