Make the MacBook better for gaming

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When it comes to gaming on the Mac, a really big chunk of Apple’s Mac buyers get left out of the loop. I’m talking about the throngs of consumers—moms, dads, college kids, business people—who have bought MacBooks (and, to a lesser degree, the Mac mini). Because right now, MacBooks stink for games. And the sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s no denying the MacBook’s popularity. Since the start of 2007, Apple has sold about 5.7 million laptops, and while the company doesn’t break down sales by model, it would be safe to assume that MacBooks make up a significant percentage of that total. I can’t walk into a Starbucks or turn on the TV without seeing a MacBook—or, for that matter, the new MacBook Air, which shares some common design elements, including integrated graphics.

And that’s where the problem lies from a gaming perspective. Unlike other Mac systems that feature a graphics card with dedicated memory, the GPU in the MacBook (as well as the mini and the MacBook Air) shares its memory with the rest of the system.

Now, I understand why Apple used Intel integrated graphics on the MacBook. It helps keep the component cost lower than it would if Apple had bought a chip from ATI or Nvidia. It uses less power. I’m sure that manufacturing costs are a bit lower because of the integrated design, too. And every penny Apple saves counts on the bottom line when you’re talking about volume products like MacBooks.

I also understand that integrated graphics also limits how well the MacBook handles games when compared to machines with dedicated graphics. Consider the Macworld Lab tests for the most recent MacBook update. While the MacBooks powered by Penryn-based Core 2 Duo chips compare somewhat favorably to the most recent MacBook Pros in many tests, the ones involving 3-D games aren’t among them. In the Lab’s Unreal Tournament 2004 test, the 2.4GHz MacBook Core 2 Duo scored 27.6 frames per second—that compares to 73.4 frames per second in a MacBook Pro with the same processor clock speed.

Now, I’m not expecting Apple to suddenly get religion and drop some high-end graphics accelerator in the MacBook or the MacBook Air. That’d just be silly, although it might be cool in the same way that Subaru’s Impreza WRX is cool—an econo-box tricked out as a performance vehicle.

A modest upgrade would be terrific. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with Mac game developers—ever since the MacBook was first introduced in 2006—where they’ve moaned and groaned about the system’s inability to run the games they’ve developed or have in the works. Even a low-end discrete graphics chip from ATI or Nvidia would be a welcome change—it would represent a huge upsurge in the number of Mac systems on the market that could be qualified for new games.

The problem isn’t just with integrated graphics in general. I’ve spoken with Mac game developers who have looked at the hardware and how its performance and features compare to GMA X3100 systems running on Windows, and the Mac driver implementation always comes up short. That’s why you see so many games that make it a point to exclude GMA graphics from the list of supported hardware—games that often have PC counterparts that run on GMA hardware.

Certainly the GMA X3100 that’s in currently shipping MacBooks isn’t optimal for gaming. Almost every PC benchmark I’ve ever read shows that the integrated graphics processor runs out of gas fast and can’t handle high resolutions or high levels of detail. But getting the GMA X3100 to work at the same level as it does on the PC side would be a great place to start, at the very least.

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