Lab report: Mac vs. Windows graphics performance

The Mac has come a long way as a gaming system. Apple’s switch to Intel processors and the Mac’s growing market share has helped lure more game developers. But despite the gains, Apple is still playing catch-up with Windows and game consoles.

Now is a good time to explore the graphics performance differences between Mac and Windows, with so many games now common across both platforms. To test for graphics performance, we used Boot Camp to create a dual-boot Mac. For the Mac, we ran Mac OS 10.6.4 with the Snow Leopard Graphics Update. For Windows, we ran Windows 7 Home Premium Edition. We tested on four different Mac systems: a 27-inch 2.66GHz Core i5 iMac, a 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core Mac Pro, a 13-inch 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, and a 15-inch 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro.

With some help from Valve, we created a demo in Portal ( ) that would appropriately tax each Mac’s graphics subsystem. In an early level of Portal, we did everything from jumping through a endless portal tunnel to getting shot by half a dozen military robots, being careful to manipulate and interact with as many objects as possible. We also ran a framerate demo of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ( ), as well as Cinebench R11.5’s OpenGL test (both of which are components of our Speedmark 6.5 benchmark suite).

One problem we encountered during testing was screen resolution—or rather, the inability to make the 27-inch iMac run a test at 2560 by 1440 pixels. While the iMac display has a native resolution of 2560-by-1440, both Call of Duty 4 and Portal would revert to lower resolutions and not allow the user to run at 2560-by-1440. Luckily, we were able to use an Apple 27-inch LED Cinema Display connected to the iMac to “trick” the computer into running a higher resolution. After mirroring the Cinema Display, we disconnected it and we were able to run the games at 2560-by-1440.

Which is faster?

After we collected the results, we then compared the best results between the Mac and Windows. By far, the biggest gap in performance was on the 13-inch 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (running 1920 by 1200 pixels), where Windows 7 posted a frame-rate result in our Portal demo that was a sizable 38 percent faster than Mac OS X. At 1024-by-768, the difference was similarly large, about 37 percent faster in Boot Camp. Our 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core Mac Pro results also showed faster Windows scores in Portal, with a difference of 20 percent at 1024-by-768, 24 percent at 1920-by-1200, and 25 percent at 2560-by-1440. The 15-inch 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro’s test followed suit, with Windows 7 beating Mac OS X in the Portal demo with a 13 percent frames-per-second (FPS) gap at 1024-by-768, 24 percent at 1920-by-1200, and 21 percent at 2560-by-1440.

Windows 7’s faster scores were less pronounced with the 27-inch 2.66GHz Core i5 iMac (most likely due to the 256MB ATI Radeon HD 4670 graphics card), but there was still a notable difference. Once again, the Windows framerates in Portal were faster than Mac OS X with a difference of 10 percent at 1024-by-768, 12 percent at 1920-by-1200, and 17 percent at 2560-by-1440 pixels.

In the end, Windows 7 bested Mac OS X on almost every test, with the only exceptions being slightly higher scores in the 2.66GHz Core i5 iMac’s Call of Duty 4 results, which were 2 to 3 percent faster than the same system running Windows 7.

Games graphics performance:
Mac OS X 10.6.4 vs. Windows 7
Portal framerate

Portal
1024x768
Portal
1920x1200
Portal
2560x1440
27" iMac 2.66GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB ATI Radeon HD 4850
Mac OS X 10.6.4
172.4 81.7 52.2
27" iMac 2.66GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB ATI Radeon HD 4850
Windows 7
191.7 92.9 62.8
Mac Pro 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core, 3GB RAM
512MB Nvidia GeForce GT 120
Mac OS X 10.6.4
79.1 28.8 18.4
Mac Pro 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core, 3GB RAM
512MB Nvidia GeForce GT 120
Windows 7
98.5 41.7 24.2
13" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM
256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M
Max OS X 10.6.4
42.5 35.1 N/A
13" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM
256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M
Windows 7
67.4 56.5 N/A
15" MacBook Pro 2.53GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 330M
Mac OS X 10.6.4
78.2 59.1 52
15" MacBook Pro 2.53GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 330M
Windows 7
90.4 77.3 65.6

Scores are frames per second. Higher scores are better.

Games graphics performance:
Mac OS X 10.6.4 vs. Windows 7
Call of Duty 4 and CineBench R11.5 framerate

Call of
Duty 4
1024x768
Call of
Duty 4
1920x1200
Call of
Duty 4
2560x1440
Cinebench
R11.5
Open GL
27" iMac 2.66GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB ATI Radeon HD 4850
Mac OS X 10.6.4
87.5 66.1 46.3 30.3
27" iMac 2.66GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
256MB ATI Radeon HD 4850
Windows 7
87.4 64 45.2 30.8
Mac Pro 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core, 3GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 120
Mac OS X 10.6.4
61.6 26.9 17.2 14.1
Mac Pro 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core, 3GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 120
Windows 7
64.6 30 19.2 14.2
13" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 320M
Max OS X 10.6.4
33.6 27.9 N/A 11.2
13" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 320M
Windows 7
44.1 37.5 N/A 12
15" MacBook Pro 2.53GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 330M
Mac OS X 10.6.4
61.9 52 44.5 15.8
15" MacBook Pro 2.53GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GT 330M
Windows 7
67.1 57.8 50.6 16

Scores are frames per second. Higher scores are better.

How we tested. We ran all systems with Mac OS X 10.6.4 with the Snow Leopard Graphic Update 1.0. We created a separate partition for Boot Camp, installing Windows 7 Home Premium, along with updating the latest drivers for the corresponding graphics cards. We also fully updated Windows 7 with Boot Camp drivers from a retail copy of Snow Leopard, along with other miscellaneous system additions. Using Steam and Steam for Mac, we created a self-running demo for Portal and recorded the frames-per-second rating. Finally, we ran Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Cinebench R11.5’s Open GL test from Speedmark 6.5.—Macworld Lab testing by McKinley Noble

The effect of the graphics update

The results could’ve been much worse on the Mac OS X side if not for the dramatic improvements made by the Snow Leopard graphics update released in August.

We tested each Mac with and without the graphics update, and the biggest performance increase occurred with the 2.66GHz Xeon quad-core Mac Pro, with a 55 percent jump in FPS in our Portal demo. Additionally, the 13-inch 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro was 45.5 percent faster after the update. The 27-inch 2.66GHz Core i5 iMac and 15-inch 2.53 Core i5 MacBook Pro posted a 43 percent FPS increase, also in the Portal demo. Call of Duty 4 and Cinebench R11.5 results weren’t affected by the update.

For games, Mac or Windows?

Our testing makes a couple things pretty clear. If you own an older Macintosh, there’s no downside to staying current with the newest Mac OS X updates, especially if you’re a gamer that’s making dedicated use of Steam for Mac. However, Windows still gets the better end of performance—while the Mac has perfectly acceptable frame rates for games, if you want the best gaming experience, Windows is the fastest way to go.

[McKinley Noble is a Macworld editorial intern. His favorite Mac video games are still the Journeyman Project series and You Don't Know Jack.]

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