Apple's 17-in. MacBook Pro a gamer's delight?

Apple's 17-in. MacBook Pro a gamer's delight?

Is the new 17-in. MacBook Pro the ultimate gaming laptop Mac users have long been waiting for? That was the question put to me by Computerworld's Ken Mingis after he recently reviewed Apple Inc.'s top-of-the-line laptop.

In stock form, this MacBook Pro goes for US$2,799. But the review unit sent to us by Apple was stuffed with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state disk drive and the faster 2.93-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, shooting the price to $4,849. (That's actually $200 less than it cost a few weeks back, now that Apple is charging $1,000 for the extra RAM.) Even so, we're talking Alienware levels of cash for a laptop.

Is the MacBook Pro worth that much to gamers? It could be, depending on what you expect from your gaming laptop. I spent last weekend running the new 17-incher side by side with my older MacBook Pro -- it has the 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo, and I have to tell you, I'm impressed. I've never seen frame rates like this on a Mac!

I pulled the Apple's MacBook Pro out of the box and installed fresh clients for three massively multiplayer online (MMO) games -- World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Eve Online -- on both the new MacBook Pro and my own laptop. I didn't want any tweaking I'd done to my own versions to affect the outcome.

I also made sure to set up each client exactly the same, from graphics to audio, to make this as much an apples-to-apples comparison as possible. (Yes, I know, apples and Apple. Go ahead. Chuckle.)

For nongamers, World of Warcraft is a sword-and-sorcery game. City of Heroes is an MMO in which players create superheroes to do battle against villains. And Eve Online is a space-based game where you control spaceships, work in manufacturing and collect resources while battling other players and nonplayer characters.

For this quick gamer's review, I used the same character in the same setting and whenever possible repeated the same mission to get the best match-up possible. With flashy, graphic-intensive games, frames per second (fps) can tell a lot about your hardware, so I focused on that as the easiest way to offer up a sense of how well or poorly the MacBook Pro would perform.

For the record, all the frame rates I cite below are raw and show the average range. They don't take into account the fact that at least one of the game clients has a built-in frame-rate rendering cap.

Of the three game clients I tried out, World of Warcraft is the only one with a native Mac version. City of Heroes and Eve Online rely on a version built by TransGaming Technologies Inc. It uses the Windows client and a Cider and Wine wrapper to create an emulated environment in which the client can run on Mac OS X. This allows it to be sold to the Mac community without the developer having to create a native Mac version.

A double-edged sword

This wrapper is something of a double-edged sword for Mac gamers. It means we get access to more games, which almost always come to Windows first because of its market share. But it also means these games run in emulation mode and can suffer a serious performance hit.

You might not be able to turn shaders all the way up. You might not see how shiny that armor can really be with the character texture maxed out -- and who doesn't want armor bling in a game? But you can play the game.

Unfortunately, if you give game makers an option not to make a Mac client, they won't; they're going to take the less-expensive and shorter route to getting a client out to Mac users -- hence the need for someone like TransGaming to step in as a middleman. For a lot of hard-core Mac gamers, this isn't a big deal. They haven't seen how things work on the Windows side, so they don't think they're missing much.

As for me, I love my Macs, but until TransGaming started porting these game clients to the Mac side, I had a PC for my own gaming. There were simply more games.

Thankfully, the technology that TransGaming uses is always evolving, offering hope that gaming will only improve for Mac users as time goes by.

Here are the specs on the two laptops I used in my gaming showdown: My own MacBook Pro has the aforementioned 2.33-GHz dual-core chip, 2GB of RAM, a 120GB hard drive and an ATI X1600 graphics card with 256MB of video RAM. Apple's laptop has a 2.93-GHz Core 2 Duo, 8GB of RAM (upgraded from the 4GB you get in stock configuration), the 256GB SSD and the Nvidia 9600GT M, with 512MB of video RAM. The new 17-in. device has a second Nvidia chip that I didn't use while gaming.

Overall, my system performs well enough with these clients that I have a good time. I'm not getting blinding speed and high frame rates, but it works well enough. And it still looks good, although the new model has the unibody aluminum chassis and the black bezel around what is now an LED back-lit screen. And the 17-in. model now comes in just one resolution: 1920 by 1200 pixels. It's gorgeous: bright and sharp and well saturated.

Eve Online

First up was Eve Online. I used the Premium/Premium Lite client just released on March 10. On my Mac, the in-station frame rate ranged between 20 and 30 frames per second. It was higher while in space: 25 to 35 fps. And in combat, it varied from 15 to 30 fps. I experienced an occasional frame stop and sluggishness while entering a very active location or when spinning the camera around my ship. But all in all, I had no major problems.

Not surprisingly, Apple's MacBook turned in noticeably better results: In-station rates, depending on the station, were between 70 fps and 95 fps. In space, they were even higher, between 80 and 100 fps. And in combat, depending on the size of the attacking group, they dipped to a still-solid 45-60 fps.

Now, Eve is more CPU-intensive in general than GPU-intensive. Even with the new graphics offered by the Premium client, a lot of what goes on on-screen is hitting that 2.93-GHz chip -- and it really shows. (I didn't have a chance to get into any fleet battles, by the way.)

City of Heroes

Next, I fired up City of Heroes using the Issue 13 Client for Mac. On my MacBook Pro, I saw frame rates of 30 to 50 fps while on a street location and 35 to 55 fps while on a sewer mission, with frame-rate drops for long views and mob scenes.

The new MacBook Pro turned in frame rates on the streets of between 50 and 70 fps, with higher frames rates of 60 to 85 fps while on a sewer mission. I also saw quick frame-rate drops in long views and with mob scenes. I was hoping for better results with City of Heroes using the new laptop, but it was still very impressive. I think this is more an issue with the client itself, which may not be hitting the Nvidia graphics card as hard as it could.

World Of Warcraft

Finally, I turned to World Of Warcraft. This turned out to be the client that best showed off the new laptop's real firepower. On my MacBook Pro, I saw frame rates of 40 to 60 fps inside the city of IronForge and rates of 35 to 45 fps in the surrounding area. The game played smoothly and was stable, no doubt aided by the fact that it's a Mac-native client.

With the new laptop, I saw an astoundingly high 160 fps in IronForge, with rates sometimes topping out above 200 fps! And in the area outside IronForge, rates ranged between 80 and 105 fps.

This is a significant show of power. Since World of Warcraft is native, I could turn the client's settings up high and still get a decent frame rate even on my old Mac. The fact that the settings were turned up makes those frame rates above 160 fps on the new laptop even more impressive.

One note of caution: Gaming gets these machines really hot. Macs tend not to kick in the fans until the temperature really climbs, though the hardware can handle the heat. I have smcFanControl running on my system, and I really kick the fans up while I'm gaming. With headphones on, the fan noise doesn't bother me much.

A gamer's delight?

Whether this is the gaming Mac you've been waiting for depends on whether you're going to use it only for games. If that's all you're going to do, then the answer is no. You might as well snag a Windows machine. Just have the folks at IBuypower or Alienware build you a really kicking system. You'll have a wider selection of native games, and they will really scream along on the custom laptops you could build for the same price as Apple's new 17-in. MacBook Pro.

That being said, is it this the Mac gaming laptop that I've been waiting for? Why, yes -- yes it is. Or rather, it would be if I had extra money lying around. That's because I love my Macs and I use them for everything I do. A Mac to me is still the best hardware and software combo there is.

Basically, if you're a Mac user and can afford it, this is a good gaming laptop. And remember, sticking with 4GB of RAM shaves $1,000 off the price and shouldn't make a big difference in how it performs.

Happy gaming.

Tom Lupienis a senior technology support specialist at IDG, the parent company of Computerworld , and has been a Mac gamer for almost a quarter of a century.

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