The 2021 MacBook Pro is a monster, with 10 CPU cores and up to 32 GPU cores for never-before-seen 3D graphics performance. On hearing this news you might think that the new MacBook Pro is nearing “gaming laptop” territory. Unfortunately, raw performance isn’t everything.
Apple’s Most Powerful Laptops to Date
The 2021 MacBook Pro comes with your choice of M1 Pro and M1 Max systems-on-a-chip. This is the first time Apple has produced a version of the M1 chip first seen in 2020 for the “professional” market, with all the grunt a data scientist or video editor could ask for.
The higher-end variant comes with 10 CPU cores and up to 32 GPU cores and can share a pool of up to 64GB of unified memory. Memory bandwidth can hit 400GB/sec and the solid-state drive that Apple ships use PCI Express Gen 4 for a maximum throughput of 7.4GB/sec. That’s faster than the PlayStation 5 (5.5GB/sec).
This means that the higher-end MacBook Pro models can chew through data and graphics-intensive tasks with aplomb, which is great news for professionals who have been hungry for new silicon to speed up their workflows.
Apple even claims that the 32-core GPU variant is up there with NVIDIA’s RTX 3800 Mobile chip in terms of raw performance, though real-world benchmarks have yet to materialize. The M1 Max may even outperform NVIDIA’s portable darling in some tasks, particularly where the software has been optimized to use Apple’s Metal API.
Unified memory is another trick Apple has pulled out of the hat since switching to its own ARM-based architecture in 2020. Put simply, the RAM is now part of the system-on-chip which allows both the CPU and GPU to pull from the same pool of fast-access memory for performance that comes at the cost of upgradeability.
These machines are undoubtedly the best MacBooks ever produced from a raw performance perspective, and that means they’re the best Apple laptops ever produced for gamers too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good buy if gaming is a top priority for you.
120Hz ProMotion Displays Offer Tear-Free Gaming
Another big leap forward is the addition of Apple’s ProMotion display across the entire 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pro range. Where the old MacBook would refresh at 60Hz, ProMotion displays update at twice the rate to deliver a 120Hz frame rate with adaptive sync.
Adaptive sync means that the displays are able to adjust the refresh rate so that new frames are only displayed when the GPU is ready to deliver them. This technology is also known as variable refresh rate and is used across the computing and gaming market to eliminate unsightly screen tearing and deliver smoother motion.
We don’t know exactly how adaptive sync will work on the MacBook Pro yet, but it’s likely to function in a similar manner to existing technologies like AMD’s FreeSync and NVIDIA’s G-Sync. Apple also used the technology in the iPhone 13 Pro to save on battery by reducing the refresh rate on the fly.
Not only do these displays offer never-before-seen refresh rates on a MacBook, but they are also capable of 1000 nits sustained brightness and 1600 nits peak brightness in HDR content. That means these laptops get brighter than most gaming monitors and modern televisions.
While HDR content like games and movies is about more than searing highlights, peak brightness is often cited as being the most impactful benefit over standard SDR content.
So not only will you be able to use your MacBook Pro in bright sunlight, you’ll have your socks knocked off when watching HDR movies and playing HDR games too.
The Mac Gaming Scene is Still Very Limited
So far so good, but there’s a lot more to gaming than raw numbers and theoretical performance. In addition to hardware, you need the software too. And this is where the Mac often falters when it comes to gaming. Mobile gaming aside, Windows is still the go-to gaming platform of choice for non-console gamers, and the 2021 MacBook Pro refresh alone isn’t going to change that.
Apple’s switch from Intel’s 64-bit x86 architecture to its own ARM-based Apple Silicon further complicates things. Games that were released for Mac prior to 2020 may never receive native Apple Silicon versions, and while Rosetta does a stellar job of bridging the gap between the old and the new, compatibility issues will mean that some games simply won’t run.
With gaming being a low priority for most Mac users, there’s little incentive for developers to update their older games for the new architecture. Apple has made it easy for developers to export universal binaries that support both architectures, but that’s only going to be of benefit for recent releases.
Most big-budget developers have never offered Mac versions of their games. Outside of indie titles and mainstays like World of Warcraft, the Mac has always struggled to land native games. The nature of Apple’s barely-upgradeable hardware and tightly controlled ecosystem doesn’t score it many points among the gaming crowd.
Even if the M1 Pro and M1 Max offer a glimmer of hope in terms of how well games could run on a modern Mac, how many Mac-buyers will opt for the higher-end silicon over the MacBook Air or Mac mini with their capable but comparatively underpowered entry-level chips?
You’ll always be able to run emulators on your Mac, and the M1 Pro and M1 Max will open up many more avenues in this regard. But that’s true of any modern desktop operating system, including Linux.
Your other options are Apple Arcade, a decent gaming service that feels entirely at home on an iPhone but not so much a computer, and Apple Silicon’s ability to run native iPhone and iPad apps directly from the App Store.
Your Money Is Better Spent Elsewhere
There’s a good chance that if you’re buying a Mac, you know entirely what you want and what you’re in for. Apple hardware is expensive, but most buyers have made peace with this drawback. If you’re considering a 2021 MacBook Pro, you probably want a reliable and portable powerhouse for work, school, or other creative endeavors.
An entry-level 14-inch 2021 MacBook Pro starts at $1,999, and that model only (!) comes with a 16-core GPU. If you want a 16-inch MacBook Pro you’ll need to cough up at least $2,499 and if you want the best-of-the-best then you’ll need to fork over $3,499.
That’s a lot of money for a machine that probably won’t receive native versions of the latest games. Since Apple moved away from Intel’s x86 chips and into Apple Silicon territory, you can’t even use Boot Camp on your MacBook to enjoy native Windows performance either.
Microsoft’s Xbox Series consoles and Sony’s PlayStation 5 offer the best price-to-performance ratio for gamers in 2021. For $499 you can buy a console that can do 4K gaming at up to 120Hz, with support for HDR content and the very latest games. Microsoft even offers Game Pass, an all-you-can-eat subscription service for $14.99/month.
These consoles cost less than a moderately-priced graphics card and deliver amazing performance, with games like Microsoft Flight Simulator (Xbox) and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (PlayStation) offering a proper taste of “next-generation” gaming.
It can be difficult to recommend building a gaming PC at a time when a global semiconductor shortage has inflated even prices of second-hand components, but you’ll still have more to play and a better time of it than you would on a Mac.
PC gamers have the lion’s share of games to choose from, straightforward upgrade paths, and a huge amount of customizability in terms of both hardware and software.
Streaming Services Offer Some Hope
Maybe you’re not particularly serious about games, and would rather play the odd hour here or there. The limited number of native Apple Silicon games might not be a huge issue for you, but there are other options.
If you have a solid internet connection, then cloud gaming is always an option. Microsoft’s Game Pass offering is compelling in this regard, offering access to Xbox Cloud Gaming (formerly Project xCloud) where most Game Pass titles can be played via a browser at xbox.com/play.
NVIDIA offers a similar service via GeForce NOW, a service that connects to digital storefronts like Steam, Epic Games Store, GOG, and Uplay and allows you to play games that you already own remotely through a browser.
There’s also Google Stadia, which allows you to purchase cloud versions of games or subscribe to the optional Stadia Pro service to access a selection of games through the Chrome browser right on your Mac.
Sony runs a similar streaming service called PlayStation Now which currently does not support the Mac platform, but who knows what will happen in the future.
Cloud gaming is still limited in scope, and how well you get on with it depends entirely on your internet connection. Game Pass Ultimate is probably the easiest jumping-on point in terms of the sheer number of games available, Microsoft’s $1 fee for the first month, and the fact that you can always play the games natively if you happen to buy an Xbox in the future.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Buy a Mac for Gaming
The 2021 MacBook Pro might just be Apple’s best MacBook Pro refresh since the introduction of 2012’s Retina models, but not for playing games. You may get away with playing a few native titles, running some emulators, Apple Arcade titles, or streaming games over the internet; but your money is better spent elsewhere if gaming is your top priority.
Find out more about your real gaming options on a Apple Silicon Mac.
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