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.

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  • gamerk2 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    "even with just a GTX 258"

    I hope that was supposed to be a GTX 285...
  • heffeque - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    I just tried Portal and... the performance is underwhelming.
    HL2 plays perfectly under Windows XP Bootcamp (MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz, 8600GT, 4GB of RAM) yet Portal plays like crap on Leopard 10.5 even when lowering the resolution to the lowest possible.

    Very disappointed :-/

    Hope 10.6 with newer drivers work better than this :-|

    Guess I'll have to continue playing on Bootcamp mode for now.
  • B3an - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    Or you could just get rid of OSX and put a real OS on there. Problem solved.
  • heffeque - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - link

    I'm more than fine with OS X and I'm also more than fine gaming on Windows, thanks ;-)
    As for my home server running Openfiler (linux)... I'm also more than fine with it (^_^)
  • Alexvrb - Tuesday, May 18, 2010 - link

    Soo.... when is Apple going to release an OS for men? :P
  • jingojingo - Monday, May 24, 2010 - link

    You mean those men to whom playing games at bleeding edge speed is more important than having a computer that works more reliably so that they can get on with doing some proper work? Are you SURE you meant men, and not boys who haven't grown up yet?
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    "a computer that works more reliably so that they can get on with doing some proper work"

    OK, work, that's defintely PC, because Mac's are 99% useless at "work". Not that they arent capable, but enterprise software isnt written for that platform and are not used for work purposes.

    As far as reliable Lenovo has the top honors there, followed by Asus, Apple is 3rd. IF you just meant the OS/software part of reliablilty then you need to update your facts . WinXP is 10 years old now. Win7 has been out for 2 years and is awesome.

    Check your facts man.
  • Spengbab - Saturday, May 15, 2010 - link

    St a thought. Isn't it against apple's EULA to run OS X on non-mac hardware? I also wished they ran these on the cards current macs have.
  • ufon68 - Monday, May 17, 2010 - link

    Yes it is, so what. Not like it's against the law or something.
  • michal1980 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Jobs 3:16

    For Jobs so loved the world that he gave his one and only Mac, that whoever believes in him shall not think but have eternal faith.

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