With the likes of the hugely popular HTC Vive and Oculus Rift now available to buy around the world, many Mac users are wondering if you can use VR on a Mac and if so, how. With the Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey previously stating that no current MacBook would be strong enough to power the Oculus Rift, we’ve looked into the possibilities of running VR on a Mac and, well, the outlook isn’t great. Read on to find out more.
Last updated to include GeForce Now, a new cloud-based gaming service from Nvidia that could enable VR gameplay on a Mac.
How to use VR on a Mac: Can you use VR on a Mac?
With PC gamers enjoying the likes of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets, many Mac users are left wondering “Can I use VR on a Mac?” and simply put, probably not. The founder of Oculus Palmer Luckey has said on the record several times that the Rift is “not going to work on any MacBook that exists or is known to exist in the near future” because of one simple reason – graphics cards. During an IGN Live interview at E3 2015, Luckey remarked “People have said, 'Why don't you support Macs? So many people have Macs.’ It's true. A lot of people have Apple hardware, especially in the laptop space. But the GPUs in those, they're not even close to what we're pushing for our recommended spec.”
It’s a similar story with the HTC Vive, which requires a Nvidia GTX 970 (or equivalent) as a minimum GPU to be able to power the room-scale VR experience, a graphics card that isn’t in any Mac in the current lineup. There is currently no SteamVR or Oculus Home Mac client either, so even if you had a Mac capable of playing VR games you’d have to dual-boot Windows 10 first.
Theoretically speaking, the late 2014 Mac Pro could provide the graphical grunt required for VR gaming on a Mac as it features dual AMD FirePro cards each packed with up to 6GB of VRAM, but the cards aren’t optimised for gaming so it’s an expensive risk to take. As mentioned above, Mac Pro users would also need to dual-boot Windows 10 to be able to run the Oculus Rift/HTC Vive software.
So officially it seems as if the macOS platform has been unanimously banished by VR manufacturers, however for the extremely dedicated Apple fan we’ve got one (very long winded and expensive, admittedly) workaround that could theoretically allow Apple fans to play VR on a Mac.
Update 5/1/2017: While up until now the absence of a powerful GPU has been the main reason for a lack of VR support on macOS, Nvidia could change that with the launch of its upcoming cloud-based streaming service. Instead of streaming movies like Netflix, Nvidia is offering PC and Mac gamers the chance to play the latest AAA blockbuster games via the cloud, all powered by the latest Nvidia Pascal GPU-powered PCs. While this is great news for low-end PC gamers, it could be a game-changer for Mac.
As well as being able to access previously unsupported PC games on your Mac, the GeForce Now service is also rumoured to provide VR experiences for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. While the VR headset manufacturers would still need to offer support for macOS, it's possible that if GeForce Now does provide high-end VR experiences, it could open up the world of VR on a Mac.
To find out more about GeForce Now on Mac, take a look at our explainer: How to use GeForce Now on Mac, plus GeForce Now explained
How to use VR on a Mac: Upgrade a 2011 Mac Pro
So if you really want to use VR on a Mac, there is one possible option but we haven’t tried it ourselves and we’d probably recommend buying a PC because it’s both cheaper and easier, but hey! Good on you, you dedicated Apple fan.
The 2011 Mac Pro is the best option for those looking to Dr. Frankenstein their Mac and make it VR capable as it features a PCI-e slot for graphics cards and it’s fairly easy not only to upgrade the RAM, but the CPU too. The recommended minimum specs for VR on a PC are as follows, so it’d be best to match the spec as best you can:
- Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290 equivalent or better
- Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
- At least 8GB RAM
- 2x USB 3.0 ports
- Windows 7 SP1 or newer
- HDMI 1.3 video output supporting a 297MHz clock via a direct output architecture
Even with a ‘can do’ attitude to using the 2011 Mac Pro to run VR on a Mac, there will be issues. Firstly, and probably most importantly, even though the GTX 970 (or whatever card you choose to use) should perform as usual when booting in Windows, there probably won’t be any Mac-specific drivers and as such, the graphics card won’t work when trying to load up OS X. That means that if you do decide to use the Mac Pro as a VR machine, you’ll be tied to using Windows. We know, great eh? You spend a considerable amount of money to run VR on a Mac and while that’s technically what you’ll be doing, you won’t be able to run OS X.
So, to summarise, we’ve shown you that while it’s theoretically possible to use VR on a Mac, the reality is that it’s awkward to do and ridiculously expensive and even then, you could still run into compatibility issues. Our advice for VR enthusiasts wanting to use the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift is to (surprisingly!) go out and buy a capable gaming PC. Not sure what to look for? Our colleagues at PC Advisor has the perfect VR PC buying advice.
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