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.

iMac

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.

Conclusion

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.


  • J

    This sounds a little too rosy. Gamers are more often speed fanatics who want to overclock, liquid cool, and push their systems to the limit with the most current parts. But then again, no gamer would read this review and be swayed, they would already know that they weren’t really the target audience.

    If you don’t count the CPU, an iMac is a nice screen with slower laptop parts that you’re stuck with once you buy it. I used to like mine, until I started reading about Hackintoshes – which are too much trouble, so basically, I’m stuck with things like a cheap broadcom ethernet controller that can’t even go as fast as my network and NAS.

    I’d say the prognosis for gamers on the Mac could be summed up as “If you must, buy an iMac, then just settle for the decent performance you’ll get, because you’ll have no say in the matter. There’s (effectively) no desktop equivalent to a good Windows machine. If you really care about performance in gaming and computing, then don’t get a Mac.”

    What gets me is that, in the desktop space at least, Apple appears to think that people who want a solid OS don’t also want real power and speed and control – for editing, data crunching, conversion, gaming, etc., unless of course, they’re a rich corporation that can justify 5 grand for 2 year old, outdated hardware that no one wants. There’s no middle.

    I never thought I’d say this, but lately I’ve been considering using my Mac for just email and such, and building a windows machine for CS6, games, and ‘real’ work.

  • Jack

    Sorry, but if you are going to be buying a mac for gaming (COMING FROM A MAC USER) then you will have to run windows or another third party application to play the games in the first place, so isn’t that sort of defeating the objective of buying a mac for gaming, plus even if you did buy a mac pro, putting a GTX 680 overclock in there isn’t going to be much difference at all because the benchmarks have shown that the 5770 that apple have put in it is probably the best performing GPU for the mac pro.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ConnorTurnbull Connor Turnbull

      Well, it completely depends on what games you play. You don’t necessarily have to run Windows to play games on Apple hardware.

      • http://rikdevos.com/ Rik de Vos

        I’d say that all the “hardcore” games like MW3, BF3, etc are PC-only.

  • Shawn Jordison

    Does the new 13″ Macbook Pro with the i7 2.9 Ghz processor fare well with games? It doesn’t have a dedicated graphics card like the 15″ models, but with that processor, is it not a little bit better than the Macbook Air?

  • Sean

    I feel like this article is a little disingenuous because it doesn’t mention that for one to truly be able to Game on a Mac one will need to use Windows. My understanding of the Retina MacBook Pro dictates that Windows application icons are not compatible in all circumstances that said it sounds like it defeats the purpose of buying the retina MacBook Pro in terms of the display quality if you must go down to a resolution that is less than that of the high-definition matte display available on the regular MacBook pro.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ConnorTurnbull Connor Turnbull

      Allow me to direct you to the conclusion of the article: “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.”

  • Ibby

    I bought a Macbook Pro retina display two days ago and I have had a wonderful gaming experience so far. I have the 2,6 GHz with 8 GB RAM, I have played StarCraft II, Diablo III and Portal 2 with perfect results.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ConnorTurnbull Connor Turnbull

      I play Portal 2 on my MacBook Air with perfect results. You can choose a Mac and play games on it without Windows, it just depends on what games you choose.

      • Paco

        hi there!
        I consider myself a hardcore gamer, recently i moved into mac computing.

        I bought a 15″ macbook pro with 1GB gt650 and i started playing old games like Unreal tournament 2004 and i had no issues with the performance and the fps, but the heating rate is so high that i burned my hand while playing.

  • Olivier V.

    If your sole intention to buy a computer is gaming, then a mac is NOT a valid choice. It may be a cliché in the gaming world, it doesnt mean its sadly not the truth

  • Sohum Chitalia

    Another option you could go for would be “hackintoshing” your machine. All the benefits of a mac on a computer with great specs.

  • Sebastiaan Swinkels

    Hackintosh all the way. They are cheaper to build, easier too repair (if hardware fails) and generally a lot more powerful. My hackintosh uses hardware that is almost 4 years old but easily outpowers my year and half old iMac at work.

    I’ve often thought of just getting another iMac to use at home once my current setup commits harakiri, but the idea of paying a ton of money for generally old hardware is just not that appealing to me.

    A laptop however might be a totally different ballgame. There is simply no laptop around that i’d rather use. The design of macbooks is just stunning, i sincerely hate the fact that just about every notebook these days is just a bunch of cheap shiny plastic with a substandard screen attached.

  • Rik de Vos

    IMO 2 things need to change for successful gaming on the mac platform.

    1: Apple should allow users to upgrade their hardware after they’ve purchased the mac. In addition they should support a larger variety of graphic cards for the macs, they could partner up with nvidia for example.

    2: Games should be developed for the mac platform. This is easily achievable and shouldn’t be a problem.

    If these points are taken care of, people could seriously start considering a mac for gaming. But at this moment, it’s impractical to use a mac for non-casual gaming.

    • Sebastiaan

      Exactly how do you want Apple to “allow” you to change out graphics cards in an iMac, Macbook or Mac Mini? It’s physically impossible to change the graphics card or just about anything other than harddrives and RAM.

      The Mac Pro on the other hand is less of a problem. A large portion of NVidia’s and ATI’s cards are supported out of the box.

  • John

    Ive been trying to install Battlefield 3 on my rMBP. 4 days has passed and im still playing over at my xbox. I just cant figure out how windows works haha

  • http://macdrive.ru Vinchester

    Did somebody play Diablo III on MacBook Unibody Late 2008 with NVIDIA 9400m graphics? I use this notebook for three years and it fully satisfies my demands, but I really wanna try this game and I’m not sure my Mac can handle it. Unfortunately, there’ no free trial version of this game.

    • carlo

      It runs ok but you have to turn all graphic settings at minimum except resolution that can stay high, and do a tweak to disable trilinear filtering (check on google how to do that)

  • Ian

    Buying a Mac for gaming <– an oxymoron. I have had a Mac for 6 months now, moved from PC because my work bought me a Mac and everyone there uses them. Most standard office programs are no problems. But as far as gaming it is absurdly complicated. In the six month I have yet to make ONE pc game work on this pile of over designed shit. Tried Wineskin and a couple of other programs, heck I cant even get Mac games to work, and its a new computer!!! Never have I been more frustrated with a new machine than with this (Mac Book Pro). Installing and running games on PC (download or from dvd) is dead easy and takes a couple of minutes, with the mac it takes up to an hour a piece and most of the time they still fail to work.

    • Mac Genius

      Maybe you should rake it to an apple store and get a genius to assist you so you understand the difference between installing and double clicking on the program from the install disk.

    • Real experience

      In 15 years of Servicing, installing and playing games on my mac i have never had the issues you talk about. yes some games take a long time to install this is usually because they are downloading the content from the internet. I would like to see any computer be faster. but the vast amount of mac native games i have played i have had very little problems.

      as to installing Windows to play non native games. this is a touch trickier there are many different emulators. i personally prefer parallels as it integrates better than the others. i have had very little issues running games with that either.

      As to which mac to buy for gaming. if you are a dedicated gamer get a Mac Pro. plenty of graphics cards available and hugely expandable. though i predict that they will update them very soon as they have not received a refresh in a while.

  • Sam Skillett

    Hey, I’m currently in the market for a new laptop/computer. Although gaming is not a sole priority I occasionally like to play casual games such as Football Manager and Sim City. Would a MacBook Pro be suitable for running such things without any trouble?

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Absolutely, no question at all.

  • Rocheyb

    I want to buy an iMac for my home office and I’m sure that the machines I have specified are all more than capable of running the software that I need for that. But I would like to play some games on it, too.

    So I went to the MacGamer website and compiled a spreadsheet of minimum specs for the games I’m interested in – not the most recent titles, but several Star Wars, Empire Total War, Batman and Assassin’s Creed games. They all seem to list a much higher grade NVIDIA GeForce card than any machine I can find.

    For example, a machine spec lists “NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M” and another lists “NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 512MB GDDR5″.

    To play the Mac version of Batman: Arkham City, you apparently need “NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT”.

    Since you can’t upgrade the graphics card once you have bought the machine, and there don’t appear to be any machines with a large enough graphics card to run this game… I figure I must be misunderstanding something. Can anyone clarify it for me?

theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow