Best Gaming Macs (and MacBooks): Buying Advice

It’s become something of a running joke among Windows users that Macs are rubbish for gaming. From a technical point of view this is nonsense, as Macs and PCs – and even gaming consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – all use very similar components.

The Mac gaming scene, in fact, has really picked up since Macs started to use the same Intel processors as Windows PCs, and strong sales of Macs in recent years mean that there are now more A-List games appearing on the Mac than ever before. We can happily play World of Warcraft, Rocket League, Fortnite, Subnautica and many other titles from the comfort of our Macs – find out more in our roundup of the best Mac games.

Of course, the majority of AAA games will probably always arrive on Windows first. But the Mac also has a cunning trick up its precision-engineered sleeve, in the form of Boot Camp. Installing Windows via Boot Camp on a Mac gives you the best of both worlds, playing native Mac versions whenever possible and then switching to Windows where necessary

So, with all this interactive entertainment available to the prospective buyer, the question remains – which Mac is best for gaming? In this article, we help you decide. (For more general advice try our Mac buying guide, as well as our guide to the best cheap Macs.)

The basics

Playing the latest games places heavy demands on a computer, both in terms of graphics and processor performance. To ensure you have the best platform for your digital adventures you’ll obviously need a machine that has a fast processor (CPU), but it also helps to have a powerful graphics processor and a fast hard disk or solid-state drive too.

We’d also recommend a comfy gaming chair, some snacks that can be eaten one-handed, and the occasional break to save your spine from developing an unusual shape.

Integrated vs discrete GPUs

Many casual games, such as Plants Versus Zombies and the never-ending Angry Birds series, use simple two-dimensional graphics that don’t really require too much graphics power; most Macs can handle that without any problems. But the detailed 3D graphics used in high-speed action games and online games can put a lot of strain on your machine. You might need to buy the best Thunderbolt monitor to ensure that there won’t be any lags.

(Note that when we mention 3D games, we don’t mean 3D monitors or actual 3D – rather, a more graphically intensive game, such as Battlefield 5.)

This is where things can get a bit complicated. Obviously, you need a fast CPU to play 3D games, preferably an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 running at 2.0GHz or more. But even a fast CPU will still struggle with modern 3D games, so most Macs and PCs also include a graphics card, sometimes referred to as the GPU or graphics processing unit.

There are two main types of GPU available. Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors include an ‘integrated GPU’, which is built on to the main CPU itself – a bit like an extension built on to the back of your house. An integrated GPU will share your Mac’s main memory (RAM) with the main CPU, which is a bit of a compromise – especially if you’ve only got 4GB or 8GB of memory to start off with – so it’s not ideal for really demanding 3D games.

A better option is to use a ‘discrete’ graphics card – an entirely separate graphics processor that is specifically designed for handling 3D graphics. A discrete GPU will also have its own high-speed memory (sometimes called VRAM or Video RAM) to boost graphics performance. This is the best option, as it frees up your Mac’s main CPU and RAM, and lets the GPU handle all the really intensive 3D graphics work by itself.

GPUs in Macs

Apple currently uses a confusing mixture of integrated and discrete GPUs across the Mac range. So, in order to try and clear up some of the confusion, here’s a quick guide to which current Macs have integrated and which have discrete GPUs:

Intel Integrated Graphics

  • MacBook Air: Intel UHD Graphics 617
  • MacBook Pro 13in: Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 (base and middle spec), Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 (top-spec)
  • Mac mini: Intel UHD Graphics 630
  • iMac 21.5in: Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 (non-Retina)

Discrete Graphics

  • MacBook Pro 15in: Radeon Pro 555X with 4GB (2.6GHz, 6-core), Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB memory (2.3GHz, 8-core)
  • iMac 21.5in: Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB (3.6GHz, quad-core), Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB (3.0GHz, 6-core)
  • iMac 27in: Radeon Pro 570X with 4GB (3.0GHz, 6-core), Radeon Pro 575X with 4GB (3.1GHz, 6-core), Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB (3.7GHz, 6-core)
  • iMac Pro: Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB (standard), Radeon Pro Vega 64 with 16GB (build to order), Radeon Pro Vega 64X with 16GB (built to order)
  • Mac Pro: Dual AMD FirePro D500 with 3GB each (6-core), Dual AMD FirePro D700 with 6GB each (8-core)

As a general rule, the ‘Intel UHD Graphics’ range used in many current Macs (along with the standard ‘Intel HD Graphics’ in older machines) just aren’t powerful enough for 3D games.

However, the Iris Plus design is a big improvement. The Iris Plus has additional memory for its own use, which allows it to act semi-independently of your CPU (somewhere between discrete and integrated), and for gaming performance, this makes a significant difference from the standard Iris. So, if you’re interested in playing the latest high-end games you’ll want a Mac equipped with at least an Intel Iris Plus, or a discrete GPU from AMD.

There’s also another company called Nvidia, which is actually the leading manufacturer of GPUs over on the PC side of the fence. Apple has used Nvidia graphics cards in the past, but currently seems to prefer AMD graphics cards.

Macs for gamers to avoid

Graphics performance will obviously vary depending on the type of games you like to play. The general rule of thumb is that if you intend to play fast 3D action games such as Fortnite or Subnautica then any Mac fitted with Intel HD Graphics, or a standard Intel Iris, will probably be a disappointment.

They just don’t have the power to run these graphically demanding titles, and frame-rates will quickly drop to almost unplayable levels when there are lots of characters battling it out on the screen. That reliance on integrated graphics means that there are several Mac models that gamers will probably want to avoid:

  • Mac mini
  • MacBook (discontinued in 2019)
  • MacBook Air
  • Non-Retina 21.5in iMac
  • 13in MacBook Pro

Of course, if your primary form of entertainment is less demanding fare such as Football Manager, Limbo, or many of the indie games you’ll find on the Mac App Store, then pretty much any Mac will fulfil your needs – as would an iPad.

Macs for gamers to consider

Best gaming Macs: MacBook Pro

We’ve ruled out a fair selection of Macs, so now let’s look at some Macs that you can consider if you want to play the latest 3D games.

We wouldn’t really recommend buying the Mac Pro at this point because it hasn’t been updated for so long, and a new version is expected in 2019. But it would be capable of some sparkling games action in a pinch.

Which Mac has the best gaming display?

Apple has moved the majority of the Mac range over to high-resolution Retina displays, and these will look great for running your games. However, a Retina display needs a lot of power to drive all those pixels so, again, you need a GPU that can provide really good 3D performance.

Out of the current Mac range, it’s the 15in MacBook Pro, 27in iMac and iMac Pro ranges that have graphics cards powerful enough to drive their high-quality Retina displays and really excel at 3D gaming. The non-Retina 21in iMac doesn’t have a discrete GPU, but the Retina model would make a decent gaming machine for most people.

Best gaming Mac: iMac

Getting a good hard drive or SSD

It’s not as important as your Mac’s GPU, but a fast storage system can also help to improve gaming performance. Conventional hard drives can be a bit sluggish at times – just as they take time to load macOS when you turn your Mac on, they also take time to load all the complex 3D graphics data needed for games.

Apple’s Fusion Drives will help a bit here, but if you want to speed up all-round performance for your Mac then a high-speed solid-state drive is always the best option.

One option to consider here is buying an external solid-state drive that you can connect to your Mac via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0. Many games can be installed on an external SSD drive, allowing them to load more quickly, while you leave all your other files on your Mac’s slower internal hard drive.

Which Mac model is best for gaming?

On the laptop side of things, you’ll have to pay a high price for a 15in MacBook Pro capable of running the likes of Tomb Raider. There’s not a lot of choice on the desktop either, as neither the Mac Mini nor the non-retina 21.5in iMac models offer a discrete GPU anymore.

The Retina-equipped 21.5in iMac, along with any of the 27in iMacs, can handle gaming very well – it’s just a shame that Apple expects you to pay upwards of £1,249/$1,299 for the privilege. And the glorious iMac Pro, which is more than capable of blasting through the latest games, starts at an eye-watering £4,899/$4,999.

Of course, there’s always the Mac Pro, with its twin FirePro graphics cards, but those are really designed for professional video and graphics work. And as well as costing more than the iMac, and not even including a monitor, the imminent (ish) upgrade means we can’t really recommend the Mac Pro right now.

Which low-priced Mac model is best for gaming?

“Low-priced” is a relative term, but if you’re on a budget you might be able to get away with the mid-range 21.5in iMac at a cool £1,249/$1,299. If you’re looking for something more portable, the cheapest capable laptop is the 15in MacBook Pro with Radeon Pro 555X at £2,399/$2,399.

That, more than anything else, is the reason why Macs have a reputation for not being good at games – for the price of a 21.5in iMac, you could get a serious Windows-based gaming PC that is better suited to gaming than almost any Mac, and with have change left over for a couple of games too. It’s going to take a real change in attitude and GPU availability to get Apple – and developers – to take gaming more seriously on the Mac.

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