Becoming a Mac gamer

The Globe and Mail

(Apple)

I’m a gamer, and I’m strongly considering switching to a Mac. It all begins with a Christmas story.

My family sets up for the holidays early and clings to them for as long as reasonably possible. Our tree goes up in the middle of November and comes down on January 7th, Ukrainian Christmas. We purchased an enormous fake fir this year that forced us to move our couch about a metre back, cutting off access to my desk and desktop computer, which are located directly behind the sofa.

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A work-at-home dad, I knew this would cause problems. However, I planned to do most of my holiday work (and gaming) on my Alienware m11x notebook.

This didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

While I adore using Alienware’s sleek and powerful mini-laptop on the road, working on its slightly-smaller-than-standard keyboard and viewing its 11-inch screen day in and day out proved a triple strain on my eyes, wrists, and brain.

But I had another option. I happened to have a new MacBook Pro with an AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics card, four gigs of memory, and a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 on loan for a review I’d written about Apple's new Thunderbolt display in November.

I'd been using it in the evenings for web surfing, media editing and viewing, and casual gaming. I'd previously considered using it for work, but a combination of Mac OS X quirks (convoluted right-clicking and forward backspacing turn me off), a dissatisfaction with Microsoft Word for Mac, and an inibility to run certain Windows-only publishing tools required for my job made it impractical.

So I set myself to the task of making it usable for my daily routine. That meant I had to use Apple’s Boot Camp utility to install a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate on a separate partition, which would give me the ability to run the software I use for work, and, just as importantly, install and play some Windows-exclusive games I hoped to enjoy during my holiday break (chief among them Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game I was slated to review in the new year).

Things went better than I thought they would.

Installing Windows via Boot Camp was a snap, thanks largely to Apple automatically providing all of the necessary hardware drivers. The whole process took under an hour, most of which I spent watching TV while Windows installed.

Switching between operating systems as often as I do has proven a bit of a hassle (in addition to consuming time and forcing me to quit all open applications, it also requires me to unplug the keyboard and mouse I use while running Windows, neither of which play nicely with Mac OS X), but I got used to it.

And I can’t deny that I get a bit of a thrill running Windows on Apple hardware, which I’m sure many Apple fans still view as blasphemous.

The important thing, though, is that I found the MacBook Pro with both Mac OS X and Windows 7 installed felt like a more complete computing solution than anything I'd ever had before.

And it made for great gaming.

I’ve spent more than 40 hours playing Star Wars: The Old Republic at its highest settings and have encountered nary a local technical hitch. I can’t comfortably push the resolution high enough to take advantage of the Thunderbolt display’s full 2560-by-1440 capability, but it exploits the notebook's native 1440-by-900 quite well.

I also installed and ran a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim just for fun. I couldn’t maximize all graphics settings, but it definitely looked better than the console edition to which I'm accustomed, showing more detail, superior draw distances, and less pop-up.

I've had a lot of fun playing games while running Mac OS X, as well. I've taken advantage of the alarmingly wallet-sapping App Store to download a few older favourites, including Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Campaign Edition (the vast maps of which looked absolutely grand viewed on the Thunderbolt) and Batman: Arkham Asylum, as well as less resource-intensive (but equally entertaining) indie games like Trine 2, Limbo, and DeathSpank: The Baconing.

Long story short, I ended up spending more time playing computer games this holiday than I have in any previous holiday in recent memory. On a Mac. Who’d have thought?

Of course, I realize Mac gaming won’t be for everyone. Many PC gamers derive as much fun from regularly upgrading and tricking out their rigs – not really an option for Mac owners – as they do playing games. This is a fine and even educational hobby that can be as satisfying as building model rockets or remote control helicopters.

I was once one of these people, but that’s no longer the case. I'm at a point where simply swapping computers once every few years feels comfortable, even if it means I’m occasionally forced to settle on medium or high graphics settings rather than extreme. Truth be told, I haven't had a PC capable of running the most graphically advanced games at maximum settings for years, anyway.

Others won’t be able to justify the price, and I can see their point, too. The more powerful Macs needed for PC gaming tend to be, part-for-part, a fair bit pricier than both custom-built and off-the-shelf Windows PCs with similar specs. My MacBook Pro loaner is worth about $2,250.

Personally, I’m willing to chalk up much of the extra cost to the beautiful and robust industrial design, which, I won't lie, holds significant value for me. The ability to switch between Windows and Mac OS X (both of which I legitimately like and find different uses for) is worth something, too. That said, I can understand why the high price might rankle feathers among those with tight budgets or who have no interest at all in running Mac OS X.

In the end, gaming on a Mac doesn't make sense for everyone, but it does for a guy like me. The next time I’m in the market for a computer, my search will, for the first time, include a visit to an Apple store.