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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Taking a Bite from the Poison Apple: Gaming on a MAC.

I like Apple. I like the Macintosh in all its current incarnations, from mini to laptop to traditional deskside form factors (am I allowed to call it Macintosh, or is it just Mac now? I'm not sure what the current cult protocol dictates.)

I like the marketing of the company: it is consistently slick, polished, and clever.

I like the superiority complex that emanates from Apple's cultish leader Steve Jobs and that seems to ooze out of the corporation and infect many of the consumers of the products. It gives my daughter and me endless fun to watch the iMonkeys at the Apple stores work their conversion magic on prospective cult members, like Kaa working Mowgli (for some reason, things like this seem funnier to me in German.)

I like Steve. Steve Wozniak, that is. Without him, there would be no Apple. A hilarious guy, as down to earth as they get. And brilliant. I like the Jobs version of Steve too, but he couldn't code his way out of a paper bag, and I just have no interest in having a coffee and shooting the breeze with him like I do with "The Woz". Woz has donated huge sums of money and technology to local schools. Education for our children is important to him, and I admire that deeply. He dated Kathy Griffin. That must have been a hoot.

I've enjoyed the rage tantrums of the Jobs incarnation of Steve since my own personal experience with one twenty some years ago when he asked me the wrong question.

"What do you think of our super cool NeXT hardware?" he asked me. I responded with something like "It's an already outdated steaming turd that is only falling further behind Intel based stuff each day. Dump it. Dump any of the business that's hardware. Put NeXTSTEP on Intel, it's so much better than Windows, you'll rule the world." You'd have thought I'd told the Pope that God was a phony.

By the time NeXT got their act in gear and dropped the hardware facade and made NeXTSTEP available for commodity hardware, it was too late: Windows had evolved and had grown in market share to an insurmountable lead. What a disaster, a ship steered by an ego blinded captain. Not his first flop, nor will it be his last in my opinion. But make no mistake: Jobs could sell $50.00 bags of ice cubes to Eskimos, and have them believing his version tastes better. You've got to admire that.

I like that since hardly anyone uses the Mac product (under 4% of the market), hackers don't waste their time on attacking the machine. I don't like that Apple markets this under the guise of their machine being more secure than Windows machines: security through obscurity is useless, and the fact that Apple hardware is consistently the first to fall at white hat security hacking contests demonstrates this. Nonetheless, in the same way that no city burglar is going to go out of his way and drive a hundred miles into the countryside just to rob you, the platform is much less likely to find itself under attack. For now at least.

I like that the very narrow range of hardware options used (and controlled) by Apple makes life easier for their OS developers. Stuff just works. That Windows works so well with the innumerable combinations of hardware it can be installed on is miraculous, Apple chose to simplify the problem and has done a superb job of it.

I like the support infrastructure of Apple. This is one area that I've yet to see anything even close in the traditional PC world. The Apple store staff knows their stuff. The genius bar really knows their stuff. A user of the product can get face to face, quality technical support for zero or minimal cost, instead of spending hours talking or on-line chatting with tech support via some version of the typical cookie cutter outsourced staff.

All of this boils down to this: The Mac is the machine least likely to be bought by me, and the most likely to be recommended by me. Except to serious gamers. Allow me to explain.

When friends come to me seeking advice for a PC (I'll use the term generically to mean both traditional hardware and that of the Apple persuasion), I ask them some pretty simple questions.

If the answers indicate that they do not have a need for the latest and greatest hardware, add-in cards, etc. I usually point them to Apple. The machines are easy to learn and use for the novice.  They tend to "just work" due to Apple's vice-like grip on the narrow range of hardware components allowed in the machine. The support infrastructure Apple provides means if I'm not around to answer a question, a quick phone call to Apple or a visit to the local store will usually result in rapid resolution. Keeps them off my back.

But for the serious gamer? Well, as Apollo 13 hero Jim Lovell said, "I believe we've had a problem here."

There are a few things standing in the way of the gamer using a Mac that wants state of the art hardware for maximum performance with modern games.

Firstly, excepting the deskside Mac Pro models, there is no real means to update the anemic graphics hardware in the Apple machines. Some of the higher-end MacBook models are capable of running games with acceptable frame rates, but the really sophisticated bleeding edge titles are off-limits if acceptable performance is expected.

Even with the Mac Pro, graphics hardware options are severely limited if  the user wants to retain the full range of Apple specific functionality and sensibilities in the interface from the time of powering up the machine: the cards used by Apple require proprietary firmware (for EFI and the OS), meaning non-certified cards will not function properly in OSX, nor will proper boot screen functionality be retained.

This means the user is limited to Apple specific cards if they wish to retain these capabilities and functionality, and these cards tend to severely lag behind the current state of the art as far as performance capabilities. By way of example, the fastest card at the time of writing on the Apple Mac Pro web page is the ATI Radeon HD 4870, a card released two years ago.While there are some third-party cards of higher specification available, these too are at least a generation behind the state of the art. And of course, either solution carries the burden of the "Apple tax": you will pay more for the same card compared to the PC version.

It is possible to do what is effectively "brain surgery" on more modern cards via firmware manipulation to enable use in a Mac Pro, but the likelihood of reduced functionality and performance or of producing an expensive paperweight by such antics far outweighs the benefits. See the entries at everymac.com and the Expansion Cards and Hardware Compatibiltiy sections of the Wikipedia entry for the Mac Pro for a glimpse into the grief faced by users that need more GPU horsepower in the Mac environment.

Yet even then, the Mac user is boxed in: the latest high performance GPUs are quite power hungry. One may tax the power supply of the Mac Pro, dual cards (SLI or Crossfire) would be out of the question without cobbling some sort of Frankenstein power supply to supplement or supplant the one that comes in the machine.

Secondly, the Mac gamer is faced with the reality that mirrors the disinterest in the Mac by hackers: By and large, game developers don't give a hoot about the Apple environment. The Apple store lists 70 titles. Total. A tiny handful of FPS games.

This means that the Mac owner, if they want to play most any current game, will need to do so using Microsoft Windows. No need to rush out and buy a PC to supplant your Mac because it can't do something you want, however. There are a few ways a Mac owner can play Windows games utilizing their Mac hardware. We'll outline these here.

For simple games (2D, scrollers, etc.) with lightweight graphics performance requirements. a virtual machine environment such as Parallels Desktop or Vmware Fusion will allow the user to install Microsoft Windows and the games they desire into a Virtual Machine. This effectively creates a "computer in the computer", and for simple games will allow the user to play the game without leaving the OSX environment. My own experiments show reasonable performance on a higher-end Mac Pro, so long as the game's graphical requirements are kept reasonable. For games with more rigorous requirements, the performance in a virtual environment severely lags behind that of running on native hardware.

For these kinds of games, the user will need to install Windows in a fashion that allows for native booting. This can be accomplished with Apple's own Boot Camp or in a more flexible but more involved implementation using rEFIt.

Boot Camp provides a trivially simple mechanism for the gamer to get up and running on Windows games on their Mac hardware. The "Boot Camp Assistant" of the installer will walk the user through automatic repartitioning of the disk and installation of Windows. The current OSX install discs contain the hardware drivers for Windows components of the user's Mac, simplifying the installation and configuration of Windows considerably: no need to ferret these out from the web. The details and guides for using Boot Camp can be found at the Apple support page for the product.

rEFIt is an open source EFI boot loader and toolkit for the Mac. Unlike Boot Camp, which is limited to one alternate installation of Windows alongside OSX, rEFIt gives the user the functionality of a traditional boot manager, allowing the installation of multiple OS systems. On power up, the user is presented with a boot menu showing what operating systems are available for selection.

rEFIt Boot Screen

I use rEFIt to run Windows, Linux and OSX. The installation of rEFIt does not have the typical Apple hand holding: it's not an Apple product, after all. That said, the installation and configuration are fairly trivial, and any gamer that has built their own machine should have no trouble getting up and running under rEFIt. The canonical source for installation and configuration is the Sourceforge page for rEFIt.

For either the Boot Camp or rEFIt solutions, I would recommend the gamer determine the precise hardware configuration of their Mac and acquire the latest Windows hardware drivers from the appropriate sources before starting the OS installation process. Often only the most current drivers will provide the desired gaming experience for the newest games (graphics card drivers being particularly fickle.). At the very least, ensure that you have the needed network (NIC) driver, so that once Windows is installed and booted, you can retrieve other needed drivers from the Internet.

You'll also want to get your hands on a decent keyboard and mouse. While the Apple realizations exude a Bang & Olufsen elegance, they're utterly useless for any kind of real gaming.

See you on the battlefields!


  1. I was about to punch you in the face when I read the first sentence. Then I saw the fish on the side of my screen and was utterly entertained by your musings of the Apple world while I fed them. Apple is a useless turd faux empire, ready to fall to the wayside as Google eats them as an appetizer. I cant wait to buy a new phone when my contract expires in July, Android here I come. I have an LG on Verizon now, and will not move to Apple no matter what. My wife has an iPod and I hate the itunes thing, what a retarded pos. On my LG I drag and drop mp3's, done. Not so on a iTunes device of any kind. iPad? hah, yeah right. wtf would I need that for? I have a life. a Droid can do the same thing i would need. So yeah, Apple can have their minions and followers, I will have a phone and PC that "just work and are cheap"

  2. It's "Houston, we have a problem"

  3. @ Anonymous May 15, 2010 3:53 AM:

    No, from the original NASA Apollo 13 technical air-to-ground voice transcript, page 160, 02 07 55 10: "I believe we've had a problem here".

    Your quote is the incorrect and oft repeated mangling of the actual words.