Macworld Ultimate Gaming Guide: The Game Room

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Know what a Macintosh can do that a PC can't? If you said, "Maintain its owner's sanity," you'd be right! However, I was going for something a tad less caustic: Macs can emulate PCs, but PCs can't yet emulate Macs. Did you hear that? Do you realize what that means? If you own a Mac, you have access to all the software on either platform (including the latest PC-only games), right now, just by running a PC emulator. No longer do you have to stand outside the window of your mall's electronic-gaming boutique, drooling over the vast bounty of delectables beyond the glass-you can have them all right now!

At least, that's the theory.

PC emulation comes in two varieties: affordable (software) and not so affordable (hardware). The affordable stuff consists of Connectix's VirtualPC 2.1 ($160; 650/571-5100, ) and Insignia Solutions' SoftWindows 98 ($169 company's estimated price; 510/360-3700, ), two software packages that run Windows 98 right on your Mac. (Insignia also offers RealPC, a $79 DOS-only version.)

The problem is that these packages are running an operating system within an operating system, which results in a performance hit. Orange Micro provides the only Pentium cards available, ranging in base price from $549 to $849 (714/779-2772, ). I put these software emulators and the lowest-priced Orange Micro card on a Power Mac G3/300 with 128MB of RAM to see how they stacked up.

I installed two PC-only games for the test: Microsoft's Age of Empires, which has the modest requirement of a 90MHz Pentium processor, and Activision's BattleZone, which requires a 120MHz Pentium processor but recommends at least 166MHz. Under software emulation, Age of Empires was playable although sluggish; BattleZone, on the other hand, was an exercise in frustration. You could buy a ton of RAM, reduce the game's display size, and turn off sounds and textures to get a stripped-down version of the game to limp along, but is all that really worth it? (Here's a hint: no.)

Orange Micro's Pentium cards are much better able to play PC games than their software siblings, but they do so at a cost. The only card that was ready by the time I conducted my tests was the least expensive of the company's three 200MHz cards, the $549 OrangePC 626. Tack a little extra onto that cost, since you'll want to replace the standard 16MB of RAM with at least 32MB. I pumped it up to 64MB for my tests.

The 200MHz Pentium card played Age of Empires smoothly, but BattleZone was much less enjoyable. Sure, it was playable, but it couldn't achieve anything close to smooth screen redraws. Orange Micro has announced a $649 game card, the PCfx, that will ship with a 128-bit nVidia graphics accelerator. In addition, an $849 version, the OrangePC 660, has the accelerator and two RAM slots, although you have to pay extra for RAM and Windows. Both cards were scheduled for release in November 1998.

OK, so here's the bottom line. Software PC emulators are fine for some of the simpler games that don't require a processor of more than about 90MHz, but they will never be a viable gaming option.

Orange Micro's Pentium cards offer a much better PC gaming solution, but at a much higher cost. The $649 card (when it becomes available) should offer a nice compromise between price and performance for the serious gamer. If you don't want to spend that much to play the latest, coolest PC games, I'm afraid you're stuck with the games that make it to the Mac platform.

The good news is, all indications are that the Mac gaming market is set to explode. Until that happens, spend some time exercising and communing with nature; once the Mac gaming market takes off, you won't have time for such luxuries.

January 1999 page: 190

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