It’s become something of a running joke among Windows users that Macs are rubbish for gaming. From a technical point of view this is nonsense, as Macs and PCs – and even gaming consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – all use very similar components.
The Mac gaming scene has really picked up since Macs started to use the same Intel processors as Windows PCs, and strong sales of Macs in recent years mean that there are now more A-List games appearing on the Mac than ever before.
Gamers who prefer the joys of OS X or macOS Sierra to the hodge-podge of features that constitute Windows 10 can happily play World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Batman: Arkham City, The Witcher 2, and many other classic titles all from the comfort of their Macs - we've rounded up the best Mac games to save you the work of figuring out which big titles you can play on Apple hardware.
Of course, Windows still has the majority of AAA games such as GTA V, Skyrim, and Dragon Age: Inquisition, and they will probably always arrive on that platform first. But the Mac also has a cunning trick up its precision-engineered sleeve, in the form of Boot Camp.
Installing Windows via Boot Camp on a Mac gives you the best of both worlds, playing native Mac versions of games whenever possible, and then switching into Windows for games such as The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition that aren’t available on the Mac. So, with all this interactive entertainment available to the prospective buyer, the question remains - which Mac is best for gaming?
Playing the latest games places heavy demands on a computer, both in terms of graphics and processor performance. To ensure you have the best platform for your digital adventures you’ll obviously need a machine that has a fast processor (CPU), but it also helps to have a powerful graphics processor and a fast hard disk or solid-state drive too.
We’d also recommend a comfy chair, some snacks that can eaten one-handed, and the occasional break to save your spine from developing an unusual shape.
Integrated versus discrete GPUs
Many casual games, such as Plants Versus Zombies, and the never-ending Angry Birds series, use simple two-dimensional graphics that don’t really require too much graphics power. Most Macs can handle that sort of casual, 2D gaming action without any problems, but it’s the detailed 3D graphics used in high-speed action games and online games that really put a lot of strain on your Mac.
It should be noted that when we mention 3D games, we don't mean 3D monitors or actual 3D - rather, a more graphically intensive game, such as Battlefield 1.
This is where things can get a bit complicated. Obviously you need a fast processor (CPU) to play 3D games, preferably a dual-core Intel Core i5 or Core i7, running at 2.0GHz or more. But even a fast CPU will still struggle with modern 3D games, so most Macs and PCs also include a ‘graphics card’ – sometimes referred to as the ‘GPU’, or graphics processing unit.
There are two main types of GPU available. Intel’s latest processor Core i5 and i7 processors include an ‘integrated GPU’, which is built onto the main CPU itself – a bit like an extension built onto the back of your house. An integrated GPU will share your Mac’s main memory (RAM) with the main CPU, which is a bit of a compromise – especially if you’ve only got 2GB of 4GB of memory to start off with – so it’s not ideal for really demanding 3D games.
A better option is to use a ‘discrete’ graphics card – an entirely separate graphics processor that is specifically designed for handling 3D graphics. A discrete GPU will also have its own high-speed memory (sometimes called VRAM – or Video RAM) to boost graphics performance. This is the best option, as it frees up your Mac’s main CPU and RAM, and lets the GPU handle all the really intensive 3D graphics work by itself.
GPUs in Macs
Apple currently uses a confusing mixture of integrated and discrete GPUs across the Mac range. So, in order to try and clear up some of the confusion, here’s a quick guide to the various GPUs used in the current Mac range (in ascending order of power):
Intel Integrated Graphics:
Intel HD Graphics 515 (1.1- & 1.2GHz MacBook)
Intel HD Graphics 6000 (MacBook Air, 21.5-inch iMac/1.6GHz)
Intel HD Graphics 5000 (1.4GHz Mac Mini)
Intel Iris Graphics 530 with Radeon Pro 450/455 (15in 2.6- & 2.7GHz MacBook Pro)
Intel Iris Graphics 540 (13in 2.0GHz MacBook Pro)
Intel Iris Graphics 550 (13in 2.9GHz MacBook Pro)
Intel Iris Pro 6200 (21.5-inch iMac/2.8GHz, 21.5-inch Retina iMac)
Intel Iris Graphics (2.6GHz/2.8GHz Mac Mini)
Radeon Pro 450/2GB VRAM with Intel Iris Graphics 530 (15in 2.6GHz MacBook Pro) and +£180 for Pro 460/4GB VRAM
Radeon Pro 455/2GB VRAM with Intel Iris Graphics 530 (15in 2.7GHz MacBook Pro) and +£180 for Pro 460/4GB VRAM
AMD Radeon R9 M380/2GB VRAM (27-inch iMac/3.2GHz)
AMD Radeon R9 M390/2GB VRAM (27-inch iMac/3.2GHz)
AMD Radeon R9 M395/2GB VRAM (27-inch iMac/3.3GHz) and +£225 for AMD Radeon R9 M395X/4GB VRAM
Dual AMD FirePro D300/2x2GB VRAM (Quad-Core MacPro) and +£360 for Dual AMD FirePro D500/3GB VRAM or +£900 for Dual AMD FirePro D700/6GB VRAM
Dual AMD FirePro D500/2x3GB VRAM (Six-Core MacPro) and +£540 for Dual AMD FirePro D700/6GB VRAM
As a general rule, the ‘Intel HD Graphics’ range used in many current Macs (and many older models as well) just aren’t powerful enough for 3D games. The same is true with newer Iris models.
However, the Iris Pro design used in some of the iMac models is a big improvement. The Iris Pro has additional memory for its own use, which allows it to act semi-independently of your CPU (somewhere between discrete and integrated), and for gaming performance this makes a significant difference from the standard Iris. So, if you’re interested in playing the latest high-end games you’ll want a Mac equipped with at least an Intel Iris Pro, or a discrete GPU from AMD.
There’s also another company called Nvidia, which is actually the leading manufacturer of GPUs over on the PC side of the fence. Apple has used Nvidia graphics cards in the past, but currently seems to prefer AMD graphics cards.
The bad news is that Apple is increasingly relying on less-powerful integrated graphics cards in more and more Mac models – it’s even removed the option to upgrade to a discrete GPU from recent iMac and certain MacBook Pro models. This means that you’ll have to spend a lot of money on a high-end iMac or MacBook Pro in order to get really good 3D gaming performance.
Which Macs to avoid
Graphics performance will obviously vary depending on the type of games you like to play. The general rule of thumb is that if you intend to play fast 3D action games such as Batman or Tomb Raider then any Mac fitted with Intel HD Graphics, or a standard Intel Iris, will probably be a disappointment.
They just don’t have the power to run these graphically demanding titles, and frame-rates will quickly drop to almost unplayable levels when there are lots of characters battling it out on the screen. That reliance on integrated graphics means that these are several Mac models that gamers will probably want to avoid:
Of course if your primary form of entertainment is less-demanding fare such as Football Manager, Limbo, or many of the indie games you’ll find on the Mac App Store, then pretty much any Mac will fulfil your needs - as would an iPad.
Which Macs to consider
We’ve ruled out a fair selection of Macs, so now let’s look at some Macs that you can consider if you want to play the latest 3D games.
Mac Pro (if you can afford it)
Which Mac has the best gaming display?
Apple is gradually moving the entire Mac range over to high-resolution Retina displays, and these will look great for running your games. However, a Retina display needs a lot of power to drive all those pixels so, again, you need a GPU that can provide really good 3D performance.
The new slimline MacBook has a lovely high-res display, and its integrated Intel HD 515 graphics is fine for playing high-definition video and casual 2D games. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near powerful enough for the latest 3D games and that, sadly, is the case with pretty much the entire MacBook range these days.
Out of the current Mac range, it’s only the top-of-the-range MacBook Pro and 27-inch iMac that have graphics cards powerful enough to drive their high-quality Retina display and really excel at 3D gaming. To be honest, it’s a bit of a disgrace that none of the 21-inch iMac models has a discrete GPU, as that would make an ideal gaming machine for most people.
Getting a good hard drive or SSD
It’s not as important as your Mac’s GPU, but a fast storage system can also help to improve gaming performance. Conventional hard drives can be a bit sluggish at times – just as they take time to load the Mac OS when you turn your Mac on, they also take time to load all the complex 3D graphics data needed for games.
Apple’s Fusion drives will help a bit here, but if you want to speed up all-round performance for your Mac then a high-speed solid-state drive is always the best option.
One option to consider here is buying an external solid-state drive that you can connect to your Mac. Many games can be installed on an external SSD drive, allowing them to load more quickly, while you leave all your other files on your Mac’s slower internal hard drive.
Which Mac model is best for gaming?
To be honest, you don’t have a lot of choice here. Since we last looked at the gaming side of the Mac range Apple has actually removed the discrete graphics cards that were used in a number of MacBook, iMac, and Mac Mini models, and doesn’t even give you the option of buying a discrete GPU as an upgrade anymore either.
Apple’s increased reliance on integrated graphics means that only a handful of Mac models have the sheer graphics horsepower required for the latest 3D games. On the laptop side of things you’ll have to pay a whopping £2,349 for the 2.6GHz version of the MacBook Pro, with its AMD Radeon Pro 450 graphics card. There’s not a lot of choice on the desktop either, as neither the Mac Mini nor the 21.5-inch iMac models offer a discrete GPU anymore.
Any of the 27-inch iMacs can handle gaming very well – it’s just a shame that Apple expects you to pay upwards of £1,749 for the privilege. Of course, there’s always the Mac Pro, with its twin FirePro graphics cards, but those are really designed for professional video and graphics work. And, at £2,999 without even including a monitor, we can’t really recommend the Mac Pro as a gaming machine.
Which low-priced Mac model is best for gaming?
There’s no such thing as a low-priced Mac anymore, but if you’re on a tight budget you might be able to get by with a Mac that has the latest Iris Pro or possibly Iris 6200 integrated graphics. The cheapest 13-inch MacBook Pro model comes in at £1,249 with an Iris 6100 integrated GPU, while the £1,249 version of the 21.5-inch iMac steps up to the Iris Pro 6200. But if you want to get a discrete GPU you’ll still have to budget around £1,749 for one of the high-end MacBook Pro or iMac models.
That, more than anything else, is the reason why Macs have a reputation for not being good at games, and it’s going to take a real change in attitude to get Apple to take gaming more seriously on the Mac.
There is a glimmer of hope, though, as Apple has been focusing on improving its gaming performance on both iOS and macOS through its Metal API - the interface works with OpenGL and OpenCL to bring performance boosts - it's nice to see Apple improving its low-level code to boost performance, but it has still a long way to compete with Windows-based gaming.