Buying a Mac for Gaming

So you want to play games but you don’t want to settle for Windows? Don’t let the stereotypes of the gaming community dissuade you from buying a machine running OS X and don’t feel that you’re going to have to make compromises just to do so. I play games on my Mac and have a great experience doing so, but picking out the right machine can be pretty critical to ensuring an optimum time.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at each of Apple’s Macs and discuss why you might choose them and when you shouldn’t.

MacBook Air

Let’s start with the MacBook Air. As an ultra book featuring sub-2GHz processors and integrated graphics, you wouldn’t expect it to be fantastic for games and it’s not. While not exceptional, if you’ve got the MacBook Air set in your sights for other reasons, it’s acceptable for more casual games.

Speaking from personal experience, the latest-generation MacBook Airs featuring Intel’s Ivy Bridge with HD Graphics 4000 handles older games fine, albeit with some noticeable heat and fan noise. Games like The Sims 3 from 2009 and Half-Life 2 (and its episodes) from 2004 run perfectly well on my 13″ MacBook Air, even at native resolution and medium/high graphic settings. Even more recent games, like Portal 2, run at very playable frame rates on higher quality graphics but, again, with some noticeable fan noise. Reducing settings and resolution can combat the increase in heat/noise, but you will have to live with that.

However, if you’re wanting to play more recent games that obviously utilise more intense graphics, the MacBook Air isn’t the machine for you.

MacBook Air

MacBook Pro (“old” models)

The “current-generation” MacBook Air models are on their way out, but should still be considered if you plan to play games. The 13″ model has very similar features to the MacBook Air, so you can reference the previous section for considerations on that model.

The 15″ MacBook Pro, however, features dedicated graphics with either 512mb or 1gb of memory and quad-core Intel i7 processors. That’s a set of specifications that will certainly power a lot of games easily with arguably any game running at some level of graphic quality. If a MacBook Air with integrated graphics can run games on high settings, you can expect a MacBook Pro to do even better and handle newer games with relative ease.

Why would you consider the old models over the new generation with retina display? The optical drive. Yes, it’s a type of media on it’s way out but for gamers with a large collection of games on physical media, having a DVD drive built in is naturally more beneficial than having to carry around and balance an external SuperDrive.

However, unless you specifically want to play games on DVDs, the current generation model may be more suited.

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple’s latest and greatest MacBook is my choice for portable gaming on the Mac. If you want to play games on a MacBook, this is probably the machine you should go for, having the form factor most similar to the MacBook Air but the best performance of any MacBook in the current lineup.

As discussed in the previous section, a combination of a dedicated graphics chipset with 1gb of memory and a quad-core Intel i7 processor provides the specification suited for most games. As long as you don’t care about the optical drive, buying a MacBook Pro with Retina Display ensures you’re not buying into a soon-to-be-discontinued product with a nice set of additional components, including flash storage.

This MacBook isn’t going to be able to push high level graphics at its full 2880 x 1800 resolution (except for pretty old games), but The Verge has it on good authority that playing at the traditional 15″ resolution – 1440 x 900 – and high level graphics produces playable results.

In a nutshell, if you want to play games on a MacBook, this is the machine for you. Just don’t expect it to power full Retina-level graphics on newer titles.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Mac Mini

The Mac Mini is the MacBook Air of desktops. It powers the same class of games well that MacBook Air does, with newer titles needing to be played at lower resolutions and/or at lower graphics settings.

Mac Mini buyers should definitely go with the more expensive of the two consumer models, since it features dedicated graphics with 256mb of memory. I’ve got this machine and it plays titles from a years or so back with perfectly and I’ve enjoyed titles like Portal 2 at 1080p and at high settings on the machine. You can hear fans rev up at times, but it’s still a capable machine if you’re considering it for other reasons.

Mac Mini

iMac/Mac Pro

The iMac is Apple’s all-in-one and flagship desktop machine. There’s not a lot to say about it, either. The entry-level machines are more than capable to handle a range of titles, all featuring dedicated graphics of 512mb or higher. The 21.5-inch models are perfect all-rounders and will easily power a lot of titles easily.

If you’re looking for an iMac, it’s best to read up on the technical requirements of the type of games you want to play and then buy an iMac that meets them. You can get an iMac sporting a turbo-boostable 3.4GHz Core i7 processor with 16gb of RAM and dedicated graphics with 2gb of their own memory, and everything in between. That top-of-the-line iMac should be more than enough to power any game you want, although the cheaper models shouldn’t be written off unless your games require it.


You can consider the Mac Pro, and its ability to be easily upgraded will be attractive to some. However, its apparent power really isn’t a reason to buy it. It looks like Apple’s ready to ditch it and the higher-end iMacs will handle games pretty easily so there’s little reason to consider a Mac Pro, for the most part.

So, Which One?

We’ve looked at the advantages and disadvantages of each Mac but not yet answered the question of which one you should buy.

If you want a MacBook, my recommendation would be the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display which features a great set of specifications that will handle most games perfectly at the traditional 15″ resolution. If you have a significant library of games on physical media, the “current-generation” 15″ MacBook Pro is still a great machine that should handle them in a comparable way.

If you want a MacBook Air for other reasons with gaming only as a side focus, it’ll still handle more casual and older titles with relative ease and shouldn’t be dismissed. However, if you want to do some real gaming, I’d go for a MacBook Pro over an Air.

The current Mac lineup.

On the desktop, it’s a similar story. The iMac is the clear choice for gaming, available in a wide variety of configurations that can be chosen to match the class of games that you want to play. A Mac Mini will suffice for some much lighter titles, but shouldn’t be a choice for gaming, more of an acceptable solution for gaming as a side focus.


The Mac is most certainly capable of running games, with the MacBook Pro and iMac being able to power a variety of titles. Boot these up with Windows and you get a machine that can run most popular titles while still having OS X loaded up for other tasks.

The Mac Mini and MacBook Air remain great machines, but aren’t designed for gaming and shouldn’t be chosen for. However, I can speak from personal experience and say they can still power older and more casual titles if that’s all your bothered about.

You’re invited to share your own experiences with gaming on your Mac in the comments, and stay subscribed to Mac.AppStorm for August Gaming Month.