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

  • FXi - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    For being such a popularist and gizmo oriented company Apple has truly killed their own cash cow by not focusing on gaming. There is hope, because they finally did come around to the x86 platform and reaped huge increases in marketshare from that move. Now they need to understand that PC's are purchased to do work, but nearly 80% of the population owning PC's does at least some gaming on them. I'm not talking the 6 hour gaming sessions, but simply that if you have a PC for doing work, or household stuff or connecting to the web, you probably also at least fire up a game every now and then to play on the machine as well.

    Most folks who are OS agnostic, and don't really care whether it's windows or Mac as an operating system, give Mac's a "pass" simply because, without being able to game on the majority of games out there, it is like buying a fancy machine that is incapable of doing a duty that 80% of PC users do at least some of the time. That's a marketing blunder, because it's saying that Apple wants users to come to its view of what a PC should do, and not Apple making what the market wants.

    In gizmos that kind of thinking works, you show off what your machine can do and people come to use it within what it was built for (i.e. Iphone). With tools, like a PC, you instead want to be sure your tool can "do" whatever the market desires it to do, not tell the market what they can do and hope the market wants to do just those things.

    So Apple, much like the conversion to X86, needs to finally come around and understand that if they capture the "market" of gaming, probably by making their machines fast AT gaming and then making them compatible with a wide RANGE of gaming, Apple will finally realize a higher degree of market parity with Windows PC's. X86 was one step. Having Office was another step. Gaming is similar, they "need" to make this market a focus, because it will bring the rest of their machine's abilities and marketshare along for the ride.
  • DaveGirard - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    People don't buy Mac Pros for games - they buy them for work. And my 3D rendering work is faster in OS X than it is in Windows:

    That's me benchmarking and since I review graphics cards and Mac systems for Ars Technica, I know how to test things.

    Ever tried to do something in Windows while Maya renders? OS X is better at multitasking so I can run 16 thread renders while playing Halflife 2 without noticing much. That's completely different from Windows, where you have to drop the render priority to low just to have the system be almost usable for other things.

    The performance with Half-life 2 on OS X doesn't reflect much other than what's pretty obvious:

    - Nvidia's drivers are more mature on Windows. That's what you get for years of steep competition in the gaming space on Windows.
    - Half-life 2 is an OpenGL port to another platform. Claiming the PS3 is a crappy system because of how shitty the Orange Box runs on it wouldn't convince the people using PS3 supercomputers that they made a bad decision.
    - Apple writes the OpenGL that both ATI and Nvidia use. This may not be the fastest scheme but it's consistently more stable with pro apps like Maya. You can use gaming cards with Maya on the Mac because it's officially supported - where you have to buy a Quadro on Windows/Linux because of all the corners that are cut for speed with gaming drivers.

    Nevertheless, I hope Nvidia can improve their OS X drivers. ATI's are very good because they have been around longer on the Mac. But clowns trying make this out to be a reflection of the Macs inferiority don't understand the variables and how it would be the exact opposite situation if Macs were what people used for gaming over the last 20 years. It's that simple.

    And I'll take faster Maya rendering and better multitasking over a some more FPS. Back to work...
  • mojohacker2010 - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    Right...because your own testing and "personal" experience are to be held in a higher light than everyone else's. Do you feel holier than thou now? LOL...your personal experience or test does not negate other people's experiences. For the record, I don't run windows or OSX...but I find OSX fan boys always using their "personal" experience to rebut unfavorable facts that are thrown at them. It's find to be loyal to a company, but when you ignore other people's fair criticisms and facts just to defend OSX, it is no longer just loyalty, it becomes a religion. Reply
  • DaveGirard - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    I've gone out of my way to call out Nvidia on their bad Mac drivers - I have nothing to hide:

    That clearly shows how bad Nvidia's drivers can be with GLSL and Mudbox in OS X. ATI is much better.

    My personal experience is also in those benchmarks where I'm apparently not a fanboy. Nice try though. Why don't you check out my Aperture 1 review - I handed Apple their ass for putting out a bad product and took more crap from Mac fanatics than this article ever will.

    So my point stands - OS X is not a gaming OS for obvious reasons but Apple's OpenGL is more stable so you can use Maya with ATI cards in OS X without issues, while they're notoriously problematic on Windows. Nvidia has work to do on the Mac and Apple's GL does too but don't make this article out to be more than a test of one ported application. It's not a smoking gun showing anything.
  • sebmel - Monday, June 7, 2010 - link

    Valve also pointed out that the Mac version of Steam is, similarly, much more stable than the Windows version. Five times more according to their own crash reports. Reply
  • sebmel - Monday, June 7, 2010 - link Valve founder Gabe Newell: "what's sort of surprising is how much more stable our games are on the Mac." Looking at the early data available from the Steam client, "the Mac is five times more stable than Windows" when using the metric of minutes played versus number of crashes." Reply
  • Scali - Thursday, June 10, 2010 - link

    I'm not surprised... at the same time, I don't know how much of that is due to the OS itself.
    I mean, the Windows ecosystem is way different from the Mac ecosystem.
    Mac users buy a complete system where all components are well balanced out. They also get a complete OS and set of drivers.

    With Windows, people build their own PCs, they mod them, they overclock them... they may use poor cooling, underpowered PSUs, and who knows what else, which can impact stability.
    And then there's things like experimenting with beta drivers, or things like malware, rootkits and who knows what else.
  • thehomelessguy - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    I dunno, even hacintoshes seem quite stable. at least mine is. I love it to i7 2.8 ghz, 12 gigs of dd3, 2x9800GT (got a good price). Reply
  • DaveGirard - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link

    Here is a GTX 285 getting owned by a Radeon 4870 simply because ATI's drivers are better for GLSL on OS X:


    Geforce GTX 285:
  • ReaM - Saturday, June 5, 2010 - link


    thank you for the article. I saw this article a while a go and that made me decide to buy ATI for my hackintosh. I have it bookmarked.

    Mudbox runs great, but at 7m polygons it is noticeably slow (I have both 4850 and 4890)

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