We all know you don’t buy a Mac for gaming. Sure, it’s possible, but you don’t buy Apple exclusively to play games unless you only play Apple Arcade. But with Apple’s new MacBook Pros, complete with the beefy M1 Pro and M1 Max chipsets, could the Mac finally be a viable option for gaming?
Why aren’t Macs good gaming computers?
This question can get complicated, but let’s boil down the answer to the simplest explanations. In short, the hardware is (usually) not designed for optimal gaming situations. Many Macs are designed to be sleek, thin, elegant, or a combination of the three. That makes for a pretty machine, while allowing you to build a computer good for many tasks; gaming simply isn’t among them.
Light games don’t require much, but many games depend on optimised hardware to run well. They need graphics cards that can handle demanding gameplay and cooling systems to make sure things don’t get too heated. Most Macs don’t have these features at the ready.
However, it’s not just the hardware; many developers have traditionally avoided making games for Mac, which means these games are found exclusively on Windows. You can access these games by installing Windows on your Mac using Bootcamp, or by using software such as Parallels, but the experience isn’t optimal.
That’s why, even on Macs with excellent graphical hardware, you still run into problems. Developers know there’s a limited market for gaming on Mac, so they don’t put the resources into optimising the experience or even offering a solution for these machines.
What about M1 MacBooks though?
Apple made a huge splash last year when it introduced its first Apple silicon chip, M1. M1 is great in so many ways: It has a fantastic CPU, it’s extremely efficient, and it can enable a A$1,499 MacBook Air to become a solid Final Cut Pro video editing machine.
The one area critics pointed to with M1, however, was graphical power. While the M1’s graphics aren’t bad by any means (you could choose between a 7-core or 8-core option, depending on your Mac), for tasks that have high graphical demands, it simply wasn’t the best option. Gaming is, unfortunately, among those tasks.
That’s why everyone is so excited about M1 Pro and M1 Max, as a graphical powerhouse with the efficiency M1 was known for. But how does it stack up in real use?
How do the M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros perform?
The data we do have is promising. My favourite research comes from MrMacRight, who has made videos demonstrating tests of the M1 Max, M1 Pro, and a comparison between the M1 Pro and M1 Max (as well as the M1, but, as we said, it’s not a very good gaming chip).
In his test of the M1 Max, he played 25 games, and while on M1 Pro, he tried 15, varying between running natively (apps optimised for macOS), through Parallels and CrossOver 21 (software used for running Windows on Mac), and Rosetta 2 (an emulation software to run apps optimised for Intel). It’s worth noting that these are not the base chipsets, either, so those might perform under what was tested.
MrMacRight does an excellent job explaining the performance of different games and their settings, and includes a recommended graphics setting for each game. Most of the time, for both M1 Max and M1 Pro, MrMacRight does not suggest you run these games on high settings; for optimal performance, you should probably treat your MacBook Pro as a mid-range gaming laptop, rather than a high-end one.
Many games he plays at these settings (1080p or 1440p) can achieve 40–60 fps on M1 Pro, and 60–100 fps on M1 Max. That includes games like Metro Exodus, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and The Witcher 3. However, if a game is optimised for Apple silicon, like Baldur’s Gate 3, you can see similar performance across both M1 Max and M1 Pro. It’s a great example of how competent the M1 Max and M1 Pro can be for gaming.
You will, however, run into a hitch playing Windows games through Parallels; games like Overwatch, for example, run at a great frame rate for most graphical settings but feature an annoying stutter that can’t be removed. A game like GTA V, however, does not run well, as even at 1080p the game struggled to reach even 30 fps on average.
You might want to consider using a solution like CrossOver for these games. CrossOver is not an emulator like Parallels, so games can perform better. GTA V, in MrMacRight’s experience, was able to run closer to 60 fps at 1080p, a huge improvement over Parallels.
PCMag also ran some tests that gave the MacBook Pros some promise. The publication ran tests of Hitman (2016), Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Total War: Warhammer II, and Civilisation VI. These titles vary in how demanding they are, so the tests gave a spectrum of situations you might put your laptop through.
All in all, their configuration (which were also higher-spec, for the record) performed well. While there were dips in certain demanding titles, and the dedicated gaming laptop certainly outperformed Apple, these MacBook Pros held their own, almost always running above 100 fps on average in all games on both low and high graphics settings.
M1 Pro and M1 Max need optimised games
The real test for these MacBook Pros will be whether developers take the time to, well, develop. While you can run many games on these machines as it stands, to take full advantage of the hardware, game developers need to optimise their software for these chips.
It’s true there are native games for Mac available to play though; it’s not the majority. Most games still require you to play through a less-than-ideal solution like Rosetta 2, Parallels, and CrossOver, which diminishes the full potential of these chips. It’s certainly a credit to Apple that many games run as well as they do already, but until we see more games made for M1 Pro and M1 Max, it’s tough to say whether these laptops will see optimised gaming experiences in the future.
Still, there is excitement in the air for Mac gamers. Over at r/macgaming, Redditors discussed their decisions to buy various configurations of Apple’s latest MacBook Pros as a sort of investment in the idea that developers could produce well-optimised games for their machines. It does seem like a possibility from the initial tests run already, so if you’re someone who wants to game on a Mac, M1 Pro and M1 Max might not be a bad bet.
After all, the more gamers that use these machines, the more likely game developers will start optimising their games for Apple silicon.