Apple’s Direct X: What is Metal and Why is it Important?

By Matt Klein on September 16th, 2015

You might have heard Apple mention Metal in recent keynote addresses, so we thought we might take a moment to explain what Metal is, and what it will do for graphics rendering on Apple computers.

The best way to describe Metal is to compare it to Microsoft’s DirectX. Like DirectX, Metal is intended to provide games and applications, direct access to your Mac’s GPU, allowing improved rendering, frame rates, and other benefits.

Metal was actually introduced in iOS 8, but with the recent announcement that it will be rolled into OS X, 10.11, El Capitan, graphic performance on Macs, particularly with regard to gaming, is likely to improve by leaps and bounds.

Much like DirectX or more accurately, Direct3D, Metal is an application programming interface or API, which grants a programmer with low-level, low overhead access to hardware graphics acceleration.

Thus, Metal will extend gains across the board, not simply to games, but to general graphics performance as well. El Capitan users should experience a faster, smoother, more responsive system.

So Why is This Important?

If you don’t use Apple computers, then you probably don’t care about Metal. If you do use an Apple computer, then this is an important development.

The graphics processing units that Apple packs into its computers aren’t necessarily slouches, and because Metal has already been available on iOS for a year, Apple can rely on its considerable army of developers to create new, improved titles for its flagship operating system. Using the MetalKit framework, developers will be able to integrate Metal into “apps by providing essential APIs for controlling drawing and loading graphic assets.”

As we pointed out the most obvious benefit will be improvements to gaming. Metal will be able to take advantage of the full power of a Mac’s GPU, giving games and 3D applications more visual pop and speed.

In a demo shown off at WWDC 2015, Epic games revealed a first-person, free-to-play zombie shooter that will take advantage of its new Metal underpinnings. In it, the game Fortnite runs on the Unreal Engine 4, which has the Metal API integrated into it, meaning the game’s code can directly access the GPU.

Overall, Mac users should expect to see better, faster, more polished gaming titles in the future, with greater visual effects due to improved access to the GPU.

The benefits won’t stop there however, you should also see improvements to desktop apps from the likes of Adobe, which will now be able to produce titles built on Metal. Additionally, powerful 3D rendering app-makers like The Foundry and Autodesk, will be developing their titles to work on top of Metal as well.

The Path Forward is Bright Though a Bit Unclear

The hope with Metal then is simple. It’s not to revolutionize graphics performance on OS X but to simply bring it up to par with the likes of Windows.

Windows with its DirectX APIs basically has a 20-year head start, but if there’s one thing that Apple’s history teaches, it’s that they move quickly and the most valuable company in the world will have little problem throwing its considerable weight (and money) behind it and attracting big-name titles. It’s not a matter of if, but simply how soon.

That said, even with the promise of Metal-centric gaming titles, there’s always going to be that niche crowd of hardcore gamers who will want to pack their boxes with the most bleeding edge gaming hardware possible. A Mac will probably never appeal to them, but if popular gaming titles running equally well on OS X as on Windows actually do materialize, then that line between Windows and OS X gaming will become that much more faded.

Nevertheless, for now we can only speculate what the full ramifications will be. Until we have clear-cut comparisons with how Metal stacks up against the likes of DirectX, the only thing we can really say is for certain is that graphics performance will be vastly improved for a Mac, when compared to older Macs running previous OS X versions that don’t have Metal integrated into it.

Got a question of comment you want to weigh in with on the future of OS X gaming or the new Metal APIs? We welcome your feedback in our discussion forum.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 09/16/15
More Articles You Might Like

Enter Your Email Here to Get Access for Free:

Go check your email!