Improved iMac graphics won’t matter to gamers

Since Apple introduced a refreshed iMac line last week, I’ve been repeatedly asked the question, “Is this iMac right for gamers?”

The answer is: Well, sure. As much as any iMac is. But is it going to appeal specifically to gamers? Probably not.

Apple’s build-to-order configuration features both a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo chip and Nvidia GeForce 8800GS graphics. And those are nice features—you can also get the Nvidia card as a $150 add-on to the top-of-the-line 24-inch 2.8GHz iMac if you want.

Based on Macworld Lab’s benchmarks, it’s readily apparent that the optional graphics hardware makes a difference for frame rates in first-person shooters. Again, that’s a nice data point, but it’s one that isn’t going to be enough to really appeal to gamers.

Read Macworld’s iMac review

The GeForce 8800GS is solidly in Nvidia’s mid-range graphics chip category. It lacks the horsepower or the oomph of some of the company’s higher-end products, even though Apple tweaked it a bit with better memory bandwidth and more VRAM (256-bit and 512MB, respectively).

That’s not the only thing holding the iMac back, though. The screen is an issue—the iMac’s glossy screen isn’t something I particularly like. Many of my fellow gamers rail against any flat-panel screen that doesn’t have extraordinarily fast refresh rates—in fact, many gamers still prefer CRTs for that reason.

The closed design of the iMac is another sticking point, but that’s really putting the cart before the horse. The main problem is that there just aren’t enough cool games for most gamers to really want to use on the Mac, and a slight improvement to the iMac’s graphics isn’t going to change that.

Certainly you can install Boot Camp on the iMac, and partition part of your disk for Windows. (I’m still recommending that users stick with XP, which has fewer performance and compatibility problems for games than Vista.) That’ll solve the problem of not having enough games, though it doesn’t do anything to address the overall shortage of Mac games out there, which is likely only to be addressed if more companies develop for the Mac and more consumers buy Mac games that are published.

At the end of the day, the iMac’s refresh reiterates one thing: Just adjusting one variable in this equation doesn’t fix what’s wrong with Mac games. The fastest iMac in the world won’t change the fundamental truth that we need more game developers making games for the Mac, and more consumers buying Macs need to buy those games for the ecosystem to be healthy.

Ultimately, the buck stops in Cupertino—Apple needs not only to build better and faster hardware, but it needs to offer developers more incentives to create stunning, best-in-class and truly unique games for the platform. Maybe then the Mac will be taken seriously as a game system. Until then, the best graphics chips in the world won’t make a difference.

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