A week in Boot Camp

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One week after Apple released its public beta of Boot Camp, my Intel Core Duo-equipped iMac has transformed into an impressive gaming system, albeit one with a split personality. It’s also starting to show some warts—its own, as well as those of Windows XP and of Mac OS X.

As much as diehard Mac gamers may hate to hear this, the game experience on an iMac-equipped Windows XP can largely be summed up in one word: Excellent . For the first time in my life, I can stroll up and down the aisles of a PC game store and have my pick of the litter. Just about every game on these store shelves works on the Mac and works well.

Leveling the playing field

An iMac is a well-endowed computer as far as its Intel Core Duo processor is concerned, but it’s a little light in the graphics department. While the Radeon X1600 is no slouch—certainly not compared to previous-generation iMac graphics chips—it is solidly in the middle of the pack for PC performers.

What that means for gamers is that the iMac is capable of running just about any game with a decent level of special effects turned on—I was able to run most games I’ve tried with trilinear effects, full scene anti-aliasing and various other technologies turned on, without suffering huge frame-rate losses.

But the middle-of-the-road performance on the Radeon X1600 chip also means that I can’t drive games in really high resolutions, for the most part. For most of the games I tried, 1,024-by-768 seemed to be the happy medium.

What this comes down to is that the iMac is going to be fine for online and offline PC gaming, but don’t count on it hammering your friend’s custom-built Athlon 64 rig with a top-of-the-line Radeon or GeForce graphics card. Still, when it comes right down to it, the performance we and our sister publication PC World have measured show that the iMac is capable of holding its own against similarly equipped PCs.

That’s great news. It’s the first time in a very long time that we haven't had to hide behind the “megahertz myth” or other excuses to explain why Macs are better.

Getting Steamed

Immediately, Boot Camp’s existence has let me play some games that haven’t come to the Macintosh and, in all likelihood, won’t—Half- Life 2 is probably the most obvious example. It’s a fantastic first-person shooter with a rich story line and absolutely stunning graphics, a great physics system, and online play. What’s more, you don’t have to go to the store to buy it—you can purchase it and download it using Steam, developer Valve Software’s online content delivery system.

In many ways, Steam is like Apple’s iTunes Music Store, but for games. You can download demos, buy full versions of titles, and download them—the service even offers a game finder that helps you play with friends online.

With commercial Mac games increasingly seeing a crunch for retail shelf space at Apple Stores, Comp USAs, and the scant other major retailers where Mac games can be found, maybe an online download service for Mac games is the right way to go. This is the approach offered by Deliver2Mac, a service pioneered by the founders of Virtual Programming, a UK-based Mac game publisher.

Coming up short

One of the most startling things I’ve discovered is just how wide the difference is between the performance of PC games and their Mac game equivalents. I don’t have scientific results yet, but anecdotally, I’ve seen anywhere from 20 to 30 percent improvements in frame rates on the PC version compared to the Universal Binary Mac version.

That’s another real kick in the pants for Mac game developers, but I don’t think it should be viewed as an indictment of their coding skills, because this drop in Mac OS X-native performance is noticeable regardless of who publishes or ports the Mac version of the game. Instead, it’s something that our friends at Apple may want to take a closer look at.

The more I talk with people who make it their business to understand this technology, the more I think this has to do with two major things. The first is a significant architectural difference in the way that Mac OS X’s OpenGL works compared to Microsoft’s DirectX—the API that most game developers who write Windows games prefer. The other is that graphics chip drivers on Windows are far more thoroughly optimized for maximum performance on Windows than they are on Mac OS X. Either way, it’s high time for Apple to do something to close that gap, if it wants Mac OS X to stay competitive going forward.

Now that running games in Windows XP is an alternative those of us with bleeding-edge Mac hardware can consider, it’s incumbent upon Apple to give us—and software developers—incentives to stick with Mac OS X as much as possible. To that end, I’m happy to report that, at the end of the day, I can’t wait to reboot the iMac into Mac OS X. It’s just better. Thirty-one spyware infections just inside of a week pretty much tell me everything I need to know about running Windows.

One confession: I did catch myself for a short time the other day wondering why the Start menu wouldn’t appear when I kept pushing the mouse cursor to the lower left—in Mac OS X.

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