First Look: MacBook gaming: A graphics concern?

Apple’s MacBook looks to be a winner on many fronts—affordability, Core Duo power, widescreen display, DVI output, and much more. But one design decision has gotten more attention than any other part of the new laptop—the use of an integrated chipset for the machine’s graphics.

Instead of a separate card with dedicated RAM for graphics, the MacBook’s integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics chip resides on the motherboard, and “borrows” graphics RAM from the system. Because of this, there have been questions about how well—or not well—the MacBooks would be able to play games.

Since I’ve had an Intel Core Duo mini since that desktop debuted earlier this year, I have some experience with the integrated graphics chipset—the mini uses the same included with the MacBook. And while the mini is clearly no gaming powerhouse, you can have a good gaming experience on such a machine. You just can’t do so on the latest and greatest titles in the Mac gaming world. Though it has a much faster CPU than the mini’s, the MacBook is in much the same boat, at least based on my initial tests.

Apple’s 13-inch MacBooks

If you’re looking to play Sims 2, Quake 4, Doom 3, or the upcoming Civilization IV on your Mac, the MacBook is not the machine for you. You will not have a pleasant experience playing anything that relies on accelerated graphics. Macworld has proven this to be the case with the gaming benchmark results for both the mini and the MacBook.

But if you don’t mind living a little bit in the past, you can still find a lot of fairly entertaining games to play—assuming you’ve met one very important requirement—memory.

Must … have … RAM!

If you want to play older 3-D games on your MacBook (or Core Duo mini, for that matter), then more RAM is a must. As a demonstration, I first tested the unofficial Universal binary release of Quake 3 with 512MB of RAM in the MacBook. I ran the tests at 1,024-by-768 resolution, with the graphics quality settings all set to their “medium” values. Compared to what I saw when I previously tested the Core Duo mini with 2GB of RAM, the results were quite disappointing:

  • Core Duo mini, 2GB RAM: 90fps
  • MacBook, 512MB RAM: 52fps
  • After upgrading the MacBook to 2GB of RAM, I re-ran the same benchmark, and was surprised again, this time in a good way:

  • MacBook, 2GB RAM: 98fps
  • As you can see, having more RAM available for the graphics chipset made a huge difference in performance—nearly double the frame rate, and slightly quicker (thanks to the increased CPU speed) than the mini. So where does this fall in the realm of Quake 3 performance on machines I’ve tested recently? Certainly fast enough to be very playable:

    Unofficial Quake 3 Benchmarks

    Machine RAM FPS
    Dual 2.0GHz G5 2.5GB 325
    MacBook 2GB 98
    PowerBook G4 768MB 93
    Intel Core Duo mini 2.0GB 90
    MacBook 512MB 53

    RESULTS IN DESCENDING ORDER OF PERFORMANCE

    Quake 3 was tested at 1,024-by-768 resolution, with sound enabled, and all texture and graphics options at their default settings. The standard demo was used, with timedemo set to ‘1’ for maximum throughput speed. Note: These figures are not official Macworld benchmarks, just my results.

    As you can see, the MacBook handles Quake 3 better than does my PowerBook G4, despite that machine’s separate video card. Similar results would be expected for other games based on the Quake 3 engine. Even if there’s not a Universal version of the program available, you’ll still get decent results in Rosetta for Quake3-based games. For instance, running the Quake3 demo in Rosetta still produced a very playable frame rate—82fps on the MacBook with 2GB of RAM.

    So what else can you play?

    As noted, games based on the Quake 3 engine will work quite well, with or without Universal versions. I tested Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy, and both were playable in Rosetta. Using betas of the Universal versions, both games were quite fast, easily outpacing my PowerBook. The Universal version of X-Plane works well, too, returning around 25fps at 1,024-by-768 resolution, with lots of nice visuals. Railroad Tycoon 3 (in Rosetta) seemed to play fine, though I didn’t have the 200 hours necessary for a full test!

    Going back before Quake3, there’s a new Universal version of Quake II that plays really well—note that you’ll need the full retail version of Quake II to use the Universal version.

    If you want to go really retro, MacMAME works well for playing those games of your misspent youth—or your parents’ misspent youth, as the case may be. You may wish to use the software renderer instead of OpenGL (in the Options section of the configuration), as it seemed smoother to me in several of the games.

    Finally, many of today’s “casual” games run just fine on the MacBook. I tested Universal versions of Cro-Mag Rally, Kickin' Soccer, Apeiron, and Aqua Mines, and they all worked fine. MacUpdate’s Universal Binary page can be filtered to show just games, and it’s a great way to keep up with what’s coming out for the Intel Macs. Most of the games you’ll see there will run just fine on the MacBook, as they don’t require a bleeding-edge 3-D card.

    At the bottom end of the playable scale is Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 (running in Rosetta). I was seeing anywhere from 10 to 20 frames per second, with the average closer to 13fps. It’s not necessarily the smoothest experience, but it’s playable.

    What can’t you play?

    As mentioned, anything demanding accelerated 3-D graphics is going to be out, even if the application is Universal. Beyond that, I found that Rosetta wasn’t kind to many older games. Leading off in the unplayable category, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer under Rosetta was basically glacial—it might have been getting around two frames a second, even at 640-by-480 (there’s no frame rate display available). I had similar results with MTX Mototrax (Rosetta), though it was a bit faster, but still not playable.

    Finally, I tried Call of Duty under Rosetta, which was one of my favorite games of years past. The training grounds were encouraging—frame rates varied from 40 to 60. Training, though, happens during a nice sunny afternoon. The first mission occurs during a stormy night, which saw frame rates plummet into the 12 to 15 range. Not very playable as is, but a Universal version is in the works, which should result in higher frame rates.

    In researching these games’ Universal status, I found this useful guide, which lists the Universal status for many popular games. There are links to Universal versions, as well as to discussion on each game. If you’re curious about a major game’s status, it’s worth a visit. (And, of course, Macworld has a Universal software page that tracks the status of assorted applications, including games.)

    The last word

    If you were thinking of buying a MacBook to run Quake 4 or Doom 3, you’d best keep shopping. You might be able to get an “OK” frame rate from these games by reducing the screen resolution and dropping image quality and details to their absolute lowest settings. But by doing this, you’re giving up much of the reason for wanting to run these games anyway—their amazing visual environments.

    If you’re a die-hard gamer, I’d say buy an XBox360 or Playstation2 for your gaming needs—they’re a heck of a lot cheaper, and you can see some amazing visuals if you’ve got a large high definition television. If you’re a die-hard gamer who absolutely must do their gaming on a Mac, then I’d recommend nothing less than the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but even that might be a bit underpowered for some of today’s stuff. For the best Mac gaming experience, you want whatever Apple’s currently selling as their top-of-the-line machine. Today, that’d be the Quad 2.5GHz PowerPC G5; it’ll be some sort of ultra Intel-based machine soon enough.

    But if you only play the occasional game, and you don’t need the latest and greatest, the MacBook will probably fit your needs just fine, as long as you give the machine enough RAM (1GB should provide enough memory for any given game and its graphics needs), and understand its limitations.

    [ When not playing games, Senior Editor Rob Griffiths writes the Mac OS X Hints weblog and oversees macosxhints.com. ]

    Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

    Comments