Update 5/15/2010: Valve released a new patch for Portal on the 13th which resolved the blurriness issue. Please see our update below for for the full details.

It’s been a while since anyone treated Mac OS X as a first-tier gaming platform, so when Valve announced that they would be bringing their Steam service and the Source engine to the Mac, it was big news. After a roughly 2 month beta period for the Mac versions of Steam and the Source engine, yesterday Valve finally released the first wave of their Mac gaming efforts.

As it stands Valve is taking a gradual approach to rolling out their back catalog to the platform. Even though Steam is out and the Source engine has been ported, this week has seen the release of only 1 Source game for the Mac: 2007’s critically acclaimed Portal.

While it’s not the most graphically intensive Source game these days (that title belonging to Left 4 Dead), at this point it’s as good as anything else for looking at the performance of the Source engine under Mac OS X, particularly considering how long it’s been since a game’s original developer did the Mac port. So with that in mind, we went ahead and took a quick look at Portal’s performance under Mac OS X.

As is the case with all of the games on the Source engine, they’re designed to scale up and down fairly well. With modern hardware though, we’re hard-pressed to keep older Source games from achieving runaway frame rates. So Portal performance is somewhat arbitrary – most Macs with a discrete GPU should be able to handle it to an acceptable degree.

The Test

For our test we loaded up our GPU test rig with Mac OS X 10.6.3 in a Hackintosh configuration. As Mac OS X does not currently support either the GeForce GTX 400 series or the Radeon HD 5000 series, we had to step back a bit with our video card choice, settling for a GeForce GTX 285. And while the use of a Hackintosh does technically invalidate our results since it’s not a real Macintosh, based on our experiments we believe that our results don’t suffer in any way for using a Hackintosh, and as such we believe the results to be experimentally valid. But of course, your mileage may vary.

CPU: Intel Core i7-920 @ 3.33GHz
Motherboard: Intel DX58SO (Intel X58)
Chipset Drivers: Intel 9.1.1.1015 (Intel)
Hard Disk: OCZ Summit (120GB)
Memory: Patriot Viper DDR3-1333 3 x 2GB (7-7-7-20)
Video Cards: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285
Video Drivers: NVIDIA ForceWare 197.13
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Mac OS X 10.6.3 "Snow Leopard"

Image Quality

We’ll start quickly with a look at image quality. Valve is traditionally a staunch Microsoft ally, having built up their services and engines around Windows and DirectX. For the Mac OS X port of Source, Valve had to replace the DirectX backend of Source with Mac-appropriate components, the key of which is OpenGL. Such a change can impact image quality depending on how it’s done.


Portal - Windows. Click to enlarge


Portal - Mac OS X. Click to enlarge.

We have a gallery of screenshots, but for our analysis we’ll stick with comparing in a single set. Going with 2560x1600 with the game at its highest settings and 4xAA/16xAF, to our surprise the images are distinctly different when directly compared. The Mac screenshot is noticeably foggier than the Windows image, and textures appear to be less sharp. It’s not a night & day difference, but the Windows screenshot is distinctly clearer than the Mac screenshot. Without a Windows reference image it would be harder to tell that the Mac screenshot differs this much, but we believe that the difference is great enough that anyone with an eye for details that has ever played Portal on Windows would notice the foggier/blurrier IQ on the Mac.

Now some of this can be explained away due to gamma, since Mac OS X and Windows have different default gamma levels, but gamma could never explain the entire difference. There’s clearly a difference in IQ between the Windows and Mac OS X versions of Portal, and it’s not in the Mac’s favor. It’s by no means bad, but as one person put this when being shown these screenshots “It’s like looking at a magazine scan” when looking at the Mac.

Performance

The other half of our quick look is at performance. The Macintosh platform is renowned for being a graphical powerhouse, but this refers to professional/prosumer photography and the like. For gaming, Apple has been slow to include support for new hardware and new driver features (they are just now OpenGL 3.0 compliant) and overall their drivers are more conservative when it comes to performance. Portal is going to be slower, the question is by how much.

We went ahead and ran a timedemo from test chamber 18 and beyond on both the Mac OS X and Windows versions of Portal. We kept the settings cranked up at all times, but varied the resolution between 1280x800 and 2560x1600 to look at different GPU loads. At the worst-case of 2560, the Mac version of Portal runs at only 54% of the speed of the Windows version. That moves to 63% at 1920x1200, and 66% at 1280x800.

Portal – like all Source engine games – is CPU limited when given a powerful enough GPU, and even with just a GTX 285 we can approach that under Windows. Under Mac OS X however, we look to be GPU limited at all times. The framerate never suffers as we’re always averaging more than 60fps, but we can easily turn off MSAA and AF to improve performance if we needed to.

Closing Thoughts

For Source engine enthusaists hoping to see the Mac OS X port of the Source engine meet the high standards of the Windows version, Portal presents a mixed bag. In our limited testing the Mac version of Portal doesn’t significantly suffer for being a port, but at the same time it can’t quite match the image quality of the Windows version. Feature-for-feature there is parity, but the Mac version just isn’t as sharp as the Windows version.

Performance isn’t any better. Portal is an easy game to run and so we’re largely being academic here, but the “tax” for Mac OS X is roughly a generation in hardware performance. For the performance we’re seeing on a GTX 285 under Mac OS X the results are similar to what we’d see under Windows with something like a 9800GTX. Given that at the high-end the Mac platform is also a generation behind in hardware, and you’re looking at 2008 performance for Portal even with the best hardware you can get today for a Mac.

Ultimately having the Source engine ported to Mac OS X is going to remove the technical need to use Bootcamp to run Windows for games, but based on Portal it doesn’t remove the need to boot Windows for performance reasons. For long-time Mac users none of this should be surprising, but it means that we shouldn’t expect the Mac OS X version of the Source engine to be revolutionary.

Update: 5/15/2010

On Thursday after we published our article Valve pushed out an update for Portal that focused on fixes for the Mac version. The big fix was the following:

Fixed screen "fuzziness" caused by color correction operation

 

 

This fixed the blurriness issue we saw with the initial version of Portal. Texture and geometry quality is now as sharp as it is under Windows. Performance remains unchanged, while there is still an image quality difference between the two due to lighting differences and a general degree of fogginess that still appears on the Mac OS X version.


Portal - Windows. Click to enlarge


Portal - Mac OS X w/Patch. Click to enlarge.

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  • SoCalBoomer - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    It's a reaction to the often extreme arrogance that Mac fanatics tend to have - spouting performance until performance is shown to be more expensive and less on a Mac, and then they resort to "experience" - which is not quantifiable and thus they can remain supreme.

    My "experience" with my Mac is that it sits on a corner of my desk while I do 99% of my work on my much less expensive, more capable, better experience Windows 7 machine (quad monitor).
    Reply
  • sublifer - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    I don't mean this as derogatory (well, maybe) but that experience you and the mac fans (not that you are one) speak about is PC for dummies.

    Plug it in, it works. Put an installation disk in, drag one icon to the next, and its installed. The only way they can keep it so simple is by keeping the software and hardware ecosphere tiny and well behind modern technology.

    They have to test and incorporate drivers for everything (to make it simple for the mac user who can't be bothered to do anything more than plug it in or drag an icon)

    Not that Windows is the greatest (I'd prefer Linux if I could get CS4 and my games to run without WINE) but the way things work in Windows, the hardware and software developers just have to make their product conform to a certain framework that plugs into the correct API's, etc... because of the freedom that Microsoft provides with the API's and frameworks, its up to the manufacturer or developer to make it work and support it (not MS) and those developers/mfg's rely on the user/installer to provide approval and direction on how and where things are installed.

    So yes, it takes a bit more thought and intelligence to do these things in the Windows world and its not as simple as Mac. But for that we get cutting edge technology (Blu-ray, etc) and software and we don't have to go down to the mac store to make it work or get it fixed. We also don't get made fun of for being that ignorant of how and why things work.

    You want the mac (simple) experience, fine have at it. You will be made fun of by more knowledgeable computer users and you will be stuck with "approved" software and hardware that is not cutting edge.
    Reply
  • mathias_mm - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Right, so let me get this straight:

    What you're basically saying is that Macs are successful because all their users are stupid and cannot handle the full Wintel experience?
    I mean, you COULD argue that if it can be done in an easier way MS fails. I personally believe Apple does things easier, a lot of things are like _I_ believe they should be. On the other hand, Apple fails too, because they have not reached perfection. In the end though, at least it feels like they're trying. Anyway, that's the whole "experience" thing everyone wants to quantify, but no one can. Since when do we need to justify liking stuff anyway?
    I'm a long time PC user who got a job working with Macs. At first i loathed it, everything was different, wrong. But it grew on me, and I'd say now I'm a Mac user who happens to be quite adept with a PC. I can probably do more with Windows than OS X, but I'd much rather work in OS X.

    You actually list quite a lot of reasons for this as pro-ms arguments in your post:

    "Plug it in, it works. Put an installation disk in, drag one icon to the next, and its installed. The only way they can keep it so simple is by keeping the software and hardware ecosphere tiny and well behind modern technology."

    I fail to see how this is bad. Plugging something in, and then having it work is how it should be. It's fun to tinker with hardware and all that, but in the end a computer is a tool i use to get stuff done. I want it to work when i plug it in, not after I've reset the bios, reinstalled Windows or whatever it is that you feel i should have to.
    As for installing software, again, i fail to see why installers are better than the packages used in OS X. The packages are copied to their destination, and they stay there. All files live inside the application package, except for some config files that are in a single folder for these kinds of files. So when i want to remove an application, i remove it. I don't need to bother with uninstallers or files left wherever the application installed some file it needs. There is no registry database either. If an app is not running, the OS is oblivious to it's existence. To me, it's a lot simpler, and on top of that i have more control over where files go and so on.
    I do agree that some of the simplicity stems from Apple controlling the hardware base, but claiming that hardware base is "well behind modern technology" is absurd. There is the Core i7 MBP with automatically switching graphics. It's not the fastest there is, especially in the graphics department, but i don't think it has to be. Until now gaming on the Mac was basically a dud, and the 8600M in my current MBP has served me very well.

    "They have to test and incorporate drivers for everything (to make it simple for the mac user who can't be bothered to do anything more than plug it in or drag an icon)"

    Not that Windows is the greatest (I'd prefer Linux if I could get CS4 and my games to run without WINE) but the way things work in Windows, the hardware and software developers just have to make their product conform to a certain framework that plugs into the correct API's, etc... because of the freedom that Microsoft provides with the API's and frameworks, its up to the manufacturer or developer to make it work and support it (not MS) and those developers/mfg's rely on the user/installer to provide approval and direction on how and where things are installed.

    So yes, it takes a bit more thought and intelligence to do these things in the Windows world and its not as simple as Mac. But for that we get cutting edge technology (Blu-ray, etc) and software and we don't have to go down to the mac store to make it work or get it fixed. We also don't get made fun of for being that ignorant of how and why things work.

    You want the mac (simple) experience, fine have at it. You will be made fun of by more knowledgeable computer users and you will be stuck with "approved" software and hardware that is not cutting edge.
    Reply
  • mathias_mm - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    That did not go very well :) I'll try to keep it brief, as i see it's quite long already. Anyways, it got posted short, so here comes th ending:

    "They have to test and incorporate drivers for everything (to make it simple for the mac user who can't be bothered to do anything more than plug it in or drag an icon)"

    This is just not true. Apple does not sign drivers or anything. Oftentimes hardware vendors do not make drivers, and this leaves customers without a driver, but it's not really that different from Microsoft, except OS X does not complain about WHDL certificates and stuff. But there is a lack of drivers for lots of things.

    In regards to API's and applications, OS X can run CS4 and now a lot of games. And it really does have a lot of fine API's that devs can tap into, and use as they please. As you may know there's also not an approval process for Mac apps, so Apple does not control it at all to be honest. Again, this is not different from Windows, except for the fact that there usually is no installer to scatter files all over the place, it's up to the user to decide where the files go.

    "So yes, it takes a bit more thought and intelligence to do these things in the Windows world and its not as simple as Mac. But for that we get cutting edge technology (Blu-ray, etc) and software and we don't have to go down to the mac store to make it work or get it fixed. We also don't get made fun of for being that ignorant of how and why things work."

    This is just silly. To believe that you are "better" or more intelligent than other people because you can master a different OS. What's the point? I can use Windows, OS X and Linux quite well, and i happen to prefer OS X. I wouldn't say that says anything about my intelligence. Actually, I'd say that you making a statement about it speaks more of yours.
    I will give you that Blu-ray is missing, and that Apple is quite far from cutting-edge here. Other hardware, not so much, and software, not at all.

    "You want the mac (simple) experience, fine have at it. You will be made fun of by more knowledgeable computer users and you will be stuck with "approved" software and hardware that is not cutting edge."

    Again, my software is not approved, nor does it need to be. As i stated, if you feel the need to feel more intelligent than me because of my choice of OS, that tells me more about you than about me.

    I'd recommend this article, written by Anand himself for further reading: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1500

    And could we all maybe stop calling each other names? It's really getting old, no one likes a fanboy...
    Reply
  • pyrosity - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Here here. Wonderful thoughts here. Reply
  • terath - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    Your pathetic lack of understanding of software and hardware is funny, you know. Reply
  • Calin - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    "You want the mac (simple) experience, fine have at it"

    Maybe the mac (simple) experience is what the user wants. One could buy mouse with 9 buttons (or maybe more) - but I didn't use any non-standard buttons even when I had them on the mouse. If the simple Mac experience is enough, who are you to argue with them?
    As a side note, why would you argue with someone's else choice on driving an automatic? The simpler experience is good enough (and usually better for them).
    There are plenty of other examples when people choose to use a simpler, less capable object - for the reason that it's simpler.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    You wonder why? Havent you seen apple ads the last couple of years? Or Jobs arrogant and blatant lies when comparing a mac to a windows machine on every possible occasion (the most famous one would be his claim that PPC macs run with the fastest processors on earth. A couple months later apple moved to Intel and suddenly those were the fastest processors on earth), replicated by a good deal of his most loyal fans? Thats why.

    Of course, one could stand above that childish behaviour and not answer it with more childish behaviour. But sometimes its just too much fun to resist.
    Reply
  • artemicion - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    I don't own a Mac but I know plenty of people who do. None of them are smug about it. Honestly, at least in my social circle, there are approximately 999 billion more significant things to talk about than the manufacturer of one's computer. The only people I know that are fixated on Macs vs. PCs are PC techies who have an unusual affection for pointing out other people's ignorance. In this case, ignorance of the relative value of computer hardware. And it's the Mac users that are smug?

    And honestly, being a slickdeals ADDICT, if I cared enough, I could probably call my friends out on DOZENS of products/services that they have overpaid for. There are plenty I can think of that are worse deals than buying a Mac.
    Reply
  • splatter85 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Apple doesn't give the option to "build your own computer". You would have to compare it to dell for an apples to apples comparison. Also homebrewed PCs don't give you the option to install OSX (minus the hacintosh experience). I built a PC for gaming, and I bought a Mac for work. If you dont have the cash, sit down and shut up! Reply

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