Monday, April 22, 2024

The MacBook Pro is a good enough gaming laptop for me

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Halo running on a MacBook Pro.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

I’m not a hardcore gamer. But like a lot of people, I like to dabble here and there. Looking at my limited Steam account, I find a handful of remotely current titles I’ve been enjoying lately, whether that’s Baldur’s Gate 3 or Civilization VI.

Contents

  • Where the Metal meets the microchip
  • Where are all the games?

When I fully converted to a MacBook Pro from Windows, I didn’t expect to have even my limited gaming needs met. I figured it would just be something I’d lose in the transition. To my surprise, I’ve found myself quite enjoying the experience of gaming on my M3 Max MacBook Pro 16-inch. It won’t be enough to satisfy gamers, but it was enough to get me excited for the future of gaming on the Mac.

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Where the Metal meets the microchip

Apple

Historically, Macs haven’t been great gaming machines. That’s partly because Apple has shied away from taking it seriously, from both the hardware and software sides.

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One of the biggest changes to gaming on the Mac was the introduction of Apple’s Metal framework, which provides developers with closer access to the GPU and, thus, potentially dramatic gaming performance improvements. Metal’s been around since iOS 8, way back in 2014, and made its first appearance on Macs in 2015, in OS X El Capitan. Metal hit its second generation in 2017, in MacOS High Sierra, and then Metal 3 was announced in 2022. The latest iteration adds MetalFX for high-performance upscaling, as well as anti-aliasing to the overall framework of graphical functions. Furthermore, Apple offers a new game porting toolkit that helps developers more easily port their games to macOS.

Metal 3 first appeared in macOS Ventura, which coincidentally — or not — was just a year before the release of Apple M3 chipsets with significant upgrades to the GPU portion. In addition to moving to a new 3nm process and introducing improved CPU performance, the M3 adds Dynamic Caching, mesh shader support, and hardware-accelerate ray tracing.

Taken together, these developments should, in theory, make it easier to court game developers to the platform.

Apple

But hardware is key too. Until recently, Macs just didn’t have the GPU horsepower to run many of the most demanding AAA games. The M3 Max, in particular, however, changes that. With up to 40 GPU cores on board, it’s incredibly impressive what it can do. It’s so fast that in certain GPU-intensive benchmarks, it performs better than the M2 Ultra with 60 or 76 GPU cores — up to twice as many.

It’s less clear how the M3 Max compares to the fastest Nvidia and AMD discrete GPUs. In creative applications like Adobe’s Premiere Pro, it’s faster than high-end Intel CPUs and the top-end Nvidia RTX 4090. That performance can’t necessarily be extrapolated to gaming, but by all appearances, it’s around as fast as a mobile Nvidia RTX 4070, which is capable of some competent 1440p gaming.

On top of raw performance, the MacBook Pro has two other major advantages over Windows gaming laptops. First, it’s significantly quieter and cooler than your average gaming laptop. It never sounds like a jet engine, disrupting the immersion of the game. Secondly, you can play the game unplugged and enjoy longer amounts of battery life, which opens up possibilities for where you can enjoy your games. Throw in that magnificent HDR screen and the killer speakers, and you have a pretty incomparable media machine that works just as well for games as it does for movies.

Where are all the games?

Larian Studios

It takes time for hardware and platform advancements like this to filter through to developers and into shipping games. Therefore, the number of AAA titles reaching macOS remains relatively small compared to Windows. But that doesn’t mean gaming on a MacBook Pro can’t be satisfying.

I mentioned the couple of games I’ve been playing, one of which happens to be last year’s game of the year, Beyond that, I also loaded up Battle.net to see what was around. I saw Diablo III and Starcraft 2, both older titles I used to play, but no Diablo IV, which I played on my Windows desktop. Some quick research shows Lies of Pi as a recent release for Mac that I’ve never tried, alongside a few other titles that came out in 2023.

Some might suggest Apple Arcade as a source of some of the best Mac games. From what I can see, however, that’s hit-or-miss — and mostly miss. When I did a quick search, I found an extensive list of iPhone and iPad games that will please casual gamers, along with a few older titles like Resident Evil: Village, which was released in 2021 and more recently made its way over from Windows. It’s not bad, of course, just not up my alley.

In our own list of the 10 best PC games you can currently play, a reasonable selection can be played on a Mac. They include the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate 3, Dave the Diver, Undertale, Dota 2, Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a handful of puzzle/platformer games, and Rocket League.

Apple

But if you’re looking for titles like the latest Assassin’s Creed, Cyberpunk 2077, Grand Theft Auto, and many others, you won’t find them for macOS. First-person shooters seem like the platform’s biggest weakness, which is a big hole in the ecosystem. They’re the games I play the least often, so I had no problem there.

To top it all off, even the MacBook Air running a base M2 chipset can reasonably stream games through Amazon Luna, Nvidia GeForce Now, and other services. You’ll find a great selection of games that can be streamed for a price, as long as you have a fast internet connection. If you’re really adventurous, you can try running games via a cross-platform tool like Crossover, which can install a good selection of Windows titles and run them at reasonable frame rates. I’ve used it to play Diablo IV, which was a decent experience once I turned the graphics down to High settings. You’ll want to skip this method, though, if you’re running anything less than a contemporary MacBook Pro.

For now, gaming on a Mac is better than it’s ever been. Obviously, it has a long way to go before it develops into something as robust as what Windows has. Hardcore and competitive gamers won’t be satisfied until we see a broader range of titles available. But as it stands, there’s something for just about anyone to try out, and I’m hopeful about where things could head from here.

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