How To Optimise Your Mac For Gaming

You may not immediately think “gaming” when you think “Mac”, but there are lots of games for the Mac these days, and some of the most popular PC games are also available for OS X. Let’s take a look at a few ways to make those games run as smoothly as possible.

Thanks to Steam, Humble Bundles and developers who are more open to releasing their games on multiple platforms, owning a Mac doesn’t mean you’re resigned to watching your Windows friends get their game on. Plus, if you’re like me and use a Windows PC as your primary gaming machine but travel with a Macbook Pro, you don’t necessarily want to leave your video games at home just because you’re headed out of town. Here’s how to tweak your Mac to make the most of your games.

Free Up some Disk Space and Clean Up System Clutter

One of the best ways to keep your Mac in speedy shape is to clean up your app clutter, disable resource-hogging startup apps and uninstall unwanted apps (especially menubar utilities that run in the background all the time). We covered some of these tricks in our guide to speeding up and reviving your Mac, but it’s even more important when it comes to games. Some of those games may grab some disk space for scratch while you’re playing, and you’ll feel it if you’re short on it. As a byproduct, the last thing you want, especially if you’re playing Steam games, is to cut Steam off from valuable disk space while you’re playing. Additionally, you can kill off some of OS X’s features that you know you never use, like Dashboard or Notification Center (assuming you never use them). MacTuts+ has a great how to for both if you’d like to turn them off entirely.

Beyond that, you can always use some of our favourite tools to clean up and spruce up your Mac, like Onyx, our favourite system tweaker for the Mac, or iBoostUp, another fast and free Mac tweaking tool. Windows users will be familiar with CCleaner, which also works a treat on OS X.

Let Steam Finish Its Work Before You Play

If the bulk of the games you play on the Mac are Steam games, your best bet before you fire up your favourite games — or before you hit the road with your Mac — is to let Steam do everything it needs to do long before you feel like playing anything. Patches, updates, new game installs, do it all before you play, and don’t trust Steam or your Mac to manage that stuff in the background while you’re trying to game.

In Windows, if you have a powerful enough gaming PC, you can freely let Steam download updates or manage its own downloads while you do other things. In OS X, it just doesn’t seem to work quite as well. Personal experience here, but if you’re planning a trip and you want to game on your Mac, even if you know you’ll have reliable internet access where you’re going, let Steam update itself and all of your games before you even leave the house. Then you won’t have to worry about any of them when you get where you’re going.

Try Windowed Mode versus Full-Screen and See Which Works Better

Obviously, adjusting the graphics settings for your game is one of the best ways to make sure it runs a little more smoothly, but another thing you can try is switching between full-screen and windowed mode. Even windowed mode taking up the entire screen can sometimes smooth things out for you, and which one will work better depends heavily on the games you play. I’ve had some titles strain in windowed mode but really pick up when set to full-screen, and other titles choke in full-screen but suddenly become playable in windowed mode. Your mileage may vary.

Keep Your Other Apps Closed and Uninstall System-Sucking Plugins

Even if your Mac is packed with a massive SSD and plenty of RAM, keeping a bunch of apps running in the background while you fire up a full-screen game isn’t going to do you any favours. If you game on Windows, you’re probably used to the performance tradeoff of keeping other apps open while you game, so you should be ready for it in OS X as well. This is especially true for heavier apps and web browsers, which consume more system resources the longer they’ve been open. If you can, close Firefox or Chrome on your Mac while you game, or at least close them before you game and start a fresh session if you like to surf the web or research while you play.

In some cases, it’s not a big difference, but in others — namely when it comes to web browsing — it can be pretty nightmarish. Flash, Java, and other heavy plugins for web content are especially to blame for sucking down system resources while you’re trying to play full-screen games, and fighting those games for valuable processor time even though the game clearly has priority. You could just remove Flash and Java entirely, or you could install ClickToFlash for Safari or Flashblock for Firefox or Chrome to stop it from loading until you actually want it.

Keep an Eye On Performance with Your System Monitor

Activity Monitor is built in to OS X and gives you a complete picture of which processes and applications are using the most memory, CPU and disk resources. It’s great, and it’s a great way to see if there’s some application open behind your games that’s slowing everything down so you can close it (even if that app is Steam — I’ve seen that happen before). However, Activity Monitor can be a pain to keep an eye on behind a full-screen game, so consider iStat Menus, which essentially puts those tools in your Mac’s menubar.

I know we suggested keeping menubar utilities to a minimum, but the beauty of iStat Menus is that they’re really light on system resources, and can tell you more than just RAM, CPU, and disk activity. One click shows you CPU temperature, battery temperature, fan speed, and more. You can get a feel for whether or not there’s a hardware issue at play as well as a software one (like a broken or dying fan, for example), even while your favourite game is up and running.

Yes, You Can Always Install Windows

Just to get the inevitable out of the way, yes — you can always install Windows on your Mac. Whether you give up on OS X entirely or you use Boot Camp to dual-boot, you can run Windows and your favourite Windows apps and games on your Mac hardware. It’s one way to get your game on in a way you’re probably familiar, and use all of the tweaks and tools you’re familiar with. Plus, if you’re running Windows, you have a broader array of games available for you to play, and many of them will actually run better in Windo, you have more options. A Mac actually makes a remarkably solid Windows computer, and while it’s not designed specifically for gaming, most models’ discrete graphics make them pretty good for the task.

Once you’ve gone through these suggestions, ideally your games should play a bit more smoothly. As with any system, you’ll have to tweak the graphics settings to make sure everything is just right, but just because you’re gaming on a Mac doesn’t mean you have to settle for the performance you get. You can’t control everything, but there are definitely a few things you can do to boost your gaming experience, especially if you’re on the go.

Pictures: Dan Taylor

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