Gaming on a $6,000 Mac Pro is unsurprisingly awful

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Nope.
Photo: Apple

The new Mac Pro looks like it should be ideal for Mac users who enjoy gaming. But despite its $6,000 price tag, game performance is surprisingly (but unsurprisingly?) awful.

If you don’t plan to upgrade the AMD GPU that ships with the machine, you would be better off playing your games on a Nintendo Switch.

No one buys a Mac to play desktop games. You can pick up a much more competent gaming PC for a lot less in most cases, which is why Windows has long been to go-to platform for desktop gamers.

But what if you need a Mac Pro for other things, and hope to do a bit of gaming on the side? Well, you’re going to be sorely disappointed if you opt for the entry-level model and don’t plan to spend a penny more.

$6,000 Mac Pro is no good for games

The Mac Pro ships with a Radeon Pro 580X GPU as standard. It’s good at some things, like video editing, but terrible at others, like gaming. “On a $6,000 machine, it is a bad GPU,” says Quinn Nelson of Snazzy Labs.

Nelson put the Mac Pro through its paces in some desktop gaming tests and found the entry-level model to be a bust. It’s not just disappointing; it’s downright unusable for recent games.

For instance, the Mac version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider runs at 28 frames-per-second at maximum settings, despite being optimized for Metal. That’s the same kind of performance you’ll get from big games on a Switch.

“It’s honestly just embarrassingly bad,” Nelson says. “It’s nearly unplayable.”

If you must game on a Mac Pro, then, you’ll need to cough up more cash.

GPU upgrade a must for gamers

What’s great about the new Mac Pro, of course, is that users can upgrade its GPU. It uses standard PCIe slots, so you can easily pick up a card that’s better suited to gaming and install it yourself.

There are some caveats. Apple computers, particularly those running Catalina like the new Mac Pro, don’t play nicely with Nvidia GPUs. macOS just doesn’t recognize them, so you’ll need to opt for an AMD card instead.

You can install and enjoy an Nvidia GPU in the new Mac Pro if you boot into Windows instead of macOS. But that’s more complicated than it should be thanks to the way in which Boot Camp handles graphics drivers.

Buying an AMD card is the sensible solution, then, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. Nelson chose to install a $350 AMD 5700XT in his Mac Pro, and that upgrade alone made it a much better gaming rig.

“Gaming performance was just slightly lower on average” than that of a GTX 1080Ti in Windows, Nelson found. In other words, it was very good, with the latest titles playing at decent frame rates.

Apple computers still a gamer’s nightmare

So, it is possible to enjoy a good gaming experience on a Mac Pro if you’re willing to spend a little more on a proper gaming GPU. But it goes without saying that it should not be your first option.

If you’re buying a desktop primarily for gaming, a Windows PC is still the way to go — and it will cost you a fraction of the price. And if it has to be a Mac, a more affordable machine with an eGPU is likely a better choice.

“Let’s make one thing very clear: you’ll be hard pressed to beat a purpose-built gaming PC dollar per dollar,” Quinn told Cult of Mac. “With the most expensive component typically being the GPU, an extremely competent gaming setup can be had now for around $800.”

“eGPUs are a decent option for gaming on a lower-end Mac if you’re a) willing to deal with a possibly fiddly setup, and, b) have a GPU that remains supported and bug-free.” The only real reason to choose a $6,000 Mac Pro for gaming is if you already own one.

Apple’s uphill battle

Is the Mac Pro a missed opportunity for Apple to get into the desktop gaming space? Nelson doesn’t think so.

“As much as I want macOS to become a popular gaming platform, Apple has tried and failed with its Metal API,” Nelson explained to Cult of Mac.

“A few of the games that have been optimized to run on Metal run quite well for the hardware they utilize and while the number of titles supported have increased, the selection remains extremely limited and often restricted to an old catalog at a much higher license cost than the Windows version.”

“I do believe that inserting better GPUs in their machines would show Apple actually cares about the market, but nearly all games are optimized and created for DirectX (even with good alternatives like Vulkan) which leaves little in the way for competition beyond Windows.”

But what about that rumored gaming Mac that’s supposed to be on the way this year?

“I remain extremely skeptical,” Nelson told us. “Apple has rarely shown interest in gaming on platforms beyond iOS and I just don’t think the market is large enough to push gaming on a Mac.”

“Maybe when we see an ARM Mac things will change, but for now, I’d temper expectations.”