It's something of a running joke among Windows users that Macs are rubbish for gaming. Traditionally the Mac hasn't been considered a great choice for gaming. There are Macs that can play games well, but they are generally much more expensive than the equivalent PC. Holding Macs back has always been the lack of discrete graphics in all but the most expensive models (with the exception of the iMac). Also the fact that upgrading a Mac to meet the requirements of a graphically-demanding modern game is pretty much a no-no, makes Macs the least future proof option for gamers (who often like to be able to tinkle with their computers to build the ideal machine for their purpose).
But that may all be about to change with the advent of Apple Silicon. The first M1 Macs are already making waves, and the promise of even better Macs based on Apple’s ARM-based technology along with the new capability of iOS apps to run natively on M1 Macs could make Macs a much better choice for gaming enthusiasts.
While the first crop of M1 Macs don't feature discrete graphics, their graphics capabilites are far removed from the integrated Intel graphics of old. Not only that, but in tests the M1's GPU has been seen to beat graphics cards such as the GeForce 1050 Ti and Radeon RX 560 - it's not even that far behind the newer GeForce 1650 Max-Q and Radeon 5500M. Sure, Apple has a long way to go to before it's own graphics options catch up to GPUs like the Radeon RX 5700 XT (an option for the 27in iMac), but there's no doubt that the M1 has ushered in a new age where the Apple graphics in low-end machines are decent. (Read more about how the M1 chip could make Macs great for gaming.)
What this means is it is no longer the case that Apple's cheaper Macs - such as the Mac mini, MacBook Air and the entry-lever 13in MacBook Pro - are no good for games. On the contrary, they might *eventually be some of the best options around. With that in mind, the question of which Mac is best for gaming is more complicated than ever. For more general advice about which Mac to buy try our Mac buying guide.
*We say eventually because the problem, as you will see if you read on, is there isn't the wealth of games available for the Mac - let alone the M1 Chip - right now.
The state of gaming on the Mac
Before we start there's a bit of an elephant in the room in terms of what games are actually available for Macs. It doesn't matter how good a Mac might be as a gaming machine if it won't run the games you want to play.
In a previous version of this article, pre-M1, we talked about how the Mac gaming scene had picked up since Macs started to use the same Intel processors as Windows PCs (back in 2007). The strong sales of Macs in recent years also helped encourage developers to make more A-List games available on the Mac than ever before. Just check out our roundup of the best Mac games for some of the highlights.
Of course, the majority of AAA games will probably always arrive on Windows first. But in the pre-M1 days 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 whenever possible and then switching to Windows where necessary. Alternatively, Parallels or VMware might have been considered options for PC gaming on a Mac.
This all changed with the M1 Mac. The M1 Macs is not based on Intel, so the instruction set is further removed from PCs than ever, and Boot Camp is no longer offered and to date Parallels and VMware aren't able to run Windows on the M1 Mac. Crossover Mac from Codeweavers is the best option available right now as it can translate x86-64 code for Windows to ARM64 code for macOS. Read: CrossOver 20 brings Windows apps to M1 Macs.
Another factor limiting the number of games on the Mac is that Apple stopped support for 32bit apps back in Catalina, and many games companies haven't updated their apps to suit this.
All this may mean that fewer PC games come over to the Mac, but perhaps this doesn't matter. ARM-based Macs will natively be able to run any iOS or iPad app, which should bring a number of games over to the Mac from the iPhone and iPad, but even more interesting: some games machines, such as the Nintendo Switch, run on ARM processors. In fact, it will be theoretically possible to run Switch games on the M1 Mac.
Returning to PC gaming again, Feral Interactive and Aspyr have ported many a PC game to the Mac in the past, will they continue to do so for silicon Macs? Feral has confirmed that they will. As for Aspyr it seems likely - the company that brought games like Civilization and Call of Duty to the Mac was bought in February 2021 by Embrace Group for $100 million, who says it will accelerate Aspyr's growth and license even more games.
Hi, we aim to support all new releases with both native support for new Apple hardware and older Intel-based Macs.— Feral Interactive (@feralgames) December 7, 2020
Our goal is to accommodate Mac gamers with the best games whatever the chipset of their Apple computer. Please stay tuned for any news on future Mac releases.
There's another source of gaming on the Mac: Steam. Read: How to use Steam on Mac. Right now Steam users are calling for Valve to recompile Steam for the Mac's new ARM processor as Steam doesn't run well on the M1 Chip via Rosetta (Apple's binary code translator that interprets the Intel X86 code for the ARM).
That's the state of Mac gaming right now. If you want to play games on the Mac you can, but there are limits depending on whether you have an Intel processor or an M1 Mac. But in the long term there is the promise of a wider catalogue of games coming to the M1 Mac.
For a list of the games that run on Apple Silicon check out Apple Silicon Games.
So, with all this interactive entertainment available to the prospective buyer, which Mac should you choose.
Gaming on the Mac: What you need
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 reasonably high-capacity solid-state drive too as games can take up a lot of gigabytes.
We also recommend 16GB RAM, 8GB would be the absolute minimum - but its a while since Apple's sold anything with less than that.
A decent display is also going to be a bonus, but since nearly every Mac (bar the entry level iMac and the Mac mini) has a high-resolution Retina display, you can be sure that games will look great on your Mac. However, a Retina display needs a lot of power to drive all those pixels so you will need a GPU that can provide really good 3D performance.
A fast storage system will also help to improve gaming performance so you would want to avoid a hard drive. Luckily Apple no longer sells any Macs with hard drives or the Fusion drive that combined a hard drive and flash storage (but look out for that if you are buying a Mac second hand).
Another thing to look out for is how well the computer will handle the processor intensive games. For example, we wouldn't recommend the MacBook Air because althought the M1 MacBook Air might look like it has similar specs to the MacBook Pro, it lacks fans so it may slow down to avoid overheating.
We'd also recommend a comfy gaming chair, some snacks that can be eaten one-handed, and the occasional break to save your spine from developing an unusual shape.
We'll give graphics it's own section because it's the biggest factor in deciding which Mac is best for your gaming needs.
Many casual games use simple two-dimensional graphics that don't require too much graphical power; most Macs can handle that without any problems. But the detailed 3D graphics used in high-speed action games can put a lot of strain on your machine. (Note that when we mention 3D games, we mean more graphically intensive game, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.)
This is where things can get a bit complicated. Obviously, you need a fast CPU to play 3D games, Apple's M1 Chip should be sufficient, but in the Intel Mac world you'd need an 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 you will need a decent graphics card, sometimes referred to as the GPU or graphics processing unit.
There are two main types of GPU available. Some of Intel's processors include an integrated GPU, which is built on to the main CPU itself - a bit like an extension built on to 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 8GB 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.
A third option comes from Apple. The M1 Chips see a 8-core GPU paired with an 8-core CPU, both on the same chip. But this doesn't mean they are integrated in the same way as the integrated graphics on the Intel options. For proof of this we refer, as we did above, to the fact the M1's GPU actually beats graphics cards such as the GeForce 1050 Ti and Radeon RX 560, and is comparable to the newer GeForce 1650 Max-Q and Radeon 5500M. The graphics in the M1 Mac don't quite beat the Radeon RX 5700 XT, which is an option for the 27in iMac, but they do a pretty good job. We can only assume that the graphics options coming with the next generation Apple Silicon Macs will be impressive.
With this in mind, which Macs have suitable graphics:
- MacBook Pro 16in: Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB
- iMac 21.5in: Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB (3.6GHz, quad-core), Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB (3.0GHz, 6-core)
- iMac 27in: Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB (3.1GHz, 6-core), Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB (3.3GHz, 6-core), Radeon Pro 5500 XT with 8GB (3.8GHz, 8-core)
- iMac Pro: Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB (standard), Radeon Pro Vega 64 with 16GB (build to order), Radeon Pro Vega 64X with 16GB (built to order)
- Mac Pro: Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB (standard), Radeon Pro Vega II with 32GB (build to order), 2x Radeon Pro Vega II with 32GB each (build to order), Radeon Pro Vega II Due with 2x32GB (build to order), 2x Radeon Pro Vega II Due with 2x32GB each
- MacBook Pro 13in: M1, 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU (as long as the games you want are available)
- Mac mini: M1, 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU (as long as the games you want are available)
As a general rule, if you are thinking of buying a Mac with Intel Graphics it won't be powerful enough for 3D games. There are very few of these models left now that Apple has introduced the M1 Macs.
One option for non M1 Macs is to plug in an eGPU. (The M1 Macs won't work with an eGPU). Apple sells a Blackmagic eGPU including the Radeon Pro 580 (£599/$699, buy it here). Apple used to sell a Blackmagic eGPU Pro including the Radeon RX Vega 56 (£1,199/$1199) but that has been discontinued. Plug in an eGPU to add a discrete GPU to your Mac and benefit from the improved graphics capabilities. Read: How to use eGPU with Mac. Also read our round up of the best eGPUs for Mac.
Macs for gamers 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 then any Mac fitted with Intel Graphics 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 there are several Mac models that gamers will probably want to avoid:
- Mac mini (3.0GHz Intel 6-core i5, Intel UHD Graphics 630, or any of the discontinued models.)
- MacBook (discontinued in 2019)
- MacBook Air
- Non-Retina 21.5in iMac (2.3GHz, Intel dual-core i5, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640)
- 13in MacBook Pro (2020 2.0GHz Intel quad-core i5, Iris Plus Graphics)
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.
Macs for gamers 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.
- 16in MacBook Pro (2.6GHz, AMD Radeon Pro 5300M, 2020, from: £2,399/$2,399)
- Retina 21.5in iMac (3.6GHz quad-core, Radeon Pro 555X, 2019, or better, from: £1,299/$1,299)
- 27in iMac (3.1GHz 6-core, Radeon Pro 5300, 2020, or better, from: £1,799/$1,799)
- 13in MacBook Pro (M1 8-core GPU, 8-core CPU, 2020, from: £1,299/$1,299)
Just note that this latter option may not have as extensive catalogue of games available right now.
Which Mac is best for gaming?
On the laptop side of things, you'll have to pay a high price for a 16in MacBook Pro capable of running the most popular AAA games available for the Mac. This would have been our recommendation prior to the launch of the M1 MacBook Pro. Now all we are waiting for is the library of games available for the M1 Mac to expand so that it can realise its capabilities as a gaming machine. When the games are there the cost of gaming on a laptop Mac will come down and we will recommend it as the best option.
Here are the latest 2020 M1 MacBook Pro Deals (RRP: £1,299)
If you want that gorgeous 16in display, here is the best deal right now (RRP: £2,399).
For now, the Retina-equipped 21.5in iMac, along with any of the 27in iMacs, feature discrete graphics can handle gaming very well. The 21.5in iMacs start at £1,299/$1,299, meaning that you can get a decent enough gaming Mac for just over a £1,000, and that's why they are our recommendation right now. But beware that change is coming and we anticipate that the iMac will be the next to get the Apple Silicon treatment, and when it does it may also get a bigger screen.
Here are the latest 21.5in 3.6GHz quad-core iMac, 2019 - RRP from £1,299 / $1,299/ AU$1,999
The 21.5in 3.0GHz 6-core iMac, 2019 - RRP from £1,499 / $1,499/ AU$2,299
The 27in 3.1GHz 6-core, 10th-gen, 2020 - RRP from £1,799 / $1,799/ AU$2,799
That starting price of over £1,000, more than anything else, is the reason why Macs have a reputation for not being good at games - for the price of a 21.5in iMac, you could get a serious Windows-based gaming PC that is better suited to gaming than almost any Mac, and with have change left over for a couple of games too. It's going to take a real change in attitude and GPU availability to get Apple - and developers - to take gaming more seriously on the Mac.