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.
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 with the advent of Apple's first M1 Macs in 2020, and the promise that even better Macs based on Apple's ARM-based technology are coming, 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 capabilities are far beyond 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 (which is 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
The problem with Mac gaming is that there aren't a lot of games that are actually available for Macs, let alone M1 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.
However, with the arrival of the M1 chip this has changed. With the majority of AAA games starting life on Windows, games developers, or publisher such as Feral or Aspyr, now need write the games for the new ARM-based chip as well as Intel. Porting Windows games to the Mac when they were powered by Intel wasn't a such a struggle, because it was the same instruction set, but now the M1 Macs is not based on Intel the instruction set is further removed from PCs than ever, and the job that much more complex.
The good news is that not all developers need to rewrite their code for the M1. Apple includes Rosetta 2, which translates the instructions from Intel to ARM so that the software can run on the M1. Thanks to Rosetta a number of games are working on the M1 - although they don't all work perfectly.
Some games developers have made native versions of their games for the M1 Mac. There are a few Mac games that already run natively on the M1 chip. For example, Blizzard's World of Warcraft has been M1 ready for some time. And Gameloft's Asphalt 8 and Asphalt 9 are both running natively on the M1.
Fortnite is another popular game that runs on M1 Macs, although via Rosetta. However, thanks to Epic's fall out with Apple the developer is no longer issuing updates to the game.
The following Aspyr games run via Rosetta: Borderlands 3, Call of Duty, Civilization VI, and Planet Coaster. Aspyr was bought in February 2021 by Embrace Group for $100 million, who says it will accelerate Aspyr's growth and license even more games.
A number of Feral releases are also now playable via Rosetta on the M1 Mac. These include A Total War Saga: Troy, Bioshock 2, Deus Ex: Manking Divided, Dirt and Dirt Rally, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which run reasonably well.
Feral released Total War: Rome Remastered in April 2021. The game actually supports the M1 chip, but since the Steam client does not the game isn't currently able to run on M1 Macs.
Steam is a another source of gaming on the 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). Read: How to use Steam on Mac.
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 means it is possible to play Windows games on an Intel-based Mac. Alternatively, Parallels or VMware might have been considered options for PC gaming on a Mac.
Unfortunately, if you have an M1 Mac, Boot Camp is no longer offered and Parallels and VMware aren't able to run the Intel version of Windows on the M1 Mac (Parallels can now run the ARM version of Windows, but that's still in development and the games you'd be looking to run won't run on that anyway).
If you really want to run un-ported Windows games on an M1 Mac Crossover Mac from Codeweavers is the best option available right now. It can translate x86-64 code for Windows to ARM64 code for macOS. Read: CrossOver 20 brings Windows apps to M1 Macs.
If that doesn't appeal then you will have to wait for Feral Interactive, Aspyr and others to port PC game to M-series 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 is theoretically possible to run Switch games on the M1 Mac.
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.
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 21.5in 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, although 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 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)
- 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)
- 24in iMac: M1, 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU (as long as the games you want are available)
Just in case you can find them on sale we'll mention these here, although they are no longer sold by Apple.
- iMac 21.5in: Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB (3.6GHz, quad-core), Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB (3.0GHz, 6-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)
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 than 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
If your budget won't stretch that far you could consider these M1 Macs, but note that the M1 Macs will not have as extensive catalogue of games available right now.
- 13in MacBook Pro M1 8-core GPU, 8-core CPU, 2020, from: £1,299/$1,299
- Mac mini M1, 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU), from: £699 (but you'll need a display)
24in iMac M1, 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU), from: £1,249/£1,299
Which Mac is best for gaming?
The best Mac for gaming is a difficult choice right now. The lack of games that are ready for the M1 Mac, either to run natively, or to run reasonably well via Rosetta, means that it is hard to recommend M1 Macs right now for gaming.
The problem is that leaves us with the 27in iMac and the 16in MacBook Pro, both of which are rather expensive in comparison to the M1 Macs.
The 16in MacBook Pro is capable of running the most popular AAA games available for the Mac and would be a good choice, if you have the money.
Here are the best deals for the 16in MacBook Pro right now (RRP: £2,399).
Prior to Apple discontinuing it, we considered the Retina-equipped 21.5in iMac a good choice based on the fact that it offered similar specs to the 27in iMacs, including discrete graphics, and at a fraction of the price. However, with the arrival of the 24in iMac the smaller iMac is less comparable with the 27in model.
The 24in iMac may eventually prove a decent enough machine for gaming, but for now we would suggest that the 27in iMac is your best bet. Like the 16in MacBook Pro it offers discrete graphics and it also has the benefit of the 27in display (although you may prefer to plug in your own).
Here are the best deals for the 27in 3.1GHz 6-core, 10th-gen, 2020 - RRP from £1,799 / $1,799/ AU$2,799
However 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.
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 Mac will come down again and we will recommend the M1 MacBook Pro or the 24in iMac.
Here are the latest 2020 M1 MacBook Pro Deals (RRP: £1,299 / $1,299)
And deals for the M1 24in iMac (RRP from £1,449 / $1,499 / AU$2,199)
You may be lucky enough to pick up one of the now discontinued 21.5in iMacs, which we still consider a good option thanks to their discrete graphics (as long as you aren't looking at the 2.8GHz model) .
Here are the latest deals for the 21.5in 3.0GHz 6-core iMac (RRP from £1,499 / $1,499/ AU$2,299)
Which ever Mac you choose it's inevitable that you will be spending more than £1,000/$1,000. That starting price, 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.