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 require too much graphical 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.
(Note that when we mention 3D games, we don’t mean 3D monitors or actual 3D – rather, a more graphically intensive game, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.)
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)
- MacBook Pro 16in: Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB
- 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: Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB (standard), Radeon Pro Vega II with 32GB (build to order), 2x Radeon Pro Vega II with 32GB each (build to order), Radeon Pro Vega II Due with 2x32GB (build to order), 2x Radeon Pro Vega II Due with 2x32GB each
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, 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.