Steering away from the MacBook

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Man, that black MacBook is really sexy-looking. Too bad it isn’t better for gaming, but I guess I can’t have everything. It gives me more reason to consider upgrading to a MacBook Pro when the time is right, though.

All the proof I needed came from James Galbraith’s recent benchmarks for the new MacBook—less than 18 frames per second, playing Unreal Tournament 2004, compared to more than 63 frames per second for the 17-inch MacBook Pro.

That’s mainly the result of Apple’s decision to equip the MacBook with integrated Intel graphics instead of going with a discrete graphics processor and separate VRAM as they did with the MacBook Pro and iMac. Instead, Apple went the same route with the MacBook’s graphics as it did when it introduced the Mac mini in Intel form.

I don’t fault Apple for this decision—the MacBook is still very well-equipped and extraordinarily well-designed for a laptop in its price range. But that graphics hardware really makes the system ill-equipped at dealing with OpenGL-intensive 3-D games—which make up the majority of the high-profile games on the market today, even games with mainstream appeal like The Sims 2, for example. It’ll also hurt the MacBook’s game-playing performance if you plan on running Windows games using Boot Camp. Intel integrated graphics don’t work much better on Windows than they do on Mac OS X.

That doesn’t mean the MacBook isn’t a good casual gamer’s rig. In fact, it should play less-demanding games just fine and may even be able to play some older, PowerPC-optimized games using Rosetta.

A lot of Mac users frankly don’t care if their systems can play 3-D games—they’re more interested in using their Macs to surf the Web, check e-mail, run productivity software, use iLife and maybe, just maybe, play the occasional puzzle game or casual arcade game. For that, the MacBook will be a superlative system. Apple doesn’t engineer its systems poorly these days—it designs them quite well for its target market. It just seems that the MacBook’s target market doesn’t include folks who like to play the latest games well.

Comparing Apples to… uh, well, apples, many PC laptops that are available at similar prices to the MacBook also use integrated graphics chips. So please don’t think you’re getting cheated here. I also want to emphasize that Apple’s decision to use integrated graphics hasn’t dramatically reduced the MacBook’s 3-D graphics performance compared to the last- generation iBook. In fact, it’s a wee bit better—3 frames per second or so, according to our tests. That’s just not the same dramatic threefold jump in frame rates we’ve seen going from the PowerBook G4 to the MacBook Pro.

So trading up from the iBook G4 to the MacBook, you’re going to get a widescreen, nifty keyboard, all sorts of additional benefits and, from what I’m seeing, a heck of a lot better performance if you’re editing movies using iMovie, encoding MP3 files and other things that a lot of us take for granted with our Macs.

And if what we’ve found with the Mac mini holds true for the MacBook, you’ll even be able to play some older 3-D games using Rosetta just fine. It’s just that you won’t see dramatically better 3-D game performance for new games. And I’m willing to bet that the MacBook won’t shine when it comes to using features in certain other applications that leverage OpenGL and Tiger’s Core Graphics and Core Video technology, because both of those can put a pretty heavy load on the system’s video processor.

Already some games are being released that implicitly exclude the Mac mini, and by extension, the MacBook, from their supported system requirements. Aspyr Media announced earlier Friday that Call of Duty 2 will ship soon —that’s one such game. Aspyr’s recently-released Quake 4 is another.

So, my buying advice for you gamers looking to try the latest and greatest games is to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn Pro.”

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