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Steam for Mac: First Impressions, Windows Is Faster

There are few things in the gaming world as exciting as a new platform launching. Valve's announcement that Steam would be coming to the Mac was one such occasion. For Mac users, Steam is an ideal platform that promises several things: easier game development, cross-platform launches, and most important, more content.

For the longest time (and admittedly, even today), gaming was the Achilles's heel for anyone considering a Mac. Most games simply never made it to the Mac platform. Steam promises to change all this, and we're already beginning to see the first examples of Valve's effort. Once you hit the Steam store, you're able to see that Valve has already marked games that are available to both Mac and PC users. To celebrate Steam for Mac's release, Valve even announced that its popular title Portal would be freely available until May 24th.

The Implications of Steam for Mac

There are several hurdles that Valve must overcome in making Steam for Mac successful. First of all, a majority of titles on Steam are Windows-only titles. That means that these games are developed to run through Microsoft's DirectX API. In Mac OS X, graphics are handled by OpenGL. While Valve's own Source engine is available for both DirectX (Windows and Xbox 360) and OpenGL (Mac OS X and PlayStation 3), there are major differences.

The second major hurdle is development. It's unclear whether Valve has ported Portal from Windows to OS X or recoded and optimized. However, during testing, we discovered several bugs that lead us to believe that, at least at the moment, titles are being ported in order to meet time-to-market.

Portal and Portaling

As of this writing, Steam is being continually updated by Valve. There have already been two big updates for Steam for Mac today, and Portal itself received an update as well. Unfortunately, the game still seems buggy. Sometimes it crashes, sometimes there are missing textures, and sometimes the colors are off. The last major update actually causes the portals to appear black. You're unable to see through them, as you should.

Obviously, this is a major bug that needs to be addressed. It demonstrates that games enabled via Steam for Mac require more than just simple port. Getting a DX title running in OpenGL is no small feat.


Portal isn't exactly the most graphically-intensive game on the market. However, we wanted to find the delta in performance betweem Portal for Windows and Portal for OS X. We came up with two platforms, one of which is a late-2009 MacBook Pro and the other a custom-built hackintosh.

Mid 2009 Apple MacBook Pro:

  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo @ 2.53 GHz
  • RAM: 4GB DDR3 @ 1067 MT/s
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce 9400M 256MB, 197.16 WHQL
  • HDD: Intel X25-G2 SSD 80GB
  • Screen: 1440x900
  • Sound: Built-in sound
  • OS X: Version 10.6.3 with latest updates
  • Windows: Version 7 64-bit with latest updates


  • CPU: Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition @ 3.33 GHz
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte X58A-UD7
  • RAM: 18GB Kingston DDR3 @ 1079 MT/s
  • GPU: ATI Radeon HD 4890 1GB, Catalyst 10.4
  • HDD: Intel X25-G1 SSD 80GB
  • Screen: 2560x1600
  • Sound: Built-in sound
  • OS X: Version 10.6.3 with latest updates
  • Windows: Version 7 64-bit with latest updates

MacBook Pro:

OS X 10.6.337.332.532.1
Windows 772.658.554.1


OS X 10.6.3142.7109.387.7
Windows 7247.9171.5109.3

We can see immediately that Portal for Mac is nowhere near as capable as its Windows counterpart. However, there are several interesting points to take away from this. Portal for Mac, in its current form, is at least able to deliver playable frame rates, even on a lower-end Mac like last year's MacBook Pro. Admittedly, the biggest bottleneck here is the GPU.

On the hackintosh side, we get a different and more interesting picture. It appears as though a combination of factors could be holding Portal for Mac back from achieving Windows-like 3D performance. First, we're fairly certain that the Mac drivers play a significant role. Currently, the driver for the hackintosh platform is a combination of Apple's default driver with some level of community engineering. This isn't the ideal approach to optimization. Until Apple comes out with higher-performance drivers, we'll continue to see a significant delta between the two platforms.

Second, the OpenGL versus Direct3D debate is ongoing. Some industry experts, like John Carmack, swear by OpenGL. However, it's clear that Microsoft has put a tremendous effort into pulling the software development community onboard with DirectX, and an increasing number of titles are employing the API. OpenGL on the Mac, on the other hand, is better-suited to productivity than gaming performance. On a related note, Blizzard's World of Warcraft, which is available natively for both OS X and Windows, runs far better in Windows than it does in OS X. At 2560x1600 with max settings, WoW can reach upwards of 150 to 200 FPS on the above hackintosh configuration, while it maxes out at 35% to 50% below the Windows scores, suggesting the aforementioned factors are taking a toll.

The Graphics Issue with Apple

Graphics driver and application availability will improve over time, and when the Steam for Mac is mainstream enough, developers are not only more likely to port their titles, but unveil games for both platforms at closer to the same time. Things are getting more exciting for an install base of Mac users who've largely been shut out of the gaming world altogether. Unfortunately, GPU selection is a big issue for Apple right now, as the company barely offers anything competitive to what's available on the PC (one of the most advanced graphics option for the expensive Mac Pro tower, for instance, is last-generation's AMD Radeon HD 4870).

Check out our gallery of Portal for Mac in the meantime.

  • builderbobftw
    Hard numbers:
  • aznguy0028
    is anyone surprised? lol. so much for your "superior" computer mac fanbois, that can get owned by a PC that is 400+ cheaper :)
  • builderbobftw
    ^ Not only is the hardware deficant, (lol at a 1k$+ compy with a core 2 duo and IGP), but the prized OS (incompatible with everything) but it turns out the OS is ALSO a fail.
  • scotters
    Man I almost kinda...... actually feel bad for the mac :(

  • littlec
    Apple may have more games now but that doesn't stop it from sucking. In fact thanks to the folks at Valve the Mac can now suck where it has never sucked before! ;)
  • vant
    Your still not getting it aznguy. MacBooks are superior in usability. I can care less about playing SC2 on my tiny 13" screen. Thats when the dual 20" Win7 rig comes in handy ;) But in classes, I'll take my multi touch shortcuts anyday.
  • Trueno07
    I do know a lot of Mac users who are certain that their hardware is better than any PC. I politely remind them that, no, it's not, and that their operating system and hardware aren't being put to the test like a lot of PC's have.

    Looks like that's changing...
  • frostyfireball
    Looks like apple's "magical" hardware and OS aren't so magical after all.
    Games are better run in windows. PERIOD.
  • descendency
    I imagine it is optimized for Windows, but this is about the difference of a generation of graphics cards - which is embarrassing for the fruity company.
  • henrystrawn
    My wife has a Mac Book Pro of the same specs in this article. I have tried for years to get her interested in gaming. I built her a decent gaming rig, steered her toward a ASUS G72 laptop with the GTX260m. All to no avail. Maybe I can give it one last shot, now that it's available for her precious Mac.