Vacations are tough for me to come by. Planning around tradeshows is easy, but planning around unannounced product launches, new driver releases, bugs and unexpected discoveries is impossible. Last year I threw a dart at the calendar and told myself I was taking 10 days off in May and thankfully, there wasn’t too much that was announced while I was gone.

I did miss one rather important thing: the launch of an OS X version of Steam. I actually contacted Valve ahead of time to see if they’d give me access to a pre-release version so I could do a performance article before I left. I got no response. After reading Ryan’s Mac OS X Portal Performance article when I got back, I understood why.

In the process of porting the Source engine to OS X a great deal of performance was lost. To Valve’s credit, games like Portal are more than playable at good looking settings on modern Macs. You’re just better off playing those games in Windows using Boot Camp.

Ryan’s original article used a Hackintosh to compare OS X and Windows performance. Now that 1) I’m back, and 2) Half Life 2 Episode 2 is out for the Mac, I can provide an updated comparison using another reference point between Steam on both OSes.

For this comparison I’m using two systems. The first is a Nehalem Mac Pro with an EVGA GeForce GTX 285 Mac Edition.

Testbed System Specifications
  Nehalem Mac Pro (Mid 2009)
CPU 2 x 2.93GHz Quad-Core Nehalem Xeon Processors
Memory 6 x 1GB DDR3-1066
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 285 Mac Edition (1GB GDDR3)
OS Mac OS X 10.6.3

The second is Apple’s new 2010 13-inch MacBook Pro with a GeForce 320M.

Testbed System Specifications
  13-inch MacBook Pro (Early 2010)
CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory 2 x 2GB DDR3-1066
OS Mac OS X 10.6.3

I’m running Boot Camp and a clean install of Windows 7 x64 on both Macs for the comparison. I’m using NVIDIA’s 197.45 drivers for the GTX 285 on the Mac Pro and the latest drivers under OS X. Steam was up to date as of 12:47AM this morning.

I’ll start with the 13-inch MacBook Pro:

Half Life 2 Episode 2 Performance
13-inch MacBook Pro (Early 2010) Mac OS X 10.6.3 Windows 7 x64
1280 x 800 44.2 fps 68.0 fps

At the panel’s native resolution of 1280 x 800 the 13-inch MacBook Pro is playable at high quality settings with no AA/aniso. Episode 2 runs smoothly on the portable Mac. Gaming, albeit dated, is possible under OS X.

Boot into Windows however and you get a 54% performance boost. The game goes from definitely playable to butter smooth. In other words, there’s a perceivable difference.

With the additional headroom of the CPU and GPU in the Mac Pro, I ran our benchmark at higher quality settings and at more resolutions. Under OS X you only get 2X and 4X MSAA options compared to NVIDIA’s plethora of AA modes under Windows, so I stuck with 4X MSAA for this comparison. Anisotropic filtering (16X) was enabled and all settings were as high as possible.

OS X HL2ep2 Settings

Multicore rendering is an option under Windows that isn’t adjustable under Steam for OS X, and despite the setting being greyed out as Enabled it doesn't appear to be enabled under OS X. In our benchmark with multicore rendering disabled both versions of the game eat up around 1.5 out of the 8 cores in the Mac Pro. Enabling multicore rendering in Windows bumps the average up to 2.4 cores, but drops performance at higher resolutions. I’ve provided both sets of results in the graph below so you can see what happens:

The Windows performance advantage with multicore rendering disabled ranges from 62% all the way up to 103%. Even at its worst, the GTX 285 under OS X is fast enough to make 2560 x 1600 playable, but it is noticeably slower than under Windows.

With multicore rendering enabled CPU bound performance goes up around 18%, but we see a drop at more GPU limited resolutions.

Image Quality: Still Foggy


View All Comments

  • MonkeyPaw - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    Totally agree. Not to mention that the last Mac I owned was a DP Powermac that crashed on me all the time, for no reason. The system would not even be under load and I'd get the black screen kernel panic. Maybe things are better now, but the closed hardware concept didn't do it for me back then.

    I don't mind Macs at all. I might own one again, if it weren't for Apples advertising smugness and lies. The products they make are usually quite good, and could probably stand on their own without the terrible exaggerations.
  • Alexvrb - Monday, June 7, 2010 - link

    Their products are no better quality than anyone else, and they're considerably more expensive to boot. Without their marketing/brainwashing department, they'd be dead by now. Reply
  • adonn78 - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    The drivers really are not there for the Mac platform. In addition the games have to be converted from directX to openGL. I format that has been seldomly used in the past few years for games. not to mention The video cards on apple are at least a generation behind. The newer cards and drivers are not available. And not optimized for the mac platform. Teh mere fact that the games are even playable ont he mac is a promising start. We may see regular driver updates and major performance increases is Steve jobs takes gaming seriously. But its unlikely. Reply
  • heffeque - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    Who knows... maybe with 10.7 things will start changing in that direction. Reply
  • softdrinkviking - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    i think that it's been said before, but people who are looking for the best performance possible are not going to go out and buy a mac for that purpose.

    if my hunch is correct, then steam on OSX is just a value add for people who are already stuck in the mac ecosystem (willingly or not.)
    if you look at it from that point of view, it's unlikely that playing your games at a lower resolution with a little bit of fuzziness is going to be a deal killer for most folks.

    while i have no doubt that the opengl ports will improve over time, there is very little incentive to make it perfect.
    people who must have "perfect" while they game buy windows machines.
    so i don't think that anyone can look forward to any serious improvement in the mac -steam situation.
    simply because not enough people care.
  • heffeque - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    Well... actually you pay for one game and you get it in both platforms. I only payed for HL2 once several years ago and I was able to download it "for free" for Mac. It's just a matter of commodity not to have to reboot in Windows to have to play for a while, though I have to admit that, although I do play Portal on Mac, I still play HL2 on Windows because of the better graphics and better frame rate. Reply
  • Lonyo - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    It's nice that you tested some more configurations, but the testing is still really lacking.

    3 different systems. Still no ATI cards.
    Yes, ATI might not be the automatic option, but it's more useful than testing a gazillion NV cards because it might allow some identification of the issues, like is performance driver related or game related. Is image quality driver related or game related.

    Please try and sort out testing something using ATI graphics.
  • heffeque - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    It probably has more to do with the DirectX vs OpenGL issue than nVidia vs ATi. Reply
  • Penti - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    Driver developers or rather hardware graphics vendors do their own OGL implementation. They are different. Reply
  • Lonyo - Friday, June 4, 2010 - link

    The OpenGL for which NV Windows XP drivers result in worse performance on a GTX470 than a GTX285?

    While in Windows 7 the same card can be up to 50% faster

    NV OpenGL drivers can suck a lot, therefore using only NV cards on a non-gaming OS which NV may not have made decent drivers for (like they haven't made decent WinXP drivers for theGTX470) seems unfair on Valve (as much as I do not in fact like them).

    It would also indicate more whether the problem lies in the drivers being crap, or the OpenGL port being sub-par.

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