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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  • Scali - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    What are you talking about?
    GeForce 285 cards are sold by Apple themselves:
    http://store.apple.com/us/product/TW387ZM/A?fnode=...

    No, they don't come stock in any machine, but they are available as official upgrades from Apple. It's not like PC users are the only ones who can upgrade their graphics cards.
    Reply
  • Scali - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Heck I even found a review of the card on Anandtech:
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/2805
    Reply
  • CptTripps - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    See, this is what I love. You are defending underpowered and overrated (let alone overpriced) computers but don't even have your facts straight. Reply
  • Spazztech - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    So just like every other OEM, MAC doesnt run games well....and cost 2 to 3 times more than a PC OEM ,and has extremely limited compatible hardware. And an extremely limited software library. Reply
  • blwest1978 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    I know this is a good first look on OS X software, but lets see some numbers and image quality on a real mac. To my knowledge, hackintosh systems use community drivers, not apple shipping drivers.

    I played portal on my Mac last night and it worked perfectly. In the end I don't see a big difference between 60 fps and 120 fps.
    Reply
  • afkrotch - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Yes, you'll use community drivers for hardware that's not officially supported by Apple. If Apple happens to support the hardware, you can use the Apple drivers. Reply
  • Scali - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    They used an Intel Core i7 processor, an Intel X58 chipset and a GeForce 285 card.
    All three are used in products sold by Apple, and as such have official Apple drivers available. So there is no case of community drivers here.
    Reply
  • notATroll - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    I lost my glasses, can you help me find them? Reply
  • eman7613 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    This was a little hasty of an article, I think you missed some important points in comparison that should be aired out so people can stop fanboy crying/yelling in both camps. However the biggest and easiet to fix is comparing opengl performance on both platforms.

    PC by default uses direct X and Mac uses open gl, right now its just a comparison of Direct X and Open GL, turn on opengl rendering on the PC (see http://developer.valvesoftware.com/wiki/Command_Li... )
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    That's an interesting reply, thank you. I had been looking for a way to force OpenGL on Windows and I never came across anything. If I get the time, I'm going to give that a shot. Reply

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