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 (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.


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.



View All Comments

  • Griswold - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    //Third, Macs have nearly taken over computer science. Why? Because Mac OS is a unix. And computer science work revolves around unix. This is because the tools are well suited to the job. No, the command line is not user friendly in the least.//

    Oh is that so? I must have missed that. But perhaps you've only seen them in the movies and TV - on par with Dell.
  • talozin - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    I can only speak for my own experience, which is that his statement is an exaggeration, but that OS X is indeed more popular than you might think in the scientific research community.

    Of course, Linux is even more popular, because it's also Unix, and it works on a lot more server-grade hardware than OS X does; it doesn't make much sense to buy a lot of Mac Pros for people to do development for a Linux cluster on. Apple laptops are much more popular than Windows, though; it's not unusual for me to go to a meeting and see the operations people, the programmers, and the scientists all using Macs. Usually, the only people with Windows are the managers. :)
  • croc - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - link

    MAC OS X is not 'unix. It is a bastardized version of BSD 32. MAC used to be a true 64 bit OS, before IBM decided that there just wasn't enough dosh in making PPC's just for Apple anymore...

    And any REAL unix user thinks that CLI is the REAL interface, a GUI just gets in the way...
  • jasperjones - Sunday, May 16, 2010 - link

    Of course Mac OS X is a real UNIX. OS X meets the "Single Unix specification" and has been granted a UNIX license from The Open Group. Reply
  • anon1337 - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - link

    Your first point is blatantly false. I just purchased a Sony Vaio last month for $679. The Macbook with almost identical specs (though it does have a 2.5" smaller screen than mine) is $1499, and doesn't have an HDMI port, which my VAIO does. How's that for myth? Reply
  • Setsunayaki - Sunday, May 16, 2010 - link

    Sorry, but Apple has not "taken over" computer science.

    I never had to use a MAC in Computer Sciences for any reason. In fact I used a pure Unix System and also used Linux. Also when I tested MAC vs MANY Open Source Linux builds optimized to the maximum of their abilities on the same hardware.....MAC was the SECOND WORSE PERFORMING MACHINE....

    Computer Science and IT still has the majority of servers serve on a Linux/Unix based OS and most people still develop on Linux/Unix Machines, because they are easy to set up, they do not cost as much and since the majority can get the performance needed on any entry level computer today to do basic and some advanced web programming....The only people I see buy MACs..

    ...are the many artists in ART school who have APPLE donate tons of money, so they name a building after them and push a MAC to the students. I know enough people who by peer pressure bought a MAC Laptop and bought Windows. These are the same people who feel intimidated by the way the educational system is to the point they Dare not say they do their work on a PC, but when they go home and turn on their desktops, they primarily work on PCs...I have many friends who use and bought MACs because they felt out of discrimination they would get one lower grade in a course or assignment for not using a MAC since Education in the US is not about teaching people, but about surviving a semester in a school against some know-it-all autocracy.

    Just because an OS like MAC OS X is Unix/Linux Based does not mean it is used a lot in "Computer Sciences." Being a MAC System Administrator is a nightmare btw when it comes to server development and maintanance....

    I make a business from computers and the largest complaint I see coming out from MAC SYSTEM administrators and those IT firms that use MACs is that they consume too much power and their settings are too restrictive to the owner who wishes to develop on them. They also complain that they are too expensive...

    People like me are hired to order parts to build comps for buildings....assemble them and put a Linux system for server, maintanance and programming needs. I program on Windows when it comes to gaming, but use a Linux based system for practically every other form of programming.
  • sunderkeenin - Thursday, February 2, 2012 - link

    But Linux is Unix based as well, and can run all of your favorite Windows applications via WINE. Reply
  • AreaMang - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - link

    Why do you care if someone prefers Mac over Windows? Who's holding a gun to your head and making the choice for you?

    Competition is a good thing. A completely homogenized computer industry would be stagnant. Windows has borrowed many features from OSX, and vice versa. Not to mention hardware manufacturers. They all keep each other on their toes. They all keep each other innovating.

    I'm sorry if Steve Jobs broke into your house and smacked your mother around, because that's the only reason I can think that you would have such venom. It amuses me that some PC enthusiasts deride the Mac user's love of an inanimate object, but they have no problem spewing their hatred of one. Seriously. Get a grip.

    I use Mac and Windows. Final Cut Pro is what drove me to buy a Mac in the first place. When I am working on my films, I tend to be in love with my Mac. When I'm between projects and doing a little gaming, I tend to be in love with my Windows system. I swing both ways. There you have it. I'm Bi-Computational. Big freaking deal.

    In summary: Please get over yourself.
  • ufon68 - Sunday, May 16, 2010 - link

    Man, are you really trying to sell us the idea, that a comparison of an openGL game with a DirectX title on the same HW somehow proves one platform's superiority over the other ? If anything, this proves the directx version of the same game runs better than the opengl version of the same, you don't even have to throw in the operating system because it probably plays very small role. You are either stupid, ignorant, or uninformed. Take your pick. Reply
  • v12v12 - Thursday, May 20, 2010 - link

    Wow I also agree; what a great, succinct post... So tired of getting into illogical, emo-zealotry-fueled "debates," which are merely a mask for asinine fanaticism. Apple's aren't merely that; it's strictly an OS now; the HARDWARE is INTEL, with a few extra (control freak) ICs added... I digress. Reply

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